Difficulty settings in video games are a mechanic that has been around since console gaming existed. Yet, in recent years, difficulty settings have become a controversial topic.
I’ve been a gamer for 25 years. I am not a competitive person in any capacity, though, and I’ve never derived any particular sense of enjoyment from beating a hard game or from pumping up the difficulty setting. In fact, I tend to play on the easiest available setting in any game, for at least my first playthrough. I may up the difficulty setting for future playthroughs. There are some games I’m simply not good enough at to do so, though – Fire Emblem being the standout example. I find easy mode in Fire Emblem games to be among the hardest gaming challenges I’ve experienced while still being able to have fun. Despite that, I love the Fire Emblem series.
I love older video games, or at least I did while growing up. I love the Mega Man series, but I have never beaten a classic Mega Man game. I find them too difficult. The Mega Man X series, by contrast, I have been able to complete. I recently completed the Mega Man Zero series – but only by abusing the suspend data feature that the Wii U’s Virtual Console allowed me to use. So yes, I am a savescummer and proud of it. I loved the Donkey Kong Country series growing up, but upon attempting a replay on Virtual Console, I quite simply did not have the patience for it any longer.
What does that make me? By some definitions, it would make me a “casual” gamer. I have to reject that label. I’ve been playing video games for my entire life. They are my primary hobby. Being a gamer is a core part of my identity as an individual. So does that make me a “hardcore” gamer? I reject that label as well. I don’t think I neatly fit into a box on either end of the spectrum – though maybe the fact that there is a spectrum is the true revelation here. Depending on the game, I may fall more towards one end of the spectrum or another. People can derive enjoyment out of many aspects of games. Conquering and dominating a difficult game or another player is not the only way.
Having difficulty settings makes games more inclusive. The more people who enjoy the hobby we love, the better off the industry is. If a game has an easy mode and it causes more people to play it, it increases sales. It increased the likelihood of a series continuing. Those same gamers who come into a game on the easiest setting may then decide to try another setting. They may make the transition from casual to hardcore. Trolling and harassing the n00bz is ultimately counterproductive to the longevity of any series.
The greatest example in recent times would be Dark Souls. I have never played Dark Souls, as I have no real interest in a game whose primary draw is the difficulty or in a game where the online component is so integral to the experience. What I’ve seen of the lore is intriguing, but not enough to make me want to try the game. I fully believe I won’t have fun because it will be too difficult. Including an easy mode in Dark Souls III would have been exactly the type of thing that has the potential to bring gamers like me into the franchise.
Though I’ve never played Dark Souls, I truly find the community and the mentality of its most vocal and ardent fans to be psychologically fascinating. The “git gud” meme, which I believe started as a joke, has pervaded every facet of gaming discussion, to the point that even someone like me is fully aware of it. Well, I’d love to attempt to “git gud”. The best way to do that would be to start on a lower difficulty setting and work my way up from there. That is how I have always played games. That is how I have “gotten gud” at the games that I do consider myself competent at. There was such a large amount of controversy over this that I assumed that Dark Souls III indeed did have an easy mode. It turns out it doesn’t. The controversy was derived from the mere suggestion of an easy mode. That’s disappointing to me. Looks like I won’t be playing this game either.
A less difficult setting can be damaging to a game – if it is not optional. Assuming such a setting is optional, it can only be a positive addition. If you do not wish to use it, then you do not use it. It does not and should not impact your opinion of the game or your own experiences with it in any way. The “dilution” of “true” games is not a real danger. Easier games being created is not going to make the games you love vanish overnight. That is not how the market works.
If you derive your enjoyment of video games from domination and from overcoming a difficult challenge, then that is fine. That is a perfectly legitimate way to enjoy a video game. However, it is not any more or less legitimate than someone who enjoys a game for the lore. Or for the humor. Or for the specific game mechanics. Or for any other number of reasons that one could enjoy a video game.
One might argue that difficulty is the point of Dark Souls or similar games. That some games are specifically designed that way, with that as the main selling point. That the designers intended it to be played a certain way. In many forms of art — video games included — people find alternate meanings. If one wants to argue a game must be played the “intended” way, one ignores entire swathes of gamers with varying playstyles.
As gamers, we should be happy that the industry has expanded. We should be happy that our hobby is more mainstream than it ever was. We should be happy that being a gamer no longer carries the social stigma it once did. Instead, we have turned on one another. We attack others for not being the kind of gamer we believe everyone should be. We can do better.