Difficulty is a challenging subject.
Difficulty. It’s a touchy subject these days, isn’t it? It seems as though barely a week can go by without someone on Twitter kicking off at someone else on Twitter for having the sheer gall to publicly confess to playing game on “easy” mode. As soon as it happens, the debate truck kicks into high gear and trundles ever faster down the highway of social media, its poorly maintained engine whining under the strain of the weight of so many poorly judged opinions, its bald tyres barely maintaining contact with the road of reality. As with so many of the biggest Twitter debates, if you read both sides of the story you’re left wondering how anyone can care so strongly about something that, in the great scheme of things, matters so little. But, hey! That’s social media in 2019 for you. Nothing gathers the irate together quite so rapidly as the wholly inconsequential.
This one first kicked off several months back when a group of people called for games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice to be made more accessible. This game sits in that Dark Souls genre where the punishing difficulty is by design, and needless to say these calls were met by loud voices of derision. “Not all games are for everyone,” some of these people cried. “Git gud,” screamed others. Yet others drew into question the kind of compromise of a developer’s “artistic vision” the implementation of such a change would make. Some of the points are more valid than others, I think – but the venom of the responses indicate a simple truth – it’s difficult to talk about difficulty. It kicked off again more recently when legendary (and in the eyes of some, massively over-rated) game producer Hideo Kojima mentioned in a tweet that his much-anticipated new game Death Stranding was going to have a "very easy mode." The idea behind this mode is that it exists to serve movie fans rather than gamers; allowing people who have little to no experience of playing games to experience Kojima-san's narrative vision without needing to spend hundreds of hours obtaining the skills needed to finish the game in the same way most of the people consuming it will:
Of course, the internet did what it does best - swing into aggressive action to question the motives of someone who, let's be fair, knows what he's doing and also owes justification to precisely no-one. The fanboys, of course, didn't stop to consider either of those things, because outrage about games is apparently their raison d'etre. Some of us sat on the sidelines, our head in our hands, not knowing whether to quietly laugh at it all or wade in.
Every comment really falls into one of three different arguments, each of which come with their own set of flaws. It seems to me that lots of them, though, are based on a massive misunderstanding; wilful or otherwise - and that's a conflation of an 'easy mode' with an 'accessibility mode'. Once you remove that confusion and frame the arguments as they're probably intended to be framed, it all falls apart rather quickly. I mean, no-one could possibly argue that giving more people access to more games is a bad thing, right? Well... of course they could, and they do. But let's face it, the less attention paid to people with views like that the better - and I won't be giving them any attention here.
No, I thought it might be fun to take each of the most common arguments and discuss them. And when I say "discuss them," I mean of course "pulling them apart with intelligent investigation" - because that's something that Twitter is a bad platform for. I should know, I spend half my life arguing with other people on there and the other half of it berating myself for engaging an activity that I know is wholly pointless but can't resist.
The "developers shouldn't have to compromise their vision" argument is probably the one used against this that annoys me the most - as it's flawed on a couple of levels. Firstly, it assumes that a game is a result of a single vision. It isn't. It can't be - unless a game is built by the tiniest of tiny teams. The games being discussed are all AAA games, with 8 figure budgets and development teams that are hundreds if not thousands strong. A team that size doesn't have 'one vision', although it is possible for them to be guided by one. Within a group of people that size, a vision will be diluted and wrapped into the understanding and perception of each individual. To be clear - this isn't a bad thing. Secondly, it assumes that any vision that existed (strong or otherwise) won't already have been compromised by the time a game ships. It will have been - and you can tell that that's happened because you're consuming the delivered product. Features will have been implemented differently to an initial design, or cut entirely. Other parts of the game will exist that grew organically out of the iteration that informs development. This process is common to most creative endeavours and especially software (not specifically game) development. The people putting it all together will have an idea of how the final thing will look and hold together, but they aren't going to stick to that if other, better ideas pop up along the way.
Another problem with this argument is the inconsistency of it; it seems that you see the argument against implementation of a lower difficulty mode being made by the same kind of people who complain about the lack of implementation of multiplayer in other games. Basically, they're happy for a vision to be compromised as long as that compromise gives them something that they want. It's cynical, and it pisses me off. Weirdly, this argument was notably absent in the Death Stranding conversation - I guess you can't claim an impact on a vision when its existence has been announced by the dude with the vision. I'll admit I chuckled to myself.
The next one is the "some games aren't for everyone" argument. This one's true, at least in part. FIFA games aren't for me, for example - as I can recognise them for the scam they are, and if I wanted to play football I could go to the park. Call of Duty isn't really for me because I simply don't enjoy it very much. A game "not being for me" due to my lack of interest in it is fine - but I'd imagine that not being able to play a game that did interest me due to a lack of accessibility to it would annoy me. Again, I get the feeling that if the boot was on the other foot for the guys using this one, they'd be arguing as hard in favour of the thing they're nominally against. This is the one that really embodies the grey area between the definitions of "easy" and "accessible." Difficulty is a very subjective thing - something easy for one person could still be incredibly difficult for another person for a variety of reasons that go far beyond "getting good" or basic skill. These are the guys that have the perception that someone finishing a game on Easy somehow devalues their experience of finishing a game on Insane. I wish they could realise that enjoyment isn't a pizza - someone else getting a bit more doesn't result in them getting a bit less. Basically, if you're objecting to someone else getting a better experience when it has no discernible impact on yours, then you have some questions to ask yourself.
The last one that gets rolled out regularly is the "get good" argument. And it's laughable, let's face it. It's usually the parting shot of someone with an anime avi and the words "HARDCORE GAMER" (or some variant of it) in their bio. This one bugs me because it's borne out of a complete misunderstanding of how most people over the age of 30 engage with games. It assumes that everyone should have the same level of ability and, perhaps more critically, it assumes that everyone has the same amount of time to obtain that ability if they lack it. They simply don't. There are so many games out there to experience that dedicating your life to one means you'll miss out on so much - I'm not going to say much more on that as I've done it to death elsewhere. The main issue I have with this though is that it implicitly puts games at the forefront of everything - and as fun as they are, it's not where they belong for the vast majority of us. I'll admit to have played through games on lower difficulty settings or with assists enabled. This has nothing to do with me being afraid of challenge, and everything to do with me wanting to experience as much of something as I can with the limited time I have available. I have a job, I have a family, and they make demands on my time that I wouldn't want to change. At the same time though, I like games. If playing a game on Normal instead of Hard means that I can finish that boss fight without having to restart a checkpoint a hundred times, I'm going to do it - because I can finish that game and move on to the next one that awaits me. And that's not a bad thing - in fact, from the perspective of the industry it's a good thing, as I buy more games.
If you've stuck with me this far in, you can probably tell that this is something that grinds my gears. I'm not sure what winds me up more - that people get annoyed about something that has so little impact on them, or that they do it at the apparent expense of everything else that's going wrong with this world. I just can't help but wish that they'd get their priorities straight... and yet here I am, complaining about it.
As ever, the irony isn't lost on me.