One of the first times I remember taking notice of the difficulty settings in a game was the original Doom. The game practically taunted me with its two lowest options: “I’m too young to die” and “Hey, not too rough,” implying that I wasn’t really serious about playing if I didn’t at least bump it up to “Hurt me plenty.” The message was clear – developer id Software wanted me to test my mettle and experience Doom as it was designed to be experienced – intense and challenging.
Many games, after all, are entirely built around the concept of challenge. These are the games that include an easy option only begrudgingly, or to make you feel more bad-ass for choosing one of the harder options. These are the games that want you to say “to hell with it, bring on the early-onset arthritis.”
But have these games also created a psychological knock-on effect? Do you, for instance, feel inferior for even considering choosing anything other than “Normal” and above? If the answer is yes, it’s time to break free. The truth of the matter is that sometimes, “Easy” is hands-down the best way to experience a game. It can help keep the pacing brisk by removing artificial impediments and it can help you get more out of a game’s story or art direction.
This revelation first came to me whilst playing BioShock Infinite in 2011. Like a bolt of lightning born from an arm powered by a Plasmid ability. Or whatever they were called there. But not right away. Prior to release one thing was clear, the art direction and detail that Infinite’s world promised was mind-bogglingly delicious. The fictional Columbia was already one of the most iconic locations we’d seen in a game – an old timey city in the sky filled with brightly lit streets and beautiful architecture, but housing many dark and disturbing secrets. Finger-licking good.
This was the next game in an amazing series, yes, but it was actually Columbia that sold me on the need to pre-order.
Much like the original, Infinite is a first-person shooter at its core. It isn’t a bad shooter, either – combat is challenging and layered, with some cool Vigors (ah yes, that’s what they were called!) and traversal options… but it also led to a gameplay experience where I was re-loading saves and fighting through long stretches where all I was doing was taking out wave after wave of bad dudes. These stretches were so long and involved, in fact, they actively chipped away at the impressive setting of Columbia. Beautiful cobblestone by beautiful cobblestone.
If I had to rank all the disparate parts that make up BioShock Infinite, the combat probably wouldn’t even crack the top three. Exploration, the richly detailed world, the bizarre and strange story – those are what kept me going.
If I had to rank all the disparate parts that make up BioShock Infinite, the combat probably wouldn’t even crack the top three. Exploration, the richly detailed world, the bizarre and strange story – those are what kept me going. Combat was a distraction. An engaging one, but a distraction nonetheless. So, the question became, dare-eth I lower the difficulty to “Easy”? Succumb to thy descriptor that deter-ith bards and players alike into avoiding the more comfortable path?
After two decades of gaming, you can be sure that this decision took on an epic Shakespearean quality.
There’s no two ways about it, lowering the difficulty halfway through my first BioShock Infinite playthrough felt like cheating. “Too easy!” “Not enough of a challenge!” But for a title that offers a rich and complex narrative in a world that is a joy to explore, should that really have been a valid response? Coming to the realisation that what drew me to cinematic and immersive single-player experiences in the first place were the cinematic qualities, took time. Years.
Fast forward to today, and lowering the difficulty is something that I do reflexively. Proudly even. Well maybe not proudly, but with no feeling of guilt afterwards. That first time I set the difficulty to “Easy” I looked long and hard over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching.
BioShock Infinite is an extreme example because the combat wasn’t up there with the rest of the experience. This year we got the excellent sci-fi title Prey from Arkane Studios. In terms of visual design, its depiction of a derelict space-station was similarly evocative. And coming from Arkane, I knew that the progression and combat would be special but also probably a tad too challenging on the default setting. Ranking the disparate parts that make up Prey, the combat is easily in the top three.
It’s worth noting that lowering a game’s difficulty isn’t something that needs to happen as soon as you start playing. You can totally forget about it and leave it to that moment when a game takes a turn. And then pounce on that pause button. This is, of course, advice strictly for those of you nodding along in agreement with everything said so far.
Okay, so the sequence or set piece when the pacing comes to a grinding halt; when the cinematic immersion and joy of exploration falters. They all have it. In the case of Prey, one of the first real encounters with the alien Mimics proved to be as tense as pre-the release material hinted at. But also, that moment. And so, like adjusting a car seat to get it just right, the sequence of Pause, Options, Change Difficulty was followed akin to a weekly ritual involving incense and chanting to a mysterious man in the sky. And all without a second thought.
The truth of the matter is that sometimes, “Easy” is hands-down the best way to experience a game.
If you’re still on the fence about the whole concept, or think I’m crazy, next time you watch a movie be sure to pause it every thirty seconds for a minute or so. Stretch out those two hours to four, just to see if it adds anything to the experience.
Sometimes a title can get one thing right and another completely wrong. For example, why wrestle with an unwieldly combat system or mechanics that aren’t fully there? For the sake of playing on “Normal”? Case in point, The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt. And, yes, I’m aware that this is a controversial opinion but the combat in The Witcher III could be labelled “poorly executed”. Notice that those aren’t my words – quotation marks you see. But really though, someone had to say it. Finicky, with imprecise animation and a reliance on timing and melee manoeuvres like parrying and blocking and switching weapons and magics.
Again, it’s another game that I adore. But it’s the narrative and freedom to explore and shape the lives of the many people in The Witcher III’s rich fantasy world that make it an all-timer. And lowering the difficulty doesn’t detract from a single narrative beat in Geralt’s journey. He’s the titular Witcher in case you haven’t played it.
Lowering the difficulty doesn’t detract from a single narrative beat in Geralt’s journey.
This also brings our example count up to three. A game with too much combat (BioShock Infinite), another with great but a tad too challenging combat (Prey), and one with “terrible combat” (The Witcher III). There are those quotation marks again, here’s to finding out who said that. There are countless more examples of course, as there have been several cinematic single-player experiences released since 2011. But the rule hasn’t changed. At the first sign of trouble, difficulty-wise, I lower it. The results speak for themselves. The pacing remains as it should, focused on delivering immersion, fostering exploration, and telling a story. The next time you get stuck in an epic single-player quest to save the world, you should try it. You’re no less of a gamer for doing so.
Kosta Andreadis is a freelance writer and musician. Follow him on Twitter.