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The True Impact of Challenge in Games


Let me get it out of the way. I’m an advocate for a wide variety of difficulty settings in most games, and I think you should play whichever type of challenge you have the most fun on, easy, hard, whatever. Nothing in this article is an attack on you or how you play. Games are meant to be fun, period.

This article is kind of a follow-up to another piece I wrote on The Importance of Challenge in Gaming. In that, I talk about several games that suffer due to lack of challenge. Now I’m going to talk about how higher difficulties actually elevate some games because it’s not always obvious.

When we think of difficulty settings. We think of it as a preference and while that’s true, it can miss the bigger picture in a lot of games. Most people believe that “Normal” is the intended experience by the developers because it’s usually the default setting. That’s actually not always true unless the difficulty setting actually states it (some do).

The default challenge setting in most games, especially big AAA titles regardless of what it is called, is actually the mass appeal setting. It is the setting designed to accommodate the widest range of potential players. This usually places it on the lower end of the challenge spectrum. This isn’t a bad thing, as long as players have the option to change it.

It can, however, betray the mechanics of a game without the player ever knowing it. In some cases, it could make a game feel so different that it could give two completely different impressions to two different players if one played on normal and another on hard.

It is, for this reason, I think Reviewers should actually list the difficulty they played on when reviewing a game. I myself will start doing this as well. The difficulty can add crucial context to a person’s feelings on a game’s mechanics.

In Horizon Zero Dawn the challenge setting can drastically affect the feel of combat. On lower settings, you can simply get by with standard arrows and just shooting. On higher ones, you need to take advantage of all your tools, plan your attacks, and target different weak points of a machine’s body. This not only changes how the game is played, but how it feels.

The machines feel like massive and dangerous titans, not mooks to be gunned down. It’s difficult to argue that normal is the intended setting when it allows the player to forgo all the tools and mechanics of the game. Heck, I beat the game twice and never knew you could slide under a charging Thunderjaw. That was while playing on a harder difficulty too!

In Spider-Man, the lower settings allow you to simply spam a one-button punch combo and win most conflicts. The higher ones force you to use Spider-Man’s arsenal and a variety of moves. It forces you to employ Spideys mobility, to bounce and swing around the fight and use crowd control to guide the tempo of the conflict.

It gave me the impression of being Spider-Man. If I played on the default setting, I would have gotten the impression of a button masher and I have seen actual critic reviews say as much.

The Witcher 3 has a huge emphasis on planning and prepping your monster hunts. On the higher settings, you need every advantage you can get. On the lower ones, you can pretty much just swing your sword. This invalidates not only the game mechanics but also its monster-hunting feel.

Now if you just want to shoot arrows in Horizon, punch goons in Spider-Man and swing a sword in The Witcher 3. There is nothing wrong with that, more power to you, have fun. But I do have to wonder how many people would have enjoyed more of the mechanics had they known.

If you aren’t a default hard player like me, it’s likely to go entirely over your head. Normal is the default! Why wouldn’t all of the game mechanics be showcased in it?

The answer to that is simple, forcing you to utilize every game mechanic is not accessible, and the default setting is the first one presented to every single player that starts the game.

Not all games do this well either. Sometimes there is no difference in playing a game on Hard or Normal except for how long something takes. This only furthers pushes the illusion in players’ minds.

I think this is where part of the defensiveness of the Souls games stems from. I like the Souls games and when I like a game, I want as many people as possible to experience it. Yet the sheer unforgiving difficulty in it means not everyone can.

At the same time, without the difficulty, they would be bland and generic dungeon crawlers with very little substance. The difficulty IS the game. There isn’t enough there to carry it if it were to be removed. If they had a default normal mode, I absolutely believe some review scores would be much lower.

That means if there is a solution, it isn’t a simple one. Maybe it’s a fault with the game that it relies so heavily on the difficulty for its quality. Yet even typing that out makes me feel icky, like I just spat on the obvious care that went into making them and the people who love them (Including myself)

The reality is challenge affects games far more deeply than simple preference, and it’s a difficult thing to get right, in fact, it’s probably impossible. How can you ensure that your game mechanics aren’t wasted without alienating people who don’t enjoy high difficulty? A developer really can’t.

If a game is forcing you to use its mechanics to succeed, it’s influencing you to use them through the challenge. This enemy is hard, you should target the machine’s weak points, or use stealth, or try out a weapon it’s weak against. It’s impossible to accomplish this without pushing your metaphorical buttons.

Humans take the path of least resistance, if you win by button mashing, you will button mash, whether or not you enjoy button mashing is irrelevant, it usually takes some kind of jolt to snap the human brain from its familiar and habitual patterns.

This is also how some games without settings or poorly implemented ones, can flat out bust themselves. I felt that way about State of Decay 2 until a year after release when they implemented two new and challenging difficulty settings. The game was initially so incredibly easy that it invalidated every mechanic it had in the worst possible ways.

Death Stranding has a hard mode, but the difference is so negligible it might as well not even exist. Despite being my game of the year in 2019. Its mechanics and theme both suffer for it and I am incredibly disappointed that it has not received an update addressing it.

What a developer can do and should do, is make their difficulty settings more informative. You really have no idea what looking at the words, easy, normal, and hard mean in a specific game. The information and intent of each one should be visible within the game. Also, nearly every game should have settings of some kind, the more in-depth the better, but any is better than none at all.

As for you dear reader. I’m not trying to pressure you into playing harder settings I promise, play what you enjoy. But if you are ever playing a game and something feels off, like it’s missing something. The difficulty setting may legitimately be the problem.

You might also enjoy The Anatomy of Challenge in Gaming.