The Difficulty With Difficulty

Long-suffering Twitter followers will know I’ve been playing a lot Devil May Cry 5 recently, verging on “Hey, would Kimimi even notice if every other game she had went missing?” (For the record: I would, but the police report would have to wait until I decided to take a break from DMC5) levels of potentially unhealthy enthusiasm. I’ve beaten… OK, I’ve survived the mode I told myself at one point I wasn’t even going to try (Dante Must Die), I’ve had periods where I’ve had to take a break due to very sore hands, and right now I’m listening to the soundtrack while thinking about having one more round with the last boss just because it’s such an exhilarating battle.

But here’s the funny thing: I’m no good at Devil May Cry, and I never have been.

None of this manic demon-battering would’ve happened if I’d been playing a game that didn’t have intent displayed in this tweet, straight from the fingertips of none other than series director Hideaki Itsuno himself, at its core.


You see the thing is Devil May Cry 5 may have skills that require clear-headed split-second counters, bosses that’ll quite happily smoosh your character’s face into a wall, and Dante’s bottomless movelist which can best be described as “Everything but the kitchen sink, with the kitchen sink on top”, but it is above all a game that’s not about making three adorably dorky men look Super Smokin’ Sexy, but making the player feel like they are.

And that is why I’ve pushed aside everything else I meant to do this month and found myself fifty-plus hours (and counting) into a game that I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to finish once.

It’s the little things that make all the difference with these tough-but-encouraging games: This is why Devil May Cry 5’s lowest difficulty setting is called “Human”, Resident Evil HD asks players if they like “Walking” rather than making them select “Very Easy”, and the excellent indie game Master Spy’s invincible mode’s described as “Narrative”. They’re not pretending anyone’s fooled by these terms – we all know the lowest setting’s either easy or very easy depending on where the default lies – but that’s not what matters. What matters is that naming schemes like these can be taken as a statement of intent – a promise, even – that those who wish to choose a less challenging mode will not be mockingly labelled as inferior or less-valued players for doing so. These alternatives to standard naming conventions subtly shift the focus away from railroading people into playing “as intended” (please remember that even the greatest can get standard difficulty tuning wrong: just look at Treasure’s otherwise excellent Alien Soldier describe a mode that’s been so over-tweaked even the most determined of gamers would struggle with it as “Super Easy”) to placing a greater importance on the player’s judgement and their own personal entertainment.

My time with Devil May Cry 5, starting at the very bottom and slowly working my way up with a helping hand from the game’s flexible continue system and dummy-smacking practise arena, got me thinking about all of the games I’ve ever mastered – or at least, y’know, been mildly competent at – since I’ve become an adult: Lost Planet 2, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Vanquish, and so on – they’ve all had the same theme of being difficult and containing plenty of unusual mechanics (I’m still not clear on some of Lost Planet 2’s VS quirks), but they’ve also all had a good range of difficulty options that have given me the chance to choose how much pressure I applied for myself and they all gave me the chance to get to know the games on my own terms.

So it seems to me that if developers want to get people playing really hard games with a high skill ceiling… make them easy!

But what about “playing properly”?

What about “being true to the director’s vision”?

To which I’d say:

What about “A quick go after a long day at work”?

What about “This game looks like fun but I’ve never played anything like it before”?

What about “I did a cool thing once and I want some consequence-free practise so I can work out how do it on purpose”?

None of this means I think games should “baby” anyone, allowing them to mindlessly mash the controller until they reach the end while being told the whole time how amazing they are for spending money – that’s no fun, and more importantly nobody improves that way. But giving people the opportunity to take time out with an extensive tutorial that just oozes positivity and encouragement (I’m thinking of Guilty Gear Xrd here) or to make them feel more comfortable by giving them the chance to select a less punishing setting doesn’t mean they’re not interested in deeper mechanics or only want to play it safe. These options instead give them (and me) the opportunity to attempt some of those fancy advanced techniques we’ve heard about like parrying, ultra-awesome situational stealth attacks, and dodging screen-filling bullet patterns in a danmaku shmup without the fear of being kicked around by an infinitely more experienced opponent online or unceremoniously dumped back at the title screen in a demanding adventure, an hour’s struggle all for nothing. Maybe us inexperienced players will get the hang of these things, eventually. Maybe we won’t. But that little bit of extra leniency an easier mode provides means less skilled, exhausted by life in general, or unfamiliar-with-the-genre players are still “allowed” to use – however unreliably – a game’s full range of flashy techniques instead of forcing them to “cheese” their way through without learning anything, falling back on a narrow set of dull but serviceable tactics for the sake of playing on the “correct” difficulty level.

Which would make for an unearned reward, no? If someone can look cool and access the entirety of a game’s content while playing on easy then why bother with anything else? Where’s the incentive for anyone to push against a brick wall of a boss or master the timing required to execute a perfect guard?

There’s no reason why these allowances should rule out or impose upon high-tier competitive play, finely-crafted high risk/reward loadouts, or more traditionally challenging modes; there is a world of difference between a game having a range of choices to suit everyone and a game skewing everything towards the more “casual” player: We don’t want to be coddled, we want to be taught. And if a game is good – actually good – then people will want to spend the time to find where their own skill level lies and have a good time right there anyway. The extra items and removed enemies in Resident Evil’s lower settings have never prevented anyone with the itch to speedrun Invisible Enemy mode from doing so, just as 1CC’ing Mushihimesama Futari’s Ultra mode isn’t made any less impressive due to the home port’s inclusion of a “Novice” setting and detailed practise options. We can have both ends of the spectrum happily coexisting in one package, no catch.

There are so very many people, myself included, who fall between the extremes of “I just want to blow through the latest AAA cinematic experience in a weekend” and “I’m going to beat Dark Souls with bongos“. On the whole gamers aren’t afraid of challenge and if anything the performative nature of modern gaming – all live streams and easily-tweeted achievements – mean there’s more of an audience for showing off your l33t sk1llZ (Yes I know nobody says that any more) to than ever before. But people are afraid of wasting time. Of finding themselves a week into a lengthy adventure and stuck dashing their avatar against a roadblock they had no idea was coming. Of a game suddenly expecting players to perfectly execute things it’s never given them the chance to practise.

There will always be those out there hunting for the most difficult, openly hostile, and punishing game-mountain to climb – good for them, honestly. I’d love to be so skilled and focused that I could take the time to crush the sort of game that makes most people openly weep. But how many more would willingly raise themselves to that level of expertise – people who would then spend more time playing, recommending, and streaming a fantastically complex game – out of their own enjoyment of the challenge if they were only given the chance to get to know the game first instead of being forced to “Git gud” or quit? If the consequence of this was more new people succeeding at a genuine challenge then it doesn’t mean a game was “dumbed down”, it means the game successfully taught those without previous experience or talent how to get to grips with the task at hand – that’s a good thing.

A hard game with obtuse mechanics and a high skill ceiling is for most of us a one-off experience that will last a month or so then get traded in for a pittance at a local game shop. A hard game with obtuse mechanics and a high skill ceiling that makes the effort to engage with as many players as possible? That’s a whole new wave of freshly-minted fans hungry for their next arcade shmup, action game, or online brawl.

7 thoughts on “The Difficulty With Difficulty

  1. Also, an Easy setting existing might be the reason a Hard or at least challenging Normal mode exists at all. Video Games are a product after all, one that needs to reach a certain audience to be profitable. From Software might have shown that you can find quite a big one even by being uncompromising, but for the most part, the “one difficulty setting only” games err more on the side of being easier than harder. But when you give players an Easy setting, you can also make your Normal and Hard setting as advanced as you want to withouth anyone during developement chiming in and telling you that’s not gonna sell, make the game easier kthxbye.

    But yeah, I’m totally someone who’s gonna be more willing to approach an interesting but demanding looking franchise, if I know there’s an easy setting. For the longest time I stayed away from Resident Evil because they looked to hard. I eventually – only a couple years ago – found REmake for Wii really cheap and took the chance. And thanks to its easy setting, I fell in love. Later even tried the Original (via DS but still), which doesn’t have one, and felt way less intimidated than if I would have tried that from the get go.

    Devil May Cry is an interesting example, because if I remember right the very first game was odd in that it had an Easy setting, but for some reason on top of making the game easier, it also changed the control scheme. Which meant that it was absolutely not a good way to “train” for the higher difficulty settings, because you would learn to litterally play it the “wrong” way xD


    1. That’s beautifully put, I agree completely – it’s great to hear REmake’s difficulty options made the original game less intimidating for you too!

      Devil May Cry did that?! When I played it recently I *think* I just went through on normal, so I’ll have to have a look at this weird easy mode! :D

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m not sure if it was Devil May Cry that did that (I’m not super-experienced with the series, but I will be rectifying that at some point soon), but Bayonetta definitely did. Bayonetta 2 also had the gamepad option where you could play with gestures on the touchscreen.


  2. Well said. Difficult games are all very well and good, but I find it much more appealing when you have a game that provides an option to make things a little more accessible to begin with, then the option to bump up the challenge factor if you so desire.

    Quite a lot of good shoot ’em ups do this. I love Eschatos, for example, but there’s quite a jump between Easy and Normal. When I finally 1CC’d Easy for the first time, it was still an incredible feeling of achievement despite “only” being on the lowest difficulty level, and it felt like a good cue to kick it up a notch.


    1. It certainly helps that shmups are designed around that replayability too! It’s a lot easier to say “I’m going to practise this bit” when you know a full run’s thirty minutes from start to finish :D

      Liked by 1 person

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