Saturday, March 26, 2022

On difficulty, accessibility and Elden Ring

Bahgpuss has a great post up that does a really good job of articulating the of issues that have been floating around the blogosphere about game difficulty since Elden Ring came out.  Having been both both sides of the debate, both a kid that was a hardcore gamer and an adult that gives truly difficult games a wide berth, I had a really immediate response to it.  The core issue that really resonated with me is whether developers should feel obligated to put in difficulty settings that make their games clearable by anyone that is physically able to play them.  

I have been playing video games since the Atari era, so my thoughts on whether a game is obligated to include different difficulty settings for users of different skill levels is pretty simple: absolutely not. The original conception of video games was that they were kind of like any game: some of them were hard enough that not everyone could do very well in them.  I used to play insanely difficult games when I was younger. For example, I actually beat the game that is right at the top of this list.

I had to dump a solid month of my spare time into it to get good enough to do that, and I had the reflexes of a cat on amphetamines back then.  I absolutely could not do that these days.  I have neither the reflexes needed nor the spare time necessary to commit an entire game to muscle memory. However, the fact that it was so brutally difficult, and that getting really good at it was the only way to see the whole game was kind of the entire point of the experience.  Every time I was finally able to see a new level, it was elating.  Hell, sometimes getting to see a new six inches of a level I was working on was elating.  Absolutely, developers should be able to sell those kinds of experiences if they want to. The world would be a smaller less rich place without them.

A common counter argument is "Well if you want it more difficult, just crank up the difficulty. Why do you care what other people do?"  Once difficulty settings became the norm, I sometimes did just that.  For example I beat the N64 Goldeneye on "007" difficulty, and it felt like an accomplishment.  The absolute zen focus needed to do and the adrenaline rush when I finally did was similar to beating Super Ghouls and Ghosts.  But it wasn't exactly the same.  Knowing that literally the only way to see the next level was to buck up and get good enough to do it gave Super Ghouls and Ghosts a psychological layer that just wasn't there when I was playing through GoldenEye on "Holy crap, you must have a hell of a lot of spare time" difficulty. The closest thing I can compare it to is the difference between the view from a mountain where you can choose to either hike up or ride in gondola, and hiking out to a spot that you simply can't see without serious physical exertion.  

I don't think I have ever hiked a mountain when I could ride ride a gondola up.  However, I have taken 40 flights of stairs to the top of a tall building when I could have taken the elevator.  It was very much the Goldeneye "007" experience.  It was fun, it was elating to finish, the view at the end was nice, and I'm glad I did it.  But it was not the same as slogging my way down into a cave that most people will never see, or hiking out to some obscure waterfall most people don't know about.  The latter just feels more special.  I really think some developers are trying to let us have a tiny bit of that special "most people will never be here and see this" feeling in our living rooms.  That is not to say that that is a financially sane strategy for most developers in the modern market.  However, I really feel like that is what the Dark Souls games are trying to tap into.

Another aspect of the debate is whether developers need to be clear about what they are selling, and my answer to that is absolutely yes.  In fact, if a studio is creating a game for the tiny niche audience of "teenagers and 20-somethings with absurd amounts of spare time" they need to go out of their way to be crystal clear about it.  In 1990 it was expected that roughly 30% of games were hard enough that most people would never beat them.  That is very much not the norm now, and selling people a product they probably can't use without warning them is incredibly irresponsible.

There is also the issue of accessibility for people with physical disabilities.  I think developers should do their best within the constraints of their budget to support peripherals that allow people with various types of physical disabilities to play.  Some of the peripherals designed for people with neurological disorders that affect manual dexterity might also allow feeble old people like me to play some games as a side effect, so I'll admit this is a gray area.  However, I don't think of being older than 29 or fully employed as physical disabilities, and claiming that developers are morally obligated to cater to those demographics pretty absurd in my mind.  Admittedly,  since those are by and large the people with money to spend, it's generally pretty stupid not to. Nonetheless that is a different issue.

In the end I feel that the one clear moral obligation that developers have in this area is to be upfront about what they are trying to sell us.  Don't steal my money by tricking me into thinking I might be able to fully experience your game when I clearly will not be able to.  If a developer is dead honest about what they are selling, and someone that clearly cannot get full use out of it decides to buy it anyway, that is on the buyer.  If I bought a Formula 1 car, no one would get mad at the manufacturer when I couldn't get it out of my driveway.  They would think I was an idiot, and rightfully so. 

I will probably never see Elden Ring .  And that's perfectly ok with me, because I know it isn't for me.  That's also the exact reason I won't be buying the game.  They aimed their game directly at a market segment I'm just not part of any more.  Regardless, I'm not mad at FromSoftware for doing it.  Far from it, I'm excited to see a new RPG subgenre thriving, and I can actually understand why some people would feel that the game was diminished of there was a "story mode" that would let you skate through it. There are more games "for me" than I could possibly play through if all I did between now and my deathbed was sleep, eat, groom and play games. I think that's plenty.  


  1. Pretty much what I think, too, although I do find the whole mataphysical aspect of how the mere existence of other difficulties affects the default difficulty the most interesting part of the whole debate. That's a question for philosophers rather than gamers, though.

    One thing that comes into consideration today that wouldn't back in the 80s or 90s is the way almost any game, no matter how difficult, is going to be recorded and put on public display. If you want to "see Elden Ring" all you have to do is go to YouTube and type in "Elden Ring Playthrough". What you can't do is "play Elden Ring". Maybe gamers just need to recognize the difference between between watching sport being played at a professional level and actually playing it that way.

    1. YouTube definitely changes the conversation for sure. Being curious about what was on later levels was a powerful motivator to keep plugging away on one of the really hard games. Would knowing you could just see everything on YouTube diminish that? I have to think it would, at least a little.

      And yes, in the case of Elden Ring I am happy that I can always hit up a playthrough if I want to get a feel for it. I know from the ones I've already seen that what's there isn't distinct enough from other games I can play perfectly well that i feel like I'm really missing out.

      One thing that some games do that I think splits the difference between those two design goals well is tie rewards to beating games on the highest difficulties. For example, in Star Wars Starfighter on the PS2 getting gold medals for everything unlocked some new ships to fool around with. I have been playing 90% MMOs for years now so I'm not sure, but I assume a lot of games still do that so that everyone can see most of the game and more devoted players still have a reason to push themselves.

  2. This is such a great post! And it captures my thoughts pretty closely, right down to the F1 reference. I would bin one of those cars so fast if they could even stuff me into one. :)

    While I'm looking forward to playing Elden Ring, it will be with ready access to an FAQ or walkthrough. Having finished DS 1 and 2 and Bloodborne, I don't personally think the Souls games are quite as difficult as some might lead you to believe. But they are not for everyone and fair warning is absolutely necessary.

    1. Thanks! I have steered completely clear of Souls games base solely on reputation. However, I really should probably at least try one at some point.

  3. I bought Elden Ring knowing I may never finish it (I didn't). However, thankfully, offline you can mod the crap out of it to make it easier for those who want to experience it - not as it was meant to be, but at least accessible
    I found a middle ground on it but honestly just got bored.

    You see, the difficulty, as you note, is the content itself often - so taking that away takes away the core experience.

    1. Apologies this took a week for me to approve. If comments come in after a certain point, it will generally take me a good long time to notice!

      I didn't know you could mod the difficulty down offline. I am generally pretty hesitant to play games on lower difficulties because it often waters down the experience in a way that makes a game less sticky for me. Random loot based games are especially prone to that. If you make yourself so strong that nothing that drops will improve your gameplay at all, it can really kill your motivation to play. It's not like those sorts of games tend to have amazing storylines to them.