Whenever the debate related to the difficulty in the video game is opened, it is always relived when a popular game is more difficult than usual and by those players who cannot pass it. These tend to ask for an easy mode and this causes the annoyance of those who see the medium as an exclusive club of tough guys.
The truth is that each side has a point, but they rarely get their allegations right, games are a medium that is far from being as public as literature. Games are given away, of course, and there are free-to-play titles, but you always need a PC, a smartphone or a console, and that is no longer public.
So in a certain way video games are elitist by nature, they ask us for a certain social and economic level to enjoy them. Therefore, the debate is already changing with respect to other disciplines or more accessible entertainment media, movies require fewer resources to be enjoyed, for example.
The theme of elitism in art (yes, games are too) is centuries old. In literature, painting or movies at least progress has been made in several aspects, and there are fewer voices asking that the Iliad be made easier to read or that Velázquez’s paintings are easier to interpret. There you simply proceed to create something new more suitable for another audience, instead of modifying the existing.
When we see El Aguador de Sevilla we can see a simple image, but really understanding it requires that we know about art history, color composition, contrast and history of Europe, of course. For this we require research or previous classes, so painting already gives you a level of “difficulty”, you need what in English is usually called “literacy” and that we could translate as “practical knowledge”.
For their part, games, due to their interactivity, can handle the difficulty in a more empirical way within the game. The level of this is one more element of the author’s intention, just as it is in other works of another type of art, and cutting it up would be like summarizing Don Quixote to three chapters.
Accessibility is not ease
Games should certainly be for everyone, and they are (as long as you have hardware), but not all games should be for everyone. In this sense, it is necessary to differentiate the accessibility from the difficulty, concepts that are usually mixed unnecessarily.
Microsoft created adaptive control 3 years ago. The idea is that people with motor disabilities can play their favorite titles or even speak through a microphone. There are also visual enhancements for the color blind or better fonts for dyslexics.
This and other measures are known as accessibility, bringing the video game closer to people with genetic problems or those who for whatever reason cannot take control with their hands like most. However, none of the games mentioned makes the title easier, creating a difficulty mode for “disabled people” would be controversial to say the least.
So it is okay to demand more accessibility, in fact it is necessary. There are very few games with help for the colorblind and dyslexic and the adaptive control is exclusive to Microsoft (although they have made it work with the Switch). This type of hardware should not be so special and less among the large hardware companies.
The intangible difficulty
Difficulty, then, is a concept parallel to accessibility, and is not always linked to anyone’s motor skills or reflexes. Many times there are puzzles that require previous experience in video games, in a particular franchise or directly from mathematical logic.
Just as literature can have references to the real world, it can also have other works. If we do not read or do not know the reference, the literary passage will pass us by. The same for many games such as horror games that are always inspired by Resident Evil or Silent Hill and that pose situations and challenges that a veteran player will solve with more peace of mind.
So the difficulty begins before playing, each title expects from you some practical knowledge. The “video game literacy” of a gamer who has been playing video games of all kinds for 25 years is not the same as that of a casual one who focuses mainly on shooters.
We have experienced this when we try to get a friend or family member to play with us and we see that it is even difficult for them to move the character, control the camera or do simple actions such as talking to an NPC. You are unaware of the control you have in hand, the first person perspective makes you dizzy and so many possibilities overwhelm you.
The “video game literacy” is only achieved by playing, as well as literature is achieved by reading and movies by watching more works. You can also support yourself by watching a streamer, but nothing like your own experience.
What we call difficulty
After this, which is already a huge challenge for many, comes the mechanical difficulty. One that started at a very high level in the first arcade games and is now disappearing. The difficulty is currently a narrative and artistic resource, as it is in the Souls saga, a hard universe that gives almost nothing.
However, in the 1980s it was an economic resource for the developer. Making a game difficult served to cause you to lose and have to pay for another tile to try again. An easy arcade was doomed to premature death, so Pac-Man had to die a lot by the hand of ghosts.
The industry had a hard time adapting to consoles, the arcade difficulty was maintained through the generation of NES, SNES, and rival Sega consoles. Our character had “lives” and, if they ended, you had to start over. The console only guaranteed you infinite turns without buying tokens, but no more mechanical facilities.
It wasn’t until the N64 and PS One generation that the tables began to turn. And it is no coincidence that it was also when memory cards, cinematics and longer games arrived. Now there were more narrative intentions, so we had to lengthen the story and offer saving of games and something more than a difficulty that made us repeat a passage a lot.
Classic vs modern
It was the beginning of the end for the “arcade difficulty”, above all because of a not strange phenomenon that seems incredible that it took so long to discover. The easier games attracted more people, because the public who could overcome them without trying. This is why more people have played TES: Oblivion or TES: Skyrim than TES: Morrowind.
The last one has a complex framework of difficulty to adapt the realism of being a character in a medieval world with bandits and monsters, while the others are bending to the player once they level up. The classic game or more distant in time is almost always more difficult.
Another example is in Resident Evil 2 which sold 2 million copies in 1999, while its shorter and easier remake goes for 8 million and counting. Sure, the remake is a must-have of the generation, but the classic was too. However, the remake has adaptive difficulty, if the player dies a lot, the game will become easier to help him (without warning him). The classic RE2 didn’t have this and, if the challenge beat you, Garlic and water.
Since the difficulty was lowered to get more sales, exceptions have also arisen such as the aforementioned Souls saga or the indies that point to a classic difficulty like Bloodstained: Curse of the Dark Moon. However, even the games that aim to be more difficult in 2021 are considerably easier and more intelligible than those of 1990, there is simply no color in the comparison.
You can check this by playing an indie that promises to be difficult like Cyber Shadow from Yatch Club Games or Hotline Miami and then playing a real classic. Download an emulator (yes, we all do) and then a ROM of Ninja Gaiden or Contra, you will suffer to go to the first level.
Graphics take the lead
The vast majority of AAA games today are considerably more narrative, more dedicated to delivering a complete audiovisual experience, and less focused on breaking mechanics. For something, each Assassin’s Creed has been played the same for more than a decade, if you played one you played them all, and the same for Call of Duty or Halo.
In this sense the industry voluntarily stagnated, the mechanics are the same for years, but the graphics and general presentation are getting better and more impressive. Food comes in through the eyes first, and video games too, so the marketing and design of this has focused on presentation rather than mechanics.
Ironically, the industry started with difficult games to encourage spending money on tokens and is now betting on simple challenges to encourage spending money on sales. Everything has always been driven by money, the key is to achieve passion and what is special among all this.
So it could be said that the games of today are easier and more accessible than the classics, but there are also millions of people with more practical knowledge and “literacy” than there were in the 90s, or even earlier. So this also contributes to older veterans who consider requests to make this or that game easier to be foolish.
Enjoy the hard to see and play
And it is that the challenge and its overcoming help self-esteem, but it requires effort, work, time, dedication and to train literacy. And there are many who do not want any of that after doing everything mentioned in the office. For many, games are fun, entertainment, no more of that.
In other media we can get similar cases, it is clear that it is easier to see iCarly than Birdman or The Shape of Water. However, the satisfaction of art that stimulates your curiosity and activates your ability to see beyond what is in sight is much better than the easy joke. Likewise, there are times for everything, even iCarly.
That’s why there are times for a Souls or a Devil May Cry on maximum difficulty, and there are times for a Far Cry with aiming assistance in easy mode or Animal Crossing that does not even require you to move the camera (although it does take a long time). Neither of those experiences should be changed.
Take care of the creative
There is a very annoying tendency to question the intention of the author and demand that he change the way he designs. As I said: games are for everyone, but not all games are for everyone, so it is best to stop the debate and stop demanding an “easy” difficulty for Sekiro. The game is meaningless without the challenge, just as it would not make sense to see Peppa Pig without sound “to make it more difficult.”
The idea is that there is variety and a work for each audience, demanding that all be equal or have a certain level of difficulty is killing the creativity and freedom of the developer.
The daring of Hidetaka Miyazaki, creator of the Souls, cannot now be betrayed by demanding an easy way. The saga was born trying to imitate the classic difficulty, that of the 90s dungeon crawlers. The invention almost went wrong for him, nobody wanted to publish his game, but he is recognized, we must not forget his origins in the search for the challenge.
Games like Souls are only effigies and vestiges of what was the difficulty in the beginning of video games. Certainly we are now in a better place in almost every respect, but the stagnation of mechanical difficulty is evident, so it is best to let those who innovated in this respect, continue to do so.
Even at the cost of not everyone being able to grasp it or, in the case of games, get past the final boss. But for that they have thousands of other installments to form practical knowledge and perhaps, in time, return to the difficult games and see that perhaps they needed to be that way.
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