Difficulty in games is something that has always interested me as a subject. Different people have differing approaches and attitudes towards difficulty, both with difficulty settings, and difficult games to learn or master. Some always play on hard, some on easy, and I imagine most, playing on normal. Personally, I always try and play games on normal unless I get so frustrated butting my head against a wall that I have to revert to the easier settings. I don’t do this out of any misplaced sense of snobbery about playing on easy mode, but rather because I believe that normal difficulty usually represents the challenge and experience that the designers intended to create, and in good games challenge and experience are linked.
Of course some games change completely with different difficulty levels, sometimes introducing new mechanics, and perhaps simplifying or expanding existing ones. Take Dragon Age: Origins for example. In that game, whilst playing on normal, spell effects are capable of inflicting friendly fire damage onto party members. This encourages a degree of caution before you use large area of effect spells, whilst the easy setting removes this mechanic, thus vastly simplifying the magic system. Other games such as The Witcher 2 offer a more straight forward approach by simply giving enemies less health and inferior AI, to the point where you can hack and slash your way through them on autopilot, which differs greatly from the fast, movement orientated combat of the normal setting.
So, sometimes I think that by choosing to play on easy mode, you perhaps rob yourself of the games original vision, and in some cases, the complexities of the mechanics too. That’s not to denigrate those who choose to play this way. A few years ago I was living with a colleague when The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion was new, and between us we must have racked up hundreds of hours in that wonderful game. We would take it in turns to play, whilst the other manned the laptop and searched the wiki for secrets, ways around the all to frequent bugs, and in the end, to hunt down the remaining quests we had yet to complete. I have a lot of fond memories of us playing this game together. However one thing always irked me – my friends insistence on playing with the difficulty slider all the way down to the easiest setting. In Oblivion this meant that a single enemy was actually unable to kill you whilst you used the basic restoration spells. This was a great way to level up a couple of skills at once, but playing the whole game like this seemed an anathema to me. Surely to rob yourself of all challenge was to rob yourself of one of the thing games are meant to be about.
Then one day it dawned on me. We were both getting different things out of the game despite the apparently shared experience. Whereas she enjoyed the world, the setting and the questing aspects of the game, I enjoyed all those but only with the added threat of death and a failure state. I think this is usually the case for me, but I’ve begun to encounter games where perhaps narrative was a stronger draw for me than any challenge represented by the mechanics. I wrote recently on my inability to complete Mass Effect, due to a general feeling that minute to minute gameplay doesn’t come close to representing the quality of the storyline and the world presented. This is a good candidate for me to blaze through on easy mode, because I fundamentally don’t find the combat fun to begin with. In essence I’m seeking narrative from the experience, not challenge. Or not the kind of challenge combat represents anyway.
I’m at risk of sounding a little like the only kind of games are ones with combat, but the fact is most games lean heavily on the old ultraviolence as a means to control progression, and is usually one of the core things that difficulty levels affect that palpably alters the flow and progression of a game. Obviously I’d love there to be more games that were able to offer a more creative means of challenging the player than combat, but there are plenty of genres that do that, and I think we’re starting to see more and more of them as times goes on and the medium matures a little.
Some games of course have unusually hard difficulty, or are at least perceived as being difficult to learn or master. Dark Souls springs to mind immediately. It certainly is a tough game, but not only is that difficulty quite surmountable with a bit of practice or until the combat ‘clicks’, it actually represents an important part of the lore, story and mechanics of that game. This is one of the things that makes Dark Souls so unique, it melds these three elements perfectly, and the story is in large part told through the very nature of the mechanics. You play a cursed undead, unable to die, but each death draws the character closer to becoming ‘hollowed’; a mindless undead who has lost all humanity. This in a sense represents the players own struggles. Death has a draining effect on the character as written in the lore, and a draining effect on the player in reality. The souls you find lying amongst the corpses that are dotted throughout the world bear different names depending on how far into the game you have progressed, and thus the amount of souls awarded to the player for discovering them. At the very start of the game souls begin with titles such as “Soul of a Lost Undead” or “Soul of a Nameless Soldier”, whilst later ones read “Soul of a Proud Knight”, “Soul of a Brave Warrior” or “Soul of a Great Hero”. These items, and the corpses they are found on, can be said to represent players too, those who have gotten this far, and then given up. Frustrated by their journey they simply stopped playing, and thus their journey ended here.
Also Dark Souls difficulty is mechanically unique, in that enemies are tough not because they do insane damage and have large health bars, because usually they don’t. There are occasions where that is the case, but for the most part the enemies are challenging because they are reasonably intelligent. Even the earliest foes are entirely capable of seizing on your mistimed attack, or an overly aggressive approach, and killing you very quickly indeed. Yet it cannot be denied that difficulty is one of the biggest turn offs for people who read or hear about Dark Souls, which I feel is a great shame because what’s on offer is a truly unique experience, but unfortunately one that only really hits home around 30 hours in, so it is true that you have to break through the wall to enjoy it.
I must admit that I sometimes approach difficult games with a mentality of simply wanting to master it for the sheer sense of achievement at doing so. Eve is certainly one of them. When I began playing, I sort of made it my ambition to understand it, just because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do so. That may sound silly, but at some level I feel that if you can make it in Eve with regards to complexity, then you can make it in pretty much anything that the MMO genre can throw at you. I played that game for 18 months, and can honestly say I only gained a reasonably proficient knowledge of, at best, 15% of what that game has to offer. But one of the things you do learn after a while, is that learning all of the systems in Eve is most certainly not required. If I’m living in low sec PvPing, I probably don’t need to know too much about T2 manufacturing. If I’m mining in high sec, I probably don’t need to read up on bubble mechanics in null sec. And if I’m living in null sec and engaging in a war, I probably don’t need to know about the rewards for exploration in high sec. So, mastery of all knowledge is unlikely to add much to your experience unless you have an army of alts. Whilst it certainly is a complex game, it’s a lot more manageable once you begin to break it down to the bits that are relevant to your immediate gameplay experience, which when you’re a new player in particular is likely to be quite limited.
But what cannot be denied about both Eve and Dark souls, is that as well as being mechanically difficult and complex, they both certainly obfuscate things more than is necessary. Dark Souls is almost deliberately obtuse at times. The tutorial does little more than teach you the controls, and explains none of the mechanics governing death, levelling up, becoming human, summoning players or being invaded. This is actually a design choice on the part of From Software, they obviously intended players to explore and discover, which is certainly mirrored in other parts of the game too. Also, an experience based on a sort of shared knowledge with both friends and other players online becomes a large part of the fun of unpicking the game.
The same can’t really be said for Eve however. Whilst Eve cannot avoid being complicated, such is the breadth of the game and the range of experiences on offer, but it could certainly be better at explaining how things work. Most of the knowledge players need to understand the game cannot be accessed from inside the actual game, with a lot of information stored on wikis or other websites. This is also what makes joining a corporation as a new player just as vital for learning how the game works through the shared experience of long term players, as well as it being an important anchor in the game and a gateway to much more fun experiences than the average high sec newbie engages in. Yet unlike From Software, I don’t believe this kind of obfuscation of mechanics was actually intended by CCP. It’s not a poetry of mechanics/lore/story and difficulty, it’s just a barrier to enjoying the game for a lot of people. I like overcoming difficulty because I believe it can often be a byword for depth in games, but also because I like figuring it all out. However, I can totally understand why it totally alienates people that you need to understand this, just to be able to truly know how firing your guns at a moving enemy works. And that knowledge has to be sought through means that the game client doesn’t offer. I guess on the spectrum of complexity for the sake of depth, and complexity for complexities sake, Eve is guilty of being a lot closer to the latter than the former.
I’m rambling a bit now, but as you can see, there’s lot’s to think about with regards to difficulty. I guess that I’d conclude that difficulty is a very important part of a games design, and that players approach it in ways that perhaps mirror what they want to gain from the experience over all.