Though I’m a big believer in the idea that the gaming medium shouldn’t be limited by the old notion that a game is just a mechanical challenge to overcome, I’m also quick to criticise many games for their difficulty, lack thereof, or otherwise poor implementation of challenge in some respect. Still, any discussion of this topic needs to be approached carefully, because difficulty is at least as subjective a concept as beauty; I’ve beaten Dark Souls multiple times, but put me at the helm of almost any strategy game and I’ll end up marching my troops off a bridge. Bearing that in mind, I’d like to make the argument that for whatever reason, a great many games fail when it comes to providing satisfying challenges.
It’s not hard to make a game hard; just bump up everybody’s health by ten so that any given bad guy will take five whole clips to the head before going down. This sort of difficulty might be challenging, but generally it isn’t very compelling, for the simple reason that it doesn’t force a player to change their tactics beyond maybe keeping their head down more often. Yet this is by far the most common approach to adding different difficulty options, and in the worst cases I worry that the game as a whole might have suffered from this approach; if a developer has to incorporate multiple difficulty options for different player tastes, it must become doubly hard to craft a game with a coherent difficulty curve that adds a hero’s journey of sorts through the increasing demands on the player’s skill.
In the interest of being constructive, here are some personal picks for games that manage to cater to different skill levels without watering down the experience for everyone.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a stealth game with almost terrifyingly generous challenge settings. The harder modes will reduce the player’s health, but also make more guards appear in places that might surprise a veteran of the easier modes, meaning that levels you’ve beaten before still have to be approached with caution. Perhaps even better, the highest setting grants an instant game over if the player sets off an alarm, significantly changing the dynamic because one mistake could force you to lose all your progress in an area. Then you have the ranking system, which encourages self-induced handicaps like beating the whole game without killing a single soul.
Urban Chaos: Riot Response is a bombastic police shooter that, while doing that lazy thing of just upping everybody’s health, compensates for it by turning the higher settings into a kind of meta game. I found the hardest mode insane at first, but then realised that doing all the bonus objectives in earlier levels upgraded my gear for the later ones, resulting in a surprisingly RPG-esque experience where my stats needed buffing to make the ultimate challenge feasible.
Finally I have to give some love to SWAT 4, a shooter where the ultimate goal is to complete a level without a single causality. You can rush in and shoot everyone in the groin before pepper-spraying them as they writhe on the ground, but pulling the trigger without clear and present danger to an innocent will knock a chunk off your score. So it’s wise to fill a room with teargas before entering to make a surrender more likely, but your inventory is limited and the enemy placement is somewhat randomised, meaning you can’t just go through the motions with every attempt. It’s a challenge with refreshing fluidity and room for unorthodox tactics.
In short, I think a successful difficulty mode feels substantially different, as opposed to requiring basically the same tactics but twice as much time. Even if a game lacks explicit difficulty settings, as per Dark Souls, its design can still cater for varied approaches that provide replay value without resorting to cheap collect-a-thons or gimmicky moral choice systems. Either provide meaningful changes between the difficulty modes, or just focus on providing a coherent experience that some audiences won’t like but others might love.
Featured image: SWAT 4 – rights: 2K