Select Your Difficulty
One of the most notable aspects of gaming, which has caused great debate over the years, is difficulty. First, second, and third generation gamers can attest to the downright rampant and sometimes evil levels of difficulty that the birth of gaming was known for. Didn’t have 5-8 hours to complete a game without saving? The only answer was to practice until you so good that your motor reflexes did their job with little to no active thought.
From the mind-numbing challenges of the Atari a la Centipede, the onslaught of the NES era that was Battletoads, Neo Geo arcade quarter vacuums such as Sengoku, or any of the platformers of the 16-bit era like Super Ghouls n’ Ghosts, many of these games required a level of dedication that is no longer prevalent or seemingly desired in modern gaming. It is of course, easy to don the rose-colored glasses in an attempt to classify these games as “hard core,” but some of these games were maliciously designed in an attempt to extract purchases in a rental driven market (I’m looking at you 8 to 16 bit era), whereas others such as in the Konami vein were known for their more progressive yet rewarding difficulties.
The End of an Era
All things have their end however, and in an objective light I would state that the sixth generation of consoles was the last to have long lasting and difficult games. Once online capabilities merged with generation 7, and the PC started becoming more viable as a versatile gaming platform rather than just an MMO/emulator case, the average difficulty in gaming seemed to take a dive. Mobile devices were also right around the corner and brought many new non-traditional gamers into the fold as video games became more accessible than ever. The mass market began to favor sandbox grinds and short-span games over difficulty and progression. Legacy-styled games still existed of course, but they seemed to only appeal to an older or now niche crowd. Furthermore, auto-saving as a crutch was now a staple feature in most games and some developers, namely Quantic Dream CEO David Cage were even quoted stating that “game overs” were more of a developer failure than a player one.
Mobile games would eventually saturate the market and while they had their difficult gems, most were stamina driven time sinks with little challenge. But given their ubiquitous nature, mobile devices brought a new breed of gamer into the fold and non-online games seemed to suffer at every turn if they weren’t eternally open ended or if they didn’t possess the most groundbreaking story. Traditional difficulty now had given way to the online sandbox and was sung to the never-ending tune of “git gud.”
That’s not to say the last few generations haven’t had their shining moments. An obvious example would be the Souls series and its punishing mantra which rewards quick learners and makes its bread from the bones of those with a low threshold for learning curves. And other games like Bioshock offered hardcore difficulties to appeal to those who wanted a little brutality with their well, brutality. All platforms seem to have at least a few select choices when it comes to challenges now whether it be a cheap 5 dollar thrill or a mainstream developer title.
The big question is now, how do you feel about the future of difficulty in gaming? Does it take a masochist or someone with too much time on their hands to enjoy a difficult title? Or like all human endeavors, are easy things just not as intriguing or rewarding as opposed to something which presents you with a challenge? Is high difficulty nothing but tedium? Or is the digital risk and reward in and of itself fun? As a quickly aging gamer, I love my sandbox and competition as much as the next person, but there’s still some part of me that clings to the nigh impossible challenges of early gaming and I usually can’t resist placing a single player game on its most difficult setting without considering the consequences. Video games are a consumer driven industry, and as we shape the future of gaming with our purchases, these types of decisions can influence companies to steer development in one way or another. Which way would you have it go?