When “Normal” Just Doesn’t Cut It

by Trevor Whatman

Selectable difficulty has been around since the dawn of home consoles.  Purists may argue that it alters the way a game is intended to be experienced, insofar as if you’re unable to progress or enjoy the game on “normal,” perhaps it’s not for you.

There are a few that are steadfast in their ways, namely Nintendo. Rather than offer alternate difficulty settings, they add gameplay elements to aid less-skilled players.  My wife has been stuck on The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess for months, and it will remain in that state indefinitely.   With Twilight Princess, mundane button presses are replaced with a simple flick of the wrist, and the complexity of menu navigation is lessened by using the controller as a pointing device.  While reducing the barrier of entry, the scope of the gameplay remains too challenging for a newcomer.

New Super Mario Bros Wii is another point of contention in our household.   Here, Nintendo attempts to unify the hardcore and casual audiences; with the press of a button, a bubble encases the player, allowing them to bypass difficult sections without impeding the progress of others.  This mechanic sounds innovative on paper, but feels condescending in practice.  As my wife and I advanced and the challenge increased, her participation devolved into spectating, adversely affecting her enjoyment, and promptly concluding our session.  Nintendo prides itself on being accessible to a wide demographic, but the lack of selectable difficulty may prevent more newcomers from engaging with their established franchises.

To her credit, my wife has blossomed and matured as a gamer over the years.  Early on, she would dismiss most games as “impossible” or “unplayable” at the slightest sign of a challenge; lower difficulty settings promoted her skill development, and provided her with the confidence to attempt previously intimidating titles.  Now she frequently plays games to completion, and I’m not referring to Barbie Horse Adventures here; Dead Space, Resident Evil 4, and the God Of War Trilogy rank among her top gaming conquests.

Conversely, I know someone who is only happy when he’s pushed to the absolute limit.  Demon’s Souls was his favorite title from last year chiefly because of its brutal challenge.  His formula is simple: (cursing + yelling) X (gnashing of teeth — sanity) =  gaming perfection.  While I may not share his masochistic addiction, I respect the choice he is given to punish himself.  If games don’t come with an extreme difficulty option, I fear he may ignore them altogether.

I fall somewhere between both of these examples.  If a game poses a challenge that is too much for me to bear, yet the gameplay/story has me hooked to the point where I still want to continue, I’ll switch to “easy.”  If I find myself bored and breezing through, I’ll try a higher difficulty setting.  I’ve found that it’s about finding your ideal “enjoyment : challenge” ratio, and thankfully, most games provide the option to do so.  Even Mega Man 10 provides tiered difficulty options, a first for a series that is best known for its punishing challenge and pixel perfect demands.

We’ve come a long way from the quarter-hungry game designs of the 80’s and 90’s.  Challenge has lost its direct correlation to profitability, and modern gamers expect developers to provide them with options to suit their skill level.  Though, when the topic is breached, it’s either used as a disclaimer, such as: “I finished the game, but I had to set it on ‘easy’.”, or as a badge of honor: “I owned that game on ‘hard’.” Does exercising this option make you any more or less of a gamer?

I think that deft-handed gamers earn the right to wear their conquests on their sleeves, but not at the expense of the lesser-skilled.

While a vast majority of gamers exist only to “pwn noobs”, I can’t buy into a mentality that’s akin to schoolyard bullying.  We should encourage each other, pushing aside the stigma associated with completing a game on a lower difficulty setting.  It’s unfair to pass judgment on someone that ultimately shares the same interests as you; escapism via videogames.