On Game Difficulty Options and Growing Up

On Game Difficulty Options and Growing Up

It never feels like there’s enough time in the day. 

If you’re like me (or if you’re not, which is probably even better), you have a job, relationships, responsibilities, and hobbies all vying for your time every single day. And if you’re like me, you probably want to blow off half of those things to sit on the couch and play some video games. But try as we might, we can’t always do that—life is rarely that simple, and it has a habit of getting in the way of little pleasures like gaming.

As we grow up, our responsibilities grow with us; you get up early to go to the gym, you work from 9-5, you come home to make dinner, spend time with your partner, and by then it’s almost time to get back in bed and do it all again the next day. Everyone’s life is different, but you get where I’m going here—time marches on, and often there isn’t the space to do all the things we want to do.

I arrived at this (admittedly minor) epiphany a few months ago while struggling through the last few hours of Persona 5 Strikers on hard difficulty. I had been butting my head against the wall on the same boss for almost three hours and had to retire for the night, and it dawned on me that I simply did not have enough hours in the day to go on like that. 

A similar situation occurred a few weeks before while I played through the final hours of Control. While I spent a fair amount of time mastering the game’s combat systems and synergizing powers with gunplay, I still struggled immensely on a few major set pieces that kept me from seeing a riveting story to its conclusion. Upon opening the settings menu, I found an option for invincibility—it would make me immortal to everything in the game short of falling off the map. Seeing this option brought me face to face with a dilemma: would turning on this feature somehow make my gameplay inferior or invalid? Does making my character technically unkillable ruin the game’s experience?

After some internal debate, I decided that it didn’t. I flipped that switch and finished the game a few hours later—and I did so in a much calmer, significantly less stressed manner than I was playing previously. Despite all my hemming and hawing, the game ended the same way it did for everyone else who played it.

All of this is to say that when I had my epiphany while playing Strikers, I turned the difficulty down to easy without a second thought and finished the game in supreme style. It’s still one of my favorite gaming experiences of the year, and I finished it in all the time it took me to not overcome that one boss I was struggling with earlier. I got to do other things with that time—read manga, watch TV with my partner, and play Call of Duty with my friends.

There’s been much to-do over game difficulty options in the last few weeks, mostly on Twitter. Xbox tweeted about finishing games on easy mode, Psychonauts 2 announced an invincibility feature, and pundits pundited over the responses to both.

So let’s make something clear right now: game difficulty options only benefit the gaming community, full stop. There are plenty of nuances and caveats that we can devolve into, but that’s the bottom line. Easy mode is cool whether you’re a journalist, streamer, casual gamer, or child.

It feels patently ridiculous to even have to say things like that. But as I get older (I’m only 25 at time of writing, but life comes at you fast), I find myself leaning into and embracing playing games on easy difficulty. Here’s a little more insight as to why in hopes that it can help put this argument to rest.

The biggest point I want to make is one about validation. Those against difficulty and accessibility options in all games seem to think that playing titles on easier difficulties somehow invalidates the experience, keeping players from experiencing all the game has to offer. Personally, I have never found this to be true.

Sure, certain games benefit from a more advanced difficulty (we published a piece that, to a certain degree, discusses Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity’s difficulty), but for the majority of games, all features are available at the easiest difficulty setting for players to use or not use as they see fit. Players will still face the same challenges, puzzles, and encounters that those playing on harder difficulties do. 

Furthermore, those who claim that playing games on the highest difficulty setting is the only way can sometimes resort to tactics like “cheesing” to conquer challenging encounters. While this is not always the case (and is in no way a norm among difficulty-seekers), how are methods like these any better than playing on easy and “spamming” the attack button in any given RPG? Different playstyles suit different people for different reasons—once we understand that no one playstyle is more valid than another (no matter how annoying we may find them), it becomes clear how little this matters.

Which brings me to my second major point: minding your business. Forgive me if I sound annoyed or blunt, but what business is it of anybody’s how someone else plays a single-player game? Think about it. Difficulty settings apply almost exclusively to single-player experiences, which means that one person’s playthrough has no bearing on another’s. This insistence on trying to invalidate another player’s experience based on your own is both troubling and sad. 

Largely, this phenomena boils down to gatekeeping; players who play games on harder difficulties often enjoy the attention that comes with overcoming immense challenges—and in principle there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Beating the final Valkyrie in the latest God of War on the hardest difficulty is a feat worthy of recognition and praise from peers—but it should not come at the cost of minimizing another player’s way of playing a game. 

Gatekeeping appears when the perceived validity of an experience or accomplishment comes into question; when they feel minimized or slighted, people naturally go on the defensive and try to knock the other person down to size. By saying “you aren’t really playing this game unless you play it on hard,” players effectively try to minimize every experience that doesn’t match their own, and that’s just unacceptable.

I’m almost positive that others have spoken on this subject more eloquently, but as journalists we have an obligation to talk about problems in the larger gaming community and attempt to present solutions. It’s entirely possible that all this is ignored as well, but if you’ve gotten this far, consider this: is this argument worth your time?

Seriously, consider it. How much is our time worth? How much is your mental energy worth? I’ve knowingly spent time transcribing my perspective, and you’ve spent time reading it. I’d like to think that’s time well spent. Is arguing over difficulty settings and experiences that do not affect yours in any way the same?

There’s no real end in sight for this debate, and people are always bound to disagree. I want to take time now to iterate that disagreeing on this subject is okay—we are free to think for ourselves and hold our own opinions. The issue begins when that disagreement turns into disrespect, and that disrespect turns into vitriol. But if we can instead respect each other’s time—and our own—by choosing to focus on enjoying games themselves instead of gatekeeping the experience of playing them, we might be able to get somewhere as a community. 

Games should have multiple difficulty and accessibility settings so everyone can enjoy, no matter their reason. Play them on whatever setting you enjoy, and let others do the same. After all, games are meant to be enjoyed—and we aren’t getting any younger.

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