Sometimes after a long day all I want to do is relax and play something laid back like Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Other times I crave a challenge and want to get lost in a competitive multiplayer game, or a tough as nails platformer. The debate about difficulty in games, and whether or not all games should have an easy mode, has been ongoing for some time now. When looking for a new game to play, do you seek out a relaxing, easy experience, or something that will test your skills? When presented with a difficulty menu, what do you select? Should all games offer difficulty options? Does having an easy mode take something away from a game or simply make it more accessible?
After the success of the challenging game Dark Souls, developed by FromSoftware, a new subgenre of games was born: Soulslikes. A number of subsequently acclaimed sequels and similar games such as Hollow Knight and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice iterated on the formula. The draw of these games is their inherent difficulty. There are no options for dialing down how demanding they are. Dying repeatedly to gain mastery of the controls, and an understanding of attack patterns, is part of the appeal. Despite the success and positive reception of these games there has been much criticism of their accessibility for more casual or disabled gamers, those who might want to experience the stories and worlds but can’t, due to the difficulty. This has led to a bigger conversation in gaming fandom and among game developers about easy modes and difficulty settings. While this discussion existed prior to Dark Souls, it has intensified in recent times, and with Elden Ring looming on the horizon, it doesn’t look to be settled anytime soon.
On one side of this debate is the position that all games should have options and settings for difficulty. At its core, this is an accessibility argument. Not everyone has the time to put into a video game to get proficient enough to master it to the level demanded by some games. In addition not everyone is even capable of doing so in a reasonable amount of time, if ever. Allowing for an easy mode doesn’t take away anything from someone who plays on ‘Normal’ or ‘Hard.’ In an ideal world, these difficulty modes wouldn’t attempt to insult their players, like the Wolfenstein games do by naming the lower difficulties “Can I Play, Daddy?” and “Don’t Hurt Me” with images of the character in a baby bonnet with a pacifier. Ideally games wouldn’t just have difficulty modes but a number of sliders where players could adjust different aspects of the gameplay to suit their needs. Or perhaps games could run a tutorial that gauges a player’s skill by how easily they achieve tasks, and suggests a difficulty level for them they can adjust later if they desire. There are a number of ways to respect players, their skill, and time, and it’s worth it for game developers to do so to increase the amount of players who can enjoy their games. A game like Celeste did a nice job of offering a very difficult experience with an assist mode to help out players who wanted to make things a bit easier. This medium already presents a number of challenges to newcomers, from an unfamiliar controller to assumptions based on years of similar mechanics, and a high difficulty bar doesn’t help.
The opposing view is that some games are meant to be hard; that’s the experience the creators intend and the fans hope for. And that’s okay, and arguably to be celebrated. There are an incredible amount of video games and there is one for everyone. A game being difficult may mean it’s not for some people but there are plenty of chill games, and while perhaps some could benefit from adding a hard mode, it’s okay if they don’t. An entire genre of games, roguelikes, is based on the player gaining mastery over a demanding game. Players seeking a less stressful experience have an ever growing list of options. In addition, balancing a game for one difficulty is enough of a development challenge, and requiring developers to make a well balanced game for various difficulties, much less a number of sliders, would necessitate a great deal more development work–time and money that may not be available. One truly great experience might be sacrificed for several mediocre options.
Personally, I think adding more modes to most games is a good idea. I’d prefer it not be just ‘Easy’ or ‘Hard’ modes but that games could give us explanations, options, and sliders. It’s preferable when you can change difficulty on the fly. I think greater access to the medium is a good thing. But I also think it’s okay if some games are balanced to be difficult and challenging experiences without the need for an easy mode. Just like it’s okay for a Kirby game to simply be easy. If most games are accessible, then maybe not all have to be.
Tell us what you think about difficulty and easy modes! Do you think all games should have options to set the difficulty or do you think it’s okay for some games to just be hard? Share your opinion in the comments below or join the conversation on the Boss Rush Discord.