One often debated aspect of Game Design has centered around the question of difficulty, specifically, should it be controllable for the player? With the latest From Software title now released, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, this question has once again risen to the surface of game discussion. There are plenty of valid reasons a game developer may want to include difficulty options in their title—it gives the player options on how to play the game and opens up the market of players who can enjoy your game. But, as hard as it may be for some to believe, there are also just as valid reasons to keep a game’s difficulty restricted, and much of that comes down to the developer’s vision and intent.
If a developer intends for a game to be played a certain way or to impart a specific message through that way, then having a restricted difficulty setting is a necessity. This applies in a similar manner in much the same way that certain forms of art require a level of understanding or need to be experienced in a specific way to appreciate. Modern Art provides some of the best examples of this by occasionally taking something ordinary or simple, and displaying it in a unique way that is thought-provoking. Take for example one such exhibit that was once (potentially still might be) on display in the Philadelphia Art Museum, where the exhibit required the viewer to look through a hole in a wooden door that revealed an additional portion to the piece for the viewer to see. Looking through this wooden door wasn’t just a step in viewing the piece, it was part of the piece itself. To truly appreciate what the artist was trying to capture and impart, the viewer would need to experience it in the way it was intended by looking through the wooden door; removing one from the other destroys the piece as intended.
This modern art example gives insight into one of the reasons why a developer wouldn’t want a difficulty option. There is a game to be experienced, and for the player to appreciate what the developer was doing the way they see fit, it needs to be done at a certain difficulty level. By providing easier options, this thought or goal that the developer is attempting to impart might be lost. Take for example one of the earlier bosses in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, [spoiler alert!] Lady Butterfly. Lady Butterfly exists at the end of a level that takes place in the past, a distant memory, that Sekiro is reliving as he regains some of his lost memories. For the area leading up to this fight, sub-bosses, and Lady Butterfly herself, it can be seen as important that the difficulty shouldn’t be able to be changed. Sekiro, has good reason from a storyline standpoint, that he should experience these things in a very specific way as they are his past. Lady Butterfly, being one who taught Sekiro many of his skills, should have a certain level of difficulty when the player finally fighter her. Both because she was his teacher, and a relentless one at that, but also that Sekiro is in the process of finding himself on this journey. Those two plot points point to Lady Butterfly having an upper hand, and thus, if the developer wishes to impart this in their storytelling, a certain level of difficulty is required to do so.
This same scenario, of course, works the other way as well. By inflating the difficulty you risk something that should be seen as simple, treated as being hard or difficult when it was never intended to be from the developer. One such example exists in the Uncharted series with its Brutal difficulty. It’s clear when playing the series on this difficulty that the game was not designed with that level of difficulty in mind—enemies become practical bullet sponges, absorbing an absurd amount of damage, and making Nathan Drake (the main character) as frail as a baby bird. While it is a challenging mode that is available to play, the game design is not built around accommodating such inflated enemy damage, requiring play styles that force players to not use mechanics as intended or risk being killed.
Regardless of the side it is on, be it difficult or easy, there is an intended way for the player to experience the game when it comes to difficulty. The question becomes, how much does the developer want to allow when it comes to difficulties? Some may argue that everyone should be given a chance to play a title with ranging difficulty options, but there is much to be said by requiring a certain level of skills just as other forms of art require a certain level of understanding to appreciate.
Perhaps one of my favorite pieces of literature is the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The story is set in 14th century Italy as Dante himself goes through Hell, Purgatory, and eventually Heaven, all while encountering new obstacles throughout his journey. As this tells the story of the different layers of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, each is represented by a certain sin or virtue (ex.: The 6th circle of Hell is home to Heretics and Atheists, who, having turning away from God, are now burning in tombs, an eternal death for non-believers) and includes allegorical references to people, places, and events of that time in Italian culture and politics. Many of these references make little to no sense to the modern reader and must be explained to even begin to grasp at the surface of understanding. The same can be said of the sentence structure and choice of words; as the original work was written in Italian, some of the poetic rhythm and meter, as well as word meanings, don’t have an exact counterpart in English, resulting in a picture that can only be rendered through translation. In order to truly capture the original musical quality, cadence, and imagery in Dante’s words, it’s necessary to read and listen to his poetic work in the original Italian. This restrictive requirement is, by way of analogy, similar to that which applies to some games as well.
There are times where not being able to complete a game due to the difficulty is just the same as not being able to fully understand a work of art due to lacking the knowledge of references that it is making or the capability to read or hear it in its original language. Explaining the information can help, as can a faithful translation, but to change the art to an extent that it warps its original intended meaning or composition would do the piece a disservice. The same can be said for some games that rely on a set difficult to impart their intended gameplay. In both cases, maintaining the intention of the experience is more important than opening that experience and diluting the message.
In the end, as an artist and a developer, it comes down to what is more important; if you prize your intended gameplay and message over the ability for a larger audience to take part in your game, than sticking with a restrictive difficulty could be part of that design decision. It may restrict the number of people who can fully appreciate it, and that’s OK. Not everything should be designed in such a way that everyone will be able to experience it on the same level as someone else, because if such was always aimed for, we would end up with a slew of art—including games—that would become diluted in their message and composition.
And having too much of that is never a good thing.