The easiest difficulty setting in the 1994 DOS game “Rise of the Triad” is called “I’m a Chew Toy” – accompanied with an image of a dog with a toy in its mouth. Probably even better known is Wolfenstein 3D’s “Can I Play, Daddy?” featuring a portrait of protagonist William Blaskowicz wearing a baby bonnet and a pacifier in his mouth. Those are classic tropes, and almost everyone who played a lot of videogames in the 1990s will remember them with the same fondness as locking up Lara Croft’s butler in the fridge or throwing money at the stripper in Duke Nukem 3D.
Although the mocking images and descriptions of the easiest settings are just a bit of playful banter, they do carry a certain toxic undertone. Like throwing a football just a tad too hard at an unsuspecting person and ruffle their hair if they don’t manage to catch it. In fact, following the stereotype it might be the kids that fell victim to that type of roughhousing and badgering that ended up creating their own power dynamics in videogames like Rise of the Triad.
If You Played Shooters Before
Nowadays we don’t see that way of describing difficulty levels anymore. Most games adapt a friendlier, more relatable way to indicate which setting is right for you, like: “Tell me a story” or “Give me a challenge”. BioShock for example puts it as: “Suitable for newcomers” or “If you played shooters before” – but the legacy of the old snarky definitions still linger, at least with me. I feel a sense of pride selecting the medium or hard difficulty and still think it’s weak to pick the easiest. Even though I know it’s stupid, I’m still in the process of unlearning that toxic way of thinking that old DOS games put in my head.
Recently I replayed through all three BioShock games and I made myself select easy. Because I wanted to play it mostly to enjoy the aesthetics and pay attention to the story. And because I have half a dozen other games I want to play; I don’t need to be stuck for weeks on a game I already finished. A while back I read a proposition from someone on Tumblr to change “Easy”, “Medium” and “Hard” to “I have a full-time job and two kids”, “No kids but also other hobbies” and “Lots of free time and no obligations”, or something along those lines. And it’s about time game developers start recognising their diversified audience and a different approach to skill and play-style. One game studio that recently announced a very progressive and innovative way to do this is Crystal Dynamics for Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
You can read more about it in this article. But in short what it comes down to: Shadow of the Tomb Raider allows for a piece-meal approach to difficulty, where players can change the settings for combat, puzzles and exploration separate of each other. On top of that it allows to adjust certain controls like having a fixed camera, removing the need to button mash in quick time events and allowing to aim a gun by a single button press instead of holding it. These are especially aimed at players with disabilities who struggle to input multiple commands at once.
I hope Crystal Dynamics’ idea is going to be picked up by other studios and will become the norm for games. A difficulty setting has less to do with skill and more with personal circumstances. On top of that, skill is not a golden standard that games have to be focused on. Adjusting a setting to “Hard” is a very limited way of adjusting a gameplay experience. Are there going to be more enemies? Are they going to be stronger? Or am I going to be weaker? Are there less pickups or more checkpoints? Instead of the player, the developer should be asking these questions. Is this player ready to dive into our game for days and completely lose themselves? Or do they have an hour in the evening to blow off some steam? Are they very patient and skilled but can’t frantic button hammering because they broke an arm? Maybe they’re absolutely amazing in puzzle solving but don’t want to be stuck in an area for a week because they missed a key hidden in a dark corner.
Games should get over themselves with the old fashioned nerd machismo, and I should get over myself being too big a pretentious ass and select Easy a bit more often.