When it comes to the topic of video game difficulty the most important thing to recognise is that difficulty is relative. What to me is simply a walk in the Green Hill Zone might well be a day of Battletoads for you. The concept of difficulty is broadened when considering what the aim of the game is. An adventure game might exist simply to tell a great story, and so the challenges along the way are easy enough to allow for a natural progression. Others thrive on their challenging bosses or their high skill ceiling. In short, difficulty is not a universal constant across all video games. Be that is as it may, in the majority of existing games, true difficulty is what makes a gaming experience a fulfilling one.
When games were first introduced, it was not guaranteed that you could complete them. I have not completed Sonic 2 or Super Mario 3 but still have had fulfilling experiences with both titles. This in modern times is a rarity at best! A single player campaign is often sold with the playtime heavily advertised alongside, and it is certainly not because we have become better at playing games.
The plethora of games being made has expanded along with the technology to produce them, resulting in greater narrative elements and larger worlds to explore. For this reason it has become more likely for games to normalise a standard difficulty that the average gamer can make their way through without the experience becoming tedious. A game of Space Invaders has a very quick turnaround while repeating the same checkpoint in Max Payne 3 quickly becomes a chore.
This is why for the most part harder difficulty settings are gated until the player has completed the game at least once. Players who know the story, have already beaten the bosses or know the answers to puzzles are more patient with the game and are in no rush to reach the ending cutscene. The game has already served its purpose, but has additional modes to give more value to the single player experience.
As previously stated, some titles exist to be a strong challenge from the offset. While a game like Dragon Age: Inquisition makes you feel more powerful due to upgrades or better equipment, the Souls series forces you learn its mechanics and improve your reflexes. The difficulty lies in your ability to engage with the game’s challenge rather than the game becoming easier due to unlocks or new party members. I find this to be the best level of difficulty that a game can offer because it relies on player skill and understanding and not simply higher numbers. It makes for the most satisfying experience in a game because it avoids the problem of an unfulfilling end game. So many games end with a boss fight or a wave of enemies that do not truly feel like a proper challenge because the player character has become too powerful to truly feel threatened.
A game that relies on player understanding of the game mechanics to generate its difficulty however does not suffer from this problem as any victory comes from playing the game well rather than leveling up accordingly. The first time I defeated the Flagship in FTL will always be etched in my memory because I was tense the entire time I battled it. In the battle I was vulnerable, any mistake would doom my crew and I would have to start all over again. The mixture of relief and jubilation when I crushed the rebel scum for good was all the better because it was all on my shoulders to succeed, I couldn’t simply rely on being a higher level than the monster I was facing or by having better weapons than last time, it was up to me alone.
Victories in games are often removed by the ease of recovering from drastic mistakes. The ability to regenerate health in Call of Duty and other FPS games allows the player to make greater risks that remove the need for strategy and planning. Better games in the genre, like that of the underrated Resistance 3 force the player to think about their movements through the level. You would often be surrounded by accurate enemies, having low health and desperate for the med-pack only a few yards away. This would mean that you would have to rush out of cover, headshotting the enemies desperately and dashing for the health and turning to face the other monsters charging at you. This makes for tense gameplay that demands twitch controls, and something that leaves you patting yourself on the back after pulling off a mad killing spree. When all wounds are temporary nuisances, soon to disappear regardless of medical supplies, the experience becomes hollow as a result, regardless of higher difficulty settings. After all, the core of the game is still too easy due to not having to worry about being hit.
This can be also said of games that allow players to hoard medical supplies as well. Facing down an “Albino Radscorpion” in Fallout 3 was not a problem by the end game because the player is swimming in stimpaks and Blamco Mac and Cheese by that point. The difficulty is completely removed when dying only occurs after players have the hubris to not use their mountain of supplies quickly enough or underestimate the force behind an attack. On the PC version, such worries are even smaller when taking quicksaving into account.
Difficulty can only make a game feel compelling and ultimately a satisfying experience when it is genuine. Grinding out numbers, hiding behind chest high walls and entering the dungeon with a billion green herbs only serves to remove difficulty rather than actually tackling it. Due to this games are in danger of becoming glorified to do lists or movies with literal walk-in parts rather than the challenging experiences that they typically are. It is for this reason that the rise of more difficult games like the Souls series or roguelike (or lite) indie titles have been gaining popularity, not because people like punishing difficulty particularly but rather that mainstream games are simply far too easy. The end result is mainstream single player experiences that become glorified hand-holding sessions, and I won’t be to surprised to see Battlefield and Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture making a crossover experience… Slow walking priests with M16 Assault Rifles… Dearie me.