It feels like a debate erupts online over video game difficulty every few months. The most passionate want games as challenging as possible without compromise. Psychonauts 2 includes an invincibility mode where players can complete the game and earn achievements with the setting on; angry Twitter gamers view the option as “cheating.” A new Fromsoft game releases (e.g., Bloodborne, Demon’s Souls, Elden Ring), and a similar audience rushes to defend its unyieldingly high learning curve as creator intent.
I couldn’t disagree more with this whole “no easy mode” philosophy; it’s hardcore posturing that should have died off decades ago, back in the SNES era. To me, the proper difficulty is a settled issue: almost every game benefits from having at least one mode that lessens the challenge. We shouldn’t view difficulty as a matter of artist choice, but instead one of accessibility. A game’s challenge can be no different from colorblindness or physical handicaps, a barrier that all the practice and YouTube guides in the world can’t overcome.
Gaming distinguishes itself from other types of media with its element of interactivity. So for gaming to grow, it’s on game makers to make control approachable. The more easy modes available, the better.
I can already anticipate several counterarguments to my position here. What about preserving artistic intent? And besides, does every game have to cater to every kind of player? There are types of movies that many would find upsetting or distasteful, so why apply a different standard for gaming? What if a more forgiving playstyle ends up breaking the core gameplay loop?
There’s a clear counterargument to most of these concerns: don’t play on lower difficulties! Including easier difficulty options doesn’t affect the game for anyone who prefers a more punishing challenge.
I’m also curious how such an uncompromising position approaches traditional accessibility options. Today, many games swap colors to address color blindness. Players with motor skill challenges can skip rapid button taps, turn off the adaptive trigger resistance on a PS5’s DualSense, or reduce controller vibration feedback. The Last of Us Part II goes the extra mile with a special high contrast gameplay mode that mutes environmental colors while adding red and blue coloring to interactive elements (allies, enemies, items to pick up).
All these accessibility features “compromise” a game’s artistic intent. Changing the color palette to help colorblind players may no longer match aesthetically with the original visual direction. Players that skip button mash events or don’t have to squeeze hard on a PS5’s triggers lower the difficulty and have a less immersive experience. A high contrast gameplay mode can allow players to “cheat” to spot hidden enemies quickly.
Still, few would argue that the accessibility settings mentioned earlier settings are anything but a net positive. Yes, on paper, the game isn’t exactly as the game creators intended with accessibility modes enabled. But the settings open the game up for many who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate at all.
So what happens once general difficulty inches closer to being a full blown accessibility feature? An expected retort here is that dumbed-down AI or fewer enemies onscreen isn’t the same as a colorblind mode or removing button taps. “Real” accessibility challenges – the colorblind, those hard of hearing or with physical disabilities – can’t improve over time. More practice, repetition, and well edited video tutorials will overcome a difficult challenge for the rest of us.
Such a “git gud” philosophy is myopic. Gamers inevitably age and slow down or aren’t blessed with the quickest reflexes. For them, the challenge is not a hill to overcome but a wall to bounce off. In my mind, the line separating a gamer with especially slow reflexes against someone colorblind can blur. If accessibility is essential to address for the latter, the former shouldn’t be that far behind.
Artistic intent best defines how the game presents an easy mode to the player, not if. We’ve evolved long past 90s game design where difficulty manifested as a terse upfront choice (easy, normal, hard). Now games can explicitly spell out the implications for different difficulty settings, including the mix the game was optimized against.
For games that view the more traditional upfront difficulty choice as a cop out, there are other ways to provide a more forgiving experience. Some games bury difficulty under accessibility options. Others only reveal an easier difficulty after the player fails to make progress over a set amount of time. Some can dynamically shift up or down difficulty based on player behavior.
For instance, the platformer Celeste has an assist mode in its accessibility options. The game provides granular options around invincibility, added jump abilities, and game slowdowns to make action timing easier. The racing game Forza Horizon 5 offers a range of AI difficulties but automatically suggests increasing or decreasing the challenge based on player performance over time.
Hades provides a unique “god mode” where the player gains extra resistance to damage on every unsuccessful playthrough. The game is a classic roguelike where repetition and failure are part of the experience. But in providing gradually improved resistance to enemies, developer Supergiant continuously nudges the player towards power on every run, making the game progressively more beatable without a “shortcut” in the form of a simple difficulty toggle. It’s a deft balance that preserves the genre’s intent while still assisting gamers looking for a more forgiving experience.
Not every game requires easier difficulty options, primarily those within the adventure and puzzle genre. Those games tend to have solvable solutions through a quick lookup on YouTube or another online walkthrough. I also tend to cut more slack on a game’s difficulty for smaller budget titles; these developers can fight tooth and nail just to ship the core experience.
Nevertheless, for most games, easier difficulty broadly is an accessibility issue and should be championed as such. More difficulties mean more players, and over in the long run, more fun. It’s a win win on all fronts.