Difficulty Shaming: Very Easy Mode For The Spineless Developer

Brian Steele
Nov 17, 2016 · 6 min read

I like FPS games. Probably three quarters of my gaming time since I first stumbled upon Modern Warfare 2 in 2009 has been dedicated to playing all sorts of shooters, from the sci-fi to the omnipresent demon whose name is spoken of only in hushed whispers in respected gaming circles: The Modern Military Multiplayer FPS. I bought Payday 2 a year and a half ago and proceeded to put 450 hours on it. That’s an average of at least one hour per day since I bought it, on top of my commitments to Overwatch and the various Battlefield games. So let it not be said that Brian does not like the shootin’.

Now, I received Wolfenstein: The New Order in a Steam gift from a friend of mine during the holiday season last year. Cracked it open, set it up, and went to start playing. Now, I like shooting, but I also like fun, and I don’t find being punished and instantaneously gibbed for sticking out a second too long to really be all that much “fun”. So I rewound the difficulty to its lowest level just so I could get a feel for the game before I brought it back to normal and:

My first reaction was, of course, intense personal indignation. How dare you call me spineless! But after that faded away I was still left with a sense of lingering disgust, and I couldn’t quite figure out why, so I sat on it and went about my daily life (also finished the game. Very good, but Blaskowicz is a total meathead). It wasn’t until now, almost 10 months after I initially played the game, after I started the expansion, The Old Blood, and got hit in the face with the exact same difficulty choice again, that my disgust has now coalesced into a coherent opinion.

Slamming on your players, your own customer base, for playing a difficulty setting that you placed in the game for their express consumption is completely needless. It is understood that you need a baseline experience from which to extrapolate the other difficulties in the game. However, players are entitled to a game experience which they can enjoy, after all, they paid you for the product. Sometimes these players are not quite up to the level of professional FPS players who can drop hours and hours of knowledge on people at the highest levels. Not that I’m professional per se, but I am provably okay-to-good at games and yet I still don’t feel like I have to prove myself by slamming my face on a spinning gear until I’ve finally claimed the hardest difficulty setting for my own.

Now, there are games that do difficulty very well and I would be remiss if I didn’t give them their just due. First is one that I have actually played, The Wonderful 101. When you choose a difficulty, the game does not cast a single iota of judgement on you for selecting the easiest difficulty, and in fact the silly representation of Blunder (I’m sorry, I mean Wonder) Red for the setting is him relaxing on the couch with the Wii U gamepad and a pizza. The game also doesn’t insult you in gameplay terms. You can play and replay the game on the Very Easy setting and not feel like you’ve been cheated out of any part of the experience whatsoever. Bosses still provide a challenge, though slightly blunted by the lessened damage they do and (on the Very Easy setting) the infinite battery you’re granted for transformations. You’re also not cheated out of any content. All difficulty-based unlocks in the game are available through in-game currency and some good old fashioned cheat codes. The casual gamer is allowed to experience the full breadth of the game.

Another, slightly more recent game, is one that I have not played.

Shadow Warrior 2 simply gets it. It explicitly tells you that there is no shame in playing the game on Easy, and even acknowledges up front that there are people who do not exist solely to mash through games to claim some sort of accomplishment.

“Brian,” you might say though, “that setting caption you called out in Wolfenstein is just a throwback to the 80s!” You are correct. However, Shadow Warrior 2 is also a throwback game, and Wonderful 101 throws back to games of yesteryear with its cheat code system. It can’t simply be a matter of callbacks because not all callbacks are noxious. Some things just don’t need to be thrown back to. Garbage like Wolfenstein’s dunking on easy mode players is unneeded, and also completely heedless of the new reality. I would also argue that such an attitude towards difficulty in games contributes to the uniquely toxic culture around the medium.

Let’s be frank: The video game community has major problems, with entitlement and also obsessed with the idea of “hardcore” gamers. Both combine with traditional societal issues with prejudice such as misogyny and racism and create a big ol’ maelstrom that leads to stuff that almost single-handedly pushes anyone who isn’t a white cis-het man clean out of the industry, such as Gamergate.

Am I saying that Wolfenstein caused Gamergate? No. But the fact that such a thing made it into the game in the first place is indicative of the culture that developers feel that they need to pander to. In this case, Bethesda/Machinegames thought that they needed to play to the obnoxious “git gud” crowd and acted accordingly. The entire marketing campaign for the Dark Souls franchise is practically married to this trope, even as people tell me the games themselves don’t quite ascribe to that mantra. But that, if anything, only proves what I’m trying to say even further. Developers have constantly been telling players since the days of the original NES “Wow, you beat this game. You are as unto a God.”

This is a problem. By making players out to be actual real life heroes for beating a computer program expressly written with parameters by which it may be beaten, developers feed into a power fantasy that gamers then run away with and use to beat other people over the head. Now a new gamer that wanders into the community will be immediately blasted in the face with a tsunami of toxicity for not being as good as the other established players in the community. May the Lord have mercy on their naive souls if they try to stream or post to YouTube while not being a professional gamer, and this goes doubly, triply, maybe even octuply or duodectuply for if they’re socially marginalized in any capacity.

These “heroic gamers”, fat on the power fantasies that developers have fed them for decades, feel that people who aren’t as good or don’t have the interest in subjecting themselves to the torture are somehow less worthy than them, and thus deserving of abuse. At the same time, their own accomplishments in beating hard games and being richly praised for doing so may cause them to gamify the abuse, even. I remember well the countless memes from Gamergate saying about how they’d “grind for days to do a single thing in a game” so beating on this woman for weeks to chase her off the internet is basically the same thing.

The buck stops with developers. Pandering to the 1% of gamers that actually want or desire to play the games on the highest difficulty settings is a fool’s errand. Falling into the trope as Wolfenstein does is cowardly. Be brave enough to be a Wonderful 101 or Shadow Warrior 2. Tell your players that there is no shame in not being able to or not wanting to play an obscenely difficult game if they don’t find that fun. Stop treating players as heroes or gods for playing a computer program you made. We’re human beings. As in, every single one of us. It’s time to realize that and move on from the old ways.

Brian Steele

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An autistic enby.