There Is No Valid Argument Why Games Shouldn’t Have Difficulty Settings

Now that Wyrd Street is out the door, I hope to find the time to return to some more traditional blogging, though my work with Massively will remain my focus. I know I’m very behind the times on this, but there’s an issue that’s been sticking in my craw for months, and now that I have a free moment, I’d like to finally address it.

Promotional art for the video game Elden Ring.Last year, a developer for Elden Ring spoke on the lack of discrete difficulty settings in it and the company’s other acclaimed titles, saying that the extreme difficulty of these games gives “meaning” to the experience as justification for not including any kind of easy mode.

I never had much interest in Elden Ring or other From Software games, but as a fan of the art form and occasional dabbler in game design, I find this point of view deeply illogical, and I’d like to take a moment to break down just why I find it so toxic.

I have to ask, what harm would have any easier option actually do? If you’d still play on the current, hard difficulty, what is an easy option taking away from you? If you feel your experience of the game is cheapened by someone else getting to see the whole game with less effort… grow up.

A less elitist argument I have also heard in defence of these games is that people don’t want the easier difficulty because it would tempt them too much. If they had the option to easy mode through the game, they wouldn’t be motivated to overcome its extreme challenges as they do now.

But if that’s the case, is it really the challenge you enjoy? Or is more that you just want the bragging rights to say that you overcame it? Whether ego is the motivation or not, if the difficulty is really what brings you joy, an easy mode won’t tempt you away from it.

Winning a game of StarCraft II on brutal.I am not much of an adrenaline junkie in games — I play most things at around medium difficulty — but there have been a few occasions where I’ve sought a greater challenge. In particular, my great love for StarCraft II and the fair and balanced challenge it provides sent me through all three of its main campaigns on brutal, the highest difficulty. I’ve also completed hundreds of co-op missions and dozens of co-op mutations on brutal, even completing one or two brutations solo after my partner disconnected on the load screen.

StarCraft II is quite generous with its difficulty settings, though. Brutal lives up to its name, but there are three levels below that, going all the way down to “casual,” a mode so easy I’m not sure it’s even possible to lose.

And never once has the presence of casual mode made me feel as if my struggles in brutal were cheapened. It did not make me crave the challenge any less, and I do not resent anyone who made it through the campaign without ever reaching so high as normal mode. Why would it? What someone else does with their game has no effect on me.

But let’s go back to the original comment, that the difficulty is what gives “meaning” to the experience. It’s a fundamentally flawed concept.

These are video games. There’s little to no meaning to playing them. They’re entertainment. You’re not accomplishing something great by beating up a pre-scripted artificial intelligence, no matter how challenging it may be.

My Covenant alt practicing her bow skills on an Ancient Guardian in New World.What meaning can be found in games is found in the ways they affect us, the relationships we form through them, the stories they tell, the stories we create while playing them. Difficulty contributes only slightly to that, and in many ways it detracts from it. Perhaps Elden Ring’s story is powerful and moving, but no one who can’t handle its difficulty will ever know (unless they watch it on YouTube or something). Where’s the meaning in that?

And what about disabled players who simply can’t play better? Yes, some people do manage to play hard games despite their disability, but that isn’t possible for everyone. How can you justify locking them out of a hobby just to stroke the egos of your able-bodied customers?

I’m used to this kind of tiresome, exclusionary thinking in the gaming community. MMORPGs have always been rife with it (despite being some of the easiest games around). What continues to baffle me is how people got these ideas in their heads in the first place.

No other medium of story-telling has this kind of elitist thinking. No one’s expecting tests of skill to let you experience any other kind of story, and when you start picturing what that would look like, you start realizing how absurd this whole thing is. Imagine if you weren’t allowed to see Avengers: Endgame unless you were able to actually beat up Josh Brolin.

Now I do want to offer one significant caveat to all this. While I firmly believe there is no valid argument why games shouldn’t have difficulty settings, there can be sometimes be valid reasons for why they can’t have difficulty settings.

My second Dragon character in The Secret World unleashes the quantum ability Polestar-Oblivion.Developers don’t have unlimited resources, especially the small ones, and implementing a variety of difficulty settings does take at least some effort. There are also some games whose nature makes implementing separate difficulties challenging or downright impossible.

MMORPGs are a good example of this. With a shared world occupied by many different players, there isn’t a clear way to allow each person to adjust the difficulty to their desired level.

In those cases, I do lean towards using difficulty levels that best align with the vision of the creators and the fantasy of the game, even if it means some people must be excluded. But even then an argument can be made that aiming for the lowest common denominator is better, and indeed that is what most MMOs seem to do. The two main exceptions I’ve played — The Secret World and New World — both wound up as fairly niche games, and I think their difficulty contributes to that.

So there are some cases where catering to every type of player may not be feasible, but all reasonable efforts should be made to be as accessible as possible. If you’re excluding people by choice, you’ve lost my respect as a developer.

Rings of Power Is Off to a Poor Start

I had a lot of skepticism going into Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings series, The Rings of Power, based on some truly bizarre plot leaks (at least some of which have now been confirmed) and a lot of cringe-worthy quotes by the showrunners.

Still, I would really like more good Middle-Earth content, so I tried my best to keep an open mind. Going in, I had the feeling it wouldn’t be very faithful to Tolkien, but it would at least be an entertaining fantasy adventure series.

Unfortunately, so far it’s not even living up that standard.

I was right that it’s not faithful to Tolkien’s writings. Galadriel has had her backstory and motivations altered so radically she’s essentially a completely new character. Meanwhile Durin is being portrayed as just another Dwarf, with so far no mention of his past lives or great significance to the Dwarven people.

But perhaps more importantly, it’s just not that interesting of a show so far.

The pacing is glacial, for one thing. Now I know a lot of people will say that’s also true of Tolkien’s original writings, and that’s technically accurate, but the depth and beauty of Tolkien’s writing carries it through. Rings of Power doesn’t have that same skill in its story-telling that allows the slow pace to work.

There are a lot of moments that clearly attempt to emulate the beauty and heart of Tolkien’s legendarium, but the writing isn’t strong enough to deliver, resulting in a lot of pseudo-spiritual babble that doesn’t actually mean anything. See Finrod’s word-salad about boats and rocks.

The acting is mostly competent, but none of it’s quite good enough to cover up how dull the writing is.

There’s a number of mysteries introduced by the show, but I find them more frustrating than anything. There’s a new character whose identity is a big question mark, and the show spends all of his scenes telegraphing that he’s either Gandalf or Sauron in extremely blatant ways. Obviously he can’t be both, so half of his scenes exist just to be unsubtle red herrings, and gods know how long it will be before we know which half. It’s one of the most transparent attempts to string along an audience I’ve ever seen, and after just two episodes, I’m already utterly exhausted by it.

But perhaps my biggest issue is that the version of Galadriel they present is an absolute blithering idiot. Her entire story so far consists of nothing but suicidally stupid decisions, and the only reason she survives the first two episodes is because she has impenetrable plot armour.

(None of this is an indictment of Morfydd Clark, who is doing the best she can with the meager hand she was dealt. From what I’ve seen of her in interviews, she seems like an incredibly sweet person, and I don’t want to direct any hate toward her. Honestly, she deserved better.)

So far, the only plot in the show I find myself at all invested in is that of Bronwyn and the other people living in what will eventually be Mordor. Maybe because it’s a blank slate and thus free of expectation, but it’s the only part of the show that’s held my attention so far.

Rings of Power has not yet reached the irredeemable depths of something like the last season of Picard, but what we’ve seen so far doesn’t give much cause for optimism. Simply put, it’s just kind of boring.

Of course, much of the controversy around Rings of Power so far has centred around its racial and gender politics, because absolutely everything has to turn into a culture war brawl these days. I gave serious thought to simply not addressing it all because I’m so tired of it, but I’d like to try and present a nuanced take on the issue, as nuance is pretty lacking in most of the discussions I’ve seen.

First of all, I have no respect for those who are offended by the very concept of black people existing in Middle-Earth. The one change to Tolkien’s work that is definitely worthwhile is trying to improve the diversity of the setting. I don’t feel that Tolkien himself was a particularly bigoted or hateful person at heart, but he was a product of his time and culture, and elements of his work do not hold up well in a modern context.

But that doesn’t mean Rings of Power is approaching it the right way.

For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over how excessively “woke” the show is, the actual number of people of colour appearing in it is very small, and the cast is still overwhelmingly white. I’ve noticed that the extras in crowd shots are mostly, if not entirely, Caucasian, and that all combines to make the few PoC on the cast really stand out. To me it makes them feel like tokens rather than a genuine effort to diversify the setting.

A cynical part of me wonders if they just threw in a few PoC knowing it would make the racists rage so that they could then write off all criticism of the show as rooted in bigotry and nothing else. I know that’s the narrative I’ve seen advanced by most vocal fans of the show.

The frustrating thing is that there are already entire cultures of PoC in Tolkien’s writing, and Rings of Power is completely ignoring them. I don’t know if the people of the newly invented realm of “Tirharad” are meant to be related to the people of Harad, so I can’t say if making them mostly pale-skinned is technically white-washing, but it definitely feels like it. Regardless of whether the people of Tirharad are related to the Haradrim, Rings of Power is ignoring a culture that would have allowed them to massively increase the diversity of the cast while also exploring an underdeveloped part of the lore.

Bronwyn and Arondir in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.I’m similarly disappointed by the missed opportunities in Galadriel’s story. I’m not upset by the show presenting her as a military leader (and those who are betray the fact they don’t actually know Middle-Earth’s history very well at all), but I am very bothered the fact they’ve written her family out of the story. I think it would have been a much bigger win for feminism if Rings of Power had depicted Galadriel as a badass warrior and a loving wife and mother.

The more time goes on, the more I appreciate how special Continuum was…

(To be fair, Bronwyn does feel like she’s embodying this concept at least a little bit, but that just further raises the question of why Galadriel couldn’t get the same treatment.)

My point is this: I think Rings of Power holding up ideals of diversity and feminism would be a good thing, but I don’t believe it’s actually doing that. I think it’s paying lip service to those concepts in a cynical attempt to profit off our current culture war.

And that really tells you a lot about what kind of show it is. It covers itself in the trappings of Tolkien’s timeless stories of hope and heroism, but it’s only skin deep.