Monday, 31 December 2012

Difficulty, Accessibility, and the "Optimal Experience"

Some thoughts on an issue most divisive.

Hello once more. It would seem that I've made a liar out of myself since last I wrote here, because the one or two updates that were promised last week were not forthcoming. I apologize for that and beg your indulgence in regards to the lack of updates. It was harder to get anything done during the holidays than I imagined it would be, but for no particular reason I can name. Anyways, I can say with confidence that the break has done me some good, so you can expect everything to be back to normal now anyways.

This is something that I've been meaning to talk about for a while now, although I'm hardly the first to do so and also somehow doubt that I'll be the last either. It's a thought that's been percolating in the back of my mind for some time now. Even though it was a comparatively small event in the landscape of the year's news, the outcry over the possible addition of an easy mode to the infamously unforgiving Dark Souls was something that caught my eye and got me thinking.

I'm certainly no stranger when it comes to challenging games; one of my favourite series has been the more punishing than most Devil May Cry franchise, my favourite team based shooter the sometimes sadistically challenging Killing Floor. I've never been one to shy away from a good challenge, Hell, I'll probably pick up Dark Souls, just not during this particular sale. In enduring these challenges, overcoming them, and ultimately triumphing to the point where they aren't even challenges anymore I've found some of the most enjoyable experiences of my life as a gamer.

Here's the thing though; just because I enjoy that kind of thing doesn't mean everyone does. And just because someone doesn't enjoy an above par challenge also doesn't mean they should be denied access to something that interests them.

I've made a point in the past about dumbing games down, about developers being so afraid of their audience becoming frustrated and just leaving without so much as a glance back that they've essentially begun to hold our hands throughout the entire process to the detriment of everyone involved. However, doing something like putting an easy mode into Dark Souls is not an example of that, and I'll tell you why.

Perhaps it's presumptuous of me to think this, but I'd be fairly willing to bet that there are a fair number of people -- I'm not talking about thousands, but maybe hundreds -- that are quite interested in what they hear about Dark Souls, or any other so called hardcore series for that matter. However, in cases like these very few of them will ever actually play these games, because all they ever tend to hear is about how merciless and challenging they are, even on normal difficulties.

If an easy mode existed I'm not saying that everyone out there would suddenly buy the game, but if more games touted a way to ease a person into the experience then how, in my eyes, could that ever be a bad thing? More people get to experience a game, even if it's with the so-called "training wheels" on, the publisher sells more copies, and everyone is happy, right?

Well, no, not really.

If half the arguments that cropped up regarding the aforementioned easy mode inclusion are to be taken seriously, then simply the inclusion of an easy mode -- something that I should mention would not change any of the other difficulties in any way shape or form unless the developer went out of their way to do so -- is selling out. Their argument is that the very presence of an easy way out degrades the entire experience. "Play the game the way it was meant to be played!" or something close to it is a phrase that tends to get bandied about a lot in these arguments.

I, for one, think that argument is garbage.

Gaming is certainly a medium unlike any other, in that you do have to work to earn your entertainment, that's kind of the point after all. If you just want to experience something without any input or effort on your part that's what just about every other medium is for: movies, books, music. This isn't saying that gaming is superior, it's not, it's just different and that aforementioned point is one of if not the key difference to be sure. Just because of that though, it doesn't mean that an experience has to be a certain way. Just as different music appeals to different people and different genres draw different audiences, there is no one definitive answer to the most enjoyable experience, even with one game alone.

To say that a game should only be played one way and that anything else is missing the point or even somehow antithetical to the product as a whole is just bullshit. If there's an easy mode and a normal mode no one is under any obligation to play both, or play one before the other. To claim that the inclusion of such is some sort of slight comes off for the most part as insufferably elitist. I won't deny that some games are based on their legendary challenge, Dark Souls is certainly one of them. However, I don't know if there's any basis in me thinking this, but I'd be willing to bet that even an easy mode for that game would be far harder than what some people would come to expect.

Certainly my own biases are at play here, but let's be completely honest, can the gaming culture really still afford to be seen as exclusionary at this point. We still have enough problems as it is most of the time -- that's something that to my extreme displeasure I will be touching upon again in the coming days -- do we really need to draw more lines in the sand when it comes to ourselves as a community? I already know my answer to that question, it's just slightly depressing to have heard some of the others.

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