I’ve read one too many “git gud” posts arguing that challenge is essential to games and that including an easy mode on, say, Dark Souls would ruin it; if you don’t want a hard game, don’t play Dark Souls. They’re wrong. Firstly, challenge isn’t an inherent aspect of games: it’s just one way of evoking certain player responses. Challenge is partly a personal preference thing: some people want a smooth experience and I do think that Dark Souls is a poor choice for that, and that experiencing Dark Souls as a cake walk won’t let you understand Dark Souls.
But that’s not the point. My perspective was summarized pretty eloquently by Rob Fearon but I feel like it can be distilled even further. The argument: what is hard for you might not be hard for me.
Look at it this way.
I have a certain level of expertise with games, based on my experience, reflexes, and ability (e.g. having thumbs). Call this number X.
A game has a certain set of obstacles it puts in your way, which must be overcome by acting within certain tolerances: fast enough, accurately enough, with a certain amount of strategy. Call this minimum level of performance Y.
The level of challenge, then, can be seen as the difference between X and Y. Y – X = C. Let’s assume that an ideal challenge for a game like Dark Souls occurs when my skill is barely enough to meet the obstacles, making Y and X the same and making C equal zero.
If the game’s obstacles are easy to bypass—at level 5, say—and my skill is a high number at an 8, then C is -3 and the game is easier than intended.
However, with the same level 5 obstacles, if my skill is lower (a 2, say) then C becomes +3: a real frustrating slog that I may not be able to overcome. Consider especially that I may not be able to increase my skill. I may lack sufficient talent. I may have a disability. I may have a low frame rate and no money to upgrade my computer. If a game doesn’t adapt to me, I cannot get the proper experience of the game.
Consider instead a game where you can pick a minimum level of performance: 2, 5, or 8. For the sake of convenience, we’ll call these “Easy,” “Medium,” and “Hard.” On Hard mode, my original skill of 8 gives me a challenge of zero: perfect. On Easy mode, if I’ve got a low skill level, my challenge is also zero.
Dark Souls on Easy mode is hard if I’m not good at the things the game expects me to do. I still get the same learning experience, the same progression of understanding the world and building my timing skills. I’m just starting at a level that matches my ability.
Everyone’s not the same. Games need to adapt to their players. Challenge is a calibration, and that’s why we need difficulty settings.