Challenge is a Calibration

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.

4 thoughts on “Challenge is a Calibration

  1. Totally agree, and this reminds me of your article about being, and then not being, a hardcore gamer.

    Gotta admit though, this sent my mind on a tangent about every work of art having some difficulty level of interpretation. It might sound like a counter argument, but I just find it interesting to think about. Imagine if people demanded an easy level for The Witness or something like it, with exactly the same puzzles but more direct about its themes and intentions.

    1. Interesting idea. I think that most media don’t demand physical or time-sensitive feats from you. Film and TV can be put on “easy mode” by pausing or rewinding to rewatch and understand. Cliff’s Notes and other educational tools help to understand the harder-to-grasp bits of literature. But those are all generally external to the text.

      It’s interesting to imagine something more internal: movies coming with alternate, simpler audio tracks. I suppose to a certain extent we get this with international remakes: the American version of The Ring or Let the Right One In is designed to be more accessible.

      Still, I don’t think that the challenge of interpretation is the same as the challenge of obstacles in games. As a society we try to universally educate people how to understand complex stories, giving young people simpler ones until they build up the necessary skills.

      At the same time… difficulty settings for narrative is a fascinating idea. I’m reminded of how System Shock has four difficulty sliders, one of which is for “Plot.” However, it just adjusts security, presence of logs, and a time limit.

      1. Cool! And there’s the weird case of in-game hint systems for adventure games, right? Because their challenge is not always but can be related to understanding themes and plot.

        Come to think of it, doesn’t have to be hint systems. Monkey Island 2 and Curse have easy modes that change puzzles. The extent to which this changes their story or makes it less complex is debatable. But at least it could do that in theory.

      2. Also, couldn’t that be solved with adaptative difficulty? Gamers don’t always know what their X of difficulty is, and wrongly choosing an easy mode could take part of the experience from them (Hell, some difficulty modes aren’t even designed whit intention. I often find action games I often found modes that only changue some codes to make enemies stronger).

        I believe that people should be awared of the challengue of the Game. ‘Awared’ is the key word here, not ‘Conditioned’ of a wrong difficulty choice.

        P.S: Sorry for the awful grammar. I’m not a native speaker.

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