Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
On Difficulty Levels

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 13 Jul 2010 12:00
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The concept of difficulty settings is something I've been meaning to talk about for a while, and my recent video of No More Heroes 2 will suffice as an awkward segue to the subject. Instead of the usual "Easy," "Normal" and "Hard," NMH calls the three options "Sweet," "Mild" and "Bitter," which I found quite appealing. Clever naming of difficulty settings is a bit of a lost art. Its golden age was with shooters in the 90s, from Wolfenstein 3D's "Can I Play, Daddy?" through Rise of the Triad's "Will Of Iron, Knees Of Jell-o" to Duke Nukem 3D's "Damn, I'm Good," but now I guess games are all taking their gritty brown realism too seriously to indulge in the simpler pleasures of life. My personal favorite naming system is from Blood 2: The Chosen of all things: the elegant and pithy "Genocide," "Homicide" or "Suicide."

It might be a little lazy to say "all games should have difficulty settings." Some games don't fit into that model. The challenge of Super Mario Galaxy, for example, is primarily in platforming, and you can't exactly go through each level creating an alternative setting that pulls a few platforms closer together here and inserts a wheelchair ramp there. But for action games, they should definitely be mandatory.

It's not just about being immediately accessible to any level of player, it's about escalation. This isn't really an issue for me because my job requires me to play a new game every week, but for you poor non-game-reviewing saps who don't buy a new game as often and need to get the most out of their purchases, harder difficulties add an extra spice to a replay. Consequently, there have been many games that only unlock the hardest difficulty after at least one playthrough. A policy I'm not sure I approve of, since anyone who thinks they can jump straight to "Dante Must Die" Mode on their very first try probably deserves the inevitable harsh reality lesson.

But here's my slightly less obvious request: Every game should let you switch difficulties mid-way.

This is more for my own convenience than anything else. My usual policy is to play through every game on the local equivalent of "Normal." Even though I flatter myself in that I've logged enough hours on my specialist genres that I could usually jump straight to "Hard." But there's always that little doubt. That knowledge that every game has its own interpretation of "hard," and that what I think is a case of relatively easy-going hardness like Half-Life could very easily turn out to be a case of, say, the Bayonettas, and I'll waste an awful lot of my limited pre-review play time dying over and over again.

But often this policy bites me in the arse. For when a game turns out to be too easy, I tend to zone out, and concentrating on its qualities becomes difficult. In Alan Wake,for example, it was foolish of me to automatically pick "Normal" out of "Normal," "Hard" and "Nightmare," because this is doing the Burger King "Medium," "Large" and "King Size" thing where the real medium is obviously the one in the middle. And by the time I realized this I was too far through the game to start from scratch. While there have been a few games (I think Devil May Cry did it first) that offer to ease up a bit if you're dying too often, very few have an equivalent prompt if you're doing too well.

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