“Do you think today’s video games are easier or harder than they used to be?“
GameFAQs asked this question on one of their daily polls and the overwhelming response suggested that the answer was in fact easier. Are modern video games too easy, then? It’s not exactly a fresh stance; people regularly decry modern video games as being too “hand-holdy” or accuse them of pandering to a wider audience and therefore losing their edge as a predominately skill-based experience. But does this come down to a question of how difficult a game is or rather how intuitive?
Before I go any further I want to share a little anecdote. The year was (probably) 1994 and the video game was Batman for the Sega Mega Drive. I had just reached the second level and was looking up at an unreachable platform on the ceiling above Batsy’s head. Batman: The Video Game is a straightforward 2D platformer that’s all jumping between ledges and punching bad guys in the face. It shouldn’t be possible to get stuck already and yet there I was; this (probably) 8-year-old kid forlornly staring up at a faraway nook that Batman is somehow expected to reach.
Players are supposed to press UP+C together in order to deploy Batman’s grappling hook and ascend into the rafters, but between the lack of hints and missing instruction manual (did I mention my copy was a swap?), I couldn’t work out what to do. A good hour or so must have passed by before I luckily discovered the button command on my own, but this was only after restarting the game with the fear that my cartridge may be glitched or broken.
Is this a question of difficulty? Probably not. Batman was an easy game after all. But it’s important to distinguish how much better our intuitive and yes, more hand-holdy, modern video games can be when it comes to crafting a better difficulty curve. Reading through pages of annotated instructions in some tatty manual is an antiquated process that we’re fortunate to be done with and even if tutorials and screen prompts do threaten our immersion on occasion, it’s better than thinking about Batman’s indomitable ceiling for sixty minutes straight because some clueless kid decided to buy a game that didn’t come with the book.
Naturally we need to consider the other side of the argument too. A video game that spells out everything for you in a neat and easily digestible way can be sweet (Deus Ex: Mankind Divided), but one that constantly pesters you with inane pointers and directions can suck away the challenge and fun in working things out for yourself (Fable II).
Just ask the creators behind Demigod; a team whose rather candid thoughts on player tutoring can be seen in the How to Play section of their game’s very own instruction book. Quote:
“Let’s face it, the two most annoying ways to learn how to play a game are the user manual and an in-game tutorial. Anyone who has ever introduced a group of friends to a strategy game has probably not told them to take a scholarly review of the manual or had them play through some hackneyed in-game tutorial mission.”
The level of skill that’s required to actually play any given game is the most important point to dwell on in terms of difficulty though and in that sense I think video games are about the same now as they were then. There are good examples both for and against this argument of course and upon preparing for this article I had already thought of numerous examples that could sway me either way.
Gears of War 3 stands in stark contrast to the original Gears of War as your team of invincible CPU-controlled teammates will often pick you up before an enemy can finish the job. This is especially noticeable during the 10-15 minute fight against the bullet sponge of a final boss where I never once felt any meaningful challenge amid the hail of bullets and frequent revives. I even felt the aforementioned Demigod fell into this trap; the game championed experimentation and discovery when learning the rules of play and yet my first try of this tower defence title fell somewhat flat when I handily won my opening game despite me not really knowing what I was doing.
The Civilization games are frequently singled out when the topic of difficulty gets mentioned too. Civilization V features an impressive eight levels of difficulty to choose from, and yet the AI opponents will play in the exact same way at all but one of those levels. From Chieftain all the way up to Deity, the AI simply gains more and more bonuses to help it compete – and therefore cheat – during its standard mode of operation. It’s as artificial as difficulty gets and I will agree that this sort of approach is nowhere near as satisfying as difficulty by design can be.
Speaking of which, Mega Man is a classic title with a reputation for being punishing and part of that comes from it being unintuitive (why do I have to backtrack to collect the Magnet Beam!?) and part of it comes from the huge demands it makes of your pattern memorization skills. Comparing a platformer like Mega Man with a modern equivalent like Shovel Knight highlights that the modern alternative is undeniably easier, but striking a fine balance in the way that Shovel Knight does is a lot more appealing in my eyes.
First-person shooters are often at the forefront of the debate. Halo’s regenerating health mechanic sometimes comes under fire for making its gunplay overly easy to manage and the set piece-heavy structure of modern FPS games are often compared unfavourably with DOOM’s intricate map design.
Goldeneye 007 is a modern FPS that includes the expected artificial methods of increasing difficulty; enemies will have more health, greater accuracy and so on, and yet one look at the mission design is all you need to see just how well the developers have scaled things. When played at higher settings, Goldeneye includes additional objectives that extend or otherwise enhance the difficulty in different ways. For instance, completing the Silo level at the easiest setting is a simple case of dashing headlong towards an exit door whereas tackling the same scenario at the hardest level demands that you also collect the hidden circuit boards whilst also remembering to rig every room with explosives.
Difficulty here isn’t just achieved by making enemies tougher, it’s achieved by introducing new areas and new concerns that demand greater concentration and planning from the player. I’d argue that tends to be a modern design conceit and it’s one that really should be more commonly seen than it is today.
In a similar way, I’ve always believed that Max Payne’s responsive challenge system ought to have been copied more. Virtua Fighter’s practice modes are full of unmatched training tools too, and I haven’t even mentioned how Demon’s Souls and its lineage once again made difficult games so widely accepted.
Are modern video games too easy? I don’t think so. Design trends change just as much as people’s tastes, but difficult games that are balanced in an appealing way will always be around. You just have to know where to look.