Weekend Discussion: Difficulty in Games: Too Hard, Too Easy, or Just Right?

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Recently, I’ve been on a bit of an adventure game binge. I’ve played and finished Hotel Dusk: Room 215 for the DS, have read a boatload of information on the old LucasArts adventure games, and am currently in the middle of Grim Fandango. One thing I’ve noticed is that whether or not adventure games are dead, they can sometimes be about as challenging as driving with your eyes closed. After just a couple of hours of Grim Fandango, I found myself stuck and bewildered. I knew exactly what to do, but I had no idea how to advance. I needed to figure out a maze, unbalance a pumping station to get hydraulics for my car, and eliminate some demon beavers near the exit. I’m not going to lie, I resorted to searching for hints online to help solve two of the three puzzles. And the last one was solved by my girlfriend. Grim Fandango – 3, Me – 0.

The larger issue here is that of game difficulty and time commitments. Have games become easier over time? Even though I know that adventure games typically rank quite high on the difficulty scale, I’m not sure if I know the answer to this question. A decrease in difficulty in games in general could be partly responsible for the decline of adventure games. I remember being confounded by Myst for weeks on end. I got stuck on Grim Fandango after about 2 hours, and it’s supposed to be comparatively easy. Granted, adventure games may just require a different state of mind than other types of games. Nonetheless, I still love playing adventure games and thinking about their mysteries. I especially like that when I get stuck in an adventure game, I think about it constantly, trying to think of possible solutions until I begin playing again.

Game design has changed drastically since the arcade or NES days, where you were expected to not only die, but die repeatedly. One of the biggest changes recently has been increasing the frequency of save points, and/or allowing you to restart shortly before your character died rather than at the beginning of a level. We see fewer and fewer games that increase difficulty by limiting where you can save. Will we ever see another game like the Final Fantasy III remake for the DS, where you can never save in dungeons or buy revival items? Probably not. Even Fire Emblem, that bastion of permanent character death and denier of mid-mission saving, allowed players to save mid-battle in the newest release, thereby somewhat changing your strategy.

The vast majority of games these days feature adjustable difficulty levels, thereby enabling the game to appeal to a larger number of players. I think this is great, especially since I rarely want to play a game that’s just insanely challenging. At the same time, I think the inclusion of selectable difficulty is rarely implemented well. Often, a higher difficulty simply adds more enemies, enemies with greater health and resistances, or decreases the effectiveness of your actions. It’s a rare game indeed whose different difficulty levels force the player to approach the game in a more complex, strategic manner.

An issue related to difficulty, and of great importance to any gamers in their mid-20s or older, is that of the time commitment required for a given game. The reason I sneaked a peek online for Grim Fandango tips is that I felt I was wasting my time. My gaming time has decreased greatly over the years. Repeatedly trying to solve a puzzle and making no headway is too frustrating, when I could be making progress in other games. So I got a little nudge in the right direction, and am grateful for it. If I find myself restarting a mission or level several times, I give up and switch to another game temporarily because it feels like lost time.

I wonder if as other gamers of my generation grow older and have more responsibilities, their game time becomes more valuable to them. Personally, I don’t want to play too many really difficult games because the time investment it takes to become proficient is too high for me. Of course, I don’t want a cakewalk either, but I’d like to be able to make steady progress. I also try to be very selective about which games I commit myself to, absorbing as much information as I can before making a purchase. I know that there’s a place for challenging games like Devil May Cry 3 and Ninja Gaiden, and I’d like to see even more of a resurgence of adventure games. But I don’t want to have to attempt the same scenario a dozen times with no results.

I’d really like to hear your thoughts on game difficulty. What level of challenge do you expect to find in games today? Are games too hard or too easy now compared to games from 10 years ago? Do you know of any games that implement selectable difficulty levels extremely well?

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