Way too often I find myself Googling what the "right" difficulty setting for a game is, before I start playing. I assume others here do this too?
I tend to always go for the highest difficulty because I want the "full experience" of a game without missing out on what the mechanics may be capable of. In the higher difficulties of Bug Fables you are forced to have an understanding of combining type effectiveness with good attack order and positioning to maximize damage, thereby getting the "full experience" of the RPG mechanics. In the higher difficulties of Guitar Hero you need to learn how to move your hand to use the orange note, learn alt-strumming, learn hammer-ons, get a feel for triples, etc. In Titanfall 2 it might be knowing how to efficiently combine slides with wall-runs, and finding opportunities to get shots in between – something a lower difficulty may never force on you.
But a higher difficulty doesn't always translate to a "fuller" experience. In Titanfall 2's case, it can be argued that on Master, you are missing out, as free running and parkour sometimes takes a backseat to more traditional cover-based gun combat, as being in the open tends to be disadvantageous.
For the Mass Effect series I'd actually be a huge proponent of avoiding higher difficulties as the main experience to be had is the story and worldbuilding, whereas the gameplay only really serves to provide an in-between for important story segments to make the world feel more real (so instead of just reading "you helped Garrus hold his post against a horde of mercenaries and then escape" you can feel that it's really happening). The mechanics aren't worthwhile at all, and their rigidity is unsatisfying (being locked in animations like crouching to get into cover without being able to do anything else) and even make for points of ludonarrative dissonance – seeing Jack run through a facility spamming powers to take tons of enemies down, before recruiting her and finding out that what she did is impossible because all powers actually share a lengthy, universal cooldown. These distractions are alleviated by making the experience as painless as possible by playing on a lower difficulty.
Difficulty selections are even worse when the changes between difficulties are incorporated haphazardly. Some more enemies peppered into the playing field. Some extended health bars/adjusted stats. Forcing players to memorize more by removing save points. It feels like there's no vision in the games that do this – no specific feeling any designer is aiming to bring to the players. Even if the designers try putting thought into which save points they remove, for instance, they're still bound by where they originally meant for the save points to be. What if save points are meant to be at rooms offering a feeling of respite from a tense adventure? For higher difficulties, what happens to those rooms which don't have the save points anymore? Would they simply be empty? On the other hand, if designers try to make an easier mode, how would they add save points without changing the map layout and the intended player experience? Do they throw save points into random areas that don't necessarily feel safe?
Rhythm games are an exception to this messy practice. And the reason that it works in rhythm games is simple: every level is expressly designed. There's no haphazard design decision such as "just throw more notes into the mix". Beat maps need to make rhythmic sense, so they need to be tested for their "feel". A higher difficulty uses a completely different pattern. It becomes a new form of artistic expression.
But adventure, action, RPG, and shooting games don't typically do this. They put very little thought into difficulty, and have us choose some arbitrary mode at the beginning as if we know anything about what it offers or how significant the decision is.
This feels very wrong. Apart from certain skill-testing games like normal sports, Sudoku, AimLab, etc., games are art, are they not? This means that there should be a vision behind them, does it not? There should be a specific experience tailored by the artists to elicit certain feelings. Difficulty options muddy this.
Imagine if there were different versions of famous literature with varying levels of subtlety in thematic expression and sophistication of prose. Imagine if the author didn't write their exact vision, but rather, exerted a lot of the effort into creating text to be molded into different forms. Would that go over well? Why do we accept this in games which fancy themselves works of art? I'm aware that Romeo and Juliet likely exists in a modernized, accessible form, but that only came about due to significant language barriers accrued over hundreds of years. Also, I wouldn't call something like that a "difficulty option" but rather an "accessibility option", the crucial difference being that the original work was never compromised – it was never written with the intention of any alternate text to exist.
What Celeste does is perfect. There is a clear "original" version. The artist had a specific vision. Upon watching this super enlightening video in which the design process of Celeste is beautifully outlined, it's made perfectly clear that for each chapter, for each level, and even for each room, Maddy Thorson had a specific feeling in mind. When a player uses the accessibility options that Celeste offers, it's very apparent to the player that they're not playing the original level that Maddy designed. It's clear what the "original" is, and that what they're playing is not it. This knowledge might encourage them to play the original at some point later on!
There needs to be an original. There needs to be a singular, emphatic vision that someone tries to express. Otherwise, I'd question why the game even needs to exist, and what significance its experience can even hold. I'd question if its art.
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