Well, I had written a big ol’ article-type thing on this subject this morning at work, but apparently I forgot to upload it.
The jist of it was: back in the day games really only tried to do One Thing. It made sense for these games to have difficulty settings. If you buy a game where the One Thing is Shooting Robots, you know the difficulty you pick will affect how tough it is to Shoot Robots.
Nowadays, though, a single game will try to do many things. I play a lot of action/adventure games, which usually come with a strong exploration aspect (which I love, and am good at) as well as lots of combat (which I’m more ambivalent towards, and am not very good at). So when I start one of these games — say, BioShock or Shadow Complex — how do I know what the difficulty setting is going to do? I want hard exploration but easy combat. Which one is the option for me?
To give a bit of insight into where I’m coming from, let’s look at Zelda: Twilight Princess. There seem to be two camps on the subject of this game’s difficulty: Brickroad and Everybody Else. Most people complain that Twilight Princess was too easy. Monsters don’t do enough damage. You have way too many hearts. Combat is too simplistic. Meanwhile, here’s me, dying (or coming close) against every single boss. Reaction time all too sucky to nail the counterattacks effectively. Forever running out of potion.
Bosses in Zelda tend to be puzzles, and most bosses in Twilight Princess followed that pattern. But it’s not enough to just figure out the solution; you also have to implement the solution. A lot of times I would lose half a life bar puzzling out the fight, then another half trying to get my solution to work. When it didn’t, I’d figure I was on the wrong track. If I couldn’t think of anything else to try I’d go check a walkthrough… which would of course confirm that my solution was correct, I just need to do it better. Every time Giant Pig Ganon bowled me over I couldn’t help but think, “This isn’t fair. I figured this fight out already. The game should let me win now.”
Meanwhile, the Water Temple of Ocarina of Time remains my single favorite Zelda dungeon to date. Every other dungeon is way too easy to solve; Water Temple hit the sweet spot. I want all the dungeons to be as hard to solve as Water Temple, but I also want to not die in combat.
And maybe it’s a moot point since Zelda doesn’t have difficulty settings anyway.
I can think of three ways difficulty settings can work in this Brave New World of ours, but not a lot of games are doing them. They are:
1) Have a separate difficulty slider for each aspect of gameplay. If I want to set combat to “trivially easy” and exploration to “no guides, hints or nudges… ever” I should be allowed to.
2) When the game fires up the first time and gives me the options to pick from, it should explain in detail what the various options mean. In some games “Easy” means “you get a solid blue line showing you exactly where to go and what to do.” I don’t want that. In others it means “you are locked out from the game’s true ending.” I don’t want that either.
3) Let me change the difficulty partway through the game without starting over. I’m tired of solving 90% of a game only to bang my head against a boss or reflex challenge that I simply can’t win.