Accessing difficult games

Cuphead is a recent video game hit, best known for its animation inspired by 1930s cartoons, and for being extremely difficult. This has led some game critics to discuss difficulty as a design choice. Is it justified to make a game so difficult that it excludes some players from seeing all the content? This isn’t the first time game critics have tried to answer this question. Last year, people were discussing the value and possibility of an easy mode in Dark Souls.

To make it clear, nobody disputes the value of a difficult game. But if it is feasible, should the designers also offer some sort of “easy mode” to make the content accessible to players who can’t complete the normal mode?

On the face of it, it seems that actively preventing some players from seeing content only reduces the amount of joy in the world. Some players might enjoy the feeling that they are accessing content that other players cannot access, but it’s not clear that this is enough to justify making the game less accessible.

On the other hand, that difficulty may be essential to the game design, at least for the particular game in question. From the linked article about Dark Souls:

I think Dark Souls might collapse if it compromised. If there was an easy mode, people would play it and then ask those of us who’d been here all along, ‘what was all the fuss about?’ That’s what happened to me when I had to cheat my way through sections of The Witness. The joy of a solution lost, I couldn’t understand the appeal.

There are a couple of counterpoints. First of all, if the purpose of difficulty is to deliver a particular experience, then having an adjustable difficulty may actually make the game more effective in its goal. Even games that are intended to be very difficult aren’t intended to be so difficult that players can’t progress at all. And yet, that’s how difficult the game could end up being for certain players, particularly if they have some issues with motor control. By giving these players an easy mode, you are allowing these players to access the same experience (i.e. very difficult but not outright impossible). Similarly, games could offer a more difficult mode for particularly skilled players so they get the same experience too.

The second counterpoint is that maybe it’s okay if the experience is different. Difficulty isn’t the only appeal of Cuphead after all, there’s also the critically acclaimed animation. If people were able to access the animation without going through the difficult gameplay, the experience might be different, but it could still be enjoyable. In the age of video game streaming, this is demonstrably true. You can go watch a speedrun of Cuphead for yourself, accessing all that content without overcoming any of the challenge. In theory you could also find mods that make the game easier.1

On the other hand, perhaps the existence of streams and mods demonstrates that game designers do not need to include an easy mode. All they have to do is allow streams and mods. This will allow players who need an easy mode to access the content, albeit in an unconventional way.

One of the problems with an easy mode is that many people would play it, not just the players whose experience is improved by it. The players don’t know beforehand what difficulty setting is best for them. This is an example of game designers protecting players from themselves (video). When designers forego an easy mode, they are making a bet (ideally based on play-testing data) that if given the option, most players who choose an easy mode have less fun because of it.  Perhaps it is best that when players really would benefit from an easy mode, they have to look for streams or mods instead of finding it in the game.

So far I’ve just been summarizing some of the arguments among games critics, and now I have a few personal reactions.

I think I’m decent at video games, not great. But there’s one type of game I’m extremely good at: puzzles. I have a lot of experience with logic puzzles and recreational math, so that tends to have an impact. Funny thing, the quote above mentions The Witness which is reputedly a very difficult puzzle game, and not always celebrated for it. I found The Witness to be really easy. For a difficult puzzle game, I would recommend Stephen’s Sausage Roll or Snakebird.2

Difficult puzzle games are a bit different from difficult action games, because they’re harder to find, and less celebrated. Also most puzzles don’t really have adjustable difficulty, and designers would basically have to create entirely new puzzles. So I would say that accessibility problems in action games are a cakewalk compared to the ones in puzzle game.

In the article I linked to about Dark Souls, Kunzelman talks about how great the game is and how they wish it were more accessible to them. I feel like Kunzelman is speaking from a little bit of bias, as a games critic. They want to experience the game that everyone else is talking about, and it might even be professionally important to them. But for me, being unable to access the games that everyone else is talking about is absolutely the norm. It’s not a matter of difficulty, I just don’t have time to play all those games, and really I’d prefer if they were challenging puzzle games. Where’s the “puzzle mode” of Dark Souls?

Yeah, making an “easy mode” for Dark Souls is more feasible than making a “puzzle mode”. But I just don’t see universal accessibility of individual games as a priority. There is an alternative form of accessibility: instead of making individual games accessible to all, make many games accessible, and carefully tailored for, different people. Give up the idea that we all need to consume the same culture.

1. Although when I looked up easy mode mods for Dark Souls, all I found were a bunch of players saying “git gud”. Sheesh, aren’t people even curious about it as an experiment? (return)

2. I was sold on Snakebird by an amusing video of TotalBiscuit struggling for 8 minutes on the third level. This reminds me of a recent incident where a games journalist posted a video of himself being really bad at Cuphead, and a bunch of gamers–TotalBiscuit included–got mad at him for ridiculous reasons. (return)


  1. says

    Can’t have elitism without a sense of being elite.

    I’ve played Dark Souls, and felt it was absurdly punishing. If I want to do something hard, just for the sake of doing something hard, I’ll try something tangible like pattern-welding incompatible steel alloys. I guess that it boils down to how much that sense of accomplishment is worth? For some of us, a tangible product is important, for others not so.

    One winter I went through the whole Halo series on the hardest setting and didn’t leave a level until everything that opposed me was dead. It was hard work, but it was achievable enough that I felt some sense of accomplishment, without the component of futility.

    It seems to me that different player have different ideas for what constitutes an achievement. For some people, it’s overcoming something nearly impossible, and for others it’s doing a good job of something merely very difficult.

  2. corvus1005 says

    I loved Cuphead, definitely not as punishing as other games I love (e.g. Enter the Gungeon). It reloads very quickly after you die, and most levels are only 2-3 minutes long once you get used to them. I also found to have extremely fine-tuned and well-balanced game mechanics.

    If you’re not across it already, “Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy” is a brilliant game which is both ridiculously hard and in itself an exploration of modern video game, including the purpose of insane difficulty. I wouldn’t play it myself, but watching a playthrough with the narration audible is pretty fascinating.

  3. says

    I’ve noticed that difficult skill-based games tend to be popular for streaming. I heard about Cuphead and Getting Over It through streams. I’ve seen streams of Dark Souls too. I haven’t actually played any of these games.

    I’m not sure what that says about difficulty. I guess some of us like our games difficult but with someone else doing the hard part for us? Or maybe people watch these to see streamers struggle, or to get tips for playing better.

  4. Raucous Indignation says

    I agree with Marcus. If I wanted to do something frustratingly difficult, I’d go back to competitive rowing. The mechanics of a game have to have entertainment value for me. I don’t want a steep learning curve with no plateau. I already have three board certificate. I don’t want another in Dark Impossibleness.

  5. =8)-DX says

    I’m going through a second life with computer games with my kiddo. She recently said her favourite game is The Begginer’s Guide, which is about a game dev who creates minigames with intentionally impossible completion scenarios and “unreachable” content, created for the maverick dev’s personal enjoyment. The narrator purposefully “fixes” these games to make them “completable” while showing them to us, all the while imposing his own narratives on the “real meaning” of the different games and meaning we as players have no commentary-free access to the “originals”, or even no direct access to the code and level files (to search for the hidden/impossible content). It says a lot about the death of the author, that this game essentially removes or ignores “authorial” intent, only to show how damaging stereotypical assumptions and expectations of media can be to its enjoyment, all the while leading us by the hand to accept the “correct” interpretation.

    The enjoyable “superhard” games for me are ones where I have the time and/or skill to challenge myself in an entertaining way, create my own interpretations for the struggle.

    Good post, thx.

  6. Vivec says

    As a person who has played a shameful amount of all three Dark Souls games, I think a lot of the fluster about an easy mode comes from the game’s fanbase not wanting to admit that all 3 games would have a cumulative 5 hours of gameplay if they got rid of all the obtuse and fake-difficult elements.

    Most of the areas can be beaten in 5 minutes per area as it is, and could probably be beaten faster if they didn’t put in things like “narrow walkways surrounded by enemies that snipe you off of it.”

    If you took out the absurd difficulty, you’d have an empty, overpriced RPG with cool visuals that could be beat during the commercial breaks of your average netflix show.

    Combine that with a fanbase that bases their sense of accomplishment around how much they ruin the experience for others and worship a fetishized concept of “skill” based solely around precise mechanical inputs rather than thinking, and you end up with a very inaccessible and toxic franchise.

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