“Git Gud” – This is the expression often used by the gaming community both as a pejorative or – hopefully by the more sensible majority – as a lighthearted jest that acknowledges the term’s unnecessary jab. It’s used against those who innocently start Reddit threads with such titles as, “___ game too hard?” Or others who genuinely question the accessibility of a game’s design, only to be met with a barrage of vapid words from the self-proclaimed “true” gamers. Difficulty has always been a part of gaming since its inception. The games built for classic arcade machines in the early 80s were developed with the objective to take every quarter from a ten year old’s pockets. Early Nintendo games were notorious for their harsh difficulty as developers weren’t sure how to best transition their craft to the home console market; a market not based on slotting in circular pieces of currency. But as the decades went on and home consoles (and gaming PCs) became omnipresent, games got…easier. Or at least more accessible. Difficulty options, frequent save spots, standardized control schemes, and developers expanding their vocabulary in their design language in how they introduced (and reduced) challenge all led to games that felt more balanced. Though challenge was still very much a part of the community with speed-runners and no-hit challenges garnering a passionate audience, the days of soul punishing side-scrollers and impossible JRPG dungeons seemed to be relics of the past.
Then came a little game from Japan from a man by the name of Hidetaka Miyazaki. Dark Souls (or Demon Souls) may not have been the first crushingly difficult modern video game. It may not have been the first modern game to introduce its particular combat system or map design. But there’s no arguing that it was definitely the catalyst for the renaissance of difficult video games. So much so that its very name is used as an Orwellian-like adjective to describe other games of its ilk. We know what to expect when a critic describes a game as “Soulslike” (though it has been overused of late). It’s been quite a spectacle to witness this once obscure game franchise from Japan become so widely beloved. To the point where it’s quite literally become its very own genre. But with the advent of this outrageously popular genre came conversations about difficulty settings and accessibility. Developers have come a long way in making their games more accessible over the years. Everything from customizing button inputs, to changing text size, to tuning thumb-stick sensitivity. Naughty Dog has even gone the extra mile with The Last of Us Part II by adding in features we’d never seen in games like a High Contrast Mode, Text-To-Speech, and a slew of other great additions. You would think, then, with how the industry has evolved that the inclusion of difficulty options would be the first thing modern developers add to their games; but that hasn’t been the case for all, and FromSoftware isn’t the only offender here. Most first-party Nintendo titles never give players such options, either. The upcoming Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom will (likely) not have an “easy” option where a hit from a pesky Bokoblin will be a little more forgiving in the number of hearts it rips away. The argument made by avid fans of both Nintendo and especially FromSoftware fans is often a version of, “these games were designed with difficulty in mind, adding an easy option would be taking away the artist’s intent.”
To tell you the truth, this was a sentiment that I could understand, and for the longest time up until recently even agreed with. Mind you, I am not one of the aforementioned FromSoftware fans. However, in 2016 I played a game by the name of Bloodborne. “Played” is the operative word here. I did not finish Bloodborne, and nor do I plan to. I put the controller down after triumphantly defeating Father Gascoigne, the game’s second boss. It was an arduous affair. One filled with sweat, tears, and the screaming of many a profanity. I’d felt as though I had finished the game, succeeded in ridding Old Yharnam of the ashen blood—if that was even the purpose of the story. I removed the game from my PlayStation 4 dock and moved on to other adventures. Though Bloodborne would stick with me for years to come. It’d be a title that would frequently invade my mind during many sleepless nights as I’d putter around my living room thinking about life and, of course, video games. Remembering the captivating atmosphere, the mysterious lore, the sense of discovery when I found a new path, and of course, the difficulty. A difficulty that had caused me so much frustration, but also rewarded me with genuine feelings of elation after overcoming obstacles that I’d never thought I’d hurdle past. I felt as though I understood why the game needed to be as difficult as it was. Because even though I never finished the game, I loved my experience with it. And it made me think of all the other games that I found too difficult to complete, but still appreciated their brilliant design and mechanics nonetheless. Castlevania, Mega-Man, Celeste, Velocity 2X, and even some 2D Mario titles are a few great examples of games I adore, even though I couldn’t get through them. Would I have loved Bloodborne as much, or remember my experience as fondly if I’d played it on a hypothetical “easy” difficulty setting? I may not ever know the answer to that, but what I can do is tell you about a contrasting experience I had recently. An experience that has changed my perspective on the matter, and leads me to believe that not only would I still think that Bloodborne is a terrific video game, but one that I (possibly) would have enjoyed even more if a difficulty option were to be present.
A week ago I was rummaging – as one modern Xbox owner often does – through the Game Pass library. My first destination on the page was the, “Leaving Soon” tab where Microsoft reminds us what next batch of games they’ll be removing from the service by the end of each month. On the page, I saw a game that I’d been wanting to play for some time but never got around to – Unsighted. Created by a pair of LGBTQ developers from Brazil, Tian Pixel and Fernanda Dias, Studio Pixel Punk’s Unsighted tells a sci-fi action love story about a humanoid automaton named Alma. With critics calling it an isometric meld between Zelda and Metroid with a strong sci-fi aesthetic, I knew this game would be right up my alley. And so I downloaded it, hoping to quickly run through it before it went off the service. Once I’d taken control and began running as Alma through a crumbling futuristic downtown and came across my first batch of “unsighted,” I knew instantly that the game I was playing was indeed, a Soulslike. From enemies hitting hard – though not before flashing red for a split second allowing you to time the block button for a chance to parry – to the loss of currency each time you die, to a stamina meter; the memories of Bloodborne all came rushing back in a flash. I’d done well to avoid Soulslikes up until this point; not intentionally, but only because the aesthetics of every recent Soulslike (not including Sekiro and Elden Ring, both of which still remain in my backlog until I muster up the courage to start them) never grabbed me. And if I had played one, I either didn’t see them as such, or they were clearly forgettable experiences.
My first hours of the game proved, difficult—pun intended. I wasn’t expecting the game to test my reflexes as harshly as it did. I wasn’t expecting to retread so much ground each time I died. I wasn’t expecting to curse at my screen every time the stamina meter ran out and my Alma failed to attack. It was an experience I knew well enough, but I simply wasn’t in the mindset to endure. To put it plainly: I wasn’t having fun. It was an upsetting feeling, to be honest, because I wanted to play this game so much, to see where its story went, and to explore more of its world. And just as I was about ready to throw in the towel, I hovered over to the game’s settings where an option piqued my interest. “Turn on Explorer mode” was what the setting read. Though I had a vague idea of what turning on such a setting would entail, I’d be lying if I said that the gamer pride in me didn’t kick in for a second; though only for me to swallow it swiftly and toggle the setting on. Once activated, Studio Pixel Punk took the extra step to further customize the player’s experience. From turning off the “character timers,” which is a mechanic that’s tied to the narrative, to turning on “increased stamina” and “forgiving combat,” the latter of which decreases the number of health points enemies will siphon away with each hit. None of these toggles affected the core gameplay. The AI were still aggressive in their attacks, the loss of credits was still a part of every death, and the puzzles and metroidvania-style map design still remained intact. The only difference was that I was simply given some wiggle room for error and a little more space to breathe. What could have been a game that I gave up on prematurely in frustration, turned into an experience that I now consider worthy of calling one of the best I’ve had in 2022, and whose developers I will ensure to follow the future works of.
You see, Unsighted – and for that matter Bloodborne and every other game whose difficulty is brought to contention – is more than just its difficulty. Its art style is endearing, its map is well designed and interconnected, its combat is satisfying, its upgrade system and customizable RPG mechanics are a joy to tinker with, and its story is well told with memorable characters. I came to realize that, yes, though my memories with Bloodborne circulate around the feeling of accomplishment after besting its first two bosses, I also adored so much else about it. The Lovecraftian aesthetic within a Victorian-era-inspired setting was tantalizing. The winding map of Yharnam, never knowing where a path may lead or what enemy hides in the shadows, was enthralling. Every inch of the game was filled to the brim with detail, mystery, and lore; with a haunting soundtrack perfectly accentuating the atmospheric landscapes. Not to mention the combat itself was, in my opinion, nothing short of perfect.
All of this may sound obvious, and even as I write I frankly wonder why it was Unsighted of all games that made me question my previous opinion. Because it was only a couple of years ago that I played developer Supergiant’s current magnum opus, Hades, which circumvented its own crushing difficulty ingeniously. By toggling on God Mode in the game, a player is given an additional 20% damage reduction buff, with an additional 2% added with each consecutive death. This not only gave players a visible incentive to persevere but also played perfectly with the narrative themes of the game itself. If that setting didn’t exist, I may not have been able to defeat the game’s first boss, I may not have had another quippy conversation with one of the many charming and well-written gods, or explore the wondrous Elysium. Once again, God Mode didn’t take away the challenge of the game, it simply allowed me a slight margin for error, and gave me comfort in knowing that if I were to die, my next run would be at least a slither easier. Video games are more than just one thing. They are the products of many artists coming together to deliver a cohesive experience. Artists, musicians, designers, writers, actors, and so many more play a part in creating a unified piece of work. And the experience of playing said work is different for each person. So, though deliberately creating a difficult game may be a design choice by its creators, it doesn’t mean that simply providing an option(s) to customize one’s play style lessens the experience for those unable (or unwilling) to persevere through an otherwise unapproachable game. The only thing it does is allow more people to play video games, and that’s never a bad thing.