Difficulty in video games is a tricky thing. While developers want players to enjoy playing their game, they also want to provide a challenge. Finding the sweet spot between “too accessible the game basically plays itself” and “so maddeningly frustrating you’ll need a few backup controllers” can actually be tougher than it seems. Most video games offer a choice of difficulties from Easy to Impossible (or some other foreboding title) so that players of varying skill calibers will be able to face the challenge they want. Sometimes increasing the difficulty can have the simple effect of increasing the health and damage of all enemies, and sometimes it can actually change the game quite drastically. When higher difficulty settings are done best, these changes force players to engage with the game in new ways. Listed below are three examples where increasing the difficulty not only challenges the player but rewards them for having a fully developed understanding of the game’s core mechanics.
Undertaking a journey through the Fire Emblem series on any difficulty is not for the faint of heart. While the series is most notorious for its “permadeath” mechanic, which makes any character who dies on a stage unusable for the rest of the game, the games also feature varying difficulty levels. These range from Casual, which removes the permadeath feature completely, to Lunatic, a setting in which all enemies have better abilities and character statistics. Having a chance against these beefier enemies means engaging with the game’s Support system, a mechanic where certain characters receive stat increases for frequently fighting alongside each other. Planning out the unit composition of your army is also a must as having a varied fighting force will enable you to counter the enemy much more effectively, thus making up for the initial stat deficiency.
The most significant change when moving up to Lunatic difficulty, however, is the smarter artificial intelligence. On lower difficulties, your opponent’s strategies and actions tend to be quite predictable. It’s very easy to bait enemies into attacking a powerful unit simply by placing them within range of attack and waiting. More often than not in Fire Emblem the defensive position is the favorable one so triggering enemies to move out of position and into the open is a simple way to move securely through the battlefield. On Lunatic, however, the AI won’t take the bait as easy. Not only is it harder to draw your opponent out, they’re also far more likely to make use of the game’s systems you’re also taking advantage of such as pair-attacking units, retreating out of range from your attacks, using healing items, and taking advantage of your characters’ weaknesses. Not only that, they are much more aggressive, taking even slight openings to deal massive, often unexpected damage to exposed units. Since the enemy is much harder to predict and much faster to attack, you’re forced to adapt on the fly, making the game feel much more like a battle of strategy than the slow picking off of bandits who are too stupid not to attack a walking tank with a massive sword.
Rock Band/Guitar Hero
The six years from 2005 to 2011 was the era of the music-rhythm game. The centerpiece of many get-togethers, Rock Band and Guitar Hero brought people together around rock music, friendly cooperation, and living out everyone’s deep desire of being a rock star. We didn’t start out as the plastic-guitar reincarnation of Jimmy Page, however. Most of us had to climb the ladder, starting from Easy and working our way up to the coveted, sometimes maddening, Expert level.
The key difference in the first three difficulty levels is the adding of an extra button each time. On Easy the songs are comprised of just three notes (red, green, and yellow) corresponding to the relatively muscular pointer, middle, and ring finger. Moving on to Medium forces players to bring their more awkward pinky finger into the mix with the addition of a fourth blue note. Hard adds the final fifth orange note, requiring players to actually shift their hand up and down the guitar peripheral’s neck, something most of us probably spent hours in training mode practicing. While mastery of each new difficulty increase feels significant, the jump to Expert is the most rewarding. It doesn’t add any new hurdles in the form of extra buttons, however, the fact that Expert difficulty finally has note patterns that are faithful to the song makes the experience feel so much more real. Even on Hard, it’s obvious that there are strumming patterns and lines of notes left out from the game chart. Playing guitar in Rock Band and Guitar Hero is an empowering experience on any difficulty, but the feeling of stringing together the wild hammer-ons in Free Bird or pulling through the visceral strumming of Tangled Up in Blue is unlike anything that came before because of the time and effort it took to get there. Once you finally make it past Through the Fire and the Flames you know you’re the centerpiece of the party and the equal to any of the Rock Gods of old.
Breath of the Wild
Let’s make one thing clear: Master Mode in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is hard. Really hard. Not only do the enemies have more health and deal increased damage, but they are also capable of regenerating damage dealt to them. It’s jarring to experience the first minutes of the game as a helpless adventurer waving fragile sticks at enemies armed with clubs and spears after attaining almost godlike power in Normal Mode. You have to play the game with much greater intentionality, paying attention to all the fine details like how you can use terrain to your advantage or deciding whether fighting a battle will be worth the resources expended.
This intentionality makes players really engage with the game’s systems, especially cooking and brewing elixirs. I didn’t spend much time on these during my first playthrough of the game because I didn’t feel like I needed to. Sure I could have taken down a lynel much easier had I cooked up an attack-boosting meal, but the effort involved in finding a camp and spending the time to cook up stores of preserved meals never really appealed to me. I just wanted to run through the world, have fun, and not worry about temporarily boosting my stats. In Master Mode, however, I have become a master chef, making sure I’m always stocked with damage, defense, stamina, and speed boosting recipes, status potions that will keep me warm or cold depending on the environment, and the invaluable stealth elixirs that I never even bothered touching in Normal Mode. Playing Breath of the Wild on Master Mode has forced me to learn more about a game that I spent over one hundred hours with on a first playthrough. I’ve attained enough power to not feel intimidated by most enemies (lynels will haunt my dreams forever) not because I gained power in the game, but because I have a deeper knowledge about how to manipulate the game world to my advantage.
Know of any games that change or become new experiences on higher difficulty settings? Tell us about them in the comments!