When difficulty and skill become a concern in gaming.
I’m by no means a “pro gamer”, though I don’t think that anybody outside of eSports is one either. Unless you’re being paid to play video games competitively, you aren’t a pro gamer, you’re just a gamer. Maybe you’re more skilled than most though, so that’s something I suppose.
But the question that’s been circling around the internet is how good should you be to enjoy the wonderful hobby of gaming? Should gaming companies be catering to audiences that aren’t as good? Should all games cater to everyone? How good do you need to be to have an opinion about games?
Well, that’s where things get a little complicated.
Many games feature lower difficulty modes, whether they’re the traditional easy modes, narrative-focused difficulty levels like ones in Horizon: Zero Dawn or Mass Effect 3, or even player aids that help mitigate challenges that less able players might experience, such as in games like New Super Mario Bros. Wii U or Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
There’s nothing wrong with preferring a challenge. Many of the folks’ sites I read in my WordPress feed are people that love a good challenge. They’re the types that play games like The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt on Death March, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on Legendary, or Demon Souls.
There are some folks out there though, like myself, who play somewhere in the middle. I played most games on their version of Normal difficulty, though I play games like Forza Motorsport 6 or Forza Horizon 3 with no driving assists, and on Pro (though I leave Rewind on). I like my Tom Clancy games on Realistic as well. I want to experience a challenge, but not getting pounded into dust every time I turn a corner. To me, it isn’t fun dying constantly.
But where does that put me? Should I be playing on harder difficulties if I want to be taken seriously? Do I deserve a game streaming following on Twitch, YouTube, or Mixer if I’m not crushing a game on its highest settings or I’m just not very good at it?
That last question is something that I’ve struggled with for some time. I’ve worried that streaming games like The Long Dark, Forza Horizon 3, or Alien: Isolation would leave me open for ridicule. I worry that I’m not gaming correctly, especially if I want to be taken seriously as a game critic.
All that has come to a head recently when Dean Takahashi, a contributor for VentureBeat, played Cuphead at Gamescom and had some trouble with it. He had some trouble with his time playing the upcoming platformer, and paid dearly for it in a way. His credibility as a journalist was called into question because he apparently didn’t possess the skills needed to be a good games critic; those skills centering around being awesome at playing all games. Polygon regularly takes flak for being relatively inept for instance.
It brings me back around to a conversation that I had with Kim from Later Levels. There’s a pressure to put forth a good impression, that streamers should be good at games if they want to be considered as entertaining. I know that my own self-doubts make me call into question whether or not I should be streaming or making videos, or even just writing reviews about games. I even find myself struggling with what I guess is called Imposter Syndrome when doing things that I know I’m actually quite adept at.
Things like the Cuphead “debacle” make me second-guess myself. If a professional games critic gets crucified over having trouble with a game, then what chance do I have?
Jen: In ReCore, you can’t choose a difficulty level. The game’s difficulty is based on how much time you spend upgrading Joule and her corebots.
Because of this, the times that you spend in dungeons, doing the platforming stuff, wasn’t very fun to me. I’m a hoarder at heart (thanks for that, Shelby), so missing anything felt like I was doing something wrong. The issue I had with ReCore came to a head at the end of the game, where the dungeon stuff became the entire game. For five levels, that increased in difficulty at each step. I got to level three, I think, before I completely quit. Not that I don’t think I can get through the fifth level, but because I don’t want to spend that kind of time doing something so tedious for five levels.
I really enjoyed ReCore, but I’m not really interested in going back to it right now. I don’t have the patience or time to deal with dying constantly. Not when I have other things going on.
I have similar issues when it comes to other games as well. I love Horizon: Zero Dawn for instance, but I do have trouble sometimes with the combat. It’s not that it’s inherently difficult, just that the fights can become rather overwhelming sometimes. The fact that the developer added a low difficulty mode to let me get through the game to enjoy the story means the world to me. I might actually get around to playing it again, once I have my fill of Destiny 2 and The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt‘s DLC.
Having an incentive to play on a higher difficulty makes a big difference, I think. Games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Halo 3 give you something special for playing on harder difficulties, like helping you level up quicker or rewarding you with special cutscenes. Other games just feel like their only reward is the satisfaction of playing them on harder levels.
Overall, I play games to have fun. I like the stories and the characters. If harder difficulties don’t add anything to it, I’m not really interested.
Where Does Fun End?
This is the sticking point for me, as both a gaming enthusiast and budding critic. I value how fun a game is, and that part of the equation is what really matters.
Isn’t a game being fun the main point? Sure, as I’ve said earlier, games can be both challenging and fun, as titles like Bloodborne and Dark Souls illustrate quite well. They’ve garnered a cult following that worships challenge over all else, giving birth to the “Git Gud” meme. But what of games that don’t revolve around trying to punish the player with odds stacked against them?
Looking back on Dean Takahashi’s ordeal, I feel it was blown massively out of proportion. He made a video of him failing miserably in a genre of game that he’s wholly unfamiliar with and suffered the wrath of a community that didn’t see it for what it was: a video of him poking fun at himself. His self-deprecating humor is something that I can appreciate in a critic. He acknowledged that he isn’t the best gamer out there, and seemed to own it. I can really identify with that, and to see his approach getting so much negative attention is pretty disheartening to me.
I feel that gamers have created an environment that looks down on players that don’t conquer content at it’s penultimate challenge levels. I’m still fuzzy on the details regarding why that matters to people. It doesn’t detract from your experience to hear that someone else can beat the game you’re playing on Easy. There’s no level of difficulty that is the only way to play a game after all, but it seems that some believe that unless you’re playing on the hardest difficulty, you aren’t really experiencing the game.
The same goes for skill levels as well. As I’ve said, I’m by no means an expert, but I don’t think that disqualifies me from talking about games. My stance is that the main reason to play games is to enjoy them. If you derive enjoyment from playing games on the hardest levels or having flawless playthroughs, that’s fine. However, the grand majority of people out there aren’t pros, they’re normal folks.
Personally, I find it a little boring to see people playing a game perfectly, because I know that’s not how it really works. You often don’t see people struggling with things on YouTube because they’ve either cut that content out or they’ve practiced to get a feel for it. Additionally, nobody is an expert at every game. I’d be disinclined to believe that they just picked up a controller for the first time and just knew what to do.
I prefer a little honesty in the folks that I watch, and that’s why I want to keep doing what I’m doing with streaming and videos. I know that leaves me open for the chance of someone ridiculing me for not being an MLG level gamer, but hey… Those MLG gamers had to start somewhere, right?
Long story short, if you think that folks who aren’t as good as you at something shouldn’t be trying, you’re doing it wrong. Your attitude isn’t welcome, and nobody likes you.
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