Quick thoughts on game difficulty, easy modes, and Cuphead

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Cuphead

I was interested in Cuphead when I first came across it on the internet, primarily because the cartoon artstyle was really appealing to me. When the game came out and I heard it was pretty tough I considered that a nice extra, but it seems the game was so difficult that it inspired internet outrage. Once again the gaming community is divided between those insisting Cuphead should have an easy mode and those that are convinced it should not. Are those in the former camp a bunch of wusses that should go back to their easy games or are the people in the latter just elitists?

The camp promoting easy modes has a solid argument: you bought the game and that entitles you to experiencing it. After all, you can buy a movie, a book, or a painting, and regardless of your ability to appreciate them, you can always enjoy them fully. Imagine if a movie paused to give you a quiz about its story and if you failed to answer it correctly each time, it would replay a segment of the movie or start it all over again until you pass. That is video games in a nutshell, they create challenges for you and in a lot of cases you aren’t permitted to proceed until you have overcome them. 

DMC

Now it’s easy to see how that would seem unfair to people, especially those that bought the game at full price and now find themselves unable to make progress. You might appreciate a game’s presentation or enjoy the story, only to struggle or dislike the gameplay, that is a very real possibility. Except comparing games to a film or book is a flawed argument, as games are interesting because of their interactive nature. Denying that a game’s difficulty contributes to the experience is denying that game design has artistic value. A similar argument would be saying that camera angles aren’t important to the quality of a movie or that a writer’s vocabulary doesn’t affect the joy of reading their story.

When playing a game, I generally believe the developer went out of their way to tune the challenge to what they felt was suitable for the experience they were trying to create. Even when difficulty modes are present, each one is attuned to a level of play, and there is a reason for that. Dark Souls is often brought up here and it’s easy to see why, the world and scale of Dark Souls is appealing to many, yet the often brutal difficulty is certainly not. I remember giving up and dropping the game three times before finally completing a playthrough. While it doesn’t help that the Souls community loves to taunt struggling players, the harshness of the games is undeniably a part of its appeal. When you step into the final boss room and hear that beautiful melody kick in it’s a moment of reflection, it puts all the trials you have gone through into perspective and everything comes to conclusion through this one, last battle. The gravity and beauty of that fight would have been lost if there was an easy mode.

Dark Souls Iron Golem.jpg

Some games are well suited to difficulty modes and are comfortable with letting players decide how tough they want it to be. I certainly know I felt a lot more intimidated by the villain of Uncharted 2 than any other bad guy in the series, partly because I was playing the second game on hard, whereas in the others I went with normal. For other games it’s not an option, be it because an artistic director wanted to convey emotions through the challenge they put you through or just because the developers agreed this was the ideal level of difficulty for the game they made. Demanding they compromise on that because people can’t appreciate the game for that is demanding the the writer rewrites his book using simpler language.

I don’t mean to be exclusionary, but we live in a time where more games are coming out than anybody can possibly play and it seems strange to me to demand every single one of them offers easy modes, the ability to skip bosses, or the option to pick chapters of the game to play. In that massive pile of games that come out every week there is bound to be some that appeal to you and offer a level of challenge you are comfortable with. Even if you have specific reasons for wanting to experience a game like Cuphead, if the difficulty really is getting you down you could watch Let’s Plays online to see what the game has to offer. That’s what I did when I came to the devastating conclusion that I am absolutely terrible at Resident Evil, but happen to really like Resident Evil.

Don’t hesistate to leave a comment if you agree or disagree, because I feel this is definitely a debate worth having. For extra reading, I’d like to point out an older article where we debate alternative means of controlling a game’s difficulty.

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