Difficulty Settings

on Thursday, August 15, 2013
It would be very peculiar indeed if a critic were to publish an academic essay on an abridged version of Gravity's Rainbow or a version of Eraserhead with explanatory voice-over added. Not only would this hypothetical critic's experience be far different from that of countless other readers or viewers and thus not generally applicable, but he or she would be writing of a totally different work of art with an additional author other than Pynchon or Lynch. Let's eliminate this complication and assume that Pynchon himself abridged the novel and Lynch, in his odd drawl, added the narration to Eraserhead, both artists doing so to aid the less experienced audiences in understanding the work (perhaps because their distributor insisted on such a version). We would still have a problem with these secondary works and their use in the critical discourse on the primary works. Part of this problem is just the aforementioned issue of disparate experiences, but there is a second issue related to the artists' decisions when creating the works. At least one of the two different (hypothetical) versions of each of these works must not be the maximally effective version for conveying the artist's themes. We tend to recognize this immediately with abridged versions of novels, because large swaths of content and style, which the author clearly intended to be a contributing factor to the interpretation of the novel, are missing. We could argue that something similar happens with the voice-over example, but in this case it is an issue of excess: every part of the work is not contributing maximally to the thematic content, and some pieces may now even be subverting or distracting from it.

Gravity's Rainbow and Eraserhead are, of course, quite difficult texts. They are not suitable for all readers and viewers because it takes a certain familiarity with the grammars of their respective mediums to make meaningful sense of them. As such, they are inaccessible to most of the populace. Few people take issue with this fact, though.  We accept that certain artistic achievements require some amount of training to apprehend. We work up to them, and we train our children with simpler works. At times we may use abridgement or adulterated videos as teaching aids, but we do not view these teaching aids as an end in themselves. We accept that an artists work, with each element chosen to be maximally effective in service of its themes, may naturally present a certain amount of difficulty, which may be large or small, to its audience.

Why, then, do we insist on multiple versions - that is, multiple difficulty settings - of each video game?

My comparison of video game difficulty to literature and film is certainly a highly flawed one. I am comparing apples to oranges in that video games alone offer relatively simple routes for the author to implement variable difficulty within the primary work. Further, difficulty is rarely used as a direct mechanic in any medium other than games; in other media, it is usually simply a by-product of a particular stylistic technique. This is a very significant difference because it suggests the possibility of variable difficulty being a device that can carry thematic meaning in and of itself. But my comparison to literature and film still has some suggestive relevance to video games because the majority of games, especially narrative-driven games, are not using variable difficulty as a direct mechanic, but, rather, include menu-based difficulty settings to maximize the appeal of the game to a variety of audiences. This use of difficulty settings implies that game designers are not typically using in-game difficulty with thematic purpose, but instead, they are injecting it for some tangential purpose, such as consumer demands or mere tradition.

In April and May of 1842, Edgar Allan Poe published a pair of reviews in Graham's Magazine of Nathanial Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales. These reviews would go on to become quite well-known and influential pieces of literary criticism owing to their careful delineation of the significance of the short story. Poe celebrates the short "tale" as a genre, particularly because of its ability to sustain a "unity of effect" owing to its total consumption by the reader within a single sitting.  He notes that such a unity of effect requires of the author that "there should be no word written" which does not contribute to the "pre-established design." Most video games, of course, are not consumed in a single sitting and thus do not sustain a single unity of effect quite as Poe imagined for the short tale (though Poe might well have been impressed by our ability to serialize such effects as we do with modern TV and games). Nonetheless, his concept of the unity of effect is an instructive one.

At every point in the creation process of a work of media, the artist is making a representational choice with every piece that goes into the work. Likewise, the audience is making an interpretive choice at every moment in the experience of that piece. Each aspect of a work of art is a tool for creating meaning in some way, and something like Poe's unity of effect is achieved when all of these pieces are used together effectively in service of theme. If a game designer abdicates responsibility for feelings of frustration or achievement and tense focus or casual relaxation, then the designer is abandoning a portion of the thematic control the medium offers. No longer does the designer have any information about the emotional state of the audience at any given moment, and thematic meaning through game mechanics may be lost. There is no unity of effect, for at any point various aspects of the game may be working against each other emotionally. For these reasons, I suggest that it is not enough to simply take user-controlled difficulty settings as a given necessity and merely discuss various attitude toward them (as people have done, for example, here, here, and here). Instead, designers and critics must address this problem more fundamentally. They must ask what difficulty means in a given game, and seek to wield it as a tool for creating meaning. At times, this may mean removing control over such aspects from the audience.

I imagine that many players and designers would view the sacrifice of such user control as something that approaches sacrilege. To anticipate some of the objections, I note that I am not advocating a wholesale abandonment of variable difficulty - I am advocating its careful application with artistic purpose over haphazard adherence to convention, which at times, especially in some narrative-driven games, may mean abandoning difficulty settings. Perhaps it is no accident that many of the most artistically acclaimed games, such as Braid or Ico, lack the community-mandated difficulty options menu. Others might object to a lack of user-controlled difficulty settings from a more practical angle: customers expect them, so their removal might be a financial mistake. I suspect that this objection rests on faulty assumptions, because I doubt that any reliable statistics exist regarding how this would affect sales. Still, if it is an issue, it could be easily mitigated. In Valve's multiplayer shooter, Team Fortress 2, the default settings cause a warning to pop up if a player tries to join a server with more than 24 players. The message warns that the game has been designed for 24 or fewer players, and may not create the same experience with more than that. Because it is relatively simple to implement features like reduced or increased difficulty, designers could accompany alternate settings with a similar warning.

The demand for players to have endless control over their in-game experience in all cases, such as with difficulty settings, is a symptom of how much of the populace views video games. In demanding such features without regard for thematic meaning, we are treating games as consumer products rather than artistic media. Surely some aspects of consumer demand inform all media, but I would prefer that we treat games more like we treat film and literature and less like we treat microwave ovens and lawn mowers. If we are to move in this direction, we must view every game design decision in terms of its artistic meaning and its effect on the player. Re-evaluating how and when we utilize variable difficulty may be an important part of such a refinement.

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