Difficulty & Challenges in games
One of the first challenges that games, and specifically FromSoftware games, use is the way in which the narrative is delivered, as well as in what order you experience it. Much of the narrative experience is traditionally delivered through environmental storytelling. The story can be discovered by reading descriptions, and ‘reading’ how the environment looks; this character’s armour looks the same as the armour seller in the town, perhaps they are related and perhaps this one met his end from something I should be wary of – you thus uncovered a subtle narrative.
Sekiro is more straightforward with its narrative, but the player can still experience it in a non-linear way if they so choose. The narrative thus influences the gameplay and choices a player can make, there is no set path to follow. The first challenge a player has then is making the difficult decision of which path to follow, they are required to think tactically, considering the choices they have and the experiences they have had thus far. If one path is too difficult initially, then perhaps choosing a different one has a more realistic challenge at this point in time.
The option of making decisions in this way is generally what difficulty should be about within any game (-like) experience. Every game has its own learning curve, you as the player or participant need to learn the rules of the world you have entered. And much like the real world, that those games try to emulate, these rules are learned and understood through persistence and perseverance. Though I do want to add that learning the rules of a game is not the same as learning mechanics, the fact that the basic WASD keys are used for movement is a given in most games, choosing a different key set then falls into the punishing a player category, not challenging them.
Difficulty therefore in a game, if it is either down to a learned skill or comprehension, is there to ‘teach’ players about the game, to persevere through the challenge to gain this knowledge. If the experience wasn’t challenging then the outcome of overcoming it would ultimately have no meaning. As J.P. Gee has stated: “The experience brought home to me, forcefully, that learning should be both frustrating and life-enhancing, what I will later call “pleasantly frustrating”. The key is finding ways to make hard things life-enhancing so that people keep going and don’t fall back on learning only what is simple and easy.” (Gee, J. P., What Video Games have to teach us about Learning and Literacy 2007)
Additionally, if there is a level of difficulty it also teaches players to have patience and to practice forethought before entering a situation. I will admit that these are things that I lack at times, and it is certainly something that society as a whole appears to lack in today’s age…
Different modes of difficulty
Offering different modes of difficulty is a difficult discussion to have, and some of the discussions around Sekrio’s difficulty seem to be missing the mark or are inconsistent. Some seem to be about the ability of the participant as a whole versus an inability to grasp certain rules within the game’s semiotic domain.
Altering a game’s difficulty should be possible, but perhaps there should be a consequence to it. An example of this can be found in group games, such as Escape Rooms, where if the participants want it to be easier, they have the option of requesting a Hint (sometimes). The consequence of the Hint though is that they now have less time to complete the activity.
Some do argue that if there is such an option of lowering the difficulty momentarily, then that would be too great a temptation to use it anyway, thus ruining the experience. If that is your belief then I would say that this is a good time for some self-reflection around what you are expecting to gain from the experience, it’s an inherent difficulty, and what your self-control is around apparently avoidable temptations.
In relation to other articles that I’ve written around difficulty, challenges, failure and consequences in game (-like) experiences, is that each of these exists to teach us something about ourselves and the world, while in a safe space (whether we realize those teachings immediately or not). The intrinsic motivation of a difficult challenge is achieving something for/of personal value.
If that experience, however, is gated in some-way then we are unfortunately unable to receive those learnings. Perhaps, in that case, we should reconsider what the value of the experience really is, and what the reasoning behind it is. For difficult games like Sekiro, the experience may be gated at times, but the game follows the same consistent rules throughout the game. If you are able to beat one aspect of it, then there is the possibility for you to learn and improve to overcome the rest of it.