Bioshock Infinite is taking me forever and a day to get through because, as an achievement whore, I’ve put the game’s difficulty on 1999 Mode. While Patriots are the bane of my existence, I can’t really complain as it’s something I’ve invited upon myself and if it were really such a big deal then I’d have started over long ago on an easier setting (1999 Mode doesn’t allow you to change difficulty mid-game). In between frustrated pouts at having lost to a Handyman yet again, the experience has caused me to reflect on the difficulty gamer culture has with difficulty settings, specifically easy modes.
Even though the first Bioshock was adored by virtually everyone, there was a contingent that felt it necessary to whinge about the VitaChambers which would resurrect the player consequence-free if s/he died. The complaints weren’t that if the VitaChambers worked as advertised then then splicers and Big Daddies should spawn endlessly, but rather that they made the game too easy, even though the things could be turned off by players seeking a greater challenge. Then a couple of years later Nintendo filed a patent for games that would play themselves if the player got stuck, bored, or frustrated. A large swath of gamers shat frisbees over this, not because it was yet another broad patent that would potentially stifle creativity and squash innovation, but because it made games too easy.
This attitude has perplexed me for quite some time; the difficult modes remain intact for those that want them, so why all hue and cry over super-easy modes for less-skilled or less-patient players? I think explanations can be found in two places: comic books and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
I know marginally more than diddly squat about mainstream comics. I have my handful of web series that I read (psst! go check out Girl Genius and PS238!), but the ubiquitous Marvel and DC universes are foreign enough to me that I actually kind of enjoyed the Green Lantern film. I do have enough familiarity with the X-Men and Spiderman cartoons from the 90s to justifiably despise X3 and Spiderman 3, but even as a little kid I could never get into the actual comic books. The stories were impenetrably dense, requiring years of backstory that are only equaled by long-running soap operas, and I could never quite deal with the fact that often times The Uncanny X-Men #32 would continue in The Incredible Hulk #21, which in turn was continuing a story from The Avengers #563. It felt like I needed a flow chart just to figure out where to begin. To those willing to make the effort, though, comics have provided them with no end of engaging stories that have made the work all worthwhile…until DC resets the entire universe from scratch. This pissed off legions of fans who felt like they’d just had their entire investment of time and money and loyalty thrown out the window just to appease a new market and chase the almighty dollar. This is the parallel to video games: investment.
Those who have been playing long enough are intimately familiar with the phrase “Nintendo-hard.” Go back and play the original Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden. They make Infinite’s 1999 Mode seem like a moderate annoyance. Play Mega Man 2 and see if the insta-death beams at the end of Quick Man’s stage don’t result in controller-smashing frustration. The 16-bit era only softened the edges a little bit; I still can’t get far in any of the Sonic games and it was a looooong time before I developed the requisite skills to beat Super Metroid. I and many gamers like me persevered through headaches and blistered thumbs and palms, spending dollars and hours in refining the skills needed for our hobby. And now the industry is making it so that anyone can play through their games without spending days on end mastering twitch reflexes and fluency in adventure game logic.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame comparison is a little more abstract, but I’ll try to make a case that isn’t too labored. Early in the book the outcast poet Pierre Gringoire stumbles across the Court of Miracles, the secret domain of thieves. Even as criminals they remain proud of who they are and exclusive as to whom they allow to join their ranks. To join them, and avoid being hanged for discovering them, Gringoire is required to pick the pocket of a bell-bedecked dummy while standing tiptoe on one foot and balancing on a wobbly stool. When he fails (SPOILERS!), he is to be executed until the gypsy Esmerelda steps forward and consents to marry him, giving him an in to the thieves’ society. So to recap: societal outcasts form their own culture and establish a high barrier to entry until someone comes along with an easier path.
Going back in time again, many gamers can remember being treated as an outcast to some degree for their hobby, particularly anyone over the age of 15 who owned a console and god help the 25-year-old man who owned a Sega Genesis. Incomprehensible to those unfamiliar and nigh impenetrable to any who were interested in joining, gamers enjoyed a culture of their own with their own standards to meet before you could join in. Now, an Esmerelda is approaching in the form of easy modes and auto-play, allowing a simpler path into the once-selective gaming culture.
So game companies are dismissing the hard work of the dedicated gamer of years gone by and instead are ushering in an era where anyone can jump in; what’s the hardcore gamer who doesn’t like this turn of events to do? Well, deal with it cuz it’s not going anywhere. Easier games mean a lower barrier to entry, which means more people will play, which means more people will buy, which means increased revenue, and revenue is the bottom line for any company. Your indignation will simply not compare to an expanded market. You can still have the high-twitch factor you crave since they’re added options, not replacements, and a less skilled gamer can still get the full enjoyment the game has to offer.
But gamers should also embrace it. Personally, I love being able to discuss games with friends about a shared experience, much in the same way I enjoy talking about movies or news events, and video games have some truly wonderful stories to tell and moments to experience. Making those stories and moments more accessible is a good thing and it gives others a chance to understand what we’ve been raving about for all these years. They’ll start playing on their own, enjoying the games you have, and slowly building up their own skill as fast or as slow as they want. And then, on one unassuming day, your mom logs in and whups your ass in Team Fortress 3, and that is an experience worth looking forward to.