A single game’s difficulty settings can range from walk-in-the-park to absolute absurdity, but is sacrificing challenge for expediency worth it? What difficulty is “just right?”

Happy New Year, Intelligamers! With new resolutions in tow and optimism a-brimmin’, I hope you’re looking forward to 2016; may it bring new hopes, fulfilled dreams, and plenty of thought-provoking games. 🙂

Remember the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Goldilocks breaks into the bears’ house and breaks their furniture, eats their food, and then passes out in one of their beds (which I’ve now realized is atrocious behavior for a children’s story). She’s constantly searching for the “just right” items: porridge can’t be too hot or too cold, chairs can’t be too big or too small, beds can’t be too soft or too hard. So let’s pretend that the Bears’ house had a PS4 in it and Goldilocks simply couldn’t resist starting a new game on the action-RPG in the console: what difficulty would she play on?

The Witcher 3 - White Wallpaper

I’ve started out my 2016 with a game many outlets regarded as their 2015 Game of the Year: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Players take on the role of Geralt of Rivia, a sword-for-hire who fights man and beast with a combination of swordplay, magic, and alchemy. It’s a bloody, vicious game with some of the best quest composition I’ve ever taken on; the world feels connected, the characters feel whole, and the side quests feed into the understanding of the overall plot instead of being tacked on to the side to give players a chance to grind out experience. What’s really latched me into the game, though, is the sense of accomplishment I feel after defeating bosses.

The Witcher 3’s first main quest boss is a griffin, a hulking beast, half-eagle, half-wildcat (not sure how that happened…probably don’t want to know). After getting Geralt to the quest’s recommended character level, I set the trap for the monster and waited…when it arrived, it promptly trounced me. It dove from the sky and bowled me over, taking away a quarter of my life and stunning me. It landed in the open farm ground and lashed at me with razor-sharp talons, knocking out another quarter of my life. Then it charged at me…through me, really, knocking out the rest of my life. Game over.

So I tried it again. And then again. And then once more. And then another time. Each of the attempts I’d barely gotten through a third of its health bar before it routed me.

At least, that’s what happened when I played the game on Blood and Broken Bones, the game’s “Hard” difficulty.

After getting my clock cleaned a few times, rife with frustration and disappointment, I turned the difficulty down to Normal. With a few swings of my silver sword, the enemy fled to a nearby farm. A few more swings, and I had my trophy. I wasn’t really happy with it.

The Witcher 3 - Griffin

Decreasing the game’s difficulty made it easier for me to progress through the game’s story at the cost of feeling the mastery of its core system. The Witcher 3 is hard because it demands precision both inside and outside of combat: preparing for a big fight is just as important as the fight itself. After defeating the griffin on Normal difficulty, I reloaded my Hard save from right before the fight and started thinking about how else I could stack the odds in my favor. I traveled to a distant outpost and enhanced both my weapons and my armor. I read the Bestiary entry, really read it instead of skimming it, to see if I could learn about its tactics. I sold some herbs I’d gathered and bought the materials for a special bomb that dealt bonus damage to the griffin, a tactic not directly recommended by the game yet.

This time, when I got into combat, I waited for the griffin to come at me and leave a hole in its defenses instead of being overly aggressive. I used the crossbow I’d just been given to shoot the bird out of the sky before it dove at me on attack runs. And I used plenty of potions, enough that I almost killed myself in the process from the potions’ toxicity. But sure enough, after a couple more attempts, I returned to the outpost with my trophy hanging alongside me on horseback. And that felt absurdly satisfying.

Persona 3 X Fire Emblem Awakening

Challenges of all kinds elicit a fight-or-flight response internally, but evaluating those responses allows us to adapt more appropriately to the situation. I’ve chosen the “flight” response in other franchises, generally turn-based games like Shin Megami Tensei: Persona or Fire Emblem. I love both series, but in these the difference between life and death can be as simple as a randomly-generated critical hit that defuses an otherwise perfect strategy. Either way, mastering a game’s system provides you a toolkit to approach other games with, and maybe even parts of your own life; perhaps you won’t be hunting a griffin any time soon, but critically analyzing your approach and planning for successful outcomes are useful skills everywhere in life.

The Witcher 3 isn’t the first game to make me think about game difficulty’s impact on the gaming experience, though. Rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero always feel more immersive to me on harder difficulties because the rhythm patterns feel more similar to songs in-game. Even more than I’d recommend taking on The Witcher 3 on Hard, I’d almost require that playthroughs of The Last of Us be at that difficulty: traveling through a post-apocalyptic world with dangerously few bullets and deadly zombie-like foes reinforces the hopelessness and fear that the game’s story tap in to. And then there are games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, ones that establish reputations with their punishing, unforgiving challenges. Scaling many of these games down to simpler difficulties seems to remove a piece of the game’s soul.

Still, some games detract from the experience when played on higher difficulties. Bedlam, a first-person shooter based on a novel by Christopher Brookmyre about a woman trapped in a series of first-person shooters, has fantastic story and voice acting, but the challenge doesn’t scale appropriately on harder difficulties. Enemies make amazing shots at you from impossibly far away and deal more damage, leaving you pretty unable to fight back effectively. Eventually the combat feels so tedious in later levels that it’s actually better to just run past enemies to make your way to the exit instead of fighting them. The difficulty of the experience has nothing to do with the plot, so there’s no real incentive other than personal motivation to conquer higher difficulty levels.

Wolfenstein - Difficulty

So, the moral of the story? Play the difficulty that feels right for you, and don’t be afraid to try a couple difficulties at the beginning to find out. Choosing a difficulty is, of course, up to the player: some people like tackling lower levels to go through the story, while others like the most punishing trial to test their mettle. Like Goldilocks, we should try different things before settling on a decision; gaming is a space where failure is an option, and that failure helps us learn and grow in unexpected ways. The best choice shouldn’t always be “Extremely Hard” or “Baby’s First Game,” but whatever option is necessary to make the game its most enjoyable. Varying our challenge with our games helps us to appreciate them for not just what we think they are, but for what they can be (and what we can be, too).

But don’t be too much like Goldilocks. Home invasion and property destruction are generally bad ideas.