I’ve been writing about games for a little while now, but it’s time I come clean about something: I play games on normal difficulty. Even if I know I’m capable of mounting a steeper challenge, I rarely jump up to harder difficulties; I only do so when I know for certain I can get something out of it other than hair-pulling frustration. I’ve played DMC: Devil May Cry on harder difficulties because that moment when you slip into a meditative state of perfect combat execution is absolutely exhilarating. I ramp up the challenge in God of War games because they’re some of the very few games I can actually say I’m “good” at. The rest, though, I’m more than content to play on their standard settings.
Nevertheless, I find my choice to play on standard settings constantly questioned by people touting the genuine merits of harder difficulties. Greater challenge leads to greater feelings of accomplishment. Playing on the higher difficulties unlocks more trophies. Games are too damn easy nowadays anyway. All are fair points, to be sure, and I’m not here to dispute them. Instead, I want to advocate for that overlooked portal that leads to play styles for so-called casuals and non-gamers: easy mode.
It’s not a simple case to make. Just mentioning easy mode can really send people straight to their keyboards to tell me how disgraceful it would be to consider playing a game on the low end of the difficulty scale. And who can blame them? Games often bill the easy setting as a type of remedial way to play the game. Dying or failing in a game multiple times can lead to a very smug screen that asks, “Would you care to switch to easy mode? And would you also want me to tie your shoes or change your diaper? Now put on this costume and dance for me!” Jackasses.
It’s an even more painfully humiliating notion considering how most games now are pale imitations of the bone-crushing cruelty of yesteryear. But let’s be fair and remember the origins of devious designs. Many games in arcades were designed to snatch your quarters like hungry, hungry hobos, and one way to insure a constant stream of capital (which I am convinced was immediately converted into some type of evil allowance-inhaling energy) was to goad the player with defeat. Such systems hit the console and PC markets pretty hard in the 80s and 90s, luring kids like me into one more round because dammit I’d come so far and I wasn’t not about to lose one more round to that stupid machine. It’s common knowledge that games of today do not abide by this philosophy at large (exceptions are Demon’s/Dark Souls, Super Meat Boy, FTL and a few others), making easy mode a taboo option among those who consider themselves hardcore gamers.
I never really tried easy mode on any game of this generation until I played Just Cause 2, a gigantic free-roaming game with a map the size of freakin’ Jupiter and a wealth of ridiculous things to do. For instance, scooting around with a grappling hook and parachute mechanic–because to hell with physics–gives the player amazing mobility in one of the most joyous sandboxes out there. It’s a game in which you can surf a fighter jet into oncoming traffic. You can tether enemies to a compressed propane container and then light it up, sending them thirty stories straight up to whatever god they pray to in an explosion of pants-tightening awesomeness. It’s amazing.
Except for occasionally awkward controls, swarming enemies, and the scarcity of ammunition. At times, attempting to try some of the crazier stunts, like tethering a statue’s head to a helicopter and swinging it like a wrecking ball with a face into enemy buildings, become complicated when you’re outnumbered and outgunned. Such inconveniences became routine for me, so I decided to swallow my pride and dial back the challenge. When I dove into an enemy installation firing UZIs, set up a controlled explosion, and rode a propane tank out of there before I parachuted to safety while pressing the boom button, I knew I made the right choice.
Switching to easy did not simply make enemies easier to kill or make protagonist Rico Rodriguez into an even more powerful demigod; lowering the difficulty transformed the way I played the game on a fundamental level. Engaging enemies changed from my play style from a focus on efficiency and execution to an enjoyable romp of creative destruction. Absorbing extra bullets gave me time to pull off crazier stunts. Leaping from speeding cars and aircraft became less risky and more spectacular as frustration turned to fun.
I soon began to experiment with easy mode in other games, with varying results. Mass Effect 3‘s “Story Mode” that softened combat stripped the game of any tangible sense of accomplishment, robbing my Shepard of her hard-fought victory. Lowering the difficulty of BioShock added nothing to my experience, especially since the penalties for death are already nonexistant–though it made the brief Little Sister escort section less annoying. Playing Darksiders on a low difficulty, however, really allowed me to slice through enemies in ways that didn’t drag the pacing through the mud, as was the case when I played on normal.
Then there are the games that provide alternate solutions to easy mode. My favorite example is Donkey Country Returns, which happens to be my favorite game for the Wii. Continual failure will result in an option to summon “Super Kong,” a gray-furred version of the titular ape, who completes the level for you while you watch in dejected jealousy. It’s just like those moments back when you and your best friend couldn’t figure out how to beat that level in Super Star Wars, and you had to ask his older brother to do it for you. It leaves you with equal feelings of shame and relief. I love the platforming sections of the game, but I absolutely loathed the mine cart and barrel rocket levels. In these moments, Super Kong helped me bypass the sections I despise while allowing me to continue to embark on the jungle japes I enjoy.
In these cases, easy mode serves as a means to end, a way that allows me to play a game the way I want to play it, and that’s one of the best aspects of the video game medium. Maybe playing a game on easy is like reading Joyce’s Ulysses without having to offer a nuanced criticism of the work. Or maybe it’s like watching Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey simply to enjoy the rich visuals instead of interpreting the film’s mind-bending third act. But I still find such analogies suspect because the texts are still challenging; the reader just has different goals. Books, films, and music cannot be altered by the audience and remain the same texts. BioShock on easy is still BioShock, after all. I couldn’t say the same for Ulysses if you ripped out all the pages in the more difficult episodes…
Easy mode gives us the option to enjoy games without the hindrance of conventional challenge. Without steep penalties for failure, we can experiment with difficult control schemes, revel in the game’s world, speed through a game when we have little time to play, or even focus purely on narrative, if that’s your thing. But most importantly, the different difficulty settings are more open than we tend to realize, giving us much control to alter the worlds in which we play to suit our own needs and styles. We can find meaning in digital worlds beyond overcoming a difficult challenge by taking time to explore every inch of a digital environment without fear of being knocked back to a previous checkpoint. We can try more intricate approachess to puzzles, different combat strategies, and numerous other modes of play in a world where consequence is more forgiving.
So the next time a game is giving you trouble, or if you just want a new way to interact with a game that’s gotten stale, check out the lower end of the difficulty scale. You never know how it could alter your play experience for the better. And to those of you who undoubtedly believe easy mode to be the absolute nadir of game interaction and the mark of an amateur, you’ll have to speak up–because I can’t hear you over the sound of all the fun I’m having.