Talking Point is a weekly series that posits a question concerning the gaming industry. We encourage readers, as well as our writers, to offer their thoughts on the topic. Hence the name: Talking Point. Feel free to join in below.

One of the most identifiable features of gaming as a whole is the sense of challenge it provides to its players. Even after expending a significant sum of money in your local game shop to pick up the latest title, you must conquer its multitude of tests in order to experience the entirety of the protagonist’s grand adventure. Many of us accomplish this with relative ease, but a select few are not so lucky and sadly get disheartened along the way. So, this raises the question: Should somebody that spends their hard earned money on a game be granted the right to experience said title in full, regardless of their personal skill level? In short, do games owe us an easy ride (should we so desire it)?

With the recent release of Cuphead, the two dimensional platformer boasting white knuckle difficulty and gorgeous retro inspired animation, certain players have lashed out in frustration in response to its unrelenting degree of challenge. Being unable to experience the entire adventure unless you conquer its wide variety of intimidating boss battles on the standard difficulty setting (as opposed to Cuphead’s easier difficulty setting) grinds the gears of some. Only those possessing a considerable sum of talent will witness Cuphead’s true finale, which offers a riveting showdown with the devil himself. Do those that simply fail to fell the tougher iterations of Cuphead’s bosses deserve to endlessly wallow in their non-regular difficulty misery, or do they deserve the right to experience the entire adventure alongside the more talented players?

My personal opinion on this topic is somewhat molded by my own experiences when facing difficulty within gaming. Once upon a time I journeyed through the 2006 turn based adventure known as Blue Dragon. I had reached approximately two thirds of the way through the sprawling three disc long quest, but had reached what I believed to be an impenetrable impasse. Fight four bosses simultaneously, followed by a fifth boss immediately after. Every time I struggled through the ruthlessly tense four boss encounter, the fifth boss (he was a total jerk) would gun me down and grant me both a game over and an internal sensation of “How on Earth do I beat this guy?”. After two days of strenuous struggle, I finally discovered the solution. I revised my combat strategy, utilized alternative character moves, upgraded specific character attributes, and discovered the secret to dominating what I believed to be an impossible challenge. It was a magnificent feeling of total accomplishment, and a truly game defining moment. My fond memories of my achievement only exist for one reason however: Blue Dragon didn’t take a single scrap of pity on fourteen year old me, and forced me to try harder and harder, again and again. I applaud it for such a bold approach, because that very moment nine years ago was the last time I ever became stuck on a game for longer than one sitting. How can any of us ever improve at playing games should the games in question give us an easy way out?

To those throwing their controllers against a wall in frustration, the aforementioned Cuphead would declare the following: “Should you be unable to overcome the challenges laid before you on the regular difficulty setting, practice via the provided easier difficulty. Over time you will steadily improve in your capabilities, until one day you are sufficiently prepared to reattempt tackling me on my regular difficulty. Your dedication and hard work will reward you with extra content, and the true Cuphead experience as a result.” Yes, Cuphead rewards talent in its players. However, said talent is only acquired through the dedication and hard work mentioned previously. As a result, games such as Cuphead are simply not just exclusive clubs for those gifted with impressive reflexes and memory, but exclusive clubs for those who are willing to invest ample time into improving their own personal talents. If a team of game designers can channel themselves into many long years of creating a quality product through their sweat, blood and tears, why should players deserve the right to demand that such a product not expect a level of commitment from them in return? When fans of gaming are already stereotyped (whether fairly or unfairly) as lazy, why should said laziness trickle into the expectations of the very games they play?

Difficulty settings are always beneficial, and the majority of games make a conscious effort to tailor themselves to varying skill levels. However, games have the right to be tough as nails. They have the right to demand your focus on improving yourself, and they have the right to restrict content until you are of a certain caliber. Removing the challenge of games would be removing the beating heart of overall experience. The rich satisfaction gained from accomplishing a challenge you did not believe you could overcome is a special feeling, and one that I would personally never want to see eradicated from the gaming mainstream.

Still, my opinion is but one of many. Should games cater to those who don’t desire to be challenged in any form, or should they maintain a minimum difficulty standard that all players must be required to meet? Fire off your thoughts in the comments below.

Leave a comment below.

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I have spent my life in England finding entertainment in both video games and music. Whilst not indulging in the latter, I invest my time in playing all manner of video games, and as of 2017, writing about all manner of video games. Email: harrymorrisharrymorris@yahoo.com
  • Kyle Rogacion

    In a similar experience to yours, Harry, I grew up with a love-hate relationship towards the Mega Man franchise. I could get through most of the robot masters, but titles like ‘Mega Man 8’ completely crushed me with the final stages. I would revisit the game over the years and it wasn’t until recently that I actually beat it. It was a gratifying experience that had become a part of my life without me knowing it.

    You raise a good point that the context in which games are now developed is very different. We live in a renaissance of game development as consumers; there’s no shortage of new games to find and play. I think the issue here is, like you mentioned, that of exclusivity. People naturally don’t like feeling barred from a group, especially when the reason is tied so closely to their personal talent or ability.

    Where Cuphead is concerned, a large part of it is also the massive publicity and coverage it’s gotten. Other niche high-difficulty games like the Touhou franchise, Furi, or Hyper Light Drifter draw in their audiences by word of mouth. Cuphead managed to explode due to its unique aesthetic and the risky choices the developers made to create it.

  • Rob Younger

    I’m honestly of a mind that it varies based on game. Some games like Super Meat Boy are build around having high difficulty. That said, there’s nothing wrong with games that aren’t super difficulty reliant to feature lower difficulties for more casual gamers. I mean, I love things like Dark Souls or the Binding of Isaac but I’ll never bat an eye if either of those games featured easy modes. Nothing says I have to use it and it helps to make games more accessible for everyone

  • Pingback: We Need to be More Specific when we talk about Difficulty – Story First()

  • I see nothing wrong with offering players options. All games should have options and the more options, the more it will make a wider audience happier. I don’t think that a game should have a hard mode locked like they did in Metroid: Samus Returns. If Cuphead had an easier mode, people would be happier. That said, if it is the intent of the game developer and in their eyes serves some sort of artistic purpose, who am i to tell them how to design the game. But yeah, options are always good.

    • Harry Morris

      I agree that options for difficulty settings are very useful, but I disagree with a complete removal of challenge (e.g. options to skip content entirely). As you mentioned, I also believe that should developers wish to design games catered specifically to more skilled players, that’s totally okay (just as it’s okay for developers to design games catered specifically to less skilled gamers). I believe it’s okay for each and every game to have its own target market should the developers desire that, provided that all people and skill levels are in some way accounted for via the varied range of games available.

  • Mel P

    I wonder how (or if) the overall aesthetic changes the perception of whether a game is “too difficult”. For example when I think of a game that I simply shrugged off as too difficult it was Dark Souls, aesthetically so different from a game like Cuphead. Now I haven’t actually played Cuphead, so maybe my comments are moot, but it certainly doesn’t have the look of such a difficult game. So in seeing critiques of the game claiming it to be something too difficult I can’t help but wonder if there is something else specifically about Cuphead that has prompted such a discussion. That being said, I don’t feel game devs have any obligation to create games with all skill levels in mind. As it’s been pointed out in previous comments, options are good, but very few games have sparked such a discussion as this one. So my question is what is it about Cuphead that has prompted so much discussion? Could it be the overall aesthetics of the game? I’d love to hear someone elses thought on this 🙂