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Games As Art and Game Difficulty

Where this article generates a point that seems worthy of clarification, I'm going to try and include that in footnotes.

There was a fair amount of hubbub on Twitter some weeks ago about the question of whether or not all games should have an easy mode (or alternately, a "story mode.")

My short answer is "probably not." But first, what I am not intending to do with this essay:

What I am intending to propose:

If games are art, or (to re-phrase ala Josef Pieper) if game design is a liberal and leisurely art (more like doing philosophy, music, visual arts, and film) then it would seem to follow from our experience (that is, some amount of givenness and "artistic vision" comes through in philosophy, etc.) that a certain element of "givenness" applies to this medium as it does to those. Note that I do say artistic vision, not artist's vision.

If games are high art, it seems something in the game itself recommends its own good design, and I don't think it depends on the needs of the audience or the developers.

We need not agree that the artist captured perfectly everything their work was supposed to be or, separately, that all purported artistic visions are equal, each of which would be a tyranny of its own.

So whether or not easy modes "ruin the experience" for the hardcore players is the wrong question. That's not how it works, or rather, that's not relevant. Whether they "ruin" the game generally is closer, but it's not really something we can discuss in terms beyond "our experience." What's the right question, then?

I think it's most useful to consider that the parts of a whole be united to that whole, insofar as we can discern it. This includes the features, modes, and other things requested, or added for, a game. At some level perhaps this falls into the subjectivity I'm concerned about above, but I'm hoping it could be a more productive, if still subjective, conversation.

Please note that in the preceding, I don't take a stand on which type of art games are. The fact is, I'm still not sure; maybe they're in-between.

And that leaves this article in a weird place.

My own working thoughts are below; they are a series of mostly-connected observations and presume that "games are art, at least sort of."

Easy mode always deserves consideration if one has the resources, but the easy mode set of mechanics and dynamics should capture the same general spirit as the default modes (be united to the design of the game as a whole.)

If it can't be done that way, that's okay, and we should let it be. If tools are provided, and we think we can do it better, we can make a Community Edition.

(Literally no art in history has ever existed without being passed down and mediated through communities, as far as I know, and one supposes that in the games medium this takes, roughly, the form of modding.)

I finished Xenonauts recently (speaking of community editions), and was encouraged by a friend to play on any difficulty I liked, but to play the ironman mode without hard saves, to experience the sadness and tribulation of losing soldiers with bad mistakes. At this point, I've just beaten an easy ironman run. From what I gather, an "even easier" mode would not be a problem for Xenonauts in terms of unity. But getting rid of hard saves would benefit it.

To talk specifics about an example often bandied about: If we take a game that is built on combat systems, almost combat-as-puzzle, like Dark Souls, and attempt to add an exploration-only mode, without combat or traps or with very little of them, I'd worry that we were reducing a very deep set of systems and aesthetics to just the parts which are narratively communicative. That might be pretty cool, actually, but it almost seems like a different game.

I'm not saying there's no more faithful way to add an easy mode, but I am saying it could be almost as much trouble as it was to design the game in the first place.

(I apologize if I stole this example from somewhere in the discourse; if I have, I've since forgotten where I read it and would welcome a chance to give a "first" credit if due!)

Dark Souls, by the by, falls into a class of game I'll never beat because I'm bad at it, I don't put the time in to get better, and which I might not beat even if I put the time in.

The single most leisurely and truly contemplative game I have ever played, is increpare's English Country Tune. It comes closer than anything else to being at once contemplative art and game design. It is not easy, I have not finished it, and it is beautiful.

As a developer, my only game made of even minor note, Ruin Diver III, has an easy mode, though it's debatable how easy it really is and I might do it differently were I doing it today, instead of doing it almost 10 years ago.

So I don't have an easy answer. But I'm hoping at least that a more interesting discussion can come if we take the idea that "games are art" as being at least relevant to the discussion.

Further reading

Talking Point: Should All Games Have an Easy Mode?
Every Game Should Copy Death Stranding's "Very Easy Mode"

Footnotes from Correspondence:

1. I don't think it's necessary to decide that an entire media category is or isn't high art in order to have this discussion, but I do think you should know how you feel about the particular work of that medium if you're going to take my proposed approach. (Thanks to JLab for prompting this note.)