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It’s not “difficulty”; it’s “focus”

Much of the confusion in the difficulty debate is because we often talk about difficulty when what we really care about is focus.

Take Pathologic 2. It’s a game about trying to survive and solve mysteries in a plague-ridden town. It’s got a strong narrative and prominent survival mechanics. The reviews I’ve seen lament how much the latter gets in the way of the former. From Brendan Caldwell’s review:

There are a bunch of meters: stamina, hunger, thirst, health, exhaustion, immunity. . . . On paper, you should be exploring the town, figuring things out, piecing this unearthly story together. But most of your time is spent trading bits of old brain and rusty scissors for a tin of food just to keep a meter down. It takes over everything, an unwelcome distraction from the intrigue of murder cases and bizarre architecture of the town’s stranger buildings.

After receiving a lot of feedback to this effect, developer Ice-Pick Lodge is adding a “difficulty slider”. Their announcement post is worth reading in its entirety, but the takeaway is “[W]e’d rather give people a tweaked experience than none at all.”

That’s great, and I applaud Ice-Pick for responding in this way. But I also find myself wondering - is this really about difficulty? Here’s another quote from Brendan Caldwell’s review:

If the intent here is to follow a Soulsian “hard is good” philosophy and apply it to the survival genre, this is misplaced. Souls games are about reaction, movement, and practice. You can’t practice finding a piece of bread. If the intent is only to keep the player feeling oppressed, strapped for time, exhausted, hungry and weary, well, that doesn’t mean I won’t also resent having to spend so much time doing the most boring species of meter-management in what could have been a captivating mystery.

Caldwell doesn’t mind that the game is hard or even that it’s dark - he minds that he has to devote so much time and attention to the least interesting parts of it. The bits that aren’t this game’s unique selling point, the bits that have been done many times in many games.

Ice-Pick haven’t said exactly what their new slider will do, but in practice for players like Caldwell it won’t really be a difficulty slider so much as a mechanical focus slider. Turning down a game’s ‘difficulty’ rarely means that characters now speak in Basic English and complex moral decisions get replaced with clear-cut black and white choices. What it does mean is that the survival mechanics (or in most games, combat systems) are less demanding and you can pay them less attention.

The difficulty debate (and certainly any response of the “you cheated not only the game, but yourself” variety) often misses that there are multiple different reasons to play most games. In addition to skill levels, physical capabilities, and amounts of free time, people differ in their interests. When someone is drawn to a game’s world, art, characters, story, etc., and finds that mechanical systems are getting in the way of what they came for, it’s natural to want to adjust the game’s focus to reduce those obstacles. Because of the misleading way these settings are often labeled, that means they are “playing on Easy.” But they aren’t here for the combat, or for the survival mechanics, or whatever. Mastering it is of no interest to them and is not worth their time. Like Peter Gibbons, it’s not that they’re lazy; it’s that they just don’t care about this particular source of difficulty. They’re trying to focus on what actually appeals to them and what actually creates value for them.