What role does game difficulty play?

On ‘developer’s vision’

Game difficulty is an accessibility issue. But often, when this point is raised, a common counterpoint is that many difficult games are intentionally difficult. An easier version of the game to play might be a fundamentally different play experience, as opposed to the developer’s vision.

Making games more accessible to disabled players is a hill I frequently die on, but I don’t inherently disagree with this argument. Instead, I want to look at three intentionally difficult games, and how their ‘intended experience’ shaped the way that they implemented their respective difficulty settings.

Screenshot of an early stage of Celeste

In Celeste, you play as Madeline as she attempts to climb Mount Celeste. Climbing the mountain is as much an arduous physical task as it is Madeline’s struggle against herself – literally, in some instances. It is necessary for Madeline (and the player) to fail, and to try again, as many times as it takes to reach the summit. Even so, Celeste doesn’t linger on death, instead bouncing Madeline back as quickly as possible.

As a platformer, Celeste requires incredibly precise gameplay. You have to carefully control your stamina, momentum, direction and timing, as even half a second can throw off your pathing through increasingly deadly levels. The difficulty of climbing a mountain is abstracted into short stages, where the most important thing is planning (and successfully executing) your route, and overcoming the obstacles in your way.

Celeste’s Assist Mode is cited a lot in accessibility conversations, and for good reason. The Assist Mode offers players the option to slow down the speed of the game, increase air dashes, make stamina infinite, or turn on invincibility. Most importantly though, these options preserve the precision and route-planning at the heart of the gameplay. An invincible Madeline is not an incorporeal one – she still needs to find her way around. Celeste’s Assist Mode mitigates the mechanical barriers around such precise platforming, but keeps the journey at its core.

Screenshot of the game Control. Jesse is telekinetically throwing concrete at a mook.

In comparison, Control has similarly fast paced gameplay, but its approach is much less precise and far more chaotic. Control sees you as Jesse Faden unexpectedly become the director of the FBC, with all the eldritch weirdness that entails. Along with a shapeshifting gun, Jesse gains access to the powers of telekinesis, hypnosis, and levitation to help fight her enemies – the hiss.

Control presents you with a large toolset to solve combat problems with, and its combat is incredibly punishing if you don’t use it. Your powers are limited by an energy meter, your gun has a cool down, and the hiss will quickly flush you out of cover (if it isn’t destructible in the first place). This encourages you to make full and varied use not only of your abilities, but of the environment around you. Dodge or fly out of harms way, before lobbing a rocket launcher at the spot you just vacated.

Control’s Assist Mode is oriented around keeping you in the fast-paced, fast-moving combat space, while making the details more forgiving. While it includes sliders for the various cooldowns, the more interesting thing it does is aim support. It has three separate options, for enhanced aim assist, aim snapping, and one-hit kills. It can be very difficult to launch yourself into the air and then aim a crosshair at a small target, particularly at the frenetic speed at which play happens. Making this more accessible encourages players to still play within the intended experience – dodge away, and reflexively ‘boom’. Even an immortal Jesse isn’t invulnerable – it’s hard, psychologically, to stand in one place and take damage, when the rest of the encounter design is telling you to move.

The map from Pathologic 2. The current area is 'The Flank', and it is captioned 'You're unwelcome here'.

At the other end of the scale, we have Pathologic 2. Pathologic 2 doesn’t get caught up in mechanical difficulty, but the overwhelming demands of its survival system. You have to trade and barter (or steal) food, drink and medicine as each day becomes progressively harder to cope with, and much like real life, fights can be as clumsy as they are lethal.

Pathologic 2 expects you to die. Not so you can aspirationally get up and try again, but because the town hates you. The world itself is plagued and hostile, survival is a struggle that only gets harder, and death is a part of the narrative.

Along with three difficulty settings, Pathologic 2 has fifteen sliders that affect the survival mechanics in the game. Rather than simply toggling off (for example) “hunger”, you can change the rate at which hunger ticks up, or the damage it does to you, or how much food costs. Each of these sliders come with tooltips that tell you how and why they effect the game. This way, you can break out of any particular death loop you may have become trapped in. At the same time, this level of transparency preserves the developer’s intent.

Each of these games uses difficulty for different purposes – to ask the player to engage more deeply with the narrative, or to explore the breadth of the game’s mechanics. When that intention behind a game’s difficulty can be identified, that can be preserved without leaving out disabled players or creating an opposing experience. Celeste requires precision to communicate the difficulty of climbing a mountain, so it lets you slow down the game and take more time. Control’s toolset makes you feel fast and powerful, so it maintains the pressure, and lets up on accuracy. Pathologic 2  is a story about struggle and survival, so its granular and transparent survival settings trust the player to maintain the narrative.

Even when two games are mechanically demanding, the things they ask of the player aren’t the same. The same is true for two games that lean into difficulty as a narrative theme. When we talk about game difficulty being an accessibility issue, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the solution needed is a story mode, or a wholly invulnerable player. When difficulty is part of a developer’s vision, a difficulty mode can be an equally thoughtful part of it too.

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Ruth Cassidy

Ruth Cassidy is a freelance games writer and self-described velcro cyborg. When not playing video games or running people over in her wheelchair, she can be found getting very emotional over her favourite musical theatre soundtracks. You can buy her friendship with pictures of especially nice mountains, or your cats.

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