It Might Be Time to Rethink Difficulty Menus

By Ethan Gach on at

This is the difficulty menu for Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus. In a callback to the original games which showed up in The New Order as well, the menu’s telling you only babies play the game on easy. It’s funny on the surface, but also an insidious kind of peer pressure. Don’t listen to it.

At first I did, which is why I spent half of Wolfenstein 2 completely miserable. Playing on “Bring ’em on”, the game’s normal difficulty, I spent hours dying to Nazis hidden in the far corners of my TV screen or downed ones who I’d previously unloaded on but apparently didn’t register the kill shot. In the middle of these frenzied “game over”-fests I wanted to throw my PS4 out the window. Then I’d inevitably get to a cutscene or new location, like Roswell, and instantly be transfixed again.

Finally I decided enough was enough, swallowed my pride, and set the difficulty all the way down to “Can I play Daddy” (read: super easy). And you know what? It felt great. Everything immediately seemed to click into place. I was able to run and gun like the game obviously wanted me to and feel like B.J. was the one-man killing machine everyone kept saying he was.

It also made the game’s two duelling personas feel less at odds with one another. Instead of 90s arcade-style shooting galleries punctuated by a diverse cast of grownups debating how best to resist their new fascist overlords, it felt like a historical fever dream about American political ideals and white supremacy wrapped up in the charisma of a tightly wound action movie.

When Wolfenstein rebooted the first time in the early 90s, it came out of the same mould as Doom: a first-person splatterfest where the drama of dispatching enemies in concise and economical manoeuvres superseded the the premise or plot. That’s less the case in Wolfenstein 2. That’s by design. In case you missed the marketing, the game wants to be more than just another adolescent adrenaline-fest.

Part of the allure of Wolfenstein 2, and what helped it to stand out to everyone who wasn’t a fan of the series and didn’t pay its 2014 predecessor much attention, are its characters and setting. Rosewell, New Orleans, and even B.J.’s farm house where he grew up are beautiful places to explore. Hundreds of collectibles scattered throughout the game’s levels offer interesting backstory and insight into the events going on outside of the player’s immediate purview. Strolling through the game’s homebase, an old German U-boat, and hearing what the varied cast of broken but hopeful revolutionaries has to say is even more interesting than a lot of the game’s set pieces.

The story itself begins with the loss of a close friend, and the body count only grows from there. At its most subversive the game suggests Nazism isn’t a cult of foreign invaders but a homegrown ideology cultivated over centuries. B.J. isn’t just there to blow away bad dudes, he’s fighting for a future his unborn children don’t have to resent living in and to shed the phantoms of his brutal, patriarchal upbringing. Goading players by renewing B.J. with a binky in his mouth feels like an especially odd carry over then.

This land was made for you and me. Fuck your racist, domestic abuser of a father. But also don’t be a wuss.

It’s that kind of guilt that plagued me early on. I spend a lot of time playing games. What’s the point if I can’t hack it at the more masochistic end of the difficulty ladder? I was also plagued with the anxiety over whether the Wolfenstein 2 I experienced would be the “real” one or not. Despite the number of times people pay lip service to “there’s no right way to play,” how difficulty options are crafted and displayed often tells a different story.

Sticking a bonnet on B.J. and infantilising the player by analogy isn’t exactly an invitation to explore playing Wolfenstein 2 differently. Even just calling one difficulty setting “normal” implies the others are deviant. When you’re fighting to liberate the country from people who believe in eugenics in a game that celebrates difference and diversity, moralising the difficulty around the struggle (easy equals lazy/bad, hard equals virtuous/good) feels archaic.

In a broader sense, the way difficulty has come to define various people’s preferred play-styles feels counter-productive. There should be more ways to slice a game than just damage sliders. In Wolfenstein 2 difficulty affects how quickly things die, including you. Sometimes it also changes how many enemies there are and where they’re placed. Story beats and how environments are constructed remain the same though. Rather than offer different modes that emphasise different ways of playing the game, like focusing on stealth or limited combat exploration, the settings are just egging you on to crank it up to 11.

Assassin’s Creed Origins’ combat-free setting, on the other hand, takes a more imaginative approach to what difficulty settings could be. Rather than a binary scale based on loaded terms like “easy” and “hard,” it suggests creating modes based around what particular players want to do in a game. Some will want to fight, loot, and take on the game’s most challenging combat scenarios. Assassin is in the title, after all. Others though will no doubt be more interested in exploring the game’s beautiful looking world and the stories taking place there.

Image via Imgur

The game designer behind Gritfish, John Kane, recently offered some examples of other ways to do game difficulties:

I’m here for the story

I’m here for challenge

I’m here for a second & harder playthrough

I’m here to take photos

I want to play with the settings and I’m okay if that breaks things

As more AAA games focus on open world design, the idea of needing to “earn” the exploration parts by completing familiar repetitive tasks like go kill some dude or collect a bunch of random stuff feels almost criminal. People spend years of their lives working on different parts of a game that most people, even the ones who buy it, will probably never see, especially if it’s toward the end. Being beholden to archaic difficulty sliders just puts up more barriers.

We’ve seen games try thinking outside this box in the past. Mass Effect 3 offered a narrative-first mode that streamlined combat and exploration to let players focus on dialogue trees and character relationships. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided did something similar. While the difficulty options didn’t dramatically change the game, they were geared toward what the player was after (story, the old-school Deus Ex feel, etc.) rather than a hierarchy of perceived gameplay purity.

It might seem like a radical rethinking of how games treat players, but these kinds of quality of life tweaks have been happening for years. Breath of Fire on the SNES let you buy items to manipulate the enemy encounter rate while modern JRPGs like Bravely Default let you do that on the fly for free. Even the things like adding options to skip dialogue or entire cutscenes are a concession that not everyone playing a game is after the same thing. Kane’s suggested category of a mode specific to second playthroughs is a good reminder that not even the same person wants the same thing from a game depending on how much time they’ve spent with it. Who hasn’t wished they could skip the tedious do-overs in a game just to catch the branching story-line they missed the first or second time through?

At the end of the day, life’s too short to worry about whether you’re playing something the right way. And if you’re just starting Wolfenstein 2, for the love of god turn down the difficulty (unless you’re already digging it).