If I asked you, right now, to imagine a Video Game difficulty mode select screen, What’s the first image that comes to mind? I’m guessing you’ve got Easy, Normal, Hard, and maybe some super tough difficulty mode above that with a name like nightmare inferno torture. Maybe the names will be a bit more stylised to fit with the tone of the game, but most games with difficulty modes stick to this sort of format, if they let you choose a difficulty mode at all.

However, what if I told you, there’s a better way to handle difficulty in games, a method that not only allows the top end of players a higher degree of challenge, but also makes the game more accessible to players who might suffer with slower reaction times, motor control issues, or other conditions that make certain aspects of video games tough to play?

There’s a better way for video games to handle difficulty, many games are already doing, and I want to see more developers make an effort to adopt this approach. 

So, let’s talk about customisable game difficulty, and how it can be used to help more people play, and more people face a fun level of in game challenge.

In video games with traditional difficulty settings, typically those settings will be acting as shorthand for a variety of tweaks made behind the scenes to how the game is played. The number of enemies spawned, types of enemies encountered, amount of health the player has, amount of damage enemies inflict, difficulty of puzzles, and even the level of invincibility a player has after being hit are all examples of sliders that game developers will move up and down to pre set values when creating a difficulty mode for a game. 

Usually, these are not customisable individually, only as a set. If you decide to play a game on hard mode, and can handle all of the combat fine, but find that platforming sections are just a little too fast for you to keep up with comfortably, you’ll have to switch to normal difficulty, and in the process make the combat that you were managing okay with now too easy. Difficulty comes as a package deal, and that comes with a whole host of drawbacks.

For players with disabilities that make it difficult for them to do things like repeated button presses or fast response quick time events, having to turn a game to Easy just to get more time to slow down on those events can make the bulk of the game too easy. It robs players of the choice to simply make the aspect of the game they’re struggling with easier, while still being allowed to challenge themselves in the areas they find easier.

So, if preset difficulty modes are not the answer, let’s talk about some games that get customisable difficulty right, and look at the ways they created difficulty modes that the widest possible range of people can have fun with.

When 2D platforming adventure game Celeste released back in January 2018, a lot of discussion focused on the ways the game handled difficulty.  Celeste is a mechanically challenging puzzle platformer, with a story all about overcoming extremely difficult situations placed in front of you. While the game only featured one difficulty mode, players could make aspects of the game easier on the fly in the options menu. You can alter the speed that the game runs at in small increments to give yourself more time to react, give yourself extra dashes in mid air, or make yourself briefly invincible, if there is a section of the game you can’t seem to get past. These tweaks are incremental, you don’t have to commit to them for the whole game, and you can pick and choose which of them you need, and for how long.

Celeste as a game never judges you for making use of its accessibility features, and doesn’t make you feel bad for making use of them. You still overcome this challenge, and you should still be proud.

On the other end of the scale, Dragon Quest XI is another game that only has one default difficulty, but instead of making the game easier in incremental ways, offers players who want more challenge to optionally layer that onto the experience in ways that make sense for them.

As a default, Dragon Quest XI is one of the easier games in the Dragon Quest series.However, when you first start playing, the game offers you a series of “Draconian” difficulty options that tailor in which ways the game could be more challenging. You can tell the game not to let you flee battles, stop you from purchasing items, prevent yourself wearing armour, give you less EXP for defeating weak enemies, make enemies more challenging, or even applying random debuffs to the player character.

While these difficulty options do allow players to tailor the kind of challenge they want from the game, one area where it does fail to live up to Celeste is that you have to decide what difficulty options you want up front and commit to them. You can turn these challenge options off mid game if things are too tough, but not turn them on if things are too easy. For customisable difficulty to really work, players need to be able to raise and lower their level and challenge as the adventure unfolds, particularly in lengthy JRGPs like Dragon Quest XI.

However, possibly the best possible example of a game allowing for customisable difficulty is Dishonoured 2, which not only lets you customise a wide variety of difficulty options upfront, and twerk them later, but also still collect achievements regardless of your customisations.

When you start a new playthrough of Dishonoured 2, players are shown the usual difficulty selection screen, with easy, normal, hard, and very hard modes to pick from. However, once you pick one of these presets, you are shown a much wider variety of difficulty sliders, and where you’ve been placed on each by your choice of preset. You can then tailor these further, making certain aspects more or less difficult than they would usually be at that preset.

The number of difficulty sliders Dishonoured 2 gives you access to is, quite frankly, ludicrous. Here’s a quick rundown of the various aspects of the game you can tweak and tailor independently of each other.

The game allows you to decide how many save slots you should have, whether death should be permanent, whether time slows down when you access the quick access wheel, what level of enemy perception there is, what level of perception enemies have when you’re above them or when you’re leaning, it allows you to alter how how loud your footsteps are, how persistent guards are when they search for you, how many reinforcements get called if you get caught, how much your health regenerates, how much damage enemies deal, how large a group of enemies will attack you, how frequently will enemies attack, how accurate enemies are, how brave enemies are, Whether your mana replenishes, how much ammo you can carry, what your elixir speed is, how tenacious enemies will be when chasing you, how visible you are, and more.

And, best of all, all of these customisation settings can be altered as much as you want, as you progress through your adventure. It combines Celeste’s ability to make the game easier whenever you want, with Dragon Quest XI’s ability to add extra challenge to the game, while ensuring that you are never punished for tweaking these numerous settings back and forth.

Oh, and this one is a freebie, but games such as Spiderman on PS4 that allow players to turn button mashing events into held button events, turn off timers for quick time events, and entirely skip puzzles without penalty if needed fall into this camp too. Let players opt out of parts of games they may personally not be able to handle in games. It’s not all about difficulty in the traditional sense, make as many aspects of completing your game customisable as possible.

I certainly don’t expect every single video game to switch to this customisable difficulty mode model overnight, it is undoubtedly extra work for developers and is far from an industry standard right now. However, a big reason I want to praise these games for these customisation options is in the hope other developers will follow suit, until they become more commonplace.

Disability accessibility needs are complex and varied. In a perfect world, players wouldn’t have to turn a game’s entire difficulty down just because they struggle with a single aspect of it. Letting players pick and choose which aspects are challenging allows more people to have a better time playing more games.

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