A couple of months ago, if I started a new game — no matter what it was — I'd start off on a high difficulty. At the very least, I'd go for normal, but only if it was clear that normal would provide a challenge. I reasoned that nowadays "normal" is geared toward a more general audience which may be less familiar with games than I am. And, more importantly, pssh. Of course I can do better than normal!
We've internalised difficulty like that. I hear it all the time: games are getting easier, oh the good ol' days, they're gone, gone! Sometimes, without difficulty, some people start to wonder if what they're experiencing can even be considered a game, like with Dear Esther or Proteus.
But something curious happened recently: I noticed that playing games at high difficulties started to feel grating. I realised that playing normal/high difficulties often makes me feel like I wasn't doing it because I was having "fun" per se, but more because I felt I had something to prove. I'd want the better achievement for a high-difficulty run-through; I'd be able to tell people what I did and sound that much more impressive.
Part of the recent change came from being absolutely torn down by Persona 4: Golden's highest difficulty. I'm at a point where going through one level in a dungeon might take an hour, if I manage to survive and avoid getting one-hit-killed. I'll often pre-emptively kill myself if I didn't do amazing in a skirmish, if I spent too much SP or got knicked enough that it would affect me in the long term.
I remember doing something similar in Super Meat Boy when I saw that I wasted an errant second on my run: it wasn't good enough. I could do better. Except unlike Super Meat Boy, Persona 4 has me feeling delirious. Oh, have I died for the tenth time in a row without making any progress whatsoever? Have I spent hours in the same place with nothing to show for it? Haha! I don't even feel a thing anymore. Alrighty, back on the horse we go.
In an effort to retain what little of my sanity was left, I decided that any other titles I was playing concurrently to Persona 4 should be played on easy. Despite that decision, hovering between "normal" and "easy" on games like Far Cry 3 and Hitman: Absolution still felt wrong. I hesitated. Thinking back on it now, it reminds me a lot of being at a party and not knowing how to relax and just have a good time.
It wasn't until I started watching videos by popular YouTube user Criken, where he does all sorts of idiotic things, that the joy of easy mode really "clicked". Maybe being sloppy and stupid could be fun. It's not so much about wanting to bulldoze through everything without thinking; games facilitate that at normal difficulties too. It's about having the ability to be creative and silly without penalty.
So now my Agent 47 runs around with "weapons" like radios instead of guns. Turns out, radios can be just as effective as whatever might typically be in a hitman's arsenal. Imagine my glee when I hocked said radio straight at a guard's head, and everyone screams and points their guns at the radio as if they could kill it? Or when I threw a glass bottle at the wall near a cop, they become alarmed and call dispatch about a suspicious sound... only to then stare at a wall for like two minutes?
It's so absurd, and I'm loving it. Compared to trying to stealthily navigate a level — which was what I was doing prior — what I'm doing right now feels way better.
In the case of Far Cry 3, easy mode is helping me muscle through a story that has clearly gone off the rails and is kind of bad, and to my horror, still probably has a few hours left for me to experience. Far Cry 3 is not alone in this regard: all too often, I'll find myself wading through a game that goes on for longer than it needs to. I don't feel that very many games respect my time and easy mode helps alleviate that.
More importantly, I'm moving into a place where I'd like difficulty, but not in the way most games give it to me. Mechanical difficulty is not the only type of difficulty there is.
I want to play more games where I have a hard time putting the pieces together on what happened, like Thirty Flights of Loving. I want games that challenge my values and force me to make difficult decisions, like the The Walking Dead does. I want games with challenging themes and ideas that make me feel uncomfortable, like with Analogue: A Hate Story. I want to play games where the characterisation of those I interact with is a tangled web of inscrutable desires and motivations, like in Dragon Age 2.
Physically going through the motions of pressing buttons, at this point, is easy. I know how to do that, I've played a ton of games that have refined my skills and reaction time. Until more games give me reasons to make those actions complicated, or messy, I'm plenty happy seeing what a game can offer me when I stop being so serious.