Most people pick the medium difficulty when starting up a game, and for good reason. Easy mode doesn’t provide enough of a challenge, and it’ll generally make the player breeze through the game without ever needing to master the mechanics or try too hard. It’s not a lot of fun to play a game that almost plays itself. At the same time, most people don’t want to jump into the hard difficulty either. Even on a second or third playthrough, players don’t want to get frustrated while replaying their favorite games or spend hours stuck on a single level. They might just want to relive the story or interact with the characters they remember. But unfortunately for staunch middle-difficulty devotees, the best way to play almost any game is on its hardest difficulty.
There’s nothing wrong with playing a game on an easier difficulty of course, and some people simply don’t have the time or patience to struggle against a game’s toughest challenge. There’s also a solid argument to be made for power-fantasies where the difficulty is set all the way down and enemies are beaten by the hundreds. Games are meant to be enjoyed first and foremost, and that means the player gets to play how they want. But for players who want to experience the game at its best, it usually means also experiencing it at its hardest.
Because the Story Makes More Sense
The most straightforward reason why is because the gameplay will have more cohesion with the story it’s telling. Most games have a narrative that pits the player against insurmountable odds, with other characters doubting success and relying on the player to be their only salvation. Even though the player is a super soldier or a prodigy or a master tactician, the story wants the player to believe they have barely a fighting chance and their total defeat is all but inevitable. To then play the game on an easy difficulty, where no enemy is a threat and hordes of adversaries present a challenge on the same level as a snack break, is a little dissonant. On Halo’s easiest difficulty, the dreaded Covenant scourge that has brought humanity to the very edge of its existence doesn’t nearly live up to the hype. They’re stupid, weak, and can be taken down with ease. They don’t feel like a mass of genocidal aliens who have an upper hand in a long war, they feel like cannon fodder.
When playing Halo on Legendary, whoever, the perspective shifts dramatically. Small groups of enemies can inflict death on the player if they aren’t careful. An engagement with a massive Hunter is a momentous battle, where a single wrong step can wipe Master Chief out of existence. Each combat scenario feels dangerous, because it is. Even as a mighty warrior with shields and rockets and sometimes even the element of surprise, the Covenant are scary. It takes skill, tactics, and focus to even stand a fighting chance. Suddenly all the chatter about their dominance and supremacy feels a lot more real. They’re a force that could exterminate humanity at it’s best. The story and the gameplay suddenly match together perfectly; the narrative says the Covenant are close to winning, and the player completely believes it.
Because Every Game Mechanic Must be Used
When playing a game on it’s the easiest difficulty, it’s not hard to just completely ignore whole mechanics. The player doesn’t need to experiment with a game’s weapon fusion mechanics or spend time researching the best combination of buffs, because they don’t need to. They can run into the fray with the basic weapons and a rudimentary understanding of combat and still make it out in one piece. In a game like Bioshock, for example, playing on easy mode won’t force the player to acquire new powers or test new weapons. It’s fairly straightforward and easily doable to complete the whole game with basic ice and fire attacks along with simple weapons like the shotgun and the machine gun. There’s no necessity to experiment with the more complex and strange tools like the chemical thrower, the stun mechanics, the non-damaging Plasmids, or the wide array of buffs, so the player probably won’t.
The same can’t be said for Bioshock played on the highest difficulty. The player will struggle and fail so often that they’ll be forced to find alternative attack patterns and experiment with weapons they may not be familiar with or wouldn’t have otherwise tried. They need to become accustomed to every aspect of the game’s mechanics to find solutions to the challenges they might have breezed through earlier. The player of Bioshock will have to learn to exploit the stun mechanics if they hope to take down the monstrous Big Daddy, or they’ll concoct the perfect stew of buffs to complement their melee weapon since they ran out of ammo after an ambush. Every stone must be unturned to beat the game, because trying to get through it on shotgun shells and dumb luck just isn’t possible. The player needs to know the game in its entirety in order to succeed. It’s a more complete way to experience any game.
Because it’s Not That Bad Really
For people who might be resistant to trying their favorite game under such resilient circumstances, there are a few things to consider. Firstly, there’s no need to continue playing if fun truly isn’t being had. Games on their hardest difficulty are expected to be frustrating at times and downright infuriating at others, but the experience as a whole should still be fun. There’s no reward at the end besides the player’s own satisfaction at a game well enjoyed. Secondly, hard games don’t dissuade nearly as many players as one might expect. Games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne have proven that hard games can still be extremely welcoming, and people who may not expect to like such a strong pushback from their hobby might be surprised once they get into the rhythm.
Games are unique in that they’re the only medium to really have an increase in difficulty and a means for the consumer to fail. A movie might have complex themes and invisible subtext, but it’s no challenge to sit in a dark room and wait until the end. Games offer a unique way to test and trial the player, and the best way to do that is to give them full liberty to bring their A game. Though there might be moments of rage, a game on Hard Mode is a game at its finest.