The Pitfalls of Difficulty Modes in God of War and Multi-Dimensional Games

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Just this past week, a couple of my friends and I sat down to play the new God of War. Santa Monica Studio has left behind the one-dimensional brute of previous God of War games to make a work of art. Unlike its predecessors, this game heavily relies on narrative, building the relationship between Kratos and his son, Atreus. While the game has opened to critical acclaim, I was less sold on the game while playing. We had decided to play God of War on it’s harder difficulty, choosing “Give me a Challenge.” I argue, we were playing a completely different game.

From the opening hours on the harder difficulty, it seemed apparent that enemies had more health and dealt more damage. Kratos would be killed within 2-4 hits depending on the enemy and attack. Combat was a slog. With only a couple abilities to start, it would take a miraculous amount of hits to kill an enemy, turning combat into a repetitive activity that went on far too long. Right off the bat, I thought I must be missing something. Enemies were still predictable, but just took longer to kill. Also if multiple enemies crowded the screen, we were forced to run after landing 2 hits on the enemy, otherwise risk getting killed from behind. This in combination with more enemy health drags combat on. Eventually all of us were in unanimous decision to turn the difficulty down to “Normal”. It was a completely different game.

Combat felt much more satisfying. I still used the same tactics, and the fights were more digestible. I wasn’t forced to sit in one area killing trash for a ridiculous amount of time. It felt like this is what combat was designed to feel like. The Santa Monica game designers went in and created this ideal version of combat. Every other difficulty level is a deviation from that version, and therefore feels like a different game. In a game like God of War, it’s not only combat that suffers from this difficulty change, but also its fantasy and narrative that suffers.

People will pick up God of War expecting to enter the form of Kratos, an immensely powerful demigod who viciously slays his enemies in bloody combat. Well when played on “Give me a challenge,” Kratos is a featherweight. Within 2-4 hits, Kratos is dead. Also, as mentioned before enemies take a ridiculous amount of hits to kill. Not only are you fragile, but you also only tickle enemies. For all the vicious animations and sound effects that promote Kratos as a demigod, gameplay doesn’t reflect it. We lose the fantasy of playing Kratos.

God of War really went neck deep into narrative with the relationship between Kratos and Atreus.  Narrative requires pacing. Designers expect players to move through the game at a certain pace, dropping narrative beats along the way to keep the player entertained. Well when combat is so long, the pace goes out the window. Players don’t receive the narrative within the ideal amount of time, and they may just lose interest along the way. So multiple facets of God of War break down from this one innocent decision a player may make when starting the game.

It’s important to note that God of War is a great game, which makes it a good example for this topic. I argue that we played a different game when we picked a harder difficulty. That shouldn’t happen with a game like this. What’s the solution here? Obviously harder difficulties cater to certain players. Honestly, with a game that’s multi dimensional like God of War, there’s a strong argument that there should be no difficulty modes. The game was handcrafted to be played in one particular way to present the absolute best version of itself to the player. Anything that deviates from that fundamentally lessens the intended experience. The same can be said for the Uncharted series. I’ve played multiple Uncharted games and decided to boost the difficulty while playing The Lost Legacy. Enemies became bullet sponges and changed the narrative pace of the game. It was a less enjoyable experience, which is sad. For these works of art, you should play its absolute best version.

A less elegant and less dictatorial option might be to clearly state who the game is for at different difficulties. This gives the player more information from the start. If I had read, “For those who care solely about the hardships of combat,” I would have realized that it wasn’t for me. When we turned the difficulty down to “Normal”, we found the game that everyone was talking about. I just wish we found it sooner and hadn’t been presented with a fork in the road at all.