Growing up, there were two types of gamers; those that played and those that watched.
Every day after school we’d all pile in to our best mate’s bedroom to huddle round the tiny TV as his older brother smashed some zombies on Resident Evil. Stu was that friend with older siblings and a Sky subscription – a veritable black market for someone whose parents wouldn’t even let them buy The Eminem Show from an ASDA bargain bin (love you, Mum!)
Stu’s brother would ceremoniously pass the PS1 controller around the group as we each took our turn in the Spencer Mansion, one by one getting our necks chewed off by zombies or dismembered by that bloody dog smashing through the window, until he passed the controller to me.
“Nah, you’re alright, I’m happy watching”
And that was the truth. I absolutely loved Resident Evil – the tension, mystery, the blood and guts – loved it! But I wasn’t very good at it. Like, at all. I used to die within minutes of thumbing the analog sticks. I’d not grown up playing anything like it, nor had an older brother to buy these games for me. I fundamentally lacked the understanding of the language of video games.
I had a similar feeling at the start of the pandemic when I hastily ordered a PS4 on Amazon to stave off the impending apocalypse. I’d not played a video game properly in nearly ten years. I was a lapsed gamer, missing the entire PS3 generation (and several year’s worth of long-term memory) pissing away my student loan at Uni.
On recommendation from a good friend, my first entry back into the world of gaming was The Last of Us (which was a really refreshing escape from the global pandemic). With its bold writing and expertly observed characters, I was hooked. But then I hit a wall. I died. And then I died some more. I desperately wanted to know what would happen to these characters but I just couldn’t progress any further. After almost rage-quitting, I stumbled across a difficulty setting named ‘Very Light’ that I could select. So I did.
A year or so later, I’d burned through a dozen or so games and became much more interested in learning about the gaming industry. In Jason Schreier’s book Blood, Sweat and Pixels (which is a must-read if you’re interested in the inner-workings of modern game development) a Level Designer talks of his frustration at observing random members of the public testing their game and getting stuck almost instantly. He would shout at them from behind the two-way glass, incredulous to the fact that they were all missing the deliberate hints in the game design that nudges them onwards (he later concedes that perhaps they were only so obvious to him because he’d spent day after day designing them). After reading this, I realised I’d been subconsciously registering all of these hints with each new game I played, each time picking up a little bit more of the language of game design I had lacked as a kid, like a doe-eyed backpacker leafing through a phrase-book.
No longer would I be dreading the inevitable stealth missions in Ghost of Tsushima – instead, I could critically observe my surroundings, picking out the pathway of Pampas grass patches that led to the mission goal. And I wouldn’t have got to the point if it wasn’t for the lovely devs at Naughty Dog throwing me a bone with their ‘Very Light’ mode.
I mainly play games to be absorbed within a narrative that I can actively participate in, but more recently, I’ve been known to enjoy smashing the shit out of Theseus in Hades and hacking my way up to the top of the tower in Ghostrunner. Both of these are objectively difficult games that I’ve only been able to enjoy by starting out on ‘Easy’, building up my confidence and skill, bit by bit, game by game.
There’s a common misconception in the gaming world, that says that games are meant to be hard. That if you play on ‘Easy’, you’re not playing the game properly. There’s definitely more than a hint of elitism in this thought (usually among ‘hardcore’ gamers) but more than that, it fundamentally misses the point of why people play video games. We play because we enjoy them. And if you happen to enjoy taking a run through the Underworld in Hades on heat level 32, then great!
But that’s not for everyone.
And that’s okay.
Do what makes you happy; ignore what anyone else says – Easy, right?