Difficulty is a function of tone – What Doom Eternal says about difficulty

About a year ago, when Sekiro first came out, we all became enveloped in a discussion about difficulty. Should games be accessible to all gamers regardless of their skill, or should challenge be retained in order to make surpassing that challenge mean something? Do we all just have to git gud?

Well Doom Eternal came out, and with it we have all started ripping and tearing our way through demon hordes aplenty. However, beneath the blood, gore, and chainsaws, Doom Eternal actually makes a fairly interesting statement about game difficulty that you might not expect. Doom Eternal posits that difficulty isn’t a challenge to overcome and, as a result, get gamer bragging points. Rather, difficulty is a function of tone?

What does this mean? Well it’s very clear that Doom is a game all about tone. It doesn’t have a particularly compelling story and we don’t come for the story. We come to feel like Doom Guy, like an incredible badass space marine that is able to destroy the legions of hell using nothing but his unbridled rage and two barrels of a shotgun. It’s an emotional experience.

You are playing Doom correctly when you feel badass, when the music is pumping and the BFG is annihilating everything in your path. You are playing Doom correctly when your feel those spikes of adrenaline that make you feel like the coolest mofo this side of mars. It’s the feeling of playing Doom that the designers treasured the most, so much so that they designed everything, from music, to graphics, to the mechanics of glory kills and chainsaw executions, around that feeling.

And its difficulty, too, is all in service to that feeling. Yes, Doom Eternal has some of the most punishing difficulty levels we have ever seen, and the Doom franchise is known for mildly mocking the player for choosing lower difficulties. However, that mocking is all tongue in cheek.

In reality, Doom Eternal lets you change your difficulty whenever you want. In the middle of a stage? Sure. Right before a massive combat? Why not? You can toggle your difficulty any time, for any reason, with no penalty whatsoever. In no way does Doom Eternal hold your feet to the fire. It doesn’t lock out achievements for toggling your difficulty. Heck, it doesn’t even lock out achievements if you put on a ton of cheat codes and blast through stages breaking the rules of the game. It lets you experience Doom the way you want to.

This is very important, because Doom Eternal really doesn’t work if it doesn’t hit that tonal sweet spot. If the game is too difficult and the legions of hell just slaughter you immediately, Doom Guy’s identity as a credible one man threat is lost, and the core conceit of the game is lost with it. If the legions of hell are too easy, then being able to slaughter them all doesn’t mean anything. You don’t feel badass because you aren’t overcoming a threat to begin with.

So Doom Eternal lets you tweak your difficulty to the point where you, personally, feel badass. If that means going through most of the game at a high difficulty level but turning the difficulty down for marauder fights, so be it. If that means going through the game at a low difficulty but restricting yourself to shotgun only because it feels good, so be it. You, the player, get to design a Doom Guy experience that most feels like Doom Guy to you.

And this is the statement that Doom Eternal makes, even if the developers didn’t intend to. It postulates that a game is doing its job when the player is having the intended experience of the game. Doom Eternal does its job when you feel like Doom Guy, and for that to happen you need control over the game’s difficulty. Difficulty is a function of tone and nothing else.

So how would this apply to games like Sekiro, Dark Souls, and other games that are known for their ruthless difficulty? Well, if we were to apply the philosophy of Doom Eternal then we would have to ask, what is the intended purpose of the game? Many fans would say the purpose is to have a difficult challenge which you can then overcome and feel proud in overcoming.

And if that is the case, then by Doom Eternal’s philosophy, you should still be able to alter your difficulty. Why?

Well let’s take Sekiro as an example. Let’s say that you come up against a boss and you fight him 10 times, and you die nine times but the 10th time you overcome him and it feels great. Awesome! Anyone who had this experience would likely say they had the intended experience. They came up against a difficult challenge and triumphed using their skill.

However, if a relative newcomer came up against the same boss and had to fight it 50 times before overcoming it, or if a veteran came up against it and fought it only once, then these players are not having the intended experience. One is having an experience that is too difficult to be rewarding, and instead only comes off as frustrating, while another is having an experience that is too easy to be rewarding, and comes off as boring. Challenge differs from person to person, and for a game like Sekiro to express the tone that its designers wanted to express, the same degree of relative challenge has to be able to be experienced, more or less, by every player.

And lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened. Merely a few weeks into the life-span of Sekiro, gamers everywhere started using trainers and cheat programs to slightly tweak the difficulty up and down to fine tune the difficulty to a point that felt right to them. Of course, this created some hilarious memes of whiney hardcore gamers telling us all that we cheated ourselves.

But would you tell Doom Guy that he’s cheating himself, simply because he wants the act of chain-sawing a demon in half to feel rewarding?

Go ahead, he’s listening.

What do you think? Is difficulty a function of tone or does it serve another purpose?