Have Games Been Dumbed Down Over the Years?

A point of contention concerning modern video games is that they’re being dumbed down in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It certainly seems as though games have gotten progressively easier over time, with the question friends ask each other changing from “Could you beat this game?” to “Have you beaten this game yet?”

However, I believe that difficulty in games dropping over the years is a natural consequence of developers adopting better design practices. During the golden age of arcade video games, they were made as difficult as possible in order to get as many quarters as they could out of the consumers. Even though this was no longer a factor with the advent of home consoles, games continued to be made tough simply because it was the standard.

The turning point for this was in the nineties when the idea of having full-fledged plots in video games truly began to take off. It was then that I suspect that the driving philosophy of the industry shifted from challenging a player’s skill to treating them to an experience. This meant toning down the difficulty in order to ensure that people would be able to see the entire story through to the end; otherwise, it would be like reading a book, but not being allowed to read the last chapters until you completed an unreasonable challenge imposed by the book’s owner.

As a result of playing those games, I think many video game fans, especially newer ones, take a look back at older games and declare them bad because of their difficulty. Honestly, it’s hard to fault them; much of the difficulty found in NES-era games stems from what would now be considered horrible design choices such as unpolished controls, enemies that respawn offscreen, or failing because you were given several equally viable choices and you picked the wrong one. Along with old PC titles featuring unwinnable situations, obtuse puzzle solutions, or confusing interfaces, they’re aspects of games that have not stood the test of time.

Dark Souls has a reputation of being every bit as hard as games from the NES era despite having been released in 2011, long after the decline in difficulty began to set in. To me, Dark Souls is the result of a game being made difficult with modern-day game design sensibility. Because of this, it stands out as a game with almost no artificial difficulty. It tests your ability to adapt to many challenging scenarios without telling you how solve your problems; it’s a game that treats the player with a lot of respect – and the feeling is often mutual.

What I think really shoots holes in the theory that games are being dumbed down is the existence of story-heavy games such as Planescape: Torment, BioShock: Infinite, Portal, and Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. It is true that only two of those games have enjoyed mainstream success, but they’re all proof that developers as a whole are taking their storytelling much more seriously than those from the eighties and early nineties. We’ve gone from games that couldn’t even spell “congratulations” correctly to games with narratives that causally mention scientific theories and expect the player to keep up.

This brings me to my final point. The AAA industry is hardly the only source of good video games; if it’s showing signs of being creatively bankrupt, that’s when you need to dig beneath the surface. Sometimes, review scores only correspond to how much money was spent on the game’s marketing campaign; perhaps that game dismissed by critics offhandedly is actually an unappreciated masterpiece which puts anything the AAA industry could dish out to shame. This doesn’t only apply to video games either. Annoyed by the music topping the charts? Listen to what individual critics have to say and discover hidden talent. Unimpressed with the latest Hollywood “masterpiece”? Consider paying a visit to the local theater that regularly screens limited releases.

So have games been dumbed down over the years? In light of all this, I can answer that question with a resounding, “No.”

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15 thoughts on “Have Games Been Dumbed Down Over the Years?

    • And then the endings of those games usually turned out to be a single screen of badly-translated text. The kinds of narratives and content prevalent in games these days demonstrate how far the medium has come in such a short time.

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  1. Some games are being thought to be dumber rather than concise, they might insist on guiding you the whole way like a mother and her child rather than steer you correctly through clever placements and such.

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    • While that may be true to some extent, I think people are quick to forget that the alternative would be constantly looking up solutions on the internet when presented with an obstacle that might be clear to some people, but not others. At worst, the way to advance ends up being completely counterintuitive or involves an action that the player would have no inclination to perform otherwise. Considering how much more advanced modern games are as a whole than games from the 80s and early 90s, which often didn’t feature directions more complicated than “go right,” it makes sense that you would need some form of guidance. Though, the nice thing about some of those games is that you can turn off tutorials so you can figure things out on your own. With a lot of older games, especially adventure games, 99% of their longevity stemmed from the player not knowing what to do and thus bumbling around for days not making any progress at all as it was before one could look it up on GameFAQs.

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      • Well that is why in current times they need to push more good design and conveyance rather than GPS and the equivalent of big signs pointing where to go and what to do. Good design puts you in the role and has the world show you the way, be it a alleyway that seems more dimly lit or a stream of light peeping through that boarded up window. If half the effort to hand hold was put into conveyance of information, we’d all be happy.

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        • That I can agree with. It seems like in a lot of those cases, the developers created the levels before figuring out how the player should progress through them, and thus used the GPS system as a lazy fix. Still, it’s handy for open-world games to let players know how to navigate them.

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  2. I still find myself enjoying games a lot in today’s age, just as much as I did when I was younger. I look at a lot of big releases and this question pops into my head, and its really hard to put a finger on. Of course it may be different for each player, who plays a game. A GPS is a big one for me, it comes in handy sometimes, and it isn’t a bad thing at all. It shouldn’t be forced on the player though, the option of turning it of or on is good. I find a lot of games with a set difficulty should be harder as well, as I find its not hard enough. I enjoy just breezing through a game at times, but other times I want a challenge.

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    • Yeah, the GPS is best when it’s optional. Even experienced gamers might use it if they’re short on time and want to blaze through the quest without having to find their way around first. It’s not that common for games these days to have a set difficulty, which is another quality that makes Dark Souls stand out (it technically has difficulty levels in the form of a New Game+, but you can’t choose them). I think easier games are a nice break after playing challenging ones. Even if I have a definite stance on the titular question, I always think it makes for an interesting conversation piece.

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  3. Urgh, necro-comment, sorry. I need to spend more time on the internet so I can catch these posts when the good discussion’s going on.

    Anyways, yeah, I agree strongly with a lot of what you’re saying here. Games as a whole getting less difficult is a sign of progress and better managing their complexity rather than a sign of being dumbed down. The modern era of gaming is largely marked by making games more and more convenient to play; a lot of the systems that made games hard back then, such as limited lives, a lack of checkpoint, incredibly obtuse puzzle solutions, and requiring either inhumanly fast reflexes or already knowing what’s coming up, would be seen as signs of a bad game today. A difficult game can be pretty bad for the storytelling experience, too. Not only does it mean that, as you mentioned, not everyone gets to have the full story, but every time you fail and have to start over both breaks immersion and absolutely ruins the narrative pacing. To some degree, I do appreciate having to work for a story, and there are ways to manage it, but nothing loses me off a story faster than having to watch the same cutscenes over and over again because I just can’t get past this particular block.

    Also, in some ways, I think PvP Multiplayer has taken the place of the Nintendo Hard-style gameplay challenge. There’s where you need the lightning-fast reflexes and complete knowledge of the game that traditionally hard games used to require just for basic completion, and even then, victory is usually uncommon.

    Part of it may also be that we’re remembering the NES games from when we were young, and not so good at video games, and may be viewing them as harder than they used to be. I beat the first Zelda relatively recently. And it was easy. I was never able to beat it as a kid, no matter how I tried.

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    • There’s one Fire Emblem game in particular that has the problem we mentioned. It’s called Thracia 776 and it’s the fifth game in the series, released three years after Geneology of the Holy War. It has a great story, but the game is unrelentingly difficult to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if most people who played it back in 1999 (it was a very late Super Famicom game) never saw how the plot resolved. Granted, it’s a midquel that takes place between the fifth and sixth chapters of the previous game, ending sometime in the middle of its eighth chapter, so the players at least knew how the overarching story ended, but I think our point still stands. It’s a good example of a game whose quality is actively hurt by how difficult it is because it’s flat-out unfair at points. There certainly has to be a good balance between a rewarding challenge and an engaging story or else you get an unsatisfying game or a story that, from your perspective, has no conclusion.

      I think PvP is a viable substitute for those Nintendo Hard games because then the difficulty is stemmed from outwitting your opponents, and thus is more organic than the old-school mentality of “We made this game hard by not polishing our gameplay – deal with it.”

      I remember the original Zelda giving me a hard time when I was a kid as well. I remember my brother helping me through a lot of that game. Then again, half the challenge was from the game itself while the other was derived from the fact that some of the dungeons were almost impossible to find (if anyone actually found Level 8 of the second quest without a guide, I would be very impressed). Nowadays, it’s easy because instead of working out the cryptic clues, you can just go to GameFAQs. Then again, a lot of these games’ longevity was the result of bumbling around for several hours, not knowing what to do next. That said, I still like the original Zelda and it’s one of my favorite games. Unlike the original Metroid or Mother to their respective SNES sequels, the original Zelda does not simply feel like a prototype to A Link to the Past, or at least not to the same extent. A Link to the Past may have more polish with improved gameplay and better storytelling, but the original Zelda’s almost open-world gameplay and unique mechanics make it stand out from the rest of the series and it has held up surprisingly well.

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