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.”