The reveal of Psychonauts 2‘s upcoming invincibility toggle has reignited an increasingly frustrating debate over video game difficulty.
In case you missed it, the Xbox team recently sent out a tweet that simply read “Beating the game on the lowest difficulty is still beating the game.” While that tweet proved to be controversial enough with those who strongly disagree with that seemingly simple sentiment (more on that in a bit), things really got interesting when Psychonauts 2 developer Double Fine decided to weigh in on the topic.
Interestingly, that happened to be the first time Double Fine mentioned that Psychonauts 2 will include an invincibility toggle. While Double Fine later joked about their response to this tweet, they did confirm that Psychonauts 2 will indeed have an invincibility option and that using the feature won’t even prevent you from earning achievements.
Well, that’s where the “trouble” started. You can probably imagine what some of the more heated responses to this statement look like, which is helpful since we won’t be amplifying them here. Let’s just say that there are some gamers who don’t like the idea of people playing a game with invincibility turned on rather than playing it the “intended” way. It’s the same old song and dance that we see pretty much every time this topic comes up.
There are a couple of interesting new wrinkles in this particular argument, though. The first concerns the suggestion that this is actually a “games journalist mode.” While that’s obviously kind of a joke, there has been a lot of debate lately about how journalists play games, especially since a Days Gone voice actor suggested that game’s low review scores can be partially attributed to reviewers not playing the game properly. Here again, we see some people suggest that this is just a way to make it easier for journalists to play through games, which, they claim, will prevent them from being able to properly experience it and then relay that experience to others.
First off, that argument kind of falls apart for the same reason that most arguments about game journalists tend to fall apart: it’s based on the idea that game journalists are some kind of collective entity. There are thousands of people who work as what you may call “game journalists” across various websites and social platforms. In case you’ve never looked at a Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes page, journalists tend to disagree (sometimes wildly) regarding the topics they cover. At the risk of disappointing someone, there is no secret game journalist collective. Some people who cover games actually do enjoy playing them at higher difficulties, and they’ll usually let you know that’s the case. Others prefer a different kind of experience, and they also get to have their say.
More importantly, the idea of an intended experience becomes significantly more difficult to accept as we move into a new age for game difficulty. Whereas game difficulty options used to boil down to “Easy, Normal, or Hard” (at best), many modern games include a variety of difficulty options designed to please more nuanced difficulty desires.
Game developers are working harder than ever to ensure that their games are designed to be balanced across much more nuanced difficulty settings, which makes it harder to argue that only one of those settings somehow constitutes the intended experience. While it makes sense that someone may criticize a game if they feel like the difficulty of one setting upsets the balance of another, that’s not what we’re dealing with in most of these cases. A greater variety of games can be enjoyed in a greater variety of ways than ever before, and it just sometimes feels like we struggling to really take a moment and appreciate that.
The other, more interesting, debate at the moment focuses on whether or not playing a game with invincibility (or similar) options enabled actually means that you “beat it.”
That discussion is a little more complicated. As someone who loves difficult games (we’ve been celebrating them on this website quite a bit lately), I do understand how the idea of someone saying they beat a game while removing as many challenges as possible could initially be frustrating. I can even sympathize with the idea of wanting credit for beating a game at higher difficulties. In some cases, that credit is honestly arguably deserved. Just look at the speedrunning community and the incredible things they accomplish.
However, there are some who say that playing Psychonauts 2 with invincibility on means you beat it as much as someone who watched a playthrough of the game “beat it,” which is really where this whole argument falls apart.
While there is certainly nothing wrong with watching a playthrough of a game to see the story (or even see what all the fuss is about), the fact is that someone who decides to play a game with invincibility (or any other difficulty assistance features) enabled still decided to play that game. They bought it, they invested time in it, and even with certain difficulty assistance features activated, they managed to overcome various challenges along the way.
They put the time in to experience a game at the difficulty level they chose, and they managed to see it through to the end at a time when completion rate is reportedly one of the biggest reasons why we don’t get more of these kinds of games in the first place. Most importantly, they decided to play this game (just like you did) when they could have done any number of other things in a world of pretty essentially unlimited entertainment options.
That’s the thing I’ll never understand about gatekeeping. When someone says “I played X game,” how is your first response “What difficulty did you play it at?” rather than simply enjoying the fact that you’re interacting with someone that you clearly have a shared interest with? Even if you wanted to convince them to play the game at a harder difficulty, how is that kind of fundamental hostility supposed to help you?
Of course, that’s the thing about video game difficulty gatekeepers. They don’t want people to share things with; they want to be able to feel like they’re better than someone else.
At a time when gaming was far more niche and often a source for ridicule, the promise of everyone becoming a gamer was one built on the idea that you no longer had to feel this lingering social shame for just liking the thing you like. That makes it all the more tragic we still seem to be dealing with so many people who seem so insistent on creating these artificial barriers when we should be enjoying a golden age of simply being able to say “I like video games” without having it feel like someone is shining a light on your face that’s brighter than ever before.