While many of us enjoy playing our favourite videogames on a high difficulty setting, most of them tend to offer an experience which, if you’ll excuse the honest reductionism, can essentially be boiled down to a decrease in player health and an increase in enemy damage and aggression. It’s an established norm that’s existed in videogames for decades, across multiple platforms and genres.
More recently, however, certain developers have begun to break this trend by crafting a difficulty mode that does much more than just intensify the challenge that already existed. Instead, these studios make nuanced but important refinements to the game itself, that work to strip the player of any crutches they may have taken for granted on a normal difficulty setting. For some, this is a step too far that isn’t even worth touching. For others, like myself, its how these games were always meant to be played.
While a number of titles have endeavoured to offer a multiplicity of unique challenge modes, three games in particular come to mind when exploring this topic; The Last of Us, Dying Light and Far Cry Primal. Interestingly enough, these specific modes were not released for each of these games until much later after their initial launch; perhaps reflective of the fact that their implementation required some extra time and effort on the part of the developers as opposed to a quick tweaking. As someone who has played all three to completion, it’s very clear that this work has made all the difference.
One of the more common modifications to authentically enriching a game’s difficulty is to remove the visual prompts that would previously aid player action and progression. This might just be as simple as deactivating the HUD, but other titles go a step further. On Grounded mode in The Last of Us, Joel is no longer able to make out enemy locations through his listening ability, which Naughty Dog completely deactivates. Not only does this bring the gameplay more in keeping with the context of the world itself (Joel’s natural gift for echolocation certainly challenged our suspension of disbelief), but the stealth sequences in The Last of Us became significantly more engaging and tense, forcing players to adopt a more cautious approach to every situation. While combat is a perfectly reasonable strategy when playing The Last of Us on normal difficulty, here it becomes a last resort. Every bottle thrown, every noise heard and footstep taken becomes as significant as moving a chess piece on a board, where the difference between life and death can be determined within seconds. Never has The Last of Us been as scary or as strategically focused, and it’s brilliant.
Other forms of difficulty spikes are even more systemic that this, with new mechanics that affect the gameplay itself. Nightmare Mode in Dying Light throws a number of new systems into the mix; the most brutal of which being that players who die will immediately lose all of the XP they had previously earned above their current level. This might seem overly cruel, if it weren’t for the fact that you can accumulate said points in Dying Light at a much faster rate on Nightmare mode, which also rewards a 10% XP bonus for every other co-op partner in your game. This balance between Nightmare mode’s high incentive and severe sense of punishment creates a tense risk-reward dynamic, accentuated by the reality that death is a lot more common (what with nights being longer and stamina being extremely limited). It essentially adds a quasi-roguelike element to the open world campaign in Dying Light, as players now have to consider the amount of experience points they’re holding in light of what could be achieved by venturing into the more dangerous parts of Harran.
While Dying Light borrows elements from the roguelike genre in its efforts to produce a more hard-core experience, Survivor mode in Far Cry Primal skews instead towards the crafting-survival format, though it does feature a permadeath option for those looking for a true challenge. In Survivor mode, Ubisoft equips protagonist Takkar with a stamina meter which slowly drains over time, exacerbated by actions such as sprinting and fast travel. Once this is fully depleted, Takkar is permanently slower and weaker until he can rest at a campsite.
This mechanic actually helps Far Cry Primal to evoke a better sense of time and place in Oros, by injecting the game’s day-night cycle with more practical significance. You do not want to be caught at night with no stamina, for example, as Survivor mode in Far Cry Primal brings out many more predators to hunt at this time. What’s more, fire—one of your few tools against the darkness—burns through your weaponry much faster, which also have to be crafted for longer and in real-time.
What’s really great about Survivor mode in Far Cry Primal is the flexibility; players can activate it on any difficulty level, allowing anyone to immerse themselves further into the caveman simulation without having to necessarily worry about whether they’re “good” enough to enjoy it. This mode thus caters to playstyle rather than skill level, which represents a refreshing approach to what we typically expect from a Survivor mode.
Each of these titles implements their highest difficulty setting a little differently, yet all of them share a mutual characteristic: when playing in each of these modes, the gameplay begins to more authentically reflect the common thematic focus on survival. While playing on Grounded mode in The Last of Us, I genuinely felt like a vulnerable human trying to survive an inhumane world, when playing Nightmare Mode in Dying Light, my fear for what lurked around every corner reached new heights of paranoia, and on Survival Mode in Far Cry Primal, the Palaeolithic caveman simulation never felt more committed to its harsh environment. It’s understandable that this kind of playstyle is certainly not suited for everyone, but for those who are up to the task, these modes can offer an incredibly fulfilling and rewarding experience