On videogame difficulty settings and second-cheapest wine

How games dress up difficulty to change the ways we think about it -- and about ourselves

Ask anyone who works in a restaurant what their most popular wine is and it won't be the best one they have. It'll be the second-cheapest wine on the menu. Most wine drinkers aren't connoisseurs who care about why this pinot noir is more expensive than that merlot, we just want to order something that won't make us look like a cheap date.

In video games Normal difficulty is normally the second-cheapest wine. Even games with seven levels of hardness usually put Normal one step up from the bottom rather than near the middle. It's the default assumption, the thing you pick so you don't embarrass yourself. We choose Normal difficulty so that we'll experience a game the way it was meant to be played, but also because we feel like it's the minimum necessary to to still have bragging rights when we complete it.

But not every game works that way. Sometimes games don't actually want you to ignore the bottom of the list and skip straight past it like a cheap chardonnay you've never heard of.

Take Thief: The Dark Project. One of the first stealth games ever made back in 1998 – and still one of the best, to drag the wine metaphor out one more time it is a very good vintage – Thief had to teach players unfamiliar with the new genre to not approach it like a shoot-em-up. It's a first-person game that gives you a bow, but it's often better not to shoot that bow. Thief is all about lurking, waiting for the right moment. In the shadows you're strong, but caught out in the light you're a startled mouse. It's not an easy game to get used to, so it doesn't have an Easy mode. Thief's three difficulties are Normal, Hard, and Expert.

Saying that there's no Easy mode makes an important statement – it tells you that you should begin from the bottom.

You could argue that's just a way of rebranding Easy, Normal, and Hard, but you'd be wrong. Ignore the bottom rung and leap straight up to Hard and you'll miss out on a lot. Saying that there's no Easy mode makes an important statement – it tells you that you should begin from the bottom, that everyone is a beginner at this and there's no shame starting out there.

Increasing the difficulty in Thief is something best saved for when you've gained a little mastery. When you replay it the differences between Normal, Hard, and Expert reward you in a way that's rare. Rather than just giving the enemies more hit points the higher difficulties alter the layout of maps: that secret passage you relied on the first time may not be there any more, the elevator won't take you to the floor you had access to last time, and the evidence locker you're trying to loot will be in a completely different room. It's familiar but different, like hearing a song you think you know then realising it's a remix.

Objectives change as well. Straightforward jobs gain complications, and suddenly you're orchestrating a prison break-out for two of your accomplices instead of one or busting into a mansion with a whole shopping list of valuables to steal. This is something Thief's creators borrowed from the Nintendo 64 GoldenEye, which gives James Bond an objective like “bungee jump from a dam” on its lowest difficulty but complicates that with “bug this building and steal some data” on harder ones. The higher the difficulty the more it forces you to behave like an actual spy rather than just an action hero. Thief does the same only it's encouraging you to become a master burglar instead. On Hard you're not allowed to kill any civilians and on Expert you're not allowed to kill even armed guards. It's rare among games in that the tougher it gets the less violent it becomes.

If you tried to start Thief on Hard you'd miss out on moments like the time you stab a witness, dispose of their body before a guard patrol arrives, and then realise you forgot to clean up the blood. You'd miss out on exploring its levels the way you're meant to see them for the first time, with layouts and loot placement that are a little more forgiving and less likely to make you bounce right off the whole thing in frustration.

Thief's not the only game you might not experience the ideal way by trying to tough out the wrong difficulty setting on your first go. Jumping past Easy to Normal in Alien: Isolation means the xenomorph you're trying to avoid will be much smarter and able to learn your tactics faster. Trying to distract it with noisemakers will only work once and after that it will ignore the buzzing devices and instead trace them back to their source so it can eat your face. It will even learn how often you hide from it, and the more time you spend cowering in cupboards the more thoroughly it will search them in future.

Starting out on Easy gives you time to observe the xenomorph's behavior and experiment with different ways of dealing with it, but on Normal it learns so fast some players didn't even realise it was happening. They hid and were caught and then assumed that hiding simply didn't work because the AI cheated. Hiding does work in Alien: Isolation, but only to a point. What it tries to teach you is not to run – because that will make noise – but also not to stay in the one place for any length of time. The best way to navigate as the prey is to keep moving at a cautious but steady pace as much as possible so you don't get trapped, which is exactly what Ellen Ripley does in the movie. The climax of Alien features her steadying her nerves by singing a song to herself while walking directly past the xenomorph instead of just curling up in a corner forever.

In a later patch Alien: Isolation added two more difficulties: a hardcore mode for the masochists who had already figured it out, and an Easiest mode that made it even safer but also turned what was previously Easy into the second-from-the-bottom entry. Pushing the mode for beginners one level up to second-cheapest wine encouraged players to see it as a valid choice, which it absolutely is. Even on Easy Alien: Isolation will leave you gasping and make your pulse quicken.

Horror games are often a place where our pride goes to die, and that's fair enough. They aren't just hard to play because they challenge our ability to learn and then manipulate their systems or click on a zombie head with accuracy and speed, but because they make us do those things and everything else under stress. Just walking through an empty apartment building is scary enough in the right game. Some of the Silent Hill series understand this and adapt by doing interesting things with difficulty – Silent Hill 3 separates out the difficulty of its combat (tweaking the mathematics behind damage and ammunition) from the difficulty of its puzzles, letting you alter them independently so that you can crank one up and the other down or keep them level as you please. Each combination is a valid choice.

Horror games are often a place where our pride goes to die.

Stealth and horror are both genres that are all about disempowering the player, making you feel fragile, so it makes sense for them to not really have the kind of Easy mode we dismiss in our shootybang games where it's called things like “I'm Too Young To Die”. But even there, maybe we shouldn't. Wolfenstein: The New Order has some optional bits of sneaking in it but is mostly a pure shootybang game about being an unstoppable badass who isn't even slowed down by a decades-long coma. B. J. Blazkowicz wakes up in a chair he's been sitting in for years and immediately starts killing Nazis like he never stopped. Wolfenstein: The New Order feels right on its lowest difficulty because it's not a game that wants you to die in a bunch of random undramatic ways: it wants you to be that action hero from the start till the end.

Mass Effect 3 managed to infuriate part of its audience before it was even out with the announcement it would have a new “Narrative” difficulty mode below the Casual mode its predecessors had for players who just want to experience the story and befriend some space people – which is what Mass Effect is mostly about if we're being honest with ourselves. Even if you don't romance anyone getting to know these characters and uncover their dark secrets is hugely enjoyable, so even though Mass Effect 3 did actually have the best version of the combat in that series it's fine if people didn't want to spend a lot of time dealing with it to get to the good stuff. It's fine, really.

When you choose the easiest way to play a game there's no waiter judging you, no date looking unimpressed. There is an entire brigade of “GET GOOD” jerks on the internet who will tell you that you don't really play games at all if you don't play them on the hardest difficulty so they consume additional weeks of your empty life, but those opinions can obviously be ignored like the wine snobbery they are.

Occasionally though, a game will gain something more than additional challenge on a higher difficulty. In the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games higher difficulties mean you have to play more notes per song, which can – for some tunes at least – make for a closer approximation of that feeling like you're really playing the music. It can even seem easier when you fall into the rhythm of it, but mainly it's worthwhile because it can help maintain the illusion that you are a guitar god pulling off a deedly-deedly solo as the crowd goes wild.

The post-apocalyptic shooters in the Metro 2033 series also do something interesting with their harder settings, lowering not only your hit points but also those of your enemies. They also make ammo harder to find. Suddenly every bullet is meaningful and potentially world-ending, and since in Metro 2033's future setting bullets have become a form of currency it's entirely apt for them to feel like valuable things.

These games are exceptions of course, whether they add more interest to the entries above second-from-the-bottom or below it. The habit many of us have fallen into of selecting Normal without even looking at the other options is one that we fell into because so many games do perfunctory things with their other difficulties, but these games are proof that they don't have to. Sometimes it is worth looking over the entire menu, whichever direction you go in.

Also, restaurants know that people order second-cheapest wine the most and increase the markup on the wine that actually costs them the least so it's bumped up to the second-cheapest spot. There's a hot tip for you.