On multiplayer difficulty and Enter the Gungeon
[This is the second post in a series of brief notes on videogames, intended as short analyses and course notes. Comments are welcome.]
In this post, I seek to reflect on the relationship between difficulty and multiplayer modes in videogames, and on what that connection can tell us about the social inscription of gaming.
Enter the Gungeon, which was the subject of my previous post, has a reputation as a difficult solo game. It also includes a co-operative mode, which was deemed important enough to warrant the inclusion of a dedicated character (the cultist) for the second player.
Opting for this cooperative mode leads to significant adjustments to the game’s difficulty. Most visibly, the hit points of enemies increase by 40%, though their number does not increase. At first glance, the increased firepower of the two players more than make up for this difference. However, the number of discoverable weapons and equipment is not doubled, often forcing one of the players to use sub-par weapons: their actual combined firepower is thus less than double than that of a single player, roughly matching the foes’ increased HP. Other factors complexify the assessment of the differential in difficulty between solo and cooperative modes. In particular, the game resurrects a dead player at the end of each level with their full health (which can easily be abused), and offers several other opportunities for players to revive each other. It is also possible to exploit the fact that enemies focus on one player only, thus leaving opening for their partner. Conversely, Gungeon restricts the field of vision of the two players, who cannot stray far from each other, which makes larger rooms and bosses significantly trickier.
Overall, though, the game becomes significantly easier with two players, at least in the early levels (the lack of resources may hinder deep runs, and some rewards require both players not to take damage); this is especially true if there is an imbalance in skills between the two, as the more experienced one has ample opportunity to chaperon the other.
Devising a perfect balance in games that offer both solo and multiplayer options is admittedly a complex task, but in reality, numerous games do not even try. Classic multiplayer arcade games, like Bubble Bobble, Joust or Double Dragon, did not adjust the difficulty at all when a second player joined in, for obvious reasons: a two-player game could last twice as long and still generate the same revenue. Strikingly, most home conversions simply that configuration, in spite of a different revenue model: the home-computer and console versions of the aforementioned games were simply easier with two players.
This conception has lived on, and in a Reddit discussion with the creators of Enter the Gungeon about the two-player mode, the very first comment made the following suggestion:
Could we maybe get an « Easy Mode » or something instead? Where nothing gets unlocked but you can have a lighthearted run with no pressure coop or alone?1
Strikingly, the author feels it necessary to indicate that this “easy mode” would not unblock anything. In doing so, they echo a popular conception of gaming, in which an easier version is not the “real” game. While widespread, this assumption is controversial, as demonstrated by the fact that the widely different difficulty settings in Dark Souls (very hard with no adjustment) and in Celeste (very hard but entirely adjustable without any penalty) have both been praised by vocal segments of the gaming community.
In The Art of Failure, Jesper Juul eloquently sums up the value of failure, which underpins the Dark Souls option:
Failure forces us to reconsider what we are doing, to learn. Failure connects us personally to the events in the game; it proves that we matter, that the world does not simply continue regardless of our actions. (122)
Even if we accept this description, it does not explain why Enter the Gungeon should offer no option for my younger daughter to complete it: a lower difficulty level would offer her ample opportunity to fail, learn, and be connected to the game, while also offering her a richer and more complete gaming experience.2 In the words of Dominic Arsenault and Bernard Perron:
Playing a game can be understood as a continual tension between the two economies of mastering specific game mechanics—playing-for-mastery—and progressing forward to see the rest of the game’s content—playing-for-progression. (“In the Frame of the Magic Cycle: The Circle(s) of Gameplay”, in Perron and Wolf (eds.) The Video Game Theory Reader 2, 127)
A game like Enter the Gungeon is designed around the assumption that the articulation between playing-for-mastery and playing-for-progression is non-negotiable. Unless, that is, you play with a friend.
Though the author of the Reddit post includes the solo mode in his question, they point to the fact that in many cases, a multiplayer mode is seen as inherently more casual than the solo experience; in that case, a lower difficulty level – even if it were not for a “real” game – would be useful an enjoyable. The fact that local multiplayer is often described as “couch coop” (even in the Washington Post) is telling in that regard: gaming practices exist in physical spaces, and the couch is associated with spectatorship and relaxation rather than performance.3 I have suggested above that this expectation may have a historical basis, and I do think this is a factor: traditions and legacy shape videogames beyond the visible categories of genres and franchises. However, turning to Juul once more suggests a complementary explanation.
In his seminal Half-Real, Juul suggests that the game functions in three different spaces: the game as a formal system, the player and the game, the game and the rest of the world. This taxonomy can obviously be challenged, but it offers a way to think about the shift between solo and multiplayer modes. By selecting the cultist and entering the co-op mode, one displaces the center of gravity of play from “the player and the game” to “the game and the rest of the world”, or to put it differently, from the game as a human-machine interaction to the game as human-human-machine system. Part of the players’ skills and affection get reaffected away from the machine and to their partner, sometimes by design. In the aforementioned Reddit conversation, the developers mentioned this shift as a beneficial result of the limited field of vision in two-player mode:
I don’t agree that the camera is broken… we’ve played many, many hours of Gungeon in co-op, and no one at Dodge Roll feels that’s it’s a problem (if we did, I promise we wouldn’t have shipped it that way!). I do understand that it is limiting, but this just means players need to stick together and actually cooperate to succeed, which we like.
The answer makes it clear that the limits of the game – which were technical in part – were supposed to be overcome through interactions related to the game but not taking place within its formal system. This is also perhaps implicit in the question about the « Easy Mode »: the disappointment of not unlocking in-game weapons and systems would be mitigated by the fact that part of the enjoyment of the game is to be provided by the interaction with the other player.
The social function of the game is thus built in connection with its difficulty, in a complex feedback loop. A multiplayer game of that kind it replaces “challenge-based immersion” (Mayra, An Introduction to Game Studies, 107-111) with a “social immersion”, in which what counts as play is both enlarged and de-centered. Further studies of the configurations adopted in different games would no doubt provide additional data about the de-centering.
- Though of course one which would be adjusted by the players, instead of remaining in the purview of the creators. Difficulty is thus also connected to competing conceptions of auctoriality. Polygon has a nice text about this: https://www.polygon.com/2019/9/26/20883295/difficulty-death-stranding-celeste-game-design
- For what it’s worth, my experience suggest that there really is a world of difference between playing on a couch in a living-room and huddling on hard chairs around a PC: the latter is less of a public spectacle, for instance.