Historically, difficulty settings have been rudimentary in nature. You either get a choice of X number of settings from easy to hard, or the game simply is what it is. Whether the option of difficulty should be in every game – or no games at all – is a frequently debated topic. Try starting a thread about the Dark Souls series needing an easy mode and watch the internet explode in all directions.
Celeste may not have started it, but it’s the game that got me thinking about difficulty in a more granular sense. Since then, I’ve noticed other games that offer different takes on more nuanced difficulty settings.
Celeste is a brutally difficult game by default, but it gives you more control over exactly how difficult. You can adjust any combination of speed, stamina, number of air dashes, or invincibility so that you can neutralize specific aspects of the game that you find difficult without worsening other aspects of the experience you enjoy. The game never penalizes you for making use of these features, so feel free to tweak the game as needed in order to experience its meaningful story.
Mega Man 11 is also no slouch in the difficulty department. I struggled my way through it on Normal thanks to the in-game shop. No longer do you have to preserve E tanks for specific moments, as you can buy those, as well as free lives and an assortment of other upgrades and power-ups between bosses. Some of these power-ups include being able to charge your shot without having to hold the button down, to one-time use items that prevent you from dying in a pit, to items that cut your damage in half for one life. Without this feature, I never would have finished the game on Normal. However, if you don’t want to engage with the shop for a more “pure” Mega Man experience, you can simply skip this as well.
Spider-Man doesn’t seem terribly difficult when it comes to combat, but its pipe-puzzles are my Kryptonite. In the old days, I’d have to revert to a guide or just stop playing the game because I got stuck at a mini-game that I suck at and don’t like. Instead, the game gives you the option to simply skip them if you don’t want to.
Not very far into Shadow of the Tomb Raider, but I know that it also has a more nuanced approach to difficulty. Besides having an overall difficulty setting, it allows you to fine-tune based on combat, exploration, and puzzle-solving. Right now, I have everything set to default, but I’m glad that I can specifically tune puzzle-solving and exploration down if I want to, without compromising the combat, which I’m competent at.
If this is where game design is headed, I’m all for it. Being able to adjust the particular aspects of the experience rather than the experience as a whole gives more players the opportunity to find the right balance. That being said, if you’re a game designer and you want to provide only one setting so that players experience the game exactly as you intended it, that’s your decision to make. Personally, I’d prefer it if every experience gave me at least some control in order to tailor the difficulty to my specific tastes and skill level.