Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Difficulty

Have you ever thought it was weird how difficulty in video games almost always pertains to how challenging the combat is? I mean sure, when there is no combat the difficulty is tailored to a game’s unique challenges, but what about in big-budget open world romps? It’s always struck me as a bit strange how these games only ever seemed to tune-up the enemy encounters and nothing else. It’s for this reason that Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s difficulty options stood out to me. And, frankly, I’m quite surprised no other studio has stolen their implementation. Let’s take a look.

The Tomb Raider reboot trilogy’s gameplay is typically constructed with three components: exploration, puzzles, and combat. Exploration entails navigating the play space, light platforming, and figuring out how to get from point A to B. Puzzles are mostly relegated to the optional challenge tombs where you solve…well…puzzles. Combat is a combination of stealth assassinations and gunfights. In previous entries raising the difficulty only made combat harsher while leaving the other two pillars unaltered. However, in Shadow each pillar has its own difficulty setting. This comes with two benefits that help Shadow stand above the rest of the trilogy.

Firstly, players are able to tweak the difficulty of the Shadow’s exploratory and puzzle elements. For those that struggled with either aspect in the previous games, there is now a verbose hint system aimed at offering assistance. If you find you’re unsure where to go next Lara will provide audio hints and the survival vision feature will highlight objects along the critical path to guide you. Similarly for puzzles, Lara will offer audio hints about how to move forward and survival vision can now be tweaked to show you exactly which part of the puzzle you need to do next.

Alternatively, for players who found that Lara’s vague audio hints spoiled the puzzles there is now an option to disable them along with the whole hint system. In addition, the white paint that is used as a subtle guide within the game environments can be removed giving players a less intrusive experience. These additional options provide a significant boon for players across all skill levels as they’re able to tweak all gameplay elements within Shadow to a level they find most enjoyable.

Secondly, and more importantly, this difficulty system allows players to mix and match for their ideal experience. This removes a lot of unneeded friction from the game as players are able to control how challenging each gameplay aspect is. For example, if you like raiding tombs, but aren’t too hot on combat you have the ability to make enemies more dull-witted and easier to dispatch. This is a huge win as it puts a lot of power in the player’s hands when it comes to crafting their ideal Tomb Raider experience.

As someone who always found Lara’s audio hints frustrating I appreciated these difficulty settings. I was able to play through the entirety of Shadow without having Lara spoil each of the game’s puzzles. Given the tomb raiding is primarily why I enjoy playing Tomb Raider, it was a nice change of pace to be able to play through the game in the way I found most satisfying.

But as I was playing through the whole of Shadow I couldn’t help but wonder if other games would have benefited from a similar system. Breath of the Wild was praised to the high heavens, but there were two common threads of criticism I saw online. Some found the combat too punishing and others found the puzzles too easy. In an alternate universe, wouldn’t it have been interesting were Breath of the Wild to feature similar difficulty options to Shadow of the Tomb Raider? One wherein you could reduce the difficulty of combat if you found it too challenging, or raise the difficulty of the puzzles if you found them too easy. Obviously it’s a pie in the sky idea, but such a feature may have improved the experience for players who fell into one, or both of the above camps.

What about in RPGs. What if puzzles, or persuasion checks were made more involved on higher difficulty settings? For example: perhaps there could be a setting wherein you had to collect additional information before trying to persuade an NPC, or you needed a better read on the situation to get the best outcome? That’s an incredibly complex piece of software to engineer, but it’d still be an interesting change versus the ho-hum of only being able to adjust the challenge associated with combat.

So that’d be my ask from big budget game devs going forward. Look at what Shadow did and steal the system wholesale. Having more diverse and involved difficulty options could help a wider array of players find their perfect experience within your game resulting in more satisfied customers. I think there is a lot of benefit to players, of all skill ranges, if we saw more systems like this appear in other games.

What’s your opinion on this? I already have a theory about why this doesn’t get done more (m-o-n-e-y), but despite that would you like to see more difficulty options in the games you play? More specifically, for games with multiple pillars of gameplay would you like to see difficulty for each pillar, or are you okay with the existing system? Let me know so we can argue in the comments.

Also I swear this is probably the last time I talk about video game difficulty in a post…maybe. At least for this year.

28 thoughts on “Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Difficulty

  1. Not as involved as this sounds, but the Danganronpa series has something similar. You can set difficulty for the investigation and action portions separately, and I really appreciated those options.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah for sure. I remember that, but also remember not actually understanding what the difficulty options controlled. I think it’s important to actually define what each difficult controls so the players can make decisions about which option is best suited for them. Didn’t include the screen captures, but Shadow of the Tomb Raider has a detailed breakdown of what changes with each option so you know exactly what you’re signing up for.

      Like

  2. Okay, this post is screaming at me to comment.

    I mean, I wrote an article on game difficulty and Shadow Of The Tomb Raider. I mean…

    Now, in terms of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I had four times where Lara straight up spoiled the puzzle when I was using the adventure sense to see what I can interact with. But I really loved the tuning you could do with the difficulty.

    https://arpegi.wordpress.com/2019/03/20/gamers-thoughts-difficulty-in-games/
    https://arpegi.wordpress.com/2018/11/15/game-review-shadow-of-the-tomb-raider-pc-trinity-awaits-you/

    If I remember correctly, some Silent Hill games had a similar style of difficulty where you could set the puzzles and combat difficulty.

    But, I think that it’s going to increase the development time of a game by a lot. I mean, you have more scenarios to balance and test. I think that only games where the combat and the puzzles are clearly separated could benefit from this system.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Took me a bit longer to reply to you, NekoJonez. Had to go through the attached articles haha.

      To your point about Lara spoiling puzzles: I found that extremely frustrating in the 2013 reboot and Rise. I don’t always get the puzzles right away, so I’d use the survival vision to figure out what the “pieces” were so I could work backwards from the end for the solution, but using that tool immediately sees Lara blurt out a hint. It was nice in Shadow having her hints completely disabled so I could enjoy solving the puzzles on my own. It did come with the lack of survival vision, but, more often than not, I found the game seemed designed with this limitation in mind as many of the intractable objects stood out from the environment they were placed in. Almost like the dev team had to design things a little more cleanly when they couldn’t rely on the player having “god vision” with the click of a button.

      I’m generally in agreement, but I think it’s dev time well spent. It’s a more complex problem to solve than simply raising or lowering a set of numbers for combat, but the potential benefits are huge. Also in agreement about it only being applicable to games with multiple types of gameplay. Open-world styled games are mostly what I had in mind as I was thinking about the subject of difficulty. Many of them only feature difficulty centered around combat, while including a bunch of other modes of gameplay that only seem to exist in service of pacing, so they kind of get ignored even if they’d had the potential to be an enjoyable part of the overall experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I was wondering about this kind of thing last year when Death Stranding came out and it was announced there is a Very Easy mode. Even after playing through the game I’m not entirely sure what the difference is between difficulty settings when I assume it’s primarily about combat, which there isn’t much of in DS.

    That was another thing that stood out to me about The Last of Us 2’s many different accessibility and difficulty options. You can fine tune the different combat mechanics alongside visual and auditory assistance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Does Death Stranding not elaborate on what the difficulty settings actually change? I didn’t touch on it, but Shadow of the Tomb Raider goes into extreme detail to let you know exactly what is changing with each tweak you make so you’re able to choose what you believe is the appropriate level of challenge for each of the different gameplay pillars. That removes a lot of the guess work. Though you also have the option to alter the difficulty at any time through the menu which is nice.

      More and more games are leaning into adding accessibility options, which they are woefully behind on when compared to other tech industries which are under far more regulatory scrutiny.

      Though, an important distinction: difficult and accessibility aren’t the same thing. A game can be easy and entirely inaccessible. Likewise a game can be challenging, but wholly accessible. Accessibility refers to motor or cognitive limitations that someone experiences which prevent them from being able to engage with something. Difficulty refers to the level of challenge that is on offer. Though with a number of main stream games focusing primarily on delivering combat related challenges based around twitch reflexes and repetitive motions (button mashing) the two have becomes somewhat interconnected in any discussion about the subject.

      That said, what kinds of difficulty options did Last of Us 2 offer? I’m curious, but don’t own a Play Station (nor will that change) and am curious.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t recall any explanation of the differences in difficulty settings other than using the same ones as a lot of other games “for the experienced gamer looking for a challenge” or “for players new to action games”. Like so many other games it doesn’t go into exactly what is “more challenging” in the different settings. I’m curious about the very easy mode, when I thought the game was relatively easy to begin with and for the pc port just released there’s the addition of very hard mode.

        The Last of Us Part 2 may have some of the widest options available to adjust gameplay settings; the majority of the I believe are accessibility settings, though there’s still more difficulty/gameplay settings than most games.
        Looking over some of them quickly, I may have misspoke slightly. There still are a number of options, but they are primarily about adjusting enemy and friendly AI behaviors, such as how often or aggressively they will try to flank you in combat situations or if friendlies can die when taken hostage. The game still has far more options than a lot of other games, but as you mentioned, they’re primarily combat-focused and don’t apply to other elements like puzzles, etc.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Huh that’s an interesting anecdote. Wonder if the console versions of the game were also updated to have the new very hard mode.

          Seems that way, but those are still some interesting options that let you tweak things for the optimal experience. I guess one thing I should have asked: would you say most of the game’s challenges come from combat? Obviously you can’t include options for tweaking the puzzles if there aren’t any.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I haven’t played the Tomb Raider games yet, but a higher level of difficulty tweaking would be awesome to see in more games. We are all human with different skill sets and the more options the better as far as I’m concerned.

    Also, the 1st Place Blog Crawl Badge looks so awesome in your sidebar!! A huge congrats once again 🍻

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed. It really got me thinking specifically because when I was younger I didn’t particularly like having to raise combat difficulty even though I’ve spent the better part of the last decade going through the gaming ringer. Still though – I kinda irks me when games don’t give me the option to disable puzzle hints as I find actually solving the puzzles pretty rewarding.

      Thank you. Got that sorted this morning, so I had to proudly display the badge for everyone to see. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The “problem” I see with approaching difficulty in other areas than combat is that there are no numerical values to be tweaked, making even the tiniest attempt to tamper with difficulty a complex issue. Enemies have more HP, damage, or resistances? That’s easy. I remember videogamedunkey saying in a video about Silent Hill that “on the Easy difficulty, puzzles make 20 % more sense”.

    While this obviously is a joke, difficulty in puzzles is rather subjective. If you don’t want to skip entire puzzles, giving hints is pretty much the only thing you can do to help players out. But hint systems are more common than you might think, just not in the games’ settings. Most games with dedicated “puzzle game modes” give you that option, sometimes only after a few minutes, forcing you to think for yourself first, others on a resource system or a cooldown.

    I agree that unsolicitated hints are disruptive and can spoil the puzzles, so the easiest and most effective way would probably a dedicated “hint” button. Your character wouldn’t help you until YOU decide you want some help. Triggering specific voice lines are very well within developers’ capacities, and recognising you are in a “puzzle area” shouldn’t be a technical problem, either.

    It is similar with exploration in many games. True, most of them don’t have difficulty settings for exploration, but offer special abilities like waypoints, guiding lights, detective visions, etc. Again, exploration difficulty has no numerical value to play with, you either need additional visual or audio cues. That’s the point: additional. I think that in these cases, no help should be the standard. Of course, additional help could/should be available, but I don’t think it is necessary to hide it behind an options screen.

    All the special visions, helpful cues, etc. should be introduced during normal gameplay (which they pretty much are most times). However, I think it should also be communicated that they are additional helps, and that it is advised to first try without them. If that was the developers’ intent, in the first place.

    All in all, I think you underestimate the amount of (more or less optional) supporting system already in place in many games, and got a bit “distracted” by seeing it in the settings screen for the first time. Correct me, if I’m wrong, of course.

    (Also: YOU FOOL! DID YOU REALLY THINK YOU COULD POST ANYTHING AND GET AWAY WITHOUT ME COMMENTING A WHOLE NOVEL? PREPOSTEROUS!)
    (Also also: I did try to make it as short as possible!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand that it is a more challenging problem to tackle from a development standpoint (I do code for a living after all – I did think about this from that viewpoint before posting), but I think the benefits are worth the additional development time. Obviously not everyone is going to agree with that. Most games that are designed for the widest demographic go with a lowest common denominator approach (much in the same way that a variety of products do).

      I’m in agreement with you in as far as having dedicated hint systems, but I think that could be more clearly communicated to players. The survival vision feature is introduced in Shadow of the Tomb Raider as “use this to highlight objects in the world”. Nothing about that screams “use this when you need a hint” even though that is the intention of the system. While it is implied, I think being more clear when communicating this would be advantageous.

      Oh goodie, now I get to challenge you on something. Special vision should only be used as an optional hint system, but it almost never is. One of the first times I ran into this feature in a game was when I played Witcher 3, which is a game you can not finish without using the Witcher vision. The game is designed in such a way that navigating a huge portion of the quests is impossible without during the world grey and following the obnoxious highlighting for things only a witcher can see. This entirely removes what could have been a fun aspect of tracking down monsters (or other such side objectives) from the game and instead rail roads players forward by having them follow a highlighted bread crumb trail.

      I’ve, similarly, felt like the previous two Tomb Raider games were designed assuming that players would use the survival vision whenever they got stuck and because of that were designed around the feature. There was a handful of times in both games where I had no idea what I was meant to do next and had to rely on the hint system to point out something that had managed to blend into the environment.

      Shadow, in my opinion, is one of the only games I’ve played where the survival vision felt truly optional. The harder difficulties disable it entirely, but I never felt like I needed it throughout the whole of my playtime. A greater amount of attention went into the world and puzzle design so that if you were supposed to notice something you would without the need to highlight it in survival vision. The colour, shape, and placement of objects are used to guide the player because the developers knew they couldn’t rely on “god vision”. It had to be clear otherwise it wouldn’t be fair.

      Regarding exploration specifically, the same problem that exists for god vision also exists for exploration: if the game isn’t designed like the hint system doesn’t exist then it won’t be possible to get by without it. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is one of the only (kind of) open world-y type games I’ve played where I could actually navigate the whole play space without needing waypoints or a map. The different areas of the city were actually labeled with literal signs and signposting was included all over the place to help guide players. The same can’t be said for the overwhelming majority of big budget games. Without waypoints the worlds are impossible to navigate because they don’t include the information that players would need to successfully navigate them.

      Aside: I think Mark Brown did an entire episode of GMTK on this didn’t he? I’m getting vague flashbacks to that…using the exact same examples I just did lol

      So I guess my counter point here is that while the intention for these systems might be to act as subtle implementations of difficulty versus games outright stating difficulty options in a menu I don’t believe that the games which they appear in are designed with enough care and consideration for that to be true. Because god vision and waypoints are a tool that is available to the player they’re treated as ancillary components to the experience instead of optional ones.

      Aside: Oh god…now I’ve written a novel. We’re going to be here for a while. XD

      Like

      1. Ah, shit, here we go again…I should have just written the full-length novel right at the start, it would have explained my thought about everything you just said, including Mark Brown 🙂
        But I’ll try the short approach again: Yes, I may have mixed some wishful thinking into my statement of “more games than you realise already do this”.

        What I should have said is “There are already a lot of mechanics in play that could totally circumvent the problem without a lot of effort on the developers’ side, like god visions, hint systems and waypoint trackers. But I agree that 90 % of them don’t get used in the best way, namely being only an on-demand support system, rather than a crutch to have an additional gameplay mechanic to throw at you.”

        I didn’t want to bring up The Witcher 3 because everyone and their mother has already talked about it, but yes, it is an absolute garbage tier way of implementing god vision (for all the Witcher fanboys losing their shit right now: I’m criticising one mechanic, not the entire game…sorry, that had to be)

        Special visions and other support systems should either – as you said – not be part of the core design and merely an add-on, or, if devs want it to be a mechanic on its own, should have drawbacks while using it. Activating them should have meaning, either admitting defeat (let’s be honest here, when the game is not at fault and we as players were too dumb to figure out a well-designed challenge, it IS defeat) or by creating tension, similar to a menu that doesn’t pause your game.

        Incidentally, GMTK did not only post a video about “following the breadcrumbs”, but also a whole series about accessibility. One of the really interesting points he made was the minimap and car navigation in the GTA games. He advocated for the minimap and most of the waypoints to go away, and even make it part of the players’ decisions. “Do I want to steal a car with a navigation system to find my way? Or do I want to rely on my map or do I know the way good enough?”

        Whenever I can, I switch off minimaps, waypoints, and even forgo fast travel as much as possible. If the world is well designed, you’ll know your way around it in no time. You’ll navigate through street signs, basic “compass directions”, your general sense of orientation and sheer repetition. A really cool example can be found in KHOLAT, a horror Walking Sim, where you have a bunch of maps, and that’s it. You have to keep track of your position yourself, it isn’t shown anywhere. Of course, finding everything took longer, but orienting yourself by unique landmarks and cross-referencing them was just fun. Every time you arrived at your location, it felt like a victory on its own.

        If a world is impossible to navigate without waypoints, it’s a sign of a badly designed world. It’s either too bland, or filled with too much meaningless content. In my opinions, we don’t need huge, open worlds filled with nothingness (looking at you, Bethesda), but small, manageable areas.

        My biggest gripe with all of this is that we can say “the devs should do it that way” all we want, but a lot of (open) worlds are simply poorly designed, and all our ideas and tricks to make well-designed environments even better to navigate don’t work in there. You can’t just turn off waypoints and Fast Travel in Skyrim, you’d never get anything done!

        The problem I see with including these things in the (difficulty) settings is that sometimes you’d have to turn them on and off constantly. And let’s face it, most menus are scientifically proven to cause headaches, and I don’t want to turn on/off an option every 10 minutes, if I can have just a dedicated button for it. But as you said, everything hinges on developers creating their games without “needing” the support systems.

        So much for the “short approach”…also, I do hope I have addressed everything you said, I’m never sure with these long-ass comments 🙂 I know that I meticulously avoided talking about Tomb Raider, but that’s because I have only played the classic six games.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. God damn it. XD

          It sounds like, given the option to, we both try to approach games in a very similar manner and have had very similar experiences with a lot of bigger budget games. I will say that just because it is easier to do something one way doesn’t mean that we should just accept it as the defacto way that something should be done.

          I’ve also never found the need to switch things on and off. I usually tend to select a difficulty and if I feel it isn’t correct I tweak it and then stop fiddling with it once I find what I like. With how limited most difficulty options are that means I can determine what kind of difficulty is best suited to me within the first hour or two of play and then I don’t have to change it for the remainder of my play-through.

          You did address everything I brought up. I’m pretty sure if we ever meet in person we’d spend the entire time drinking and arguing, while also agreeing with, each other on a variety of game design topics. We both enjoy the idea of discussing this stuff for the sake of discussing it too much hahaha.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Fair enough. I find myself switching certain features (like minimaps) on/off when I’m looking for specific, but “unimportant” things and can’t be bothered to navigate the hard way (ie. a bank in Assassin’s Creed). But yes, a minimap probably should not get a dedicated button, or we’d have 25 different buttons for the support options…

            I guess we’ll find out next year when I’m finally coming to Canada 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  6. I would love to see these kind of difficulty options in games going forward. I find a lot of the combat-based difficulty changes to feel very arbitrary – enemies are just given a load of health/major stat increases, which makes every encounter (with even a minor enemy) take 20 minutes to get through. I don’t really have the patience for that kind of “difficulty.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m in a similar boat. That’s part of why I found the difficulty options in Tomb Raider so notable – I was able to tweak the elements outside of combat. I’d probably enjoy more open world-y type games if I had the option to make exploration and puzzle solving more challenging. As it stands I always feel like those games hold your hand through the duration of those segments while only taking the gloves off once you’re allowed to kill something.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I have for a while been against the idea of difficulties in videogames. Which is mostly because I think games that have one difficulty tend to be better designed… As everything in the game is designed around that difficulty, rather than having to add tag on difficulties with more or less HP, ATK and DEF on enemies.

    Now I can’t say much in regards to Tomb Raider, as I have not played it.

    We all know the reason puzzles handhold for most parts and that is due to the fear of having players fail.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I poked at that in my response to Quietshisto, but I found Shadow of the Tomb Raider to be the most well designed of the 3 Tomb Raider reboot games entirely because it was the first one that I felt could be reasonably navigated and played without the use of the survival vision. A lot more time appears to have gone into making it clear what can and can’t be interacted with. There’s less guesswork that way: you can simply tell what the tools and rules of the puzzle are without needing survival vision to pull stuff out of the environment.

      I’ve had similar thoughts to the last point you made, but in the interest of both providing the benefit of the doubt and also not trying to be exclusionary toward others I didn’t make that a point in the article. Though I do still feel like a lot of design decisions are made with the lowest common denominator in mind.

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  8. I am not usually one to play a game through a variety of difficulties and I usually just go with the normal/middle option. However, when I do decide to branch out and play through a game again on a harder difficulty it would be nice if it was more than just the standard trinity of more enemies/take more damage/less HP.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Drawn to this post; the modern Tomb Raider trilogy is amazing, and indeed, the customisation options for Shadow of the Tomb Raider are brilliant. The toughest difficulty mode, Deadly Obsession, has the potential to put you back a ways if you make a mistake, and really upped the tension whilst playing. My heart probably stopped for a moment on particular jumps when I knew one slip could set me back hours! Hopefully more and more games put a focus on accessibility.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading. 😀

      Oh boy. I didn’t have the heart to play deadly obsession. I was far too afraid of losing progress and with the few times where I completely bumbled something up it was probably best that I had been playing with checkpoints on. Though it is pretty rad that different players are able to experience the game in the way they find the most enjoyable creating a wide variety of experiences.

      Like

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