Good point about difficulty settings; I guess I was talking more about games without that choice, which I guess are mostly platformers, small indie games, hack-and-slash stuff, etc.
A specific example for me that actually hits exactly what you’re talking about is Hollow Knight. I adore that game; it’s the first game in something like three years I’ve taken the time to 100% complete. And for the most part its difficulty level was fine for me. But the true ending was hidden behind two layers of extra “difficulty”—one Super Meat Boy-esque platforming level and a secret final boss that I found incredibly tedious. I didn’t necessarily have trouble with those—they took me maybe an extra day of attempts to pass—but they were frustrating enough that I think I got less out of the eventual ending than I would have otherwise.
Something brought up on Waypoint Radio a few weeks back (I forget the episode number) was the potential for cheat codes to make a return specifically for bypassing things like that, or to make those sections easier in some defined way (more health, infinite continues, higher weapon damage, something like that). I thought that was a good idea because it preserves the designed experience for anyone who wants to experience it that way while providing a tangible way to modify difficulty.
@jesse I completely agree with your second point. I love difficult platformers and roguelikes, but if you put me in a turn-based strategy game I will find a way to lose before the game even starts. Universal difficulty would be impossible to define.
Gatekeeping may have been a bad choice of words on my part, and I probably should have narrowed my initial post to games with a hard narrative focus. And I’m definitely not advocating for easier games—one of my all-time favorites is Hyper Light Drifter, and I think that game gets a lot of its thematic power from how difficult its combat can be.
I’d be more interested in entirely optional ways to alter difficulty in games without a built in setting, like I mentioned in my previous comment. A good already-existing example of that would be using the Konami Code to get 30 lives instead of 3 in Contra, which alters that game’s difficulty without altering gameplay itself.
In the end though, I’m just curious about how we view difficulty in games as an artistic choice, and one that might restrict people from an artistic work in the same way that a long dense novel might severely restrict its audience.