I have a whole load of thoughts on this, many of which are not compatible with each other, so apologies for the rambling incoherence of the following thoughts and comments.
Total agreement. I think a lot of it is socialized, and comes from the way the space was historically characterized, especially in its competitive aspects, as heavily male. Citing friends is obviously anecdotal, but, in my circle at least, I’ve mainly heard this from cis women (and never from cis men; that mainly is to encompass a couple of non-binary friends who also have said similar things). I have a friend who’s beaten Hyper Light Drifter (with a trackpad instead of a mouse or controller) and reached Hollow Knight’s true ending and still (genuinely) says she’s “bad at games.” Which if you know the difficulty those particular ones, is bit of a ridiculous claim.
Total agreement again. Enjoy games at whatever level you want to enjoy them! I am never, ever, ever going to finish Enter the Gungeon, but I adore that game. I will never get a chicken dinner in PUBG, but that’s fine. Still appreciate everything it does.
Total agreement, as with @Shivoa’s comments on difficulty as a system, and slight disagreement on @Fanshawe’s comments on skill being unimportant in critical analysis. I do think that difficulty (not levels necessarily, but a pure base dififculty) meaningfully affects game narratives. Celeste would have lost something (in my reading, maybe not in everyone’s, but definitely in mine) if I hadn’t died 3000 times before finishing the main game. Hence the devs’ comment about how they had made the Assist Mode to make the story more accessible, but how it wasn’t the intended way to play the game.
And this is not a thing that only exists in games! I have never finished Infinite Jest, but it’s pretty well known that the tediousness of flipping back and forth between endnotes and the main text is an intentional part of reading that book. That changes if you have, say, an e-book version where you can tap a number and immediately read a footnote. Difficulty is part of the text. It deserves to be interacted with like any other system, and I do think discounting it as a system misses a significant potential narrative or thematic component in a lot of games. There are other examples, but this comment is already going to be horrendously long so…
We don’t, but we (or at least I) generally also don’t look for literary/film/music criticism written by people who miss the themes of a story or can’t pick up on its symbolism. And this is where I think I differ a bit from consensus here on a couple of things. Partially because I come from English academia, where it’s viewed as kind of imperative that people writing narrative critiques finish (usually several times) the books they’re writing about, I think critiquing a game that one hasn’t finished, as @Fanshawe kind of alluded to, can leave a potentially big hole in analysis. There have been a lot of discussions around here (sometimes motivated by this point) in the past about whether critics should have to finish games to write about them and while I think the idea of “finishing” a game isn’t nearly as simple as it is in other forms of media (i.e., how many endings would one have to find, or how many hours would one have to play, or etc.), I ah, do actually think that seeing a game’s full narrative arc is pretty important if someone is doing a comprehensive critique. This isn’t limited to narrative criticism; for some games it actually can transfer into criticism of systems or mechanics. Undertale becomes a significantly different game if someone makes it two hours in and stops without seeing the turn at the end.
Conversely, in run-based games that deemphasize endings (roguelikes and lites, also stuff like PUBG which btw is a rogue-lite don’t @ me), this changes a bit. At that point, I think it becomes more about hours/runs played, because these games often have systems that take several runs to really grow familiar with. Similar concept in a different framing.
But at the same time I think the thing limited critics more often than pure difficulty is just available time. In an ideal setting, someone writing about a game would have unlimited time to actually play it, but that’s not our world. I’ve mentioned in the past that I’ve done archival work with games, and the hardest aspect of that was trying to fit everything I wanted to fit into my limited time there. And I did play a lot of games without finishing them, surveying very specific mechanics and instances and how they were represented across different styles and types of game. But in the work that came out of that, I didn’t write on those games in the same way that I did the ones I actually finished. Ultimately I think my opinion goes something like—you can be absolutely “Terrible At Games” and still write effectively on them, but that has to be part of the writing.
Wow that was a mess. Feel free to tear me apart y’all. If you made it through that essay, you deserve it.