One Question Quiz
Difficulty isn’t just about hardening up, it’s about player enjoyment.
Difficulty isn’t just about hardening up, it’s about player enjoyment.

Pop CultureApril 2, 2019

It’s not about easy mode: FromSoftware and the question of video game difficulty

Difficulty isn’t just about hardening up, it’s about player enjoyment.
Difficulty isn’t just about hardening up, it’s about player enjoyment.

With every new FromSoftware game comes the same debate – how hard is too hard, and why does it matter? Matthew Codd examines this age-old argument and its bogus foundations.

Any new release by FromSoftware – famed creators of Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and now Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – is inevitably followed with a refreshed discussion about the role that the difficulty plays in those games, and whether they should have an “easy mode”. Because this is The Internet, battle lines are drawn along absolutes: either a high level of difficulty is absolutely integral to these games, and to suggest anything else is blasphemy, or the people arguing in defence of challenging gameplay are gatekeeping jerks who simply want to keep other kids out of their sand pit.

But such issues are rarely so black and white, and there’s a fundamental truth that always seems to get lost whenever the Dark Souls Difficulty Discourse™ crops up: difficulty is subjective. What one player finds to be just the right level of challenge, another player will find laughably easy, and still another player will find insurmountable. Some players will get never get past the first boss of a FromSoftware game; others are out there beating them using Rock Band instrument controllers or nothing but voice commands.

It’s worth noting that accessibility often features heavily in these discussions, though “accessibility”, as the word is often used in the context of video games, often conflates two related but distinct issues. One is the question of whether games should, as much as possible, let players with disabilities access a game in the same way as abled players. Spider-Man, God of War, and Uncharted 4 all offer a variety of settings for things like how subtitles display and changing those “mash a button” commands to let you just hold the button down instead.

The other interpretation of “accessibility”, and what I’m dealing with here, is how the level of challenge built into a game’s design can make it difficult for players, disabled and abled alike, to progress through it.

The combat in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has already been hailed and reviled as being universally hard.

There’s truth in the notion that a lot of theme and emotion is carried by the challenges these games present. They’re games about triumphing in the face of odds that seem overwhelming, about finding hope in worlds drowning in despair, brought to life through boss fights that are each their own little journey of clutching onto hope. The first attempt sees you get slaughtered so completely that you don’t even really know what happened, but persevering through retry after retry sees you learn from each death, get just a little bit better each time, until you finally achieve what at first seemed impossible.

When everything clicks into place, that setup can create a feeling of exhilaration quite unlike anything else. I got my first proper taste of this with the third major boss fight of Sekiro. On my first attempt, nothing I tried seemed to have any effect except for this boss reading my moves like a book, parrying every swing of my sword, and countering with attacks that would knock off two thirds of my health bar in one go.

But after a couple more efforts, I started to see the rhythm in his attacks and where he left himself vulnerable, if only for a moment. A few more attempts beyond that, and I started to see how I could use his own defensive tendencies against him: by figuring out how to counter his counters, I could force open gaps in his defence. When I finally beat this boss – some two hours since I first ran into him, and countless deaths in that time – I felt invincible.

Sekiro jumps across flames in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

But that’s a difficult balance to for a game’s designers to achieve. Even if an obstacle seems insurmountable on that first go, there needs to be that glimmer of the possibility that, hey, maybe I can do this. Failure needs to feel like part of a pathway to success, where every death brings you a step closer to victory. If you’re dying repeatedly, especially if you’re not learning anything from those failures, it just becomes frustrating, disheartening, and tedious. And, because difficulty is subjective and every player is different, that sweet spot where the challenge is rewarding – where victory seems plausible, if not immediately achievable – is different for every player. One person’s almost-but-not-quite-insurmountable challenge is someone else’s immovable object.

When that someone else runs into their immovable object – the boss that they just can’t possibly beat, no matter how much they persevere – has the game succeeded in instilling the lauded experience of triumphing despite all odds? Not for that player, it hasn’t.

This is why talk about whether Dark Souls, Sekiro and their ilk should or shouldn’t have an “easy mode” misses the point. It’s not about making things “easy” so much as giving players the tools to tweak the difficulty of the game so that, whatever their subjective experience of “difficulty”, they can experience the feeling of achieving the nigh-impossible.

It doesn’t need to be anything drastic; I’m not talking about redesigning whole encounters. Something as simple as sliders to change enemies’ attack and health levels could be the difference between an impossible challenge and a difficult but achievable one. You could increase the stats on items or increase the rate of rare loot drops. You could slow down enemies’ attack animations or speed up the time it takes to using healing items. Even just a few frames could be the thing that helps get a player get the game to that perfect level of challenge.

Sekiro gets stabbing in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

To go back to my earlier Sekiro example, what if you could adjust the game so that the boss had a bit less health, and thus would go down in fewer hits? For someone struggling to keep focused for the full duration of the fight, that could be the thing that makes the difference. What if the boss did a bit less damage, or the window for parrying his attacks was slightly wider? Each attempt would last a bit longer, creating more opportunity to learn from failure and more chance to spark that glimmer of hope. What if there was a version of the boss with a more limited set of moves, so that there are fewer variables that the player needs to account for? This is a bigger change, sure, but for some players – particularly people who aren’t accustomed to action games – it could be the line between an impossible challenge and a rewarding one.

“But this will be abused!”, some difficulty purists will say. “People would use these tools to make the game too easy!” My answer to that is: so what? If someone uses these sorts of tools to “cheat” and make the game easier than intended, from their subjective level of ability, they’re only watering down their own experience. Besides, this already happens plenty with people funding unorthodox, unexpected ways to “cheese” boss fights, or with third-party mods that add allow for difficulty adjustments that the base game doesn’t offer. All I’m suggesting is to have something more universal and accessible, that’s there for the players who want it.

There’s precedent to say that this sort of approach would work. Celeste, an indie platformer released last year, is similarly built entirely on overcoming seemingly impossible challenges as a metaphor for dealing with depression. Difficulty is fundamental to the very message the game explores, to the point that removing that difficulty would undermine the whole premise of the game.

Celeste was a notoriously difficult platformer from last year that was praised for its accessibility options.

And yet, one of the first thing the game offers you when you start is up is the option of turning on any of a handful of different assist functions – you can slow the game speed, make your character invincible, or skip whole chapters. “Celeste was designed to be a challenging, but accessible game,” it says when you first load up the game. “We believe that its difficulty is essential to the experience. We recommend playing without Assist Mode your first time. However, we understand that every player is different. If Celeste is inaccessible to you due to its difficulty, we hope that Assist Mode will allow you to still enjoy it.”

I don’t know what the stats are on Celeste players making use of those assists, but judging from how much talk around the game since its launch has focused positively on the role of difficulty in the game’s message, I’d say most players are foregoing Assist Mode unless they really need it. Hell, I’m someone who’ll always pick the easiest difficulty option available by default, and I’ve never once had the inclination to use Assist Mode in Celeste.

Dark Souls and its successors and imitators could do the same. Offer those options for personalising the difficulty level, but make a good case for not using them unless you absolutely need to, and I think you’d be surprised how many people will do just that.

It’s not a question of whether games like Dark Souls and Sekiro should have an “easy mode” or not. It’s a question of how these games can help players from wildly different backgrounds, with wildly different levels of skill, experience, and capability to play them the way they’re intended—with victory over almost impossible odds being the prize for your perseverance, but with the spark of hope that gets you there never being completely snuffed out.

Keep going!