On Dark Souls and Easy Modes

One time I was hanging out with a friend while she was streaming Dark Souls. She was in Sen’s Fortress, and there were these weird boulders rolling around the level. When she got outside, there was a giant standing there dropping the boulders into a hole in a ceiling. The revelation of causality surprised the hell out of me; she’d had so much trouble with the boulders and here was the damn giant who had caused all of that trouble! We were both so sure that this giant was some kind of boss, and she jumped over to the rooftop to kill it (if memory serves it took a couple tries).

It was not a boss. It was just a real jerk of a giant. But that moment is stapled into my mind as a great moment in Dark Souls, and the only reason I was able to see it is because she was a good, patient Dark Souls player.

I am not. I understand the game on an intellectual level, and in my first play session years ago I basically zipped all the way to the Taurus Demon without much pause. I’m not bad at the game, but I certainly don’t possess the personality traits that would make me excel at it. I’m often impatient. I don’t like to lose progress. I don’t enjoy doing something over and over again in order to learn how to do that one thing (I bounced off Bloodborne for this reason).

However, I love the way the game is put together. I love the little story moments. I love the characters. The relationships between those characters, the ruins, and the grand narrative of the world are balanced in such a perfect way. But, due to the way I like to play games, I mostly have to get those things packaged for me from Twitter convos, wiki readings, and channels like Vaati’s.

dark souls1

I’m the target audience for easy mode. I would love to fight enemies with reduced health (or no health, or with no AI) so that I could wander around, read item descriptions, and just see the world.

For some reason that I can’t quite trace, this topic has been huge for the past couple weeks. Three critics that I really like and respect, Matt Lees, Chris Franklin, and Adam Smith, all weighed in with reasons why an “easy mode” wouldn’t work for Dark Souls. When I watched and read these individually, I thought “oh, I don’t agree here,” but when I started thinking about the pieces as making similar arguments, I thought it might be worth responding to the bundled claims shared by all three pieces.

I’ve transcribed video below for people who would prefer to read, and I excerpted a chunk of Smith’s RPS article. I encourage everyone to watch these videos and read the article in full.

First up is Matt Lees in his comparison video about the Souls series and Bloodborne‘s narrative design:

Largely, single player games are designed as rollercoasters that players trundle through at a reasonably consistent page. If you aren’t sure that players are going to hang around in this area, are you sure that people are actually going to notice the thing that you want them to notice? And hey, that’s a really difficult problem, alright? People hate backtracking and a lot of people hate feeling stuck and feeling like they’re being kept in one area for longer than they want to be. And it’s why souls games are divisive, but it’s also why they get away with sparse, subtle narrative. You can place a tiny seed of an idea into the brain of players, but if they then move on and get exposed to new stuff too quickly then that thought might not ever come to fruition. But by controlling the pace of how you progress through their worlds, FromSoftware allow these details the time they need to ruminate. Spending hours in the same locations before the significance of what these places were suddenly falls into place out of nowhere–you’re just halfway through a bossfight and then you go “UHHHH!” and you realize something. Allowing for these eureka moments rather than overt plot revelation that makes you go, “Oh yeah that was something about that earlier…[unhappy sound].”

So I think that’s interesting. If you know a player is going to walk down the same street about ten, fifteen times then you can put tiny things there and hope that they will notice them. You can’t get away with that in normal games. It’s why often when I see people talking about Souls games and saying, “Oh it would be great if they were easier so I could just enjoy the story.” You know what? If they were easier, then you wouldn’t notice the story, or you wouldn’t think about the story. You’d get to the end really quickly and you’d just go “I’ve got no idea what that was about!”

Second is a similar argument from Chris Franklin’s Errant Signal video on difficulty in Dark Souls 3:

The idea of releasing an easy mode for Dark Souls that broadens the game’s appeal is noble. Far be it from me to say that accessibility is ever a bad thing. But unlike Mass Effect, there really aren’t any other systems to lean on. Mostly the whole game is just combat. And the problem is that it’s hard to easy-fy the combat’s core conceit of learning through repeated failure. Like, the game’s whole intent is for you to die a lot and to learn from that dying, and the goal of making the game easier is to make you not die a lot. They’re inherently at odds. Like, look at Doom. All of Doom‘s difficulties ask you to dodge missiles and shoot at monsters, and higher levels of difficulty ask you to dodge more missiles and shoot more monsters. But the core of the game can scale with how difficult it is.

But the core of Dark Souls really is dying a bunch to learn how to not die. The reason you remember ambush locations is because they are often fatal or near enough to it. Enemy animations are memorized because miscalculating your response to an attack can be lethal. Player animations don’t tween in order to force the player to think about their next move before committing to it rather than just slamming the attack button. If you peel the damage done back done and crank the damage done back up, the emphasis of that knowledge hard-earned  through a thousand deaths, fades and with it would go that sense of accomplishment that [the director] is aiming for of completing a task that at one point felt impossible. And that’s just not the game FromSoftware set out to make. Playing in this mode you’d still get all the vistas, see the enemies, and read the background lore, but you’d be playing a fundamentally different game.

Finally, over at Rock Paper Shotgun, Adam Smith wrote an article titled “Dark Souls’ Uncompromising Design Leaves No Space For An Easy Mode” in which he writes:

The difficulty isn’t an elitist exclusionary choice, even if some like to see it that way. It’s part of the design, thematically, mechanically and artistically. Repetition and death, and the learning experiences that come with them, are as much a part of Dark Souls as the ability to pause combat or chat to your companions is an essential part of a BioWare RPG.

One of the reasons I love games so much is that they don’t often insist on themselves in the same way that many artforms do. I am the person who wants the salt and the pepper and the condiments so that I can tailor the meal to my tastes. Games allow me to do that. Sure, I can fiddle with the contrast settings when I watch a movie but I’d rather have the DP and director come round to my place and prep it exactly as they reckon it should be.

In an ideal world, I sometimes think every game should be like Invisible, Inc., which allows such individualised tweaking of the game setup and difficulty that I’m amazed by how generous it is everytime I play. If I want my next few hours to be made up of nerve-rattling tension, Invisible, Inc. can accommodate me, but if I’d rather play a lazy game of infiltration and cybercool, it’s happy to go along with that as well. That’s lovely.

I think Dark Souls might collapse if it compromised. If there was an easy mode, people would play it and then ask those of us who’d been here all along, ‘what was all the fuss about?’ That’s what happened to me when I had to cheat my way through sections of The Witness. The joy of a solution lost, I couldn’t understand the appeal. That’s because I’m rubbish at the kind of puzzles it presented me with – not my failing, not the game’s failing. We’re just incompatible.

I’m excerpting so much of each of these pieces because I think that it’s important to capture the contours of these arguments. I don’t think that any of them are unfair positions, and I respect all three of these critics to an incalculable degree.

All three of these pieces are written from the position of a fan (whether they’d categorize themselves that way or not), and each of them has been on the receiving end of the discipline of Dark Souls to the point that they buy into what it is doing. When Chris Franklin likens Dark Souls  to Pai Mei he is suggesting that there’s a spinach-like quality to the infinite death in those games. You aren’t repeatedly killed for nothing. You’re killed because it’s good for you.

The rest of this piece is going to be some close readings of the passages that I quoted above with the idea in mind that I am the person who exists in the excess of these authors’ experiences. I’m the foil who wants an easy mode. I enjoy the lore and the design. I like everything about the games other than the act of playing them, and as each of the authors suggest above, the act of playing them is the thing that must be enjoyed first in order to count yourself in the group that Dark Souls is for. That’s apparent and on the surface, but I want to push on some of the claims made up to about players in relationship to the series.

dark souls3

Matt Lees’ piece above is interesting because it makes some assertions and assumptions about what a player might be able to get out of an easy mode in Dark Souls. It’s ultimately a question of appreciation: if you aren’t forced to witness these things again and again, you won’t really give a damn about them to begin with. If no one gives a damn to begin with, then no one makes the amazing story videos. If no one makes those then the casual lore fans like myself would never be able to get hooked to begin with.

He’s not wrong, but he isn’t wholly right either. Implicit (or explicit, depending on how charitable you are in your reading) is the idea that no one is going to spend time looking around in “rollercoaster” designed games. We’re too busy being rushed to the next wowing thing to really appreciate much, or in his language, for the “seed” planted in our heads to grow into a real appreciation for the story.

Except that doesn’t really track for me. Bioshock Infinite, a poster child for rollercoaster game design so much that it has actual rollercoaster tracks in it, received an immense amount of praise for its opening area that contained small seeds of the rest of the game’s overt narrative. The Last of Us trundles on and on from setpiece to setpiece while affording small character and environment touches that keep us engaged before blowing up into unsettling conclusions (the final reveal of that game, for example).

We already know from earlier in the video that knowing what is going on at any given moment is probably unlikely unless you’re the kind of person who “reads the books in RPGs,” so what Lees is really addressing is the storytelling contingent of the Souls community. It seems that this environmental narrative defense of the Souls storytelling strategy (of which this is the smallest part of the large argument in that video) is working under the assumption that the storytelling players who want to make the world of Dark Souls more clear wouldn’t have the drive to do that without the disciplinarian design impulse of the game’s creators.

Chris Franklin’s argument about the game is strikingly similar in its formulation. For Franklin, Dark Souls is tightly designed in order to generate very explicit outputs, and messing with any of the parts of that design would probably ruin the output that is currently being generated. For both Lees and Franklin, changing the disciplinary apparatus of the game (or the way that it works on the self) means fundamentally losing something that is Dark Souls. It’s an existential problem, as Franklin says.

Both of these arguments against an easy mode in Dark Souls, from Lees’ suggestion that the story would not appear for us if we did not die often to Franklin’s claim that death is what gives the game meaning at all, assume some uncomplicated positions in regards to the developers and the players who want to experience the story of the game without the brutal difficulty of the combat or the time sink that preparing for that combat entails.

The first uncomplicated assumption is that the developer’s intentions about what the game should be are to be accepted as the true nature of the thing. As Jackson Tyler pointed out over on Twitter, we’re not that far off from a world where cheat codes were normalized and expected. External devices, like the Game Genies, Game Sharks, or the Cheat Engine, set different kinds of expectations when it comes to how we are meant to interact with a game versus how we can interact with it. As Tyler puts it, “the question isn’t ‘Should Dark Souls Have An Easy Mode?’ it’s ‘How Has Decreased Openness Affected The Medium?'” We can grant that there’s a “right way” and that the designed intentions of the developer absolutely matter in some contexts (as a developer who has made some obtuse stuff I believe that pretty strongly), but to go from that place to a “easy mode would ruin what we have” is a strange move.

Entangled in this first idea is a second uncomplicated assumption about what “easy mode” might be. I don’t think that many people who advocate for an easy mode in the Souls franchise believes that they will get the exact same experience as the “normal mode” playing easy mode. I don’t think that many people have illusions about how they would be treated by community if they said that they played in easy mode. I don’t think that the game would be the same in most ways. It seems that everyone I quoted at the top of this piece believes that some kind of point would be lost by shaving the difficulty of the game down in any way, but as someone who would like this mode, I see it in a different way.

The kind of experience I would like to have with Dark Souls is one where I am able to walk around the space of the game without having to be hyperfocused on the world killing me. I would like to be able to defeat bosses without slamming into them over and over again. I would like to be able to gather items and read their descriptions. I don’t want massive rebalancing across all enemies and objects across the world. In Smith’s article I cited and linked above, he offers some ways that he thinks an easy mode would be too hard to structure mechanically, and Franklin does a similar thing in his video. However, they are both thinking big and systemically rather than in the microactions that might chance how people interact with the game.

[There’s some kind of irony that Dark Souls really encourages managing microthinking and specific solutions to problems, but the claims made about the game are always very broadly thought and construed.]

Disabling mimics, disabling some traps, reducing the number of unique attacks that bosses have, and dialing up the amount of health that a player has while reducing enemy health would all be basic quality of life changes that wouldn’t require mass rebalancing in the game. It would surely make the game “a different game” on some level as Franklin points out, but for the kind of interaction I want to have with the game it is actually the same game. The same items are there, the same vistas are there, and I would lose literally nothing by not having to make my way through the sludge of fighting the same enemies over and over again.

Of course, that’s just me. None of these critics are wrong about how they experience the game, but their arguments often shift from “I enjoy the way the game is in its current form” to “the game should not be experienced in a different form than the one that it currently is in,” and that’s a position that just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Not playing the game, I appreciate many of the architectural and story-based elements of that game, and being able to enjoy it first hand does not change what I enjoy about the game. Rather, first-hand play would change the mode of how I get to that exact same form of enjoyment, and that would be a quality of life change for me.

Maybe I should just be looking into mods.

dark souls2

There’s a Boris Groys essay called “Iconoclasm as an Artistic Device: Iconoclastic Strategies in Film,” and in that essay he makes the argument that iconoclasm purports to destroy certain ideas or images but it instead merely asserts their power. The primal case study for this is Jesus Christ–in being materially destroyed, he was able to assert a limitless amount of symbolic power. Transporting that argument a little, Groys suggests that film does the same thing when it comes to arresting the viewer. If film is iconoclastic, what it is destroying is the non-moving contemplation of a painting or a sculpture. These art forms are arrested in time, unmoving, and a viewer must also take on those qualities to appreciate them.

However, for Groys, film’s iconoclastic stance toward that contemplation has ended up creating a saintly martyr; to watch film is to be arrested, sitting down for hours at a time, and to get the full experience of even a contemporary blockbuster film you basically need to plop down for 2.5 hours.

The relationship that Dark Souls has to difficulty operates much like the relationship between film and previous media. Difficulty waned in the opening years of the seventh generation of consoles, and Dark Souls appeared to destroy the casual blockbuster gamer. In doing so, it produced me, the player who has a distinct desire for an easier mode; in shattering the idol of easy difficulty, Dark Souls enshrined it as something worth attaining.

Massive thanks to @linedrag for excellent feedback before this post went up.

4/29/16 – 2:12pm – I went ahead and disabled comments for this post. The comments are really great, but we’re in the territory of people just leaving similar comments over and over. Thanks for reading!

This entry was posted in Video Games and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to On Dark Souls and Easy Modes

  1. Tegiminis says:

    So there’s a few things to address in this piece regarding easy difficulties and holistic design.

    Dark Souls rests upon the conceit that this is a world of attrition and decay. Rather than allowing the player to act as a relatively free outside agent in this world, Dark Souls demands that they experience things as yet another denizen. This is reflected in numerous encounters with player-like NPCs – they all have the same skills that you do, and in some respect (parries) are actually better – and in conversations with friendly NPCs. You, the player, are not so much the “chosen one” by virtue of being Great and Cool, but because you are so stubborn and so patient that you refuse to quit.

    This is commented on directly in the first game, in fact. Once a friendly NPC completes whatever goal they have been striving for, they turn hollow and go wild. The only reason the player doesn’t go hollow is because they have the willpower to directly seek out and complete their task in the face of overwhelming hardship.

    By making enemies easier, by reducing patterns and health or by buffing player damage and health, you remove this major theme. It’s no longer about perseverance, patience, triumph of will. You disconnect from the world because you are fundamentally above it. You are the observer, passing judgement without consequence on the people of Lordran/Lothric/whatever. By forcing you to abide by the same rules everyone else follows, and by subjecting you to the same forces the other characters are subject to, Dark Souls provides you with a deeper understanding of the world.

    As a game about patience, Dark Souls is primarily concerned not with difficulty, but with cautiousness. You have to play carefully and considerately to move forward, and you are punished for your hubris in thinking you are above it all (that is, until you understand the game well enough to actually be above it, which is also one of the main draws). By turning a careful game of observation and risk management into a simpler and easier hack and slash game, you disconnect from that cautiousness, that patience, that desire to teach.

    I can understand Dark Souls not being for everyone. It wasn’t for me, until its lessons clicked and I finally understood what the game was trying to do. It’s a game about long-term patience and learning, and that can be frustrating sometimes, even when you have a boundless reserve of patience.

    But ultimately it’s better for it. Dark Souls demands that you accept the game on its terms, not your terms. You have to engage with it on its level, rather than being outside it like so many other games. If you don’t, the game slaps you on the wrist and tells you to try again. If you do, a beautiful ruin unfolds before you, and you connect on a personal level with the greater themes of isolation, decay, and death.

    Moving outside that ruins the experience. Demanding the experience conform to you, rather than you conform to the experience, ruins the experience. There are many valid ways to play and enjoy Dark Souls, but there’s only one way to properly immerse yourself in this world, and that’s by treating you like just another body for the bonfire.

    • kunzelman says:

      I totally understand your point, and I guess my only response is that your argument here is fundamentally about discipline and I’m just not interested in that circuit. I mean, I am already invested in the game’s story, lore, and world. I already appreciate what it says about patience, learning, and cycles without engaging in any of that through playing the game. The fact that I can do that means that performing those acts isn’t required for that appreciation to exist in someone, and it would be nice if I could get a little more access to that universe. I mean, I’m happy with my secondhand experience now, but a little more access wouldn’t hurt.

      • dragonmaw007 says:

        Well I think it’s the difference between intellectually appreciating something and understanding how it builds its narrative through direct experience.

        Dark Souls as a whole is not really a coherent narrative. It plays at it, and links things back, but it’s more concerned with a feeling than with a reality. That’s why it’s so vague, and so focused on themes of myth and decay. You aren’t there to understand any sort of fully-fleshed universe akin to a Lord of the Rings, but rather immerse yourself in a setting where atmosphere and feeling have more influence over people than concrete logic. A world where myth and folk tales still have a very distinct power.

        That’s not really something you can really understand without willfully immersing yourself in the experience on the game’s terms rather than your own. By engaging with it in a way which exalts the player rather than crushing them, those feelings are in some way lost, and all you experience are their vestiges.

        • kunzelman says:

          I guess my current enjoyment of the thing despite willfully not being “crushed” by the game makes me not really buy the argument you’re making. I also think that tone and level design really do work that matters — a nonplayer who watches / reads / looks would still get access to all of those things.

          • dragonmaw007 says:

            I think you have some access to them, sure, but not full access. You can still enjoy a shadow of a game, even if you’re not directly engaging with it, but from my experience in Dark Souls it’s just the basics. You have to get elbow-deep in the guts of what the game is doing to truly appreciate it, which means playing the game on its own terms.

            • dualhammers says:

              Just a quick point that the argument you’re making – that true appreciation of a thing can only be achieved when one experiences it in a certain way – sits dangerously close to the old argument used in politics that only those steeped in theory can truly appreciate, and thus participate, in the process. While I do think difficulty is an inherent aspect of the world I get cagey when anyone says ‘you think you understand it fully but you don’t.’

              • James Murff says:

                I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect somebody to experience a piece of media on its terms in order to fully understand it. You can read a synopsis of a movie or book, watch an LP of a game, or cheat your way through a game, but that’s a fundamentally different experience than actually sitting down with a piece of media and experiencing it firsthand.

                I mean, I spoil myself on movies and books and games all the time. But just because I know what happens doesn’t mean I know HOW it happens, or the nuances of how that story or atmosphere is conveyed. A film synopsis and collection of reviews will give me the gist of the film, but I have to see the shot composition, pacing, acting, etc to make an informed judgement. To feel the work out, to understand it fully, you absolutely do have to play/read/watch in the way the dev/author/director intended.

                Does that mean their intended themes or whatever are always valid? Of course not, stuff is lost between artist and audience constantly, or is twisted into something new intentionally. But I don’t think “you have to play the game using the tools the game gave you in order to understand what the developer is trying to do” is an unreasonable expectation to have of a media critic.

                Otherwise you’re not experiencing the game as intended. You’re experiencing a shadow, a reflection, an alteration. Fallout 4 with console commands is fundamentally different from Fallout 4 vanilla. That’s not to say that it’s bad, but it certainly changes the experience.

                • kunzelman says:

                  I guess I am really confused about the moving target you keep presenting James. Especially this: “Does that mean their intended themes or whatever are always valid? Of course not, stuff is lost between artist and audience constantly, or is twisted into something new intentionally. But I don’t think ‘you have to play the game using the tools the game gave you in order to understand what the developer is trying to do’ is an unreasonable expectation to have of a media critic.”

                  Like, clearly the piece is not an exhaustive claim to how the game much change–it’s a series of thoughts about what it might mean for the game to afford different interactions. And, also, it’s pretty clear that I’m speaking as a player in the piece rather than as someone who wants to address it from a critical angle, which probably requires a little more bending to the machinery of the game.

                  • Cole says:

                    I think what this comes down to (if you adhere to the idea as video games being considered an art-form) is that you are in some way ‘owed’ a different access point into the artwork (through the introduction of a scaled difficulty mode), when that function runs counter to what the artist who created the artwork intended. You have to take into consideration that the difficulty of the game is as integral the expression of it’s creator as the design, lore and all other aspects of the game. You wouldn’t ask an artist to alter the form of a painting or sculpture because one of its aspects impeded your engagement with the rest of it. You wouldn’t ask a Director to alter a theme or character or lines of dialogue in a film because you viewed it as a barrier to your understanding. If there was an intrinsic aspect of the artwork that you found lacking or even deplorable, you would simply move on to something that suited your tastes better. Video games may be a commercial enterprise, and most developers use difficulty levels to broaden the appeal of a title, but expecting ALL games to do the same (if you consider them artworks) is limiting in and of itself, in a way. Your forcing an artist to bend their vision to your will, that’s not what art is supposed to be or how it functions.

      • Matt Chatham says:

        This is a great video about the difficulty of Souls games, and how they actually do have modular difficulty, it’s just implemented in a way that makes you feel like you’re accomplishing more. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MM2dDF4B9a4

        As kind of an aside, I try not to get too emotional about this topic, but Dark Souls has become my favorite game/series. Nothing gives me that same feeling of blood-pumping adrenaline rush as beating a boss with a sliver of health left. Watching every step as I enter a new area, preparing for the ambush around the corner. If that doesn’t appeal to you, then maybe Dark Souls isn’t for you? It’s selfish maybe, but I don’t see why this thing that I love has to change to appeal to someone who doesn’t like it.

        I know the idea is that adding modes doesn’t change what the game is, but I disagree. What would be the point of summoning assistance if the game is a breeze? When I Sunbro for someone, I know I’m helping them out of a jam. When they bow to me after I help them kill the boss, I know there’s a very real chance this is their 10th attempt and they’re struggling hard. When someone who’s struggling gets invaded, they think, “Oh God no, I just got all those boss souls and don’t want to lose them but I know I can’t beat this guy.” And then a blue sentinel arrives to defend them and they gang up and beat back the invader. These experiences are incredible, and they exist because the world is so punishing.

    • but what if dark souls is just an interesting world that people want to walk around in?

      • Spiritus says:

        Then you’re greatly discounting the power of its mechanics, which is a crying shame since it’s mechanics -interactions- rather than set design or clever writing that make the work a game rather than a book or movie or opera.

        • i’d say it’s probably more accurate to suggest that the intersection of its mechanics, writing, and architecture produce the experience that folks really like, because clearly a lot of design went into all three.

          but also, what if that’s all dark souls is to some people: a cool place 2 hang out and talk with digital ppl who laugh all the time

  2. Spiritus says:

    You make some good points, but I fundamentally disagree that changing the difficulty of the game does not change how you interact with its vistas or lore or characters. I find these games to be profoundly holistic projects – these games are written with strong themes of humanity/individual humans attempting to scrape by against unimaginable evil or an uncaring universe or the darker natures of humanity. The gameplay was designed specifically with this tone in mind – the mechanics of the game are oppressive and punishing in large part because the story of the game is largely about how people respond to and attempt to (and often fail to) overcome a reality that is oppressive and punishing. A mode of play that is not oppressive and punishing changes how you perceive the narrative elements because it puts you into a fundamentally different mindset as you observe them. Certainly you could make an easy mode that still maintains some of that for people who find the baseline difficulty too much to overcome, but now we’re talking about trying to hit a sweet spot that’s inevitably going to miss a ton of people.

    Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a different experience from the game, I just disagree with your assertion that you can create that experience and say that you lose “literally nothing” on a narrative level by not having to deal with the roadblocks Souls puts in front of you. Just a thought.

    • kunzelman says:

      I’m honestly just not sure what the difference is between you telling me that it is important and me banging my head up against the wall for hours to prove that the cycles of punishment are real. I believe you. I believe that the world of Dark Souls is a brutal one. If I just agree to that ground, then I get access to some similar dimension of appreciation.

      • Spiritus says:

        Ah, c’mon, man. You don’t understand the difference between having something told to you in a text dump and having to experience it in some more direct way? Don’t be silly.

        That said, yeah, you could maybe get a SIMILAR sort of appreciation. And that’s a fair thing to want, and you’re totally free to feel burned that the developers didn’t offer that. But that’s not what you asserted at points in the article. You asserted you could get THE SAME thing out of an easier Dark Souls.

        • Spiritus says:

          I mean, at the end of the day, I just feel like the way some people brush off the importance of the game’s difficulty to the holistic experience kind of diminishes the power of the medium. Dark Souls uses each and every element in the unique blend of elements video games bring together in order to construct a coherent and compelling work in which changing any of its parts fundamentally changes the whole. It’s a real piece of “fuck yeah, Video Games!” That should be celebrated, not downplayed, IMO.

        • kunzelman says:

          I think there’s a long distance between text dump and direct experience, but at the same time, I’m all for the former in lots of cases! I read the books in RPGs! Also, I want to be clear that I don’t feel “burned” in any way. This piece is about thinking through the assumptions of anti-easy mode, and as I say up to, I totally buy that I wouldn’t be getting the same experience. But tweening in the middle of those experiences is something I’m interested in.

          • Spiritus says:

            At this point, I don’t have any strong disagreements with you. That said, Dark Souls ain’t a book. It’s a video game, and a damn fine specimen of one at that. I’m all for inclusitivity, but taking one of the most holistic experiences I’ve seen in gaming – what is quietly one of the more resounding works of games as a form of artistic expression, IMO – and making it more like a book and less like a video game would stick rather firmly in my craw.

            • kunzelman says:

              Yeah, I absolutely think that sacrificing what exists to make it into something else would be a bad move; at best, I’d like some community solutions (although I know there are some already).

  3. cinebst says:

    Excellent article, thanks for writing. I had a comment, but it got eaten. Oh well. Second try.

    I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the Soulsborne series, and I’m an advocate for some kind of easy mode, in whatever form it takes. Personally I think the series already has the makings of an easy mode, or rather a difficulty-controller, in the summoning aspect. Unfortunately, it’s imperfect as it currently is. You can only summon in certain zones, not all of them, and in some cases you have to rely on other players. For someone with a poor internet connection, this makes the summoning outright useless. Sometimes you can summon NPCs, but not always.

    I think if the summoning system were made more consistent in these two ways, that alone would greatly improve the experience for less-skilled players. And, bonus points, it still conforms thematically to the core of the series, which pushes cooperation against staggering adversity.

    I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be satisfied with a simple hard/easy slider, though. You wouldn’t get any complaints from me on that front.

    • kunzelman says:

      Ah heck, the comment wasn’t eaten, it just got buried in the queue! Sorry about that.

      Agreed on summoning as a catch-all easy mode. I don’t have any interest in playing most games with other players, so this being a system that gets evoked to “solve” the problems being highlighted doesn’t really do it for me.

  4. I think it bears mentioning that defeat & exhaustion are intentional themes in the Souls games. While you certainly *could* absorb the architecture & flavor text via an easy mode, I’d say that it really pulls the rug out from under the desperation that is supposed to be conveyed. The games are literally about fighting for eternity – until you either win or go insane.

    While a lot of the “defeat” context is questionable as it relates to the player (as you mentioned), it really affects the context of the NPCs. In an easy mode, you might wonder why the Crestfallen Warrior so bummed? Why does every vendor speak to you like it might be the last time they’ll see you? Why does anyone need to engage in “jolly cooperation”? How do legendary heroes fail at their quest, and turn into hollowed bosses or sub-bosses? Why is the “chosen undead” singular? Why is Stockpile Thomas concerned you might lose your HEART OF GOLD!? 🙂

    Also, as an aside – what about rare drops? You’ll likely miss items if you only have to roll through a group of enemies onces, and thus the item description/story. Should they always drop the first time, and if so, what does this do to reward systems from a *game* standpoint? Also, what about invasions, and the systems and story surrounding them? So many questions!!

    Anyway, I enjoyed the piece! Keep it up! Austin always with the good reweets!

  5. Jan Willem says:

    Since I am a convert myself, I used to be against an easy mode, because I felt (and still feel) that the player’s determination needed to beat Souls games is central to the narrative. And I’m also a firm believer in the “If you tell me, I will forget. If you show me, I will remember. If I do, I will understand.”… Wisdom? Aphorism? Whatever.

    But your piece made me reconsider, because I think you are 100% right when you say that there isn’t a ‘right’ way to enjoy something. What I think lies at the heart of the easy mode discussion, is that ‘enjoyment’ is a beetle in a box, and it’s pointless to try and see whose enjoyment of a thing is The Best Enjoyment of that thing.

    So, yeah, I used to think that Dark Souls being easier would take away from THE experience, but thanks to your piece I now realize that what I actually meant by that is that it would take away from MY experience. Thanks for the insight!

    • cinebst says:

      +1 Insight

      . . . I couldn’t resist.

    • Sean L says:

      You are getting at a core principle that seems to be ignored by many people, which is that different things can be experienced by different people in different ways. I completely understand someone telling me, “I enjoyed this game because of X, Y, and Z. If you take away X, you ruin the formula.” What a lot of people seem to struggle with is that someone may really dislike X, but absolutely love what Y and Z have to offer. Just because they’re enjoying it in a different way than you did doesn’t mean it’s inferior or wrong, only different.

      Major kudos for both making this realization and articulating it so clearly.

  6. My advice would be to look into modding / hacking. You won’t get exactly what you want, but you will get something approximating it. I’d be pretty interested in seeing if it gives you the experience you’re looking for.
    FromSoft certainly won’t make it, since it’s pretty clear that that’s just not the game they want to make.
    Although I would be interested in a From game that concentrates entirely on exploration / storytelling, but more as it’s own thing.

    Also obligatory “the game has an easy mode, just not an explicit one”. 🙂

  7. Diego says:

    Once I lost my data in the game, got frustrated and used Cheat Engine to regain my progress. I thought this would be an easy way to breeze through the game and make up for the time I lost.

    It didn’t really work out. In fact, I didn’t really save much time despite making the enemies harmless and giving myself infinite health. The bosses couldn’t hurt me now, but would still knock me down and keep me stunned for not reading their telegraphed moves which just ended up taking the same amount of time anyway.

    Also it turns out, even with infinite health, you can still die. In fact, I realize now most of the biggest threats in the game are the traps. Falls are the most fatal thing in the game. A lot of deaths happen for things like not looking down or checking for depth using a prism stone, or simply moving ahead too quickly without checking if the coast is clear.

    It’s a much different difficulty than something like I Wanna Be The Guy or infamously hard NES games that just kill you without warning or sometimes without any hinted reason. The game is really big on punishing you for rushing ahead and not reading clues in the environment.

    Even with an easy mode (which more or less is what I had activated), not paying attention is fatal and you will die often due to falls or a suspiciously placed object that later kills you.

    And really, that’s what I think the game is actually going for.

    After all, I read that Miyazaki’s favorite books are the Fighting Fantasy series (role playing game books like Deathtrap Dungeon) and I can see the influence. In those games, making the wrong choice meant a premature end to the book.

    The Souls game have a similar feel to them, but in video game form. I just wonder how would they preserve this with an easy mode?

    If you fell down a hole because you didn’t check for depth (using the Prism Stones), do they respawn you at the top of the cliff? I don’t think that would have the same impact.

  8. alex says:

    “I certainly don’t possess the personality traits that would make me excel at it. I’m often impatient. I don’t like to lose progress. I don’t enjoy doing something over and over again in order to learn how to do that one thing”

    observation, patience and perseverance seem like wholly desirable attributes to improve, and that the game encourages them with non-cynical rewards seems like an unmitigated positive.

  9. Mike says:

    I’m hesitant to comment on Dark Souls articles because of the toxicity that has developed around these games. Some of that exists just in gaming now, or has always exists but surfaces more now, and some of it encouraged by the disgraceful and dishonest marking behind these games as a “true game for true gamers”.

    You said “All [..] these pieces are written from the position of a fan” and that’s why I’m risking a comment (such a brave soul I am! ha!).

    I’m a recent Souls fan, I started with Bloodborne and then followed up with Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls 1 and 2, King’s Field, and played them all many times over. I’m currently a fight or two from the end of Dark Souls 3 – at least I assume I am, I’ve been playing this one blind.

    I do not care for “hard” games. I didn’t get into Spelunky, Super Meat Boy, or even Rogue Legacy. I got pulled in by the story of They Bleed Pixels and used Cheat Engine to finish it. So it really confused me why the Souls games could not only pull me in, but get me to NG+4 Bloodborne and track down every achievement or trophy, item, and quest.

    At the high level, the Souls games offer a combination of The Legend of Zelda (Zelda 1 on NES) and Mega Man 1-3 I haven’t seen in a long time. Like Zelda one there is no explicit quest log or NPC telling me what I should be doing next. Like Mega Man mastery is more about pattern recognition than twitch reflex skill. I dig puzzle games and overall loved The Witness for it’s purity in this aspect of puzzle design. For me, the Souls games are The Witness With Combat.

    It’s not just the combat puzzle though, it’s the lore and story too. I did an entire 91 video “lore play” series of Bloodborne with my oldest daughter just so I could talk about the lore and fan theories. I wanted to discuss not only item descripts and level design, but also item placement, enemy armor, and building architecture because these all tie in as well.

    So why “not as a fan”? I’m a hobbyist game developer, I run a local game design meetup, and volunteer time to teach high school and middle school students game design. I’m as passionate about the study of game design as I am about playing them. I’ve been mentally taking apart Souls games for the past year, noting the chemical combination. measuring the atomic weights, and decoding the cyphers to try and understand their design and why it works. “Easy mode” is something I’ve thought a lot about, but not as a fan, as a (tiny, dreaming, hobbyist) game designer.

    I think the problem is complex, more complex than I seen anyone discuss. To start off, I do not think the Souls games are as hard as they are held up to be. Marketing, and to an extent game reviews hold up the notion that these games are the pinnacle of skill based gameplay but I don’t think they even rate when comparing them to fighting games or bullet hell shooter or an average rogue-like. They are different however, and being different creates a barrier that is assumed to difficulty. If you don’t speak Korean it will seem difficult at first encounter even though it is one of the simplest most consistent languages spoken today.

    I “tested” this in a sample size of one by doing a let’s play of Demon’s Souls with my wife. She has hundreds of hours in games like Stardew Valley, Blue Dragon, and anything Final Fantasy. She does have more experience in fighting games than me, but among family and friends and I rarely ever see her in an online competitive game outside of Hearthstone.

    It started rough, but she had seen enough of me playing Souls games to know better than charge in and button mash. Or, when she did charge in and button mash she knew why it didn’t work. It was mostly a blind play through (I helped her get though the poison area of Valley Of Defilement because eff that zone and lower Blight Town with it). She figured out how to cheese some of the bosses however she played a heavy armor faith build so there wasn’t as much cheese as a magic light build would have offered. By the end however she went toe to toe with the Maneaters and Old King Allant.

    In the east mode examples you listed “removing mimics” and you can already do this. First you can spot any mimic by the position of it’s chain or by watching it breath (the chest lid slowly goes up and down, revealing teeth as it does). If you toss a Lloyd’s Talisman (Hunter’s Charm in DS3) on the mimic, it will relax and open its mouth, allowing you to take the item it held without a fight.

    Traps almost always are marked if you are looking and can be safely triggered or disarmed. I say almost, because there are some cases they are not and even many Souls fans call these out as “unfair”. No game is perfect.

    Bosses and levels can be weakened by using the summoning mechanic. Even if you play offline to avoid invasions there are NPCs you can summon. Many bosses drop greatly in challenge with a second player as they generally are not designed to handle two targets at once. Plus, if you are playing for the lore and setting, many of these NPCs require that you coop with them to advance their story.

    I watch a lot of Souls let’s plays. As a designer let’s plays are amazing – a way to observe how players actually play the game, what they see and what they skip. I’ve watched countless players run past the item that would have made the next area easier, or skip the line of dialog that told them the weakness of the next boss. This doesn’t count things I don’t think are ever said in game, like using a Lloyd’s talisman on a mimic. How could you know this? Wiki? A friend? The notes in game are great but I’ve never read a player note that explained opening a minic this way.

    I think one option would be to have an NPC sitting out in front of a room with a minic, and after you get eaten once could have some dialog that explained using an item and even handing you a few Lloyd’s talismans to test out right then. You will still need to learn to check for a mimic, and keep the suspense before opening a chest the minic provides, but now you know an option for dealing with them other than fighting.

    Ultimately you have to take into account that games have become more explicit in tutorials over the years. I watch players run past every note in the start of a souls Game and I can imagine a focus test group making a note of this and suggesting From Software force player to read all dialog before proceeding. I don’t want that – I think most don’t want that – but what do you do with the player who runs past everything and then complains the game is unfair? Sure, cruel fans will mock them, but as a designer you want to help that person. As a designer you live in the paradox that you cannot make a game for everyone but you don’t want to exclude anyone.

    So I consider these things and wonder what if you tracked the notes read, and if someone skips them all and dies a few times to the tutorial enemies you add some helpful information to the “You Died” screen? What if the level changes to make the tutorial more explicit? What if an NPC – that crestfallen warrior who is a recurring them – is there at the start and un prompted just says something that is a tip when you load back in?

    I think there is some merit to the claim that adding an easy mode would change what the game is. I also think there is a lot of room to go before we get to a simple god mode cheat, or heath boost for the player. My first play through of a souls game lands in the 40-60 hour range, but a subsequent play through ends up at 10-15 hours. I think you would miss a lot if you could do a 10 hour first run in a souls game and would get to the end and wonder what the big deal was. Because in truth, the lore and story is very simple – no new groups is being broken here. The strong appeal comes from the time spent to create the feeling of an immersive world.

    Bioshock, Last of Us, the new Tomb Raider games, these all do a good job on their story it’s true. I won’t argue that, but I will argue they have not created the world that the Souls games have. A world player obsess with and discuss like deep fans of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings do. There are no EpicNameBros, VaatiVidyas, or AGermanSpys for these games and their subreddits do not get the depth of discussion the Souls games enjoy.

    So to end my epic length comment (I think this is a case where I’m also going to post it to my blog!), I think there is an approach to be found in a Souls game that makes it more accessible with resorting to a difficulty select screen or compromising the experience. From Software has even shown they are thinking about this as well, with mechanics like Dark Souls 2 removing enemies if the player repeats an area too much. (This was probably cut from DS3 because it actually made farming and grinding – another way to change difficulty by the player – harder to do).

    I hope to see more discussion like yours and the sources you cited because it will ultimately push the genre forward. And yes, it’s a genre now, there are already many indie souls-like games and I think we’ll be seeing some AAA souls-like games announced, possibly as soon as this year’s E3. If there is one constant about the game industry it’s that success brings clones and I’m just fine with that!

  10. Pingback: A Long Thought On Dark Souls Easy Mode – ViNull.com

  11. Cronstintein says:

    There are a few things here:

    1) If you make an easy-mode, some number of people will play it and some percentage of those people will enjoy it. So this seems generally to be a positive outcome.

    2) The thing they enjoyed will be a different game than what Dark Souls currently is. If Nintendo changed Mario so that when he got hit he just flashed and didn’t die, more people would be able to finish the game. But it would be a different game right? If Dark Souls combat was easy, than the area would not be nearly as foreboding. Without fall-damage, the ledges aren’t scary. Without powerful bosses, the threat they represent to the player doesn’t align with their part in the tapestry of the setting.

    3) There is already an easy-mode, it’s just not on a menu screen. It’s called summoning. There is really no boss or level that is still a significant challenge when you have people to show you the way and help with the combat. Oftentimes, they are also well geared/skilled enough to make your presence unnecessary.

  12. Adrian says:

    Not everything is for everyone. It’s as easy as that. I might enjoy some abstract painting on a superficial level, colors, composition, etc., but I might not want to commit myself to understanding deeper context behind it (if there’s any). If that’s the case, I don’t go to the artist telling: “I like what you’re doing, but you’d better paint some trees and mountains next time”. I don’t want music I don’t like to be remixed to better suit my tastes, I don’t skip boring chapters in books, I have never thought: “I don’t like pictures in this movie, it would work better as an audio drama”. I either commit to fully take in a piece of art or I move on. There’s way more interesting things in the world than I will be able to experience in my life. If we want to treat games as an art form, we have to respect them as a vision of a person (or multiple people). As an output of their creative energy, emotions, state of mind, whatever’s inside of them. And there will be parts of this vision that you like, understand, that resonate with you and there will be parts that don’t. And if you think commiting to understand something fully is not worth your effort, no big deal, move on. Don’t pressure the artist to tailor the experience to your liking. Have you played casual CS:GO? Superficially it’s the same game: same maps, gunplay, movement. But it’s tactics, teamplay and economy management that are heart and soul of the competitive mode. And lack of those makes casual fundamentally different experience. I don’t play competitive, all of it looks really cool in the tournaments on twitch, but I don’t have time, skill or willpower to git gud at it. And I got bored of casual really quickly, because it’s just another run and gun shooter and not the experience I wanted. Again, respect the author’s vision, for the betterment of the medium.

  13. dualhammers says:

    I am not sure if I entirely get your ending summation – Groys seems to suggest the iconoclast itself asserts the inherent power of the thing it attempts to destroy, but you’re not an inherent part of the medium? It’s a pithy summation, and I probably need to read more Groys, but I don’t think the line of reasoning follows

  14. fnord says:

    Not everyone likes to read Ulysses. Should Joyce have given readers an easy mode with castrated prose if they only want to enjoy the world of Dublin?

    • kunzelman says:

      You are not forced to stop reading Ulysses entirely if you cannot understand what happens within any given set of sentences in that book.

      • fnorddisc says:

        Yes, and you can summon help, either in the form of players or NPCs, to get past difficult sections. The summons are balanced and created based on tester feedback with comparatively difficult portions having more summons.

        I think what this boils down to is that you’re not willing to change yourself, and Dark Souls does not and should not work that way. You want to enjoy the world and the lore instead of the combat, and I think that is legitimate to some degree. But a game must still be allowed to demand from you, the player, to adapt. The game must still be allowed to make demands of you, otherwise any pretense of artistry goes out the window.

        I don’t mean that in skill terms. Sure, the obvious solution would be to learn from a thousand deaths and become better, but you can also work on your attitude towards summoning. Or you could use of the many strategies there are to cheese enemies in some fashion without relying on raw skill.

        Dark Souls doesn’t expect you to be good. It doesn’t even expect patience given the regularity of summon opportunities. It expects you to be able to change yourself, and I think it’s perfectly justified in doing that.

        The game’s claim to art lies not in its difficulty but in the introspection and self-improvement it provides. If you don’t want to do this, then I don’t think it’s your kind of game.

        Nobody who plays Dark Souls at any skill level whatsoever did not change themselves and their approach to games in order to accomodate Dark Souls. It’s the sine qua non of the game.

  15. tenfootbrett says:

    So, I absorbed the arguments in the OP, and I’m still left with a fundamental question – why was this post even necessary? It makes a number of good points, but why is it necessary? Why do we have to go further than this:

    If you appreciate and understand Dark Souls, you can choose not to play easy mode.

    When you select New Game, it can say “To fully appreciate the world and lore, we strongly recommend persevering on Normal Mode. As such, once you select a difficulty, that difficulty will be locked in for the duration of that particular playthrough. We hope you enjoy our game, however you choose to do so!” Click OK. Make your choice. Have fun.

    A) I feel like I’m having movie critics, not the director, but critics, explain to me how I should feel about a movie. Where I should focus on-screen. What kind of lighting I should set up prior to watching the movie. No. You forge your experience, I’ll forge mine.

    B) The complaints about Easy Mode fundamentally changing the game don’t make sense to me. Art is subjective, so have your subjective experience. Me playing easy mode and focusing on lore, or environments, and even managing combat at my own pace, will affect you zero. If I read Don Quixote and I come away believing he was genuinely faced with giants and not windmills, that’s none of anyone else’s business.

    I can’t help but be offended by this. I don’t like other people telling me how to enjoy a video game. It’s a sprawling new environment, a completely new world. Interactivity makes each experience unique, and that’s a beautiful component of the medium. I’m not offended by someone asking me to try hard mode, but if I don’t feel like investing 7 hours in the same dungeon/crypt/whatever and having to retrace steps constantly, don’t tell me to do that.

    Effectively, this ends up limiting the Souls audience and nothing more. You can have people who played the game without adhering to one, weirdly rigid set of rules about what makes the Souls games consistent, or you can have those same people shrug their shoulders and walk away. Why not include them? More sales, bigger budget, more sequels. And all along the way, the hardcore gamer who really enjoys attack, die, correct, repeat can still do exactly that without losing any individual part of their own experience.

  16. murmur says:

    I would argue you can read, watch, and understand what its like to climb a mountain or compete in the finals of tournament. But there is nothing like experiencing it for yourself, even if you fail and can’t make it to the end. You create your own small stories along the way and I feel like sharing is a huge part of the Souls experience.

    One of my favorite things in all of Souls is sharing observations and learnings and piecing it together. I saw Ulysses mentioned above, and yes its possible to finish reading the book, but digesting and comprehending it is where the friction comes in. Arriving at your own conclusions or asking your own questions is something that comes from having read the book yourself, and not someone elses notes or articles on it.

  17. Unsafe says:

    I guess my fundamental concern is how far can the story and themes be removed from the game play? I think that you’ve already arrived at the conclusion that the experience would be different, and while I am unsure if an easy mode would be inherently worse, I don’t know if it’s… appropriate. I think that question is the meat of the matter.

  18. Pingback: Dark Souls already has an easy mode, people just don’t know it’s there and get shamed out of using it | WorWire

  19. Pingback: The Arguments For And Against A Dark Souls Easy Mode | Kotaku Australia

  20. Pingback: Souls Without Darkness | Normally Rascal

  21. Pingback: Lack of Free Exlporation in Video Games or blah blah Dark Souls Easy Mode blah blah blah | Electric Cartilage And The Games That Don't Exist

Comments are closed.