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.
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.
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.
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!