Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the new game from developer From Software, the creators of Demon’s Souls, the Dark Souls Series, and Bloodborne. Their games are known for their sometimes punishing difficulty. Sekiro has now been out for eight days, and my divinationsWhich, in this case, are based primarily on how many pictures of crying babies are in the thumbnails of my youtube recommendations. show that the appointed hour has come for the internet to gather together in its places of worship to hold the ceremonial Difficulty Arguments.
Is the game too hard? Not hard enough? Hard in the wrong way? Do those having trouble simply need to “Git Gud”? I suspect that even those of you who haven’t played the game are familiar with the general contours of the discussion. In case you’re not, they go something like this: these games are unusually difficult. They require more tries to defeat their bosses, have less margin for error in their gameplay, and give less assistance to the player in navigating their worlds and mechanics. For some, this makes them unapproachable and unpleasant, while others find the challenge invigorating. Those in the second group often regard the possibility of making the game easier as a compromise of its vision.
I have some sympathy for that argument. In the past I’ve said the Dark Souls‘ difficulty could be considered part of its story. The same is at least partly true in other FromSoft games. One thing they have in common are diagetic resurrection mechanisms. (Apologies – I couldn’t come up with a less clunky phrase.) In most games, you die, and are resurrected, and the player is meant to understand that this happened because it’s a video game and you really shouldn’t think too much about it.
In FromSoft games, however, the resurrection is consistent with the setting. In Dark Souls, you’re “hollow,” (ie, undead), in Bloodborne you resurrect via something called the “Hunter’s Dream,” and in Sekiro your character has been blessed by a demigod-like figure called the “Divine Heir.” In fact, portions of Sekiro‘s story can only be uncovered by dying, not just once but several times. In this context, punishing difficulty is thematically appropriate. They even prepare you for that by giving you a nearly unwinnable boss fight right out of the gate – one that you’re supposed to lose.
The disagreements are ubiquitous enough that one can easily find, say, a single publication (in this case, Forbes) advocating both for and against a hypothetical “easy mode.” So we have here a standard-issue on the one hand/but on the other hand argument of the type so eloquently critiqued by Al Swearengen. With that critique in mind, I’ll skip past further explanations of the various hands and go straight to the end: I believe adding an optional, easier difficulty level would add a new audience to Sekiro without subtracting much of anything.
For one thing, adding it would be a relative snap mechanically. Just goosing the damage the player character does, or the amount he can receive, or both, would be an easy fix. There are already mechanics to do so in the game – the “attack power” and “vitality” stats, boosted by items looted from bosses and minibosses. Including an option to start the game with an initial/scaling boost to said stats would be well worth the relatively small amount of development time it would take to make one. It would make the game significantly easier without disrupting its core mechanics, allowing more people to play and enjoy it. What’s more, it would serve as a kind of de facto NG+; players that completed the game on easy would be tempted to immediately restart it on hard.
The typical counterpoint made to this suggestion is to say that an easy mode damages an ephemeral and undefinable “sense of accomplishment” that is vital to these games. I simply don’t buy this argument as stated. The sense of accomplishment a player gets from overcoming an in-game challenge is an immediate and highly personal thing and doesn’t depend on other, less adept players being excluded from it. The “git gud” argument – in both its polite and impolite incarnations – holds that excluding less skillful players is an accidental byproduct of their desire for high difficulty. In fact, I suspect it’s the core: the ability to be conversant in FromSoft games is a privilege that some members of gaming’s self-appointed priestly caste wish to reserve for themselves.
This is not in any way an indictment of those who enjoy hard games. I’m enjoying Sekiro very much – so far, I think that in its own way it’s as good as Bloodborne, and Bloodborne is one of my favorite games ever. But the quality of these games does not rely solely on how hard they are. Instead, the strength of their base design – fair, varied, intuitive in all the right places – is what allows them to be so flexible in their difficulty. Understood in this way, their difficulty is a compliment to the adaptiveness and perseverance of their assumed player. I personally don’t think that compliment is cheapened by paying it to people who have either less free time, less accumulated knowhow with FromSoft games, or less experience with games in general.
There is an additional rhetorical dimension to this debate, which has to do with the term – and the concept – of “old school.” Many who enjoy the challenge of FromSoft games nostalgically link them to a bygone era when games were a little harder and those who made them understood fun a little better. I pine for that bygone age a bit myself, and I believe that the burgeoning, vaguely-defined genre of “Soulslike” could be a way to revive some of the forgotten wisdom of the past. Next week, I’ll go into more detail.
 Which, in this case, are based primarily on how many pictures of crying babies are in the thumbnails of my youtube recommendations.
A video Let's Play series I collaborated on from 2009 to 2017.
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