Experienced Points: The Difficulty of Talking About Soulsborne Games

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Apr 10, 2019

Filed under: Column 184 comments

My column this week revisits some of the ideas a I touched on during my Batman series, where I made the case that difficulty is a multi-dimensional problem and too often we reduce it to a single linear scale. Mostly this is an attempt to un-stick the usual arguments about difficulty so people stop talking past each other. I’m not trying to stop the debates on difficulty. I’m just hoping the debate can move in a more productive direction if we can make our arguments clear.

Also, I know we just had this debate last week when Bob Case talked about it, so this will be familiar territory for most of you. I’m not trying to beat a dead horse, I’m just trying to keep my Escapist content relevant.

There’s a little drama that plays out every time a new Dark Souls game comes out. It goes something like this:


Typical Gamer: Man, I really like X. I wish more games did that.

Suddenly, a DARK SOULS EVANGELIST leaps in through the window!

Souls Evangelist: You should try Dark Souls! It has lots of X!

The gamer begins playing Dark Souls and is immediately CRUSHED HORRIBLY.

Typical Gamer: (Weeping tears of newbie shame.) Gah! This is madness! Why doesn’t this game have an easy mode?!?!

Suddenly, a DARK SOULS PURIST bursts in through the door!

Souls Purist: Bah! Why are you playing Dark Souls if you want easy mode? You want to ruin everything that makes this game great!

And so each game adds fuel to the fire. There’s always a fresh influx of people discovering the series for the first time, while also discovering that the game is really not for them. On one hand you’ve got a Soulsborne fan telling you the game’s difficulty is “not really that hard” and on the other side you’ve got a Soulsborne fan telling you the game is really hard on purpose. I often feel like those two need to settle up with each other before they pick a fight with me, but that’s not how debates work on the internet.

The point is that the debate keeps raging on, and people keep talking past each other because they all mean something different by “difficulty”.

Easy Mode

Well, I can't complain that dying in one hit is UNREALISTIC.
Well, I can't complain that dying in one hit is UNREALISTIC.

When people ask for an easy mode, fans often argue that there IS an easy mode because you can grind for stat boosts or summon a friend. The stat boost thing seems interesting, but then other fans will tell you that it’s all about timing and stats don’t really matter, so if you’re grinding for stats then you’re playing the game wrong. So now the frustrated player is in a triangular argument with different Soulsborne fans telling them two contradictory things. (If grinding for higher stats actually made a big difference, then instead of asking for an easy mode people would be asking for the game to be “less grindy”.)

I’m actually in favor of systems where you can compensate for low skill through a bit of grinding. On the other hand, I don’t think the stats change the balance of power enough to really matter to the frustrated newbie. I never got far enough in a Soulsborne game to personally get a feel for how much of a difference the stats make in the long term, but in the first couple of hours of Dark Souls I found that stats had a barely-perceptible impact on fights. An extra dodge roll now and then is nice, but that boss still kills me quickly if I whiff the dodge and a couple more HP or stamina aren’t going to let me tank a bunch of hits until I get the timing rightTo be clear, it’s been years since I played Dark Souls and I don’t remember exactly how all the stats worked, or what everything was called.

The important thing here is the “summon a friend” argument. I think this is a terrible defense. It makes no sense, it doesn’t help the frustrated player, and it undercuts everything the game is supposedly trying to accomplish. For one, getting gaming time with friends is difficult when you’re an employed adult, not everyone has a friend who’s good at Dark Souls, and the in-game system for playing together is fiddly. If I’m stuck on a boss right NOW, then I’ll have to arrange a meeting with a friend at some point in the future. That doesn’t help me get over this roadblock right now. In the time it takes to get help from a friend, you could just as easily overcome the boss through sheer persistence and practice. Which indeed, is what the game is supposedly about. So inviting a friend takes you away from the “intended experience”.

And that’s assuming I personally know someone who plays the game, that they’re available, and that they play on the same platform I do. And once all of that is solved, there’s still the odd way you have to open the door for your friend without any strangers coming through, because there’s no player-controlled matchmaking.

If you don’t have a friend, you can summon a random player and hope they don’t murder you for giggles.

Great. So now you’ve replaced the frustration of fighting a boss with the frustration of non-specific matchmaking and griefing. That’s not a solution to your original problem, that’s just a new problem on top of the old one!

We Learn by Doing

Why do I have so much trouble making friends?
Why do I have so much trouble making friends?

These games are all about pattern recognition and timing. Having a friend beat the boss for you will clear the boss and allow you to proceed, but you will proceed without learning what you need to know. Functionally, it’s the equivalent of handing the controller to your buddy on the couch and letting them do it for you.

Soulsborne fans insist that having an easy mode or an instant-retry boss would ruin the intended experience. Fine. I won’t argue with that. This isn’t my genre and if fans tell me that’s part of what makes them love the game, then I wouldn’t want to see that changed. But having a friendOr some internet rando , whatever. beat the boss for you is far worse than either of those two options. If I play on easy mode where the boss is fighting with a pool noodle, I still have to execute the attacks myself.  I still get to see how the boss responds to my movement and how it behaves. I can get a feel for the attack pattern and rhythm, I can learn to recognize the various boss attack animations, and I can learn when to spend my precious stamina on dodge rolls. The game won’t force me to learn those things and I might blunder through the fight with mindless button-mashing, but at least the opportunity for learning is there.

If someone else fights the boss, then I can’t learn those things. Mastering these fights requires building up muscle memory, and you can only build muscle memory by performing actions yourself. Sure, you could tell a newbie they should dodge 1.32 seconds after the boss begins the wind-up on their big attack, but that doesn’t enable them to play like a pro any more than watching someone play the piano will allow you to do the same. Mastery requires practice, and practice requires participation. Stabbing the boss in the butt while my buddy holds aggro doesn’t teach me how to survive the solo encounter, which is what I need to learn.

In short, summoning a buddy is an inconvenient and unreliable system that allows you to bypass a boss while also preventing you from mastering the combat mechanics. This is the worst thing you could do to a newbie, because they’re going to run into the exact same problem the next time they meet a boss.

Various people will tell you that the game is “all about”…

  1. …creating a sense of dread.
  2. …forcing the player to experience the repetition of defeat.
  3. …testing the player’s tenacity and perseverance, which underscores the themes of the game and the mood of the world.

I accept all of these as true. However, allowing the player to call in a ringer undercuts all of these. The world is a lot less dreadful with a friend. How am I going to experience that oh-so-important defeat if I’m riding someone else’s coattails to victory? How is it a test of tenacity if I can win by giving up and soliciting help?

I’ll accept that fighting a toothless boss on easy mode is a betrayal of the intended experience, but it’s a lot closer to the real thing than ganging up on a boss with a buddy.

Muscle Memory

I read about how to beat this boss on the wiki, so obviously I'll be able to win on the first try without needing to practice.
I read about how to beat this boss on the wiki, so obviously I'll be able to win on the first try without needing to practice.

Summoning a friend (or stranger) just takes me back to my original problem with Soulsborne games, which is that the games present you with a challenge that takes practice to overcome, and then the game interferes with your ability to practice.

Like I said in my Batman series:

Let’s say I’m playing a song on the piano and I hit a wrong note. My first instinct is to go back just a few notes, replay them, and make sure I hit the right note this time. I’ve just made a mistake, and I want to correct it as quickly as possible. I may even play those few notes over and over again (correctly this time) just to make sure the proper behavior is ingrained. I know what I did wrong, and I don’t want that wrong motion to get burned into my muscle memory. The last thing I want to do is go all the way back to the very beginning of the song and start over.

If I’m playing Dark Souls and I can’t get the hang of the timing on a boss, then I end up dying and slogging through a bunch of trash mobs before I can try again. That will take a few minutes. By the time I get back to the point where I made the mistake, I’ll have lost track of what I did wrong. In fact, in terms of developing muscle memory the most familiar thing is also the wrongest thing. Which means I’m more likely to repeat my previous mistake, thus further burning those wrong things into my memory. Or I have a moment of hesitation where I struggle to NOT do what I did last time, and end up getting killed because of the uncertainty.

The punishment for failure in a Soulsborne game is that you’re not allowed to practice until you go do something else for a few minutes. This is really disruptive to the learning process, and it’s what makes me unable to enjoy the games. When I die, I’m not frustrated that I didn’t win, I’m enraged that I’m not allowed to keep practicing. I’m not talking about normal videogame frustration, I’m talking about real anger with adrenaline and broken controllers. It’s why I don’t feel elated when I finally win. I was already boiling mad, and you can’t really slide from “rage” to “overjoyed” because you won in a videogame.

This is my main problem with the Soulsborne games, and it’s basically insurmountable. There’s no way to fix the game for me without ruining it for fans, which is why my criticism is descriptive rather than prescriptive. I don’t think changing the game to suit my needs would be a good investment for the developer. It’s also why I’m not interested in pleas from fans to give the game another chance, or that I should try “thinking of it differently”.

No, playing with a buddy won’t help. If I was going to play one of these games, I’d want to learn to do it myself. If I wanted to watch someone else do it I could skip the goofy matchmaking and just watch the dang thing on YouTube. It’s fine that the game has multiplayer, but the ability to summon help is in no way a justification for not having an easy mode.

And to be honest, I don’t think we NEED a justification for not having easy mode. Hidetaka Miyazaki made exactly the game he meant to. I don’t personally enjoy the result, but he’s sticking to his vision and not compromising in pursuit of sales or mainstream appeal. Frankly I wish this industry had more of that sort of thing. The Soulsborne games are a very specific game for a very specific audience, and as long as the game is pleasing its intended audience then I’m happy it exists.



[1] To be clear, it’s been years since I played Dark Souls and I don’t remember exactly how all the stats worked, or what everything was called.

[2] Or some internet rando , whatever.

From The Archives:

184 thoughts on “Experienced Points: The Difficulty of Talking About Soulsborne Games

  1. Geebs says:

    Put me down for the side that says that, if From had tried to put in an easy mode, Souls would simply not exist since:

    1) From are a tiny developer who, at the time Demons’ Souls came out, were objectively not very competent at making videogames. See the original PC port of Dark Souls for evidence.

    2) The themes of repetition, and of cooperation overcoming adversity are fundamental to the story and design of the games, as has been repeatedly documented in interviews with Miyazaki.

    I agree with the concept that somebody else’s enjoyment of a game doesn’t affect mine except in two circumstances – jerks in multiplayer, and the game getting cancelled in development. I honestly don’t think that the early Souls games would be around in any form if From tried to take on additional scope at the time they were made.

    That said, I think it’s completely fair that From should be encouraged to move with the times now that they have their act together a bit better. The ideas that they should put in better accessibility options for disabled fans and could implement UT-style “mutators” are great ones.

    However, this latest Twitter pile-on by other developers is starting to look uncomfortably like bullying. Corey Barlog has access to vastly larger budgets than From, and the combat in his latest game was broadly criticised for being rather dull and often unfair. There are a total of five weapons to be balanced in the latest GoW, versus multiple different styles and tens of different weapons in a Soulsbourne. As for Ragnar Tornquist; he’s never made a mechanically satisfying game in his life. Also he made That Rubber Duck Puzzle, which is definitely more unfairly difficult than anything From has put out.

    Anyway, it’s mostly just people arguing past each other at this point. I probably didn’t help.

    1. DerJungerLudendorff says:

      I would strongly disagree that the original Dark Souls wouldn’t have been made.
      Maybe it wouldn’t have acquired the cult following that initially buoyed it, but most indie games can be bothered to include difficulty modes. FromSoft already ran out of time and resources in the end, but they still made half a dozen more areas. They didn’t make a difficulty mode because it wasn’t a priority for them.

      They probably would have bungled the execution, but badly executing their idea’s never stopped them before or since.

      It also doesn’t excuse them for Dark Souls 2 and 3, Bloodborne, Sekiro, or the Dark Souls Remaster, since they definitely had the resources then.

      1. Vinsomer says:

        FromSoft didn’t omit an easy mode because it wasn’t a priority or bad management. It was a conscious choice from the beginning.

        It’s also true that wthout the cult success of Demon’s Souls, especially the wave of imports from western gamers who wanted to play that ‘super hard japanese game’ they heard about on the internet, Dark Souls would never have been made, and the entire Soulsborne franchise or Soulslike genre would not exist, or at least not exist as more than a niche of a niche in probably little more than a corner of Japan.

        There is a reason why the marketing for Dark Souls leaned so heavily on difficulty. Because, to the surprise of From, that was exactly what was so appealing – and, ultimately marketable – to the western gamers who imported Demon’s Souls en masse, but also the exact quality that they though made it unsuitable for a western release in the first place.

    2. Lars says:

      From are a tiny developer who, at the time Demons’ Souls came out, were objectively not very competent at making videogames. See the original PC port of Dark Souls for evidence.

      That is just wrong. From Software had 15 years of experience making 50 videogames before Demon’s Souls was released. And in many genres.
      The original PC port of Dark Souls does proof, that they didn’t release a PC game. Nothing more. On console they were pros.

      1. Geebs says:

        Just to be clear, we’re talking about the same From Software who made Armored Core 3 Portable, Tenchu Shadow Assault and, lest we forget, Steel Batallion: Heavy Armour? The From Software who still haven’t managed to fix the frame pacing issues in their engine, however many games in? I think I’m not being excessively cruel in my assessment.

        1. Echo Tango says:

          You weren’t cruel, but you framed the company’s (alleged) inexperience as a reason (excuse) not to take dev-time away from the core game, to make difficulty modes/options.

        2. Sartharina says:

          You forgot the best one: METAL WOLF CHAOS!

        3. Lars says:

          Armored Core 3 Portable was a release title for a brand new console. Shadow Assault: Tenchu is a puzzle game under the brand of Tenchu – Of course it got bad receptions. It is not a Tenchu game in the sense of Tenchu fans. Like Metal Gear Survive is not a Metal Gear. Or Arcadia: Gothic 4 is not a Gothic.
          And Steel Batallion had to use this Kinect abomination.

          Your argument is not excessively cruel, but it needs context.
          And tiny developer is entirely wrong. No matter how much crunch you do and aside from quality issues. To develop and release three and a half games per year you need manpower. Lots of manpower.

      2. anonymous says:

        15 years of experience writing terrible code that runs by miracle.
        Technically speaking, their games are an abomination, with lack of bounds checking being the norm, fail-safe mechanisms causing more issues than the errors they are supposed to be a bandaid for, overlapping pieces of code that end up conflicting with each other (dark souls 1 has three separate ways for falls to kill you, one of which can be made to misfire consistently and is thus used in certain speedruns and sequence breaks), frametime-depending code everywhere when their game can’t even hold the target framerate on console…

  2. Fizban says:

    For starters, the implication that intentionally summoned players can kill you is uh, pretty wrong. White and yellow phantoms cannot harm you in any way, though they could maybe grief you by just refusing to do anything, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen (and is easily solved by quitting, ejecting them with the black crystal, or throwing yourself off a cliff). Red and purple phantoms, sure, but the first time you summon one of them and they kill you I expect you’d figure it out. No, it’s not perfectly advertised, but especially by this point the vast majority of summon signs you’ll find near a boss door are in fact people volunteering for the boss fight.

    I’ll accept that fighting a toothless boss on easy mode is a betrayal of the intended experience, but it’s a lot closer to the real thing than ganging up on a boss with a buddy.

    Except summoning people to gank the boss is part of the intended experience. If that’s how you want to play the game, you’re totally allowed to do that. I summoned every NPC I could find in DS1, and I don’t think there’s a single boss in 2 or 3 I didn’t call in a gank squad for. Even though the vast majority of them I could have taken on my own, because why not? It’s more fun.

    But more importantly, summoning allies really doesn’t guarantee success. You can still get yourself killed unless you actually sit back and do nothing (which means your help is fighting an overpowered boss, and sitting back and doing nothing is once again your choice). You still get to watch the boss’s attacks, from a distance that lets you see more than you would when it’s up in your face, and watch how your helpers fight it, what works and what doesn’t. That is literally how I’ve learned to fight some bosses. And even better, being summoned gives you a zero-risk opportunity to practice fighting the boss over and over, without having to run back if that’s a thing you hate doing. And, yet further still, succeeding in helping someone else kill the boss will give you some amount of heal (all your health and estus in DS3 IIRC), right on the doorstep of that boss, letting you offset the problem of taking damage before you even reach the boss.

    A lot of that might not apply nowadays with so many of them splitting the playerbase and making it hard to co-op, but back at launch it was like all the best conceptual parts of an MMO with none of the bad. Get invaded maybe twice in your entire run by the time DS3 rolls around, spend the rest of it partying up to learn boss fights and then help noobs curbstomp them. Playing the game completely solo offline is a harsher experience overall. . . one that generally the player chose themselves. I hate the forced invasion system as much as the next guy, but the good of the co-op vastly outweighs the occasional inconvenience.

    The punishment for failure in a Soulsborne game is that you’re not allowed to practice until you go do something else for a few minutes.

    I can’t speak any but DS1/2/3, and DS1 was pretty punishing (especially early on), but overall I still don’t think this is nearly so clear-cut. Learning the path to run past the enemies between you and the boss is something you have to learn, but it’s usually quite a bit easier than learning the boss itself once you accept that it’s something you ought to do, and the games only got more forgiving with it over time. The worst boss-runs I can remember are either from early DS1, or optional bosses. And as I mentioned above, having other people summon you lets you practice without backtracking as quickly as you’re being summoned (which around a new release will usually be “as fast as the game can connect you”).

    1. Fizban says:

      I think my edit got ate-
      Edit: so obviously I started composing my post midway through (shame on me), but you do point out that you’d want to learn it yourself, and that the game was made exactly how it wanted to be. But praising the developer for sticking to their guns while claiming that multiplayer is no excuse for not having an easy mode seems odd. The multiplayer is part of the intended experience and fulfills much of the desired function of easy mode, in the way the designer intended. It’s clear that you’re talking about your personal aversion, but the “no excuse” phrase is one I tend to associate with objective argument rather than personal preference.

      (Though as I’ve said before, I’d have no complaints with an easy mode either).

    2. Matthew Downie says:

      Intended experience or not, it sounds like a really odd design decision to me. “You can play it as a game about solitude and repetition and gradually building your expertise as your patience is tested, OR you can have a game about watching randoms from the internet gank the boss. These are the two entirely contradictory ideas that this game is focused on. No other options are available.”

      1. DerJungerLudendorff says:

        “Also, the second option comes with the risk of randoms ganking you instead. No, you can’t have one without the other. Also you need to pay a limited resource to do so. No, we’re not giving refunds if you get ganked.”

        1. ZekeCool says:

          This is weirdly untrue. The random you summon for help cannot hurt you in any way and does not cost any sort of resource.

          1. Zagzag says:

            Being human/embered/etc to be able to summon someone in the first place allows you to be invaded. Becoming human/embered/etc is also tied to a resource (that can be farmed but isn’t usually all that convenient to farm).

            Both points you are responding to are broadly correct, if somewhat imprecise.

          2. Nimrandir says:

            While not directly true, one cannot opt into ‘rando ganks the boss for you’ without simultaneously opting into ‘you may be ganked by [different] randos.’ Moreover, since the second group of randos plan to gank you, they will often be especially prepared for you-ganking.

            Also, unless something has changed with Dark Souls III, you may only summon help if you are not suffering from an unfortunate case of the deads. Undoing said deadness does require investment of a non-trivial resource. I’ve only ever played Bloodborne in offline mode, so it may work under different rules.

            Edit: I type slowly.

          3. tmtvl says:

            Well, malicious White Phantoms can go rile up a horde of nasties and lead them to you. In DS2 there’s also an NPC who becomes hostile if you approach him with a torch out, so trolls can do that as well.

      2. Asdasd says:

        It’s not alien to a certain approach or philosophy in a strain of Japanese games, though.

        I have a half-finished theory (of which I’m only half-convinced) that ‘cooperation by many players to defeat a particularly heinously designed boss or challenge’ is actually THE INTENDED way to play Souls games, and that a lot of the git gud, man-against-adveristy purist trappings that are inescapably linked with their discussion is a function of us Westerners Not Getting It and projecting a bunch of Western individualist tropes about the pre-eminent solo player experience onto the games. Don’t forget that in addition to summoning, the Souls games by default allow players to put down warning markers everywhere, trivialising a good portion of the environmental challenge of traps and ambushes.

        Consider games like Monster Hunter, like Etrian Odyssey. They typically start hard, get harder, and climax with some insane level challenge Superbosses. A Superboss isn’t just an especially hard boss, it’s a boss designed to be all but impossible unless you understand a certain gimmick or have metaknowledge of the game, synergies and builds that either break the mechanics or are tailor suited to targetting the specific weaknesses of specific foes.. or beat it with weight of numbers.

        Now on the one hand Monster Hunter has cooperative play and its generally accepted that grouping up is the best way to tackle late-late-game content. On the other hand the Superbosses of Etrian Odyssey present a challenge almost psychotically hostile to the individual player, taking hundreds of hours just to reach and having fight scripting, one-turn party wiping moves and shifting attack patterns that would require hundreds of attempts to decipher. All but impossible to the individual player – but in the internet age, of course, with wikis and message boards these seemingly invincible specimen will nonetheless inevitably yield to the determined and organised power of collaborative player effort. MMOs, too, are popular in Japan, often of the imposing Everquest style with an emphasis on grouping, grinding and marquee PVE boss raids.

        In all cases, the point is that challenges seemingly impossible to the individual can be by people working together in a common cause. Which also happens to be the message that underpins almost all of their popular media.

        So could it be possible that due to the ubiquity of handheld- and net-connected gaming in their target markets, Japanese developers simply have more faith in gamers as a social or cooperative caste?

        1. DerJungerLudendorff says:

          Interesting idea. It does seem like a logical explanation why a game series that prides itself on difficulty and depressive stories would have an optional co-op mode.

      3. Water Rabbit says:

        This is why people talk past each other on this game. Unless you have actually played the game, you don’t understand it.

        The game is intrinsically about beating enemies. There are a plethora of ways to do this just in solo mode. Summoning isn’t just limited to “randoms”. In fact most of my summoning in the game is for NPC helpers. There is also a cost to summoning help — the boss gets tougher.

        The ideal experience is to get a buddy or two and have a Discord chat going so you can enjoy the game together.

        Also, there is no guarantee that a couple of internet randos are going to be any help at all — IME, it is about a 50/50 shot. Generally the best you can hope for from a internet rando is that they perform slightly better than the NPC summons.

        If you don’t like this style of game fine, but don’t mischaracterize it. The game at its heart is one of the best self-balancing games out there. There isn’t an arbitrary difficulty slider. Instead there are tons of tools in the game to make it an easier or harder experience organically.

        In the originally Dark Souls for example, in my first playthrough I was stuck fighting a particular boss — The Capra demon. After losing a bunch of times to it, I found a video of where someone totally cheesed killing it with dung pies — a clever solution to avoiding a difficult fight. Now, after playing the game multiple times, I can kill the Capra without cheesing it.

        Again the self-balancing nature of the game and not an arbitrary difficulty slider make the game more enjoyable.

        1. DerJungerLudendorff says:

          I’m pretty sure most people who comment in these articles have played the game.

    3. Destrustor says:

      On the subject of run-backs to the boss, DS2 was actually decried for being maybe a bit too forgiving with that aspect of the game, because it had a system to prevent overleveling that made it so enemies only had a limited amount of respawns ever (with a few ways to circumvent this, of course.)

      The net effect of this anti-grinding system was that, if you were really struggling with a boss, taking the time to kill everything on your way to that boss would eventually make it so the run back became clear of enemies and stayed that way forever.

      I don’t know if Shamus ever heard of that, and I’m wondering if it’s something that would lessen his frustration.

      1. Higher Peanut says:

        I have the same issue and it wouldn’t help me at all. Running past enemies isn’t difficult or interesting and can be repeated to the point that they may as well be totally absent. Corpse runs are unskippable cut scenes, they are equivalent to the 20 second death animation from Too-Human. The series has decided that its ideal form is to have large sections of non-gameplay in between learning attempts. If this tedium is necessary to reach the intended atmosphere or vision for the games then so be it, but I’ll never get into them.

        Retry capability is a strange beast in the difficulty argument. Nothing gets any more mechanically challenging and it becomes a test of patience. Whether or not you want your patience tested during leisure time is subjective. From what I’ve seen on forums it also causes huge arguments as to whether or not it counts as difficulty.

  3. DerJungerLudendorff says:

    To be honest, I always saw these kinds of arguments as kind of disingenuous.
    Whenever I see someone arguing against difficulty levels in a Soulsborne game, they almost never seem to really engage the problems people actually run into, but instead look for excuses for why we should ignore those problems.

    I mean, just look at the most common counter-arguments:
    “You can make the boss less hard (kinda) by using this specific system, so your problem isn’t valid.”
    “People have beaten this boss with more handicaps than you, so your complaint isn’t valid.”
    “The game is supposed to be frustrating and rage-inducing, and that is somehow a good thing, so any complaints about that aren’t valid.”
    “The designers had this very specific design, and every player must experience that exact design.” (Also, the design is flawless, has been perfectly executed, and will be experienced the same way by everyone)
    “This game isn’t supposed to be for everyone, so any attempts to accomodate people are not allowed.”
    “The designers aren’t legally obligated to cater to your wishes, therefore they must not change the game.” (and thus cater to my desires).
    “Changing the game might cause these minor problems, so we shouldn’t try.”
    “Changing the game might hypothetically cause these major problems, so we shouldn’t try.” (Also the game developers need to be horiffically incompetent, despite making this amazing game)
    “People asking for easy modes are crybabies who need to git gud or git out”.

    Literally every argument I hear seems to come down to “I don’t want this, and I don’t care about you”.

    1. Geebs says:

      OK, I’ll try to get you out of the rut of familiar arguments as to why Souls has to be just so but I can’t promise you’ll like this new one any more more than all of the ones you’re already sick of :-p

      Consider the games that have tried to copy the Souls formula. You’ve got:

      Deck 13 games: Lords of the Fallen is generally considered to be a bad game. The Surge is a bit better reviewed, but is notoriously janky and even more punishing than Souls. Neither deviates much from the From formula and neither has incorporated difficulty modes.

      Nioh: more mechanically complicated than Souls. No difficulty modes. Generally considered to be decent.

      Assassin’s Creed: AC: Odyssey leans into it more, but Origins also nicked both the control scheme and the sword n’ board gameplay focus from Souls. Both rely on automatic level scaling. Odyssey is a tedious grind against “sword sponge” enemies wherein it would be mechanically impossible to, say, beat the game with a level one character.

      So: you can argue that Souls has to be the way it is on the evidence that nobody else has managed to modify the template and make a game that is remotely as good.

      OK, there we go. You’re probably completely unconvinced, but at least I tried to be original :-)

      1. Echo Tango says:

        You’ve also completely side-stepped the include-a-difficulty-option argument. The closest you come is when you point out that one game’s auto-leveling doesn’t work as a difficulty. If the devs included a text config-file with all of the damage numbers, health, etc, of enemies, bosses, and the player, that would be an incredibly cheap[1] way to allow people to change the difficulty. Bonus if you can scale the attack-speeds / animations.

        [1] The game has to read these values from *somewhere*. It could be hard-coded, read from an encrypted or obfuscated or binary file, or they could read it from a player-modifiable text file.

      2. DerJungerLudendorff says:

        Your prophecy game is on-point, because I am indeed unconvinced :)

        Your argument seems to be that some people tried to copy a really popular game, but weren’t entirely succesfull because they all did a thing that Dark Souls did, so Dark Souls should keep doing that thing?
        Or that anyone who tries to do Dark Souls, but does something different, is destined to fail? Which doesn’t make any sense? Like wouldn’t that apply to DS2 and 3 and BB? Or not because it’s got the DS brand?

        Besides which, they actually did have some success: Nioh is getting a sequel, and Odyssey is fairly well-liked. They also didn’t have the dark souls brand to back them up (would DS2 would have been successfull if it was a different series?).

        As a side note: While I think that while Deck 13 and Nioh clearly took a lot from Dark Souls, adding Odyssey to that list seems like a stretch.
        They’re both third-person melee action RPG games, but that seems about it. Odessey clearly didn’t take any thematic elements, nor the oppressive Gothic themes, the emphasis on environmental storytelling, or the massive and varied bosses, or the lack of lootboxes. Everything else can be easily ascribed to basic genre conventions and evolutions from previous game entries. I’m really not sure where you see the comparison.

      3. galacticplumber says:

        Salt and Sanctuary successfully copied souls in 2D.

        Hollow Knight did it with actually good platforming, a unique aesthetic and a much more tightly structured experience with only one weapon and spellcasting being much more necessary.

        1. Geebs says:

          @ galacticplumber: I agree with Salt and Sanctuary, but Hollow Knight is a Metroidvania which only lifts the lose-money-on-death mechanic and the post-apocalyptic setting. Also, Dead Cells lifts the parrying mechanic, weapon variety and hefty damage penalties for screwing up, but it’s really a roguelite. For what it’s worth, none of them has implemented an Easy Mode.

          I also forgot Absolver, Ashen and Necropolis, but on the other hand so has everyone else, so that’s OK.

          @DerJungerLudendorff: the combat system in AssCreed suddenly went from “violent game of Ring Around the Rosie” to R1 = light attack, L2 = heavy attack, L1 = shield, slower paced combat with an emphasis of locking on to a single enemy with Origins. Odyssey introduced strafing around enormous dudes while dodging their attacks in the hope of getting in the occasional hit to their kneecaps. Ubisoft “took inspiration from” Souls for their combat system, and managed to make it painfully slow, boring, broken, and horribly unfair by adding in aggressive level scaling (which they presumably stole from Skyrim, along with a Zack Snyder version of Fus Roh Dah), which fits my (hastily improvised) thesis.

    2. Gunther says:

      This seems like a pretty unfair summary of other people’s arguments, ending in a REALLY unfair meta-summary:

      Literally every argument I hear seems to come down to “I don’t want this, and I don’t care about you”

      There’s people in this very comments section making arguments that aren’t remotely like that.

      1. Echo Tango says:

        Most of them are drowned out by the comments which follow the patterns DerJungerLudendorff describes. I don’t follow Soulsborne games / discussion normally, but that’s what I experienced with the article here on Twenty Sided from Bob, last week.

        1. Distec says:

          Perhaps. But if I may be blunt – I’ve similarly not yet read a compelling argument as to why anybody should care about what these critics want. I don’t intend for that to be dismissive; it’s just that this seems like an impasse in no need of a resolution.

          I am no fan of the Soulsborne games and have zero interest in playing them. Almost all of Shamus’ criticisms in this piece are ones that resonate with me and would put me off the series immediately. But his final paragraph rings truer than anything else in this discussion, at least for me. These products are just not intended for me, and as much as an ‘Easy Mode’ concession would be cool (although I’m not sure if feasible), I don’t think they have any obligation to provide one.

          This should be a mere disagreement both parties can walk away from with no hard feelings. And yet for some reason there’s been an increasingly insistent tone injected into this debate, as well as a rather dishonest conflation between difficulty and accessibility. And that is not coming from the audience that already likes these games and has made them successful.

          1. Echo Tango says:

            The people who want easy-modes make their complaints because although the difficulty (in the various forms Shamus describes) is not something they like or which prohibits them finishing the game, they do enjoy the story, world, characters, etc. (At least, that’s the reason I’ve seen a lot, and share.)

            1. Nimrandir says:

              This is where I would point. From Software’s output features moody, surprisingly deep world-building that we don’t often get at this budget level. Heck, Bloodborne may have the best treatment of cosmic horror in a video game since, like, Eternal Darkness.

            2. Distec says:

              That’s totally understandable and lamentable. But again; I think it’s an impasse with no immediate solution. Ideally, other developers would make their own games that are based on all those elements you like and without the things you have trouble with. This is very much a case where I’d say it’s the “responsibility” of others to lead that charge, rather than pressuring From Software into doing things they’re not inclined (or need) to do.

              Until we have some kind of revolution in the way we consume singular pieces of media, I’m don’t see any way to consistently dodge this issue. Some products will have enticing features that get outweighed by those not preferred. Some people want a David Lynch film without all the slowness. Some want Breath of the Wild with no item-breaking. Some would like to watch popular anime if only they weren’t so god damn anime a lot of the time. And yet all those works have their proponents, defenders, and fans. Often the only practical solution is to respect that and walk away.

              1. Echo Tango says:

                You say this like it’s an impossible task, to add more options in setting the difficulty. Not all features of games are equally difficult to implement. Adding a plain text config file, that people could optionally change, to mess with enemy health, damages, player damage, etc would be trivial compared to the effort of making the game in the first place. The game needs to read this data from *somewhere*; It could just as easily be a text file, that players could change. There’s absolutely no reason to have such a hard-line stance, to prohibit adding difficulty options into the games, and nor is there reason to come to the rescue of the game devs. They’re a company of professionals, and can fend for themselves, or simply ignore peoples’ pleas for difficulty settings.

                1. Mark says:

                  “would be trivial”

                  Trivial, eh? Have you ever worked on a software project of this scale?

                  Sure, it sounds easy to just “read a file.” Except maybe the file gets corrupted or we fail to read the file because Windows, now what? What if someone accidentally screws up the values — how do they get back to a good state or is it even possible to do so? What if the file is deleted — are there defaults and how are they set? How do you deal with your local developers maybe forgetting they have the wrong version of the file and wasting days on imaginary bugs? Is there a security risk now that the game is dependent on an external file? How do you version this file when you release patches or expansions — do you step on local changes, or is it possible for local changes to break your patch/expansion? And, and, and…

                  This stuff’s hard yo.

          2. DerJungerLudendorff says:

            We should care because we have basic empathy?
            Because we don’t want people to get frustrated and have a terrible time?
            Because we want to help people?
            Because these games CAN be for everyone? Or at least far more people than they are right now, at very little cost?
            Because asking for basic accomodations that are practically included by default throughout the industry shouldn’t be a big deal?
            Because aggressively ignoring other people and their plight is a really dickish thing to do, and causing innumerable grief in our world, and maybe we shouldn’t be doing that anywhere?

            Or if you’re a cynical game developer: Because you want more potential customers?

            1. tmtvl says:

              There’s so many games out there that have a story/style/character that you can love to bits, why waste your time trying to get From to change rather then just playing a game that aligns more closely to your needs?

              And empathy is hilarious, “oh no these people can’t play a handful of games made by this particular studio, how awful.” Talk about first world problems.

              1. Erik says:

                And here we are, right back to:

                Literally every argument I hear seems to come down to “I don’t want this, and I don’t care about you”.

                It’s not my game, though I’m happy it exists for those whose game it is. I even agree that it sounds like Easy Mode doesn’t make sense in the context of the game systems, and I’m fine with that. No need to change the game for me; I’m not the target audience.

                But for the reference of fans, this is *exactly* the style of argument that’s being called out as patronizing and counterproductive. This is an actual perfect example in the wild, in the actual thread discussing the problem. “Empathy is hilarious” my @$$.

                1. Vinsomer says:

                  I think this whole thing is very unfair.

                  If anything, the argument is ‘an easy mode wouldn’t be that easy to implement and implementing it would ruin the artistic vision of the game, which is why it hasn’t been done’. Maybe that’s not convincing to you, which is fair, but what is not fair is rebranding unconvincing arguments as something they’re not.

                  And I think it’s also incredibly unfair to say that your opponents lack empathy, especially when there are literally thousands of games released every year, and at least dozens of high-quality titles which appeal to non-souls fans. It’s not like Dark Souls not having an easy mode would somehow mean prospective gamers having nothing else to play. I could understand if this was the 80’s, and arcade culture meant most games really were prohibitively difficult, but right now the entire Soulsborne genre is an island in a vast gaming landscape filled with accessible and easy experiences. It’s really hard to have sympathy that some people won’t enjoy the games for what they are when there’s just so much else out there for them to play.

              2. Echo Tango says:

                Maybe this particular story, that people can get nowhere else, is what people want? You’re assuming there’s other games which will work as ready substitutes.

            2. Distec says:

              “We should care because we have basic empathy?”

              Insinuating my judgment here is due to a lack of empathy is a bad start. Comin’ at me all wrong, sir.

              “Because we want to help people?”

              Plenty of fans in the Soulsborne community do indeed try to help other people. They have wikis, strats, message boards, Youtube videos, etc. Perhaps these are not helpful (or helpful enough) to you, which is fair. But the idea that people don’t want to help you or others is a flawed premise.

              “Because these games CAN be for everyone? Or at least far more people than they are right now, at very little cost?”

              And plenty of other games ARE for everybody. We cannot pretend that vast swathes of the market doesn’t try to cater to everybody, or at least sizable majorities. What I take issue with is people “picking on” From Software for doing something differently and being asked (quite insistently) to get in line with their peers. They are the aberration; not the norm. “The product is not for you” should be a completely satisfactory response.

              I’m not a game developer and wouldn’t know how much it costs to make an Easy Mode for this particular strain of games, but I’m going to assume it’s not “very little”.

              “Because aggressively ignoring other people and their plight is a really dickish thing to do, and causing innumerable grief in our world, and maybe we shouldn’t be doing that anywhere?”

              Reminder: We are talking about a niche video game property with a (large) cult fanbase. There is no evil being perpetrated on the world by you not being able to play or enjoy it. And I reject this popularized idea that refusing somebody’s requests is some inherently insensitive act.

              “Or if you’re a cynical game developer: Because you want more potential customers?

              From Software appears to be doing fine. Arguably, some of their continued success is partly due to the brand they’ve burnished for themselves as tough and unforgiving. It’s possible adding an Easy Mode could increase sales (but then why haven’t they done this already), or it could be what sets the rot that does damage in the long turn.

              Man, I am sorry for doing the quote-dissection thing here. But you threw mini-laundry list of loaded questions at me that seemed pretty intent on questioning my moral character over god damn video game difficulty. That, by itself, tells me that this collective internet argument only has so much to do with Sekiro, or Dark Souls, or From Software in general. There’s a thick, toxic vein of Culture War bullshit running under these conversations

              1. konondrum says:

                Hear, hear!

                Like I seriously don’t understand how people can get so worked up about this when Cheat Engine exists, and there are thousands of other games to occupy your time.

              2. Asdasd says:

                “There’s a thick, toxic vein of Culture War bullshit running under these conversations”

                I’m afraid I do believe this is why this argument – which is in itself perfectly valid, as the discussion on here from contributors and commenters alike has shown – has most everywhere else been whipped up from something that smouldered in the background to a toxic conflagration with no hope of ever going away or leaving us in peace.

                Game difficulty has been identified as a new battle ground in the wider proxy war, and From are both the most prominent rallying point and the prize. And of course, this site aside, the games media is a rather enthusiastic and homogeneous participant in the culture war, meaning that the debate gets a heavily dose of narrativisation with white hats and black hats and lions and tigers and bears.

                Well, two can play that game – I’m amused that the journalists making ever more tantrumesque demands of From are the same people whose stock in trade is the eye rolling complaint about ‘gamer entitlement’.

              3. DerJungerLudendorff says:

                Your literal first sentence was “I don’t see why we should care what these other people want”.

                All your other arguments are ones I’ve already denounced in my original comment. They’re excuses to handwave the problems and say to yourselves “We don’t need to care about that”.

          3. PPX14 says:

            Yes – I think most of this debate is just a self-feeding escalation of rhetoric, spiralling from the real conversation which is literally just:

            A – Hmm I’d prefer Dark Souls if it were easier, would be nice to have an Easy mode
            B – Hmm nah I prefer it without that option, an Easy mode would take away from the feeling I get from it because it would feel like less of a challenge if I had the option to reduce that challenge by using a setting.

            The end. But wait… there’s more!

            Actually what I do think would be interesting is the conversation over the nature of difficulty in games. Hearing people talk about this sort of thing in the past has made me think of the different facets e.g. self imposed “thematic” difficulty such as not killing anyone or doing a stealth run of a game – in Thief this is incorporated into the difficulty settings, in Deus Ex this is dictated by how you feel about the responses from characters about your actions, etc. The provision of an initially arbitrary choice of Easy/Medium/Hard difficulty setting is not a thematic device and can lead to worrying if you’re getting the best experience that you could have chosen, or if your enjoyment would be improved by changing it, bringing you out of the immersion of the game (back into the Primary World). In the case of Dark Souls perhaps there are ways to make things easier which are preferable to some in order to avoid breaking this immersion. For some these methods break immersion anyway in the way that Shamus describes above so become pointless.

      2. DerJungerLudendorff says:

        Honest question: Can you point me to them?
        Because I honestly can’t find them.

    3. Biggus Rickus says:

      I see no fundamental problem with “I don’t want this, and I don’t care about you.” as an argument. Every game doesn’t need to try to appeal to or be accessible by everyone. If From’s games aren’t fun for someone or they simply can’t play them, there are practically an infinite number of other games to play. The whole argument about there needing to be an easy mode is a giant waste of everyone’s time, if you ask me.

      1. Echo Tango says:

        It may or may not be a waste of the time of the people who want to convince the game devs to change the game, and the game devs. Just like you’re telling some people to stop wasting their own time, and play other games, I could tell you to stay out of this argument and stop wasting your time. You could choose at any time to let the interested parties continue the debate which they feel is necessary, without telling them what to do, and remove yourself from the argument you feel is a waste of time.

        1. Biggus Rickus says:

          I’ll take that under advisement.

  4. Carlos García says:

    Good point the having a friend, indeed. I agree, from one who’s not played these games (yet), bring a friend who knows to make the fight while you don’t need to worry about the mechanics is worse than an easy mode. At least in principle. Maybe that’s why Sekiro doesn’t have that. However it would need to be defined how that easy mode would work. Health changes? If the boss is demolishing you time and again in a single shot, then it will just demolish you in five shots. Granted, it may provide a slight improvement in chances to spot the timing per encounter. It could be a good compromise in fact, though the other entry I didn’t see it, you’d have five attacks close to each other to find out about it, instead of separating them by all the time needed to return to the boss. Remove a few mechanics, like SWTOR does with raids? It would be useful to learn a piece of the fight without worrying of other harder stuff so when you go in the true difficulty mode you got a good deal practiced, plus the extra pointers they may provide regarding the harder stuff…

    Still, I don’t quite see it. As I see it, Soulborn games are 60% boss fight and 40% exploration, in which the main point of the boss is their kind of difficulty, so an easy mode I understand can be like cutting half the game.

    1. Fizban says:

      I haven’t piked up Sekiro yet (probly wait for a sale because money), but I keep hearing things about how it’s different. No leveling up stats, and apparently no summoning?

      Probably going to need a new designation- Shamus is working from a single player-only perspective, and the new hotness is apparently single player-only, but most of the predecessors weren’t. The “soulsborne” category has been expanding over time including 3rd party entries, and major feature differences between X and the actual souls/borne games will need to be addressed.

      And I would absolutely attest to additional health as being a valuable difficulty reducer. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen rookie players make in Dark Souls videos is “waaaagh streeeeeength” because they think expect to just out DPS everything. Eventually, after spending several hours frustrated they can’t learn how to fight anything because they die in one shot, they’ll finally put a point or two into health and suddenly have twice as much time to learn before dying.

      Healing resources are also obvious. There comes a point in every boss where you’ve learned what you need to do, and the only problem left is refining it to the point that you can do the job within your available X heals per respawn. The fun of discovery is gone, and if you don’t enjoy perfecting a particular task then what remains is a grind as you know you could have beat it that time with just X more heals. More heals per respawn would make a wider gap within which to beat the boss once you got the basics down.

      1. DerJungerLudendorff says:

        Aren’t most of the DS games single-player focused as well? Summoning is always possible, but it never seemed a core part of the design to me. I agree that the “Soulsborne” term is drifting a lot, and we probably need to come up with a clearer and more precise vocabulary to describe these games.

        Sekiro is pretty different, but clearly has the same DNA as the Soulsborne series. It’s very focused on mobility, exact timing, and encourages constant contact instead of the hit-n-run approach to DS. It also dumps many of the classic RPG trappings for a more streamlined and focused approach. Less broad, more depth focused around a few core playstyles, with a good amount of overlap.

        It does have stats improvement, but instead you improve them by beating bosses. Every 4 minibosses you get a health upgrade, and every big boss you get a damage upgrade. You also get a bunch of skill trees with extra moves to unlock.

        1. Water Rabbit says:

          Multiplayer was always a core part of the design. Summoning (NPC or Player) is a major part of the design –either to advance the stories of the NPCs or to enjoy fighting a boss with your buddy.

        2. Redrock says:

          I’d argue that even if you never use a summom, Dark Souls is inherently a multiplayer experience because it assumes that there’s a community of players sharing info. Much like Warframe, the wikis and the forums are pretty much an inherent part of the Soulsborne experience.

          1. Sleeping Dragon says:

            Late to the party but I wanted to add some anecdotal data. I’ve played all three DS games and the first one I played entirely offline (I do not like PvP at the best of times and I was terrified of horror stories about invasions ruining your runs). After playing the second game online I’ve regretted my original decision. I’ve never summoned anyone for help but the world felt somehow more engaging with the phantoms and the bloodstains and the summon signs. I also got invaded only a couple times through DS2 (and like once in DS3 but I’ve played through it mostly unenmebered) and while I got my ass whooped it was a surprisingly polite affair, the other players generally seemed to wait for me to deal with monsters and even waved and bowed giving me time to heal up before we duked it out (though I’m sure not every case is like that).

    2. Mortuss says:

      I have and idea, There is the guy in Sekiro who cannot die who will train with you. Let there be and option where he will mimick any boss, but you cannot die in training (if you get hit, your HP will heal in few seconds), so you have infinite learning opportunity. You could even select a specific phase of a boss, so if phase 3 is giving you trouble, you don’t have to fight P1 &2 every time. But at the end of the day, you still need to kill the boss yourself. This doesn’t make the game have lower skill ceiling, nor does it make it less strict, but it makes it less punishing and easier to learn.

      1. beleester says:

        This would be really cool. Puts me in mind of Touhou’s spell card practice (another game where difficulty is a core component of its appeal, although it does have difficulty settings).

      2. DerJungerLudendorff says:

        That would be a great addition, and one that builds further on existing idea’s and implementations.
        It wouldn’t be a proper replacement for a lower difficulty (you still need to be able beat the boss normally), but it’s a great quality of life improvement.

      3. Asdasd says:

        Some games do offer boss trainers. One I can think of is Necrodancer, which is a blessing considering how much effort goes into reaching their lairs each time (and, y’know, the whole permadeath thing).

      4. MelfinatheBlue says:

        I was going to suggest that too! You could even have him do multiple difficulty versions which vary the amount of damage you’ll take, but you’ll never die (just hit 1 hp). Heck, you could even have a sparring partner who can fight boss imitator dude for you the first time so you can see the fight without worrying about what to do.

        Could call it a challenge room or something…

      5. Erik says:

        This is seriously a great idea, and a real solution to the underlying problem (too much pain to Get Gud) that doesn’t destroy the playing experience for those who don’t want to use it.

        Well conceived, sirrah!

      6. Stuart Worthington says:

        Throwing my hat in the ring to agree this is a cool idea. Expensive, no doubt, but no more than implementing a general easy mode, and it has the benefit of being lore-friendly, which is always a must in these games. Very cool idea.

    3. Water Rabbit says:

      [i]Good point the having a friend, indeed. I agree, from one who’s not played these games (yet), bring a friend who knows to make the fight while you don’t need to worry about the mechanics is worse than an easy mode. At least in principle.[/i]

      This isn’t how it works. For each additional character included in a boss fight, the boss gets tougher. So unless you intend to let your buddy solo a much tougher boss while you sit back and do nothing it is not worse than an easy mode. Also, if you summon someone and get killed, the fight ends and they get sent back. Most people at least like to be competent and contribute to the battle.

      Also there are a few bosses that even with a buddy are an incredibly difficult fight because they are in phases. So you still have to learn how to fight the bosses. Also, in some areas you cannot even summon. Dark Souls 3 in particular requires you to be a moderately difficult boss right before you can get assistance. So at some point you have to become minimally competent to get any enjoyment out of the game.

      They aren’t they types of games that one just runs through once and destroy everything in your path. Heck I would be most deaths in the game are due to falling off ledges or other environmental hazards than actual combat.

  5. Doctor Beat says:

    Definitely some interesting points on the different aspects of difficulty. However, I believe this ‘talking past’ each other goes beyond just difficulty.

    Dark Souls offers many different experiences for many different players. Some play through the game solo and its all about overcoming the challenges the game presents. For others, its about exploring the world and discovering the lore, for which the difficultly adds to the aesthetic but isn’t the primary focus. For some its all about PvP, duels and invasions. Other people engage in ‘jolly cooperation’ and play as sunbros. Fashion Souls is also a thing. These different experiences are why I believe Dark Souls is such a great game, so saying ‘Dark Souls is X’ is often reductive, even if it was that player’s primary experience.

    I think its also worth noting the concepts of Absolute Difficulty, Relative Difficulty, and Perceived Difficulty (Fundamentals of Game Design, Ernest Adams). Having an easy mode would lower the Absolute Difficulty. However, for a new/less skilled player, the Perceived Difficulty would be similar to a skilled player on normal mode. Thus, presumably, they would have a similar ‘intended’ experience. As an aside (and terrible anecdotal evidence) – I’ve enjoyed multiple playthroughs of SoulsBorne games, despite the perceived difficulty now being much lower compared to that first run of Dark Souls 1.

    An easy mode (ironically?) would be difficult to implement well, with an opportunity cost. The developers ultimately are the people to decide what game they want to make. However, in principle and hypothetically, I find it hard to argue against an easy mode, as it may allow more players to enjoy these other experiences Dark Souls provides.

    1. Scott_C says:

      This is exactly what I was going to say! Dark Souls did a lot of different things well and different players have latched onto it for different reasons. This can lead to conversations where one person thinks of Dark Souls as “That amazing boss fighting game with the confusing story I mostly ignored” while the other person thinks of Dark Souls as “That amazing fantasy mystery game where I sometimes had to fight frustrating bosses to get the next clue about the story.”

      And of course those two people are going to have very different ideas about whether combat difficulty is or isn’t a core and necessary part of the experience.

    2. Karma The Alligator says:

      This is also my take: people like the games for different reasons. Mine are everything except the punishment, so actually playing with mods to make some artificial easy mode makes the games a lot more fun for me.

    3. Echo Tango says:

      An easy mode (ironically?) would be difficult to implement well

      This is not necessarily the case. Having a single slider of “difficulty” would need to be play-tested and balanced, but there are other options which are much simpler to implement. Celeste offers a slider which simply reduces the speed of the entire game simulation – player, platforms, everything. That’s expensive if you’ve baked integer math into your game simulation, but many off-the-shelf physics libraries, collision libraries, etc, all work with floating-point time intervals, and you could do something similar for everything which is specific to your game and not in a library. You could also put in many different sliders / settings for each major piece of the game to scale up or down things like enemy health, enemy damage, player damage, etc. If you just put very wide scales on those sliders, or let people enter arbitrary numbers, it would need hardly any play-testing or balancing at all.

      1. Doctor Beat says:

        You’ve made a good point – the Celeste approach is valid, giving the player multiple sliders to adjust. To clarify my previous statement – I was thinking of the more traditional difficulty modes most games offer at the start – a simple choice between ‘easy’ and ‘normal’ (and ‘hard’?)

        I think its been said already, but a simple boost to player health or damage is unlikely to result in an ‘easy’ mode. You could hugely increase these, so the player is able to simply trade damage with a boss, but you risk turning Dark Souls into a mediocre hack-n-slash game. I’d argue an ‘easy’ mode would require further tuning – increasing invincibility frames on the dodge roll, changing the equip-load cut-offs so you can use heavier gear without fat-rolling, changing enemy layouts so a player is less likely to be swarmed by a mob, changing enemy move-sets so the deliberately difficulty-to-anticipate attacks occur less frequently, etc etc. You’d probably need to disable invasions on an easy mode – given the ‘lively’ debate on the issue, I would fully expect some players to choose easy mode with the intent to invade and grief those who aren’t playing Dark Souls ‘properly’ (which, again to clarify, I disagree with and find reductive, see my comment above).

        I believe this would be a non-trivial optimisation problem, which would require work and play testing. Hence why I suggested it would be difficulty to implement ‘well’ – to a high standard. Obviously other games and developers manage this, and just because something might be difficult or require work doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted. Though, again repeating myself, these decisions are up to the developer – ultimately all work comes with an opportunity cost, and others would argue FromSoftware should put the effort into ironing out technical issues like the frame-pacing problem.

        At least personally, I would argue against the Celeste approach, and instead for the easy/normal mode choice. It would enable the developers to craft an experience that could still maintain some of the challenge and balance. Having lots of difficulty options usually results in me not wanting to change any, as I end up unsure as to how it will alter the overall experience. The obvious counter point to my position is that different people find different things difficult, which an easy mode might not solve – giving the player options makes the game more accessible. Accessibility is another important point to discuss, but as I’ve already written another wall of text I’ll leave it there.

  6. Kyrillos says:

    I feel like this argument is being made a bigger deal than it needs to be by both the Evangelists, and fans who don’t know how to argue very well. The answer to the argument should be that if the game is too difficult/the difficulty is not of a type that you enjoy, then you should return the game for a refund. Just like if I played a game with a cover system, story type, or character design I just couldn’t stand, I’d return it for a refund.

    Unfortunately, that isn’t always an option due to return policies (which is its own argument), and it gets very annoying when the Soulsborne Evangelists always try to sell the game as the best possible play experience for every player.

    1. Christopher says:

      I had the funniest time watching FGC commentator Sajam play Sekiro. He went through it all professional like, not talking trash. Sajam is pretty jovial. Then suddenly he says:
      “This is gonna be the first game I return on Steam. It’s frustrating. I had a way better time with Devil May Cry 5. ”

      And I just burst out laughing ’cause he kept it under wraps so well. Problem solved then and there.

      1. ZekeCool says:

        I’m getting pretty far into Sekiro and might beat it but I have to say that while I’m a Soulsborne devotee I had the least fun with this particular game. It was mostly exactly because they took away all my crutches. I can’t really grind for stats anymore and there’s no summoning. There’s no way to just get big and stomp a boss. You’re always having the intended (incredibly difficult) experience, and I’m thinking I might hit a wall that I just can’t beat. Not sure how valuable the perspective is, but I’m personally putting this low on my list of games this year.

        1. FluffySquirrel says:

          Yeah, the fact that in souls games you typically have SO many viable options to handling things is what makes the difference to me. You can grind stats, you can cheese with magic, you can just stay back and shoot them with a bajillion arrows if you really want to, a lot of the time.

          Having trouble in early game? You can get the drake sword! Super powerful and cheesy, but terrible in long run, only really exists to help out people in early game.. lovely idea that frankly.

          You can punch out asylum demon like, 200 times with your fist just for the challenge, or you can just throw like, 4 black firebombs at him if you really want the hammer the easy way

          Even in terms of the melee combat you have a variety.. you going short range backstabby weapons? High skill level parry build? Frantic high stam dex sword spam? High alpha strength weapons and just relying on careful timing and positioning to get your massive hits in? All of those mean that generally, if you keep playing, you’ll eventually find a method of playing the game that in some way suits you

          Sekiro just feels kinda completely lacking in any of these options. If you struggle with the base gameplay, then you literally just have to git gud and have really good reactions. And while it’s a meme, I hate the whole git gud sentiment.

          I do not have really good reactions, that became very clear to me when playing games like Rocket League, one of the few multiplayer games I’ve ever considered myself particularly good in.. eventually you kinda hit a skill ceiling. Sure, you can increase yourself a little further with practice, but ultimately I feel you’ll always end up reaching a limit based on your actual physical/mental abilities. I was never going to hit pro level, because I just can’t mentally compute and react fast enough.. you watch some high level streamers and you can literally see the difference in that kind of person, where they’re taking in all these little cues and info from everywhere all at once

          Sekiro combat being the way it is, where you have to keep constantly attacking, parrying, reacting to all the cues to avoid super high speed grabs and unblockable attacks that might be either rollable/jumpable/whateverable .. yeah, That’s just never going to be me I suspect.. it feels like the kind of game people who really like RTS games would be good at, rather than the careful greatsword play I tend towards

      2. Asdasd says:

        Sajam streams? I had no idea.

        That’s a particularly interesting reaction given all the reputation and baggage that comes with dedicating yourself to a fighting game. It’s arguably an even more hardcore niche than that From service.

  7. Alex says:

    As a Dark Souls fan I think an easy mode could really benefit the game. I suspect the reason so many people are against it (aside from gamer-snobbery) is they are assuming easy mode would just give you a HP boost, which is the laziest way of altering difficulty and would make fights a matter of mashing the attack button.

    If they included an easy mode things to change should be: how long it takes to heal (so many new players are killed while drinking estus), more iframes while rolling, making stamina more efficient for blocking, and capping the amount of damage that can be dealt in one hit to around 20% of the players max HP. You could also alter the bloodstain mechanic so that you keep some souls after death.

    While Thief 4 was forgettable nonsense the custom difficulty settings were a great feature that I wish more developers would explore. Until then we’re stuck in this awkward debate-limbo where everyone is treating ‘difficulty’ as if it’s a singular thing rather than a byproduct of all of the games design choices.

    1. Matthew Downie says:

      I wonder, is a good ‘easy mode’ one that trains you so you can play the hard mode?

      Anything that, say, makes it easier to drink healing potions in combat, will probably teach you habits that will get you killed if you replay at a harder difficulty.

      Less harsh penalties for mistakes might be better, since you’re still probably going to try to learn to avoid making the mistakes in the first place.

      1. Karma The Alligator says:

        Was gonna say, a bigger allowance for mistakes (maybe the enemies do less damage) and less harsh penalties for failure would still work to teach the mechanics, just with a [bigger] safety net, and then if the players feel like it, allow them to change difficulty going into NG+.

      2. Syal says:

        I wonder, is a good ‘easy mode’ one that trains you so you can play the hard mode?

        No. Easy mode is for when you don’t want to play hard mode. It should allow players to win with strategies that utterly fail on harder difficulties. It’s highly disappointing to increase a game’s difficulty and find my easy mode strategy still works.

        1. MelfinatheBlue says:

          I disagree. Sure, easy mode might have a cheese way to win, but I much prefer an easy mode that teaches me how to play the game the “right” way, especially since I’ll go from easy into normal expecting that I’ve learned how to play.

          Perhaps the best solution would be for easy mode to have a cheese way and the normal way, and the cheese way is easiest. In normal, the cheese way is still there, but is much harder or longer than the normal way, and perhaps there’s hints to point you towards the normal way. In hard, the cheese way won’t work at all.

          That way we both mostly get what we want!

          1. Boobah says:

            I’m definitely in the ‘easy mode should be less punishing, but teach you how to succeed at higher difficulty levels.’

            Video game with most frustrating difficulty jump for me? Medium to Hard in Guitar Hero/Rock Band.

            Bumping up the difficulty in those games always adds extra beats you have to play, which is fine, and those new beats are more likely to change, rather than be a repeat of the previous one, which is also fine. The killer is that Easy restricts itself to the first three (of five) buttons, and Medium to the first four, (unless the song’s designer is being a jerk and adds in a beat or two of the normally eschewed buttons) but Hard uses all five… and now in addition to more, faster, and more varied beats you have to move your hand because you’ve got four fingers to press five buttons.

            So mastered Medium to the point it isn’t a challenge anymore, but can’t even finish the easier Hard songs.

            I enjoyed the games; never said I was good at them.

        2. Biggus Rickus says:

          As someone who played XCOM on Normal before moving onto Classic and then Impossible, I think it’s bad design to have an easier mode that teaches you terrible habits. I practically had to learn how to play the game again when I moved to Classic. Impossible at least carried over some lessons from Classic, assuming you could manage to survive the early game.

          1. Syal says:

            I never made it very far in higher XCOM difficulties. If I remember right, they reduced the reliability of the player’s only tool. All you can do in early XCOM is fire a gun or throw a finite grenade, and higher difficulties make your guns less accurate. That kind of difficulty sucks; it’s not “this enemy takes one more shot”, it’s “this enemy takes between 0 and 4 more shots”.

            1. Biggus Rickus says:

              It was the opposite, really. The base hit chances were boosted behind the scenes on easier difficulties, especially if you missed shots in sequence. The chance to hit was the actual chance to hit on higher difficulties, and it taught you to get 100% chances if you wanted to be absolutely sure of something. I had to unlearn the strategy of sitting in cover and taking potshots that worked on Normal.

              1. Syal says:

                Was there actually a viable replacement strategy? My experience with XCOM is it punishes players for trying to advance and close distance. The best strategy being RNG-heavy is bad design regardless of what easy mode did.

                1. Biggus Rickus says:

                  Optimally, you would utilize the skills of each class to maximize hit chance, use explosives and control pod activations. You could almost entirely negate RNG on Classic. It was more of a factor on Impossible for the first couple of game months, especially on certain maps.

                  1. Syal says:

                    Well, assuming reliable access to the needed skills, that sounds like an ideal difficulty increase to me. All the skills can be experimented with on Normal, without being required.

                    1. Biggus Rickus says:

                      The problem is that while you can find out what the skills DO on Normal, you can’t figure out how best to use them, because the game doesn’t require you to. It also doesn’t give you any information about which ones are a waste of time on higher difficulties. This is because of all of the favors the game does for the player on Normal. You are guaranteed to hit an alien at some point if you fire long enough at them. There are a limited number of aliens that can be activated in a pod, and the AI is shackled to only actively engage you with a certain number at any given moment. So for example, if you activate every pod on the map at once, the numbers are not overwhelming to start with, and your mistake is further cushioned by only a certain percentage of those active aliens being able to engage your soldiers.

                      The game also does a disservice to the player by warning you against using explosives to kill aliens. That’s fine on Normal, because it will rarely punish you should an alien or two survive initial contact. On Classic, and especially on Impossible, you want to avoid aliens taking shots at your soldiers or utilizing their secondary skills at all costs, and explosives are the surest way in the early game to kill them all on that first turn.

                      I don’t know how to better explain it to someone who hasn’t experienced the higher difficulties. Normal encourages and reinforces bad habits due to the way it’s designed. For people who never intend to play the harder difficulties, that’s fine, but it’s poorly designed for those who plan to try to beat the game on the higher difficulties.

                    2. Syal says:

                      Well, time for my XCOM rant.

                      I’m getting the feeling you’re viewing the entire lower difficulty as a long tutorial, so design flaws don’t bug you there because it’s just the tutorial teaching you about them. Counterpoint; the game regularly crashes to desktop on Normal Mode. Is this to Normal Mode’s benefit, because it’s teaching you about this problem you’ll be facing on higher difficulties?

                      It also doesn’t give you any information about which ones are a waste of time on higher difficulties.

                      Or on lower difficulties.

                      This is because of all of the favors the game does for the player on Normal.

                      No it isn’t, it’s because it’s fundamentally a bad design. Players have to pick powers without seeing them, and it locks them out of other powers they haven’t seen, with no chance to respec apart from savescumming. Want to see how all the right-side powers work together? Make a colonel with all right-side powers. All the left-side powers? Can’t change your old colonel: make a new colonel. Half and half? Make a new colonel. Every power combination? Make as many new colonels as it takes.

                      There’s no good reason to lock players out of these powers, especially if some of them are useless on whichever difficulty. You could easily make them toggleable. If you want respeccing to cost something, you can make the soldier sit at Training School for ten days like the psych test does.

                      The game also does a disservice to the player by warning you against using explosives to kill aliens.

                      That’s a disservice on every difficulty. It’s bad advice on Normal too. And I think it’s easily fixed; just move the message to the end of the mission instead of when you throw the first grenade. Or have Army Guy cut in to say the soldiers have to stay alive to get materials in the first place.

                      And I might as well complain about the whole idea of percentage-based tactics. The thing I hear about games like Darkest Dungeon and XCOM is that you can mitigate the randomness, which sounds to me like the optimal way to play the game is to remove as much of the mechanics as you can. If the player should be using tools to mitigate the percentages, why not make it pass/fail instead? Start at 50%, if you can boost yourself past 80 you’ll hit, if not you’ll miss. Or make the current hit chance a damage multiplier. Instead of 3 damage at 62%, it’s 1.86 damage, round it if you want. (Presumably some people prefer high-risk randomness to moderate risk predictability. I really don’t.)

                      These are not problems with Normal Mode being too easy, these are problems with the base game having traps for the player; it requires the player to have all the information while also actively preventing information gathering. If Normal Mode didn’t have its crutches, all that would happen is you’d move all the jank forward in the process and the game would be frustrating faster.

            2. DerJungerLudendorff says:

              I never really liked XCOM. It combines a ton of randomness with high stakes, which leads to a lot of frustration as you get severely punished for a few bad dice rolls.

              1. Biggus Rickus says:

                You have to learn to eliminate or at least severely limit the randomness. I’m not going to try to convince you to like the game or something, but once you learn how to mitigate dice rolls, it’s a fair experience on Classic. Impossible requires a bunch of cheesing in the early game, and while I like it, it’s hugely unfair.

          2. evilmrhenry says:

            I agree; playing the game on easy, then bumping the difficulty up for a replay once you know how to play and still want a challenge is common enough that it should be considered in the design.

            1. Preciousgollum says:

              XCOM Classic can be frustrating because it is a 30 hour strategy campaign with sudden difficulty spikes and steep punishment for failure, since losing more than 1 mission in the entire campaign risks spiralling into a loss.

              There are also design elements about the way some enemies spawn that mean you will get wrecked in ‘Council’ Missions if you don’t already know about it.

              Even Jake Soloman suggested that Normal was too easy because it cheats in your favour, whereas Classic was slightly too hard, leaving XCOM with an unsatisfying gulf between difficulties at times. There just never seems to be a ‘standard’ difficulty that feels sensible. Normal means you will never really need to leave a mission, whereas Classic means you can never really afford to.

              However, XCOM 2’s ‘Classic’ difficulty encouraged me to think about troop evac as a way to avoid individual troop loss in victory, instead of defeat – it was a way to game the system. DEFEAT, is almost unacceptable.

              Finally, hunker down is your friend in those games.

      3. GoStu says:

        To borrow Shamus’s terminology, I think the difference between “easy” and “medium” and “oh god why” should be mostly in the Strictness and somewhat in the Punishment.

        Let’s conjure a hypothetical boss (that I hope is original). He’s a centaur with a lance, with a lot of distance-covering charging attacks, but the ability to grapple and trample closer-ranged players. He has a few ranged attacks you want to be close enough to differentiate between though, because each requires its own defense. When you defeat this first phase he transforms into a massive were-crab whose pincers can easily bisect you if you’re in reach, but he’s vulnerable if you get underneath his carapace or can keep your distance.

        If you’re facing this crab-taur totally blind, it’ll probably take a few beatings to discover that the centaur’s really dangerous at long or point-blank range and settle into a comfortable routine at fighting him in the mid-range. The crab phase though will be obnoxious because you have to clear the whole centaur in order to get another chance to learn the crab.

        A good “lower” difficulty can reduce the Strictness by padding your HP. You can make more mistakes in each phase and can afford more slip-ups in execution or plain wrong guesses. Putting a mid-fight checkpoint between centaur and crab will be a huge mercy as well, cutting down the punishment for failure on the latter phase.

        I agree that nothing should change the mechanics of the game. Adding a health regeneration factor for the “easy” player could lead them to always draw fights out, creating a style that won’t serve them later. The shorter animation for a health potion that you mentioned would be another bad teacher; telling players something outright not true on a higher difficulty.

        I think a game that was good about this was Cuphead. The “standard” boss fight had a few phases and was quite difficult. The “easy” one usually ended a bit earlier but could let you master the first couple phases. While the game is strict on mistakes made, you can equip a couple items that make it less so. If you’re trying to learn how to beat that damn pirate ship, for example, playing it on Easy will let you try yourself against the first phases and learn how they work, so that the third phase can be tried on Normal.

        It also had optional Hard difficulties unlocked after your first time beating the game, and grades to separate the people who perfected a boss from those who just squeaked by.

        It’s a great game, although with its strictness it’s not for everyone.

      4. Echo Tango says:

        There may be players (I myself am one example) who cannot improve their skill or reflexes to the point needed to complete the game. For me, easy mode is not training, it’s a way to compensate for my physical limitations. I haven’t played any of the major 3D soulsborne games, but I’ve hit this particular wall in Enter The Gungeon, which frustratingly is a game which starts with an honest-to-goodness tutorial assuming that players don’t know what a game is[1], yet by the middle dungeons, assumes you’ve increased your skill and reflexes to very high levels.

        [1] The tutorial is very, very tedious and slow, if you’ve got any experience playing games at all.

    2. beleester says:

      Someone made a tool for Sekiro that puts the whole game into slo-mo (or the whole game except the player, if you prefer). That seems like the perfect way to handle difficulty in a game that’s mostly about reflexes and timing. https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2019/04/05/sekiro-shadows-die-twice-customise-game-speed/

      A cap on max damage also seems like a neat fix, perhaps coupled with a more generous supply of Estus flasks. Dark Souls doesn’t usually kill you in one hit (unless you’ve been completely ignoring Vitality) – what kills you is making more mistakes than you have Estus flasks to fix them with.

      1. FluffySquirrel says:

        Well that’s an interesting mod, hmm, maybe I’ll give the game another try using that at some point

        Can’t wait to see LobosJr make his machine explode trying to play Sekiro at 999% speed

      2. DerJungerLudendorff says:

        That mod made me pick the game up again and actually finish it.
        It also made me realize I don’t actually like their bossfights, because they take so much time and repetition.

  8. Tizzy says:

    I find it interesting that the Batman games get brought up in this article, since I almost immediately turned the Arkham games’ difficulty to easy, while I’m personally glad that Dark Souls didn’t have an easy mode. (Still think that it would be fine for Souls game to have an easy mode — but then I would have used it and I suspect that my personal experience would have been less enjoyable as a result).

    For both series, I never mastered the mechanics really well and my experience is not the intended one. But somehow I’m happy to engage the mechanics as they are in Souls game, while I want to speed through the Arkham brawling to get to the parts other I enjoy more (predator, puzzles, traversal). Aren’t both types of combat about target selection and carefully timed button presses, though? I don’t have any answers. But it sure shows the limits of approaching games from an overly reductive, purely mechanical angle.

  9. Darren says:

    Some of your points don’t actually apply to Sekiro, which has no summoning component and only two stats: Vitality (your health and posture) and Attack (how much damage you do). On top of that, you can only grind for one of those stats, and can only do so after completing a late-game sidequest that is not particularly signposted. Sekiro is very much a “do it until you figure it out,” kind of game, and checkpoints are positioned in front of bosses so that there’s little delay between dying to one and trying again. The only reason to go do something else is to grind up ammo for your special weapons–which tend to be either extremely useful for a boss or of no use at all, with little in-between ground–or to try to hunt down prayer beads, which extend your Vitality every time you collect four and are hidden around the world but mostly in the possession of mini-bosses (who are often only slightly less difficult than full bosses). You could also go hunt down other bosses to get the permanent Attack increases they provide; there are only a few points in the game where you might have only one way you could possibly go. And, in a few instances, you can acquire a new prosthetic tool or upgrade that nearly trivializes a specific fight (for example, the weird demon things that summon skulls can be instantly killed with the mid-air takedown ability, making the fights little more than exercises in dodging their attacks until they leave themselves open).

    Sekiro is a very pure game in the sense that it offers few ways to work around the intended experience. Grinding out Attack or hunting down beads can give you a real edge–I only beat the final boss after grinding out two additional points of Attack–but there’s no getting around that you have to learn the bosses and master the mechanics. It’s no more difficult to talk about than Cuphead or Hollow Knight, two games I think are about on par with Sekiro in terms of difficulty (I might argue that Hollow Knight is harder) but which aren’t subjected to the same intensity of analysis.

    That’s not to say that people shouldn’t critique Sekiro’s unflinching challenge. But I don’t think the game is particularly stacking the deck against the player, and certainly not to the degree that the Soulsborne games do.

    1. Fizban says:

      Not as hard as Hollow Knight? Interesting. Granted, I did deal with a number of bosses in Hollow Knight by stacking defenses and brute forcing DPSing them, which probably wouldn’t work in Sekiro even with grinding attack points.

      1. Darren says:

        In Hollow Knight, you mostly have more room to survive hits, but over the course of a fight your only real defense is to memorize attack patterns and avoid them. In Sekiro, the block/counter system is way more forgiving and flexible. It’s not necessarily that difficult to figure out how to survive attacks, it’s in figuring out when to get your hits in without leaving yourself vulnerable.

        And on top of that, Hollow Knight’s rewards for bosses are way out of whack. Most of them give you nothing; they are obstacles to another area or to getting a specific ending. You get little in the way of rewards for beating them in and of themselves. In Sekiro, every mini-boss rewards you with a prayer bead, four of which increase your Vitality. Every boss rewards you with a memory, which can be exchanged at any checkpoint for an increase to your Attack. Those make a huge difference, and actively seeking out mini-bosses and bosses can be the difference between success and failure against a foe that’s giving you grief. In Hollow Knight, I didn’t challenge more bosses than I had to because they were so brutal, whereas in Sekiro I was hungrily looking for as many as I could because they meant permanent improvements to my raw stats.

        I think the real proof is that I don’t have much desire to return to Hollow Knight just yet because it means another 40 hours of grueling combat, but I jumped into Sekiro’s New Game Plus mode and just tore through the game with buffed stats and improved knowledge of the game’s systems.

  10. Darren says:

    After reading your piece, I’d say Sekiro has a high skill ceiling, high strictness, moderate punishment (the most important skills and upgrades to acquire can be grinded out pretty easily once you have become comfortable with the game, but the penalty for death is objectively pretty harsh), and moderate teaching style.

    It’s a much more focused game than the Soulsborne titles; you need to learn the counter system–which is more forgiving, flexible, and powerful than the parry mechanics that came before it–and it bludgeons you over and over again until you learn it. The boss fights are much more in the “final exam” vein than what Dark Souls and Bloodborne had to offer, with virtually every one of them presenting you with some new challenge for your countering skills. I don’t know that the game escalates as smoothly as it should–the chained ogre is an early curve ball that throws off the steady escalation of counter-heavy fights, and of the two possible first boss fights, Gyobou is significantly easier than Lady Butterfly, but Lady Butterfly is much better about driving home the importance of the game’s counter systems–but there’s more obvious scaffolding in place.

    1. Redrock says:

      I’d say Sekiro’s punishment is actually pretty light. About 80% of bosses are right by the checkpoints, you can easily protect your gold by buying pouches and investing the rest in spirit emblems, and XP is pretty easy to gain and you only ever lose the XP accumulated towards the next skill point, not the unspent skill points you might have. All in all, the only annoying thing is that whatever items you use during a fight are lost, which makes me extra stingy. Then again, most fights aren’t made all that easier by particular items. Appart from some ghosts, and even those I mostly beat without the anti-ghost stuff.

  11. John says:

    When I think about the Great Dark Souls Difficulty Debate, my head starts spinning in circles because (i) Dark Souls is popular because it is so difficult and (ii) nobody would be complaining that Dark Souls is too difficult if Dark Souls weren’t popular. (Well, not literally nobody, but you get the idea. There wouldn’t be a bunch of articles about it and a big internet-wide shouting match, that’s for sure.) It’s not quite a paradox, but it’s close.

    In any case, I’m totally sympathetic to anyone whose position is “gee, it would be nice if these games had some difficulty sliders so that more people could enjoy them”. That’s a reasonable opinion expressed in a reasonable way. I have no sympathy at all for the didactic Souls-shouters out there, whether they’re saying “No easy mode for you!” or “Easy mode is mandatory!”

    1. Gurgl says:

      Dark Souls would be popular regardless because it is choke-full of genuine qualities, that’s the point. Average players are drawn to it because they want to experience the lore, the visual design, the world exploration, the atmosphere, and even the combat system if it were more lenient, but the game is walled off to them.

      1. John says:

        I don’t know. I don’t dispute that those things are in the games or that people like those things. I just don’t think that those things are what drew a critical mass of players to the game in the first place. Maybe you’ve been hanging out in a different part of the internet than I have, but as far as I can tell the conversation about Dark Souls started with “This game is so hard, it’s awesome!” rather than something like “Check out this crazy piece of lore I found!”

        1. Gurgl says:

          So you see lore, visual design, exploration, atmosphere and combat system, and you remember “lore”. Sounds fair.

          1. John says:

            That was just an example. I could just as easily have made up something related to visual design, exploration, or atmosphere and it wouldn’t affect my point in the slightest. I will admit that the combat system is at least potentially a different matter. However, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone discuss the combat system except as it relates to either difficulty or to their desire to do things differently on a repeat playthrough. Again, I’m not disputing that these things are in the game, that people like these things, or even that their presence helps to explain the game’s enduring popularity. What I am saying is that, as best as I can tell and allowing for the possibility that I am wrong, the thing that attracted large numbers of people to Dark Souls in the first place was the difficulty. The early days of the post-Dark Souls internet were full of boss-talk and almost nothing else. That other stuff all came later. If you had a different experience, then I won’t argue with you or claim that it didn’t happen.

          2. Redrock says:

            I’m with John here. Like I said in my own comment, it’s the difficultt that makes people so attentive and immersed. Without that concentration, I don’t think the atmosphere will necessarily be as impressive as it is now. Same with combat – it can be considered quite simplistic. What makes it fun is that every fight is deadly and weighty. Give either the player or the enemy significantly more health and it probably will be far less exciting. Case in point – the latest Assassin Creed games, which basically replicate how DS combat looks, but not how it feels, because everyone in AC is spongy as hell.

            1. Gurgl says:

              Some people find a greater challenge a lot of fun, not everyone can relate, but everyone understands. I think the idea that someone is trying to take the difficulty away has polluted the conversation.

              No one is advocating for the removal of the current difficulty level, “I don’t want it to exist because I wouldn’t have fun with it” ignores the entire concept of optional difficulty levels. An easy mode wouldn’t threaten the experience of challenge-oriented players; if anything, the old-timers would have an easy entry point to introduce their friends to the game, and as you probably knwow, most people who keep playing a game gradually ramp up the difficulty.

              This means that as of now, we have to major blind spots: the people who want to experience the game once and be done with it, and the people who would have stuck around but gave up because they couldn’t get better in a non-frustrating manner.

              These two demographics, obviously, aren’t around to tell us about the benefits of an easier challenge.

              It would be a non-issue if you could “just play something else”, but while action-RPGs are a well-threaded genre, quality ones aren’t that numerous. Many people who aren’t after a challenge are still on the market for Dark Souls; traditional-but-excellent is a powerful recipe, almost everything is good about Dark Souls, breezing through it is still a fantastic experience.

              And all of this is assuming “easy mode” to be intended as faceroll braindead difficulty, another incongruous consensus.

  12. Mattias42 says:

    Counter-point: Does everything actually need to be accessible to everybody?

    For example, I do not get performance art at all. To me, it’s people acting weird, disgusting and getting shockingly naked, but because they say it’s art, it’s somehow OK to do so in some of the most high-class places on the planet.

    I do however know that it moves some people to genuine tears. Some people travel over entire continents just to see even a single of those fleeting, one-time performances.

    Or an example more close to my heart: spicy food and/or Mexican style food.

    Where I live… there is none. In the name of selling to everybody, you basically get tomato and paprika. A few jalapeno slices, if you’re darn lucky AND ask for them.

    And apparently even THAT is too much for some people. I have, no joke, gotten these bug-eyed stares from serving staff on request for no creme-fresh atop my taco platter, because I actually want to taste what little spice there is.

    So, yeah. I think that’s why many Souls fans get so defensive. To continue the food metaphor, From is basically the one studio where they can get their ‘Ghost-pepper Inferno Special,’ and being told ‘if they add mild stuff to the menu, nobody is forcing you to eat the tomato salsa’ is freaking infuriating when people that like their food mild have so, so, so~ many more places to eat at.

    1. Hal says:

      Bringing the concept back to the games, though: A game is not just the mechanics. It’s certainly not less than that, but it is most definitely more than that.

      After all, if you took out all the art assets, all the text and dialog, playing a game with nothing but bare models in a muted setting, would the appeal remain?

      For a lot of people they’re drawn in because the games have a lot of other appealing features. I played a bit into Bloodborne. I love the Gothic/Cosmic horror. The aesthetics, the environmental design, the dread and despair that infuses every bit of the world . . . it’s remarkable. But I can’t really appreciate most of it because the game was just too much for me.

      Thus, saying, “Well you can just go elsewhere to get that” falls flat. If your friend wasn’t allowed to read Harry Potter, telling him, “You can just read some other story about a boy who takes the Hero’s Journey at a private school before he saves the day because he’s the Chosen One,” but you can be sure that would ring hollow. It won’t be the same, regardless of the similarities.

      So I get the argument about diluting the experience for the purists. But the counterpoint of, “You can get the experience you want elsewhere” seems like it’s missing the point of why people want to play the games on a lower difficulty in the first place.

    2. Gurgl says:

      I find that not to be a valid argument because Souls isn’t unique or special, it’s just very good.

      Third-person action-RPGs aren’t a novelty but good ones are few; the difficulty in Dark Souls is visible precisely because a large number of people who enjoy similar games got lured in by its other qualities and ended up finding this one insurmontable.

      In fact people who insist that an easy mode would ruin Dark Souls are tacitely admitting that the only thing it has going for it is its difficulty, which is just wrong. The game is excellent and being able to play through it smoothly is still a fantastic experience.

    3. DerJungerLudendorff says:

      Counterpoint-counterpoint: Yes, if reasonably possible.

      Nobody is proposing we make the overall game less interesting/fun/difficult. We’re just proposing ideas for options to make the game more palatable en enjoyable for a large number of (potential) players.

      We don’t want to change the menu, we want to expand it.

    4. Erik says:

      Yes, but.

      If I love Mexican food, and the place that serves the “Ghost-pepper Inferno Special” has a great reputation, I would really want to try it – without burning out my palate. Telling me there are “so, so, so many more places to eat” really doesn’t help me when you also keep telling me that this one is the Best One Evar and I should try it.

      It sucks that there’s no decent Szechuan or Thai around you to let you get your spice on, it really does. (Mexican? Ha! Even many Thai natives around here steer clear of max-hot Thai. :) If you ever get out to the Bay, speak up and get a spice tour.) But the From taqueria also providing salsa verde really doesn’t take your Ghost Pepper Inferno away.

  13. The Rocketeer says:

    I just want to point out something funny: Shamus probably picked the screenshot of the Iron Golem as the image for the “Easy Mode” heading for irony’s sake, because it looks imposing. But it is in fact a notorious pushover boss that often fails to land a single hit on the player before being knocked helplessly to the ground, and the NPC summon available for the fight, Black Iron Tarkus, can famously solo the boss in a matter of moments while shrugging off its attacks. It is the ideal choice to visually signify Dark Souls: Prepare to Stroll Edition.

    1. Asdasd says:

      Well, yeah. The boss is basically just a hard check to make sure the player isn’t still trying to shield-block every single attack that comes their way.

      1. The Rocketeer says:

        You think so? Seems pretty redundant after Quelaag, for one. Gaping Dragon for another, though that’s technically optional. Even the Bell Gargoyles’ fire breath deals enough damage through block to seriously discourage trying to absorb it rather than avoid it.

        Instead, I’d say if anything distinguishes the cut-and-dry Iron Golem, it’s that hyperaggression is more greatly rewarded in that fight than in any other, contrary to the game’s reputation for ponderous defensive play.

        1. Asdasd says:

          By attacks I mean physical attacks, ie the fight is against the idea that your shield is equal to the swing of a weapon.

  14. Lino says:

    A very well thought-out and well-argumented article (both this one and the column) – I hope more people start articulating exactly what they mean when they say something is difficult, annoying, etc. However, I expect that most people are just going to gloss over it, and lay onto your wrong description of the co-op mode – as far as I know, if you summon someone to help you with a boss, they can’t deal damage to you or grief you in any way.
    But more to the point, I hope people start being more thoughtful when they argue online (HEY, STOP LAUGHING, IT’S NOT IMPOSSIBLE!). Maybe it’s just down to the circles I’m in (or the ones that I’ve left behind), but I’ve noticed that in recent years, online arguments have began getting a lot more measured – people try to explain their opinions and back them up with sources. I know it’s a long shot, but I’m actually optimistic about the future of Internet discourse (video game-related and otherwise) – as cynical as I am on most topics, I do think that sooner or later people will get tired of the hate machine, and things will somewhat normalize…

  15. Infinitron says:

    I think that in addition to grinding and manual dexterity, there’s a third skill set for gamers with regards to difficulty. Call it strategic planning – the ability to analyze a game and map your way through it in a way that minimizes the frustrating repetition Shamus describes here. Learn how and where to grind ahead of time so that you arrive ready for the “practice”.

    1. default_ex says:

      I tend to fall into that strategic category myself but not as much with planning. While playing an RPG I keep mental notes of effort vs rewards. Be those rewards experience, money, consumable items or items that sell for considerable money. I keep an eye out for places where the effort vs reward is out of balance with the rest of the game and take my time to do a little bit of grinding in those places. Every game has those places and during normal mindless play you wouldn’t notice them but if your the type to pay attention, those areas are a great way to cheese the rest of the game.

    2. Preciousgollum says:

      I call the minimising frustration aspect on a moment-to moment level ‘safe’ gamemplay. It occurs in everything from Strategy games, Fighting games, to First Person Shooters.

      In other words, don’t risk dying in order to win. Choose the options that give you the most advantage, AND is easy enough to do, and stick with them.

      Dark Souls encourages stretches of ‘safe’ gameplay in its bosses and exploration, since usually it is a bad counter-attack that is most risky and will get you punished for it. That continual urge to want to damage the boss at bad times is what adds up, drains your healing stock, wears you down, and then gets you killed.

  16. KotBasil says:

    I’m still curious what was the developer’s reason for adding “boss runs” (i.e. getting back to boss location after a failed attempt). My attempts to justify it kinda failed:
    – To make the gameworld feel more real… BUT suddenly being teleported somewhere after being defeated is anything but real.
    – To give player a pause to rethink strategy or maybe even choose another path… BUT it actually reduces my thinking time because I’m busy with walking back.
    – To teach player patience… BUT it encourages me to to run like mad through mobs to reach boss again, which is not very patience-like,
    – To reduce fatigue from a lot a failed attempts… BUT it just adds more fatigue.

    Do I miss something here?

    1. Geebs says:

      I think the reasons are:

      1) it incorporates the element of grinding into the boss runs; players gain more souls by beating the mooks on the way to the boss, at least until they figure out that you can run past most things.

      2) it raises the stakes for the boss battles – players have all of the accumulated souls from their previous runs to fight for each time they face the boss, because they’re dropped in the boss arena each time the player loses

      3) it gives the players incentives to find the shortcuts in the levels, which provide another mechanism for permanent player progression separate from actually fighting enemies and levelling up.

      4) it gives players the opportunity to pick up summons before the boss battle, and it gives people who are offering summons something to do while they wait to join another person’s game.

      Hope that helps a bit!

      1. DerJungerLudendorff says:

        That seems a pretty counterproductive way to implement grinding to me? Why force players to grind if you know they will (probably) lose it all in the end? Because unless you actually defeat the boss, and you never die in any of the runs, and you don’t give up or do something else in the meantime, you will lose it all.
        Likewise, if I’m retrying a boss for the tenth time, I probably cashed out all the money I could, and wrote off the rest.

        And 3 just seems like they create a problem, then give you a way to mitigate it. You don’t need shortcuts if you can just respawn in front of the boss room. That would let you easily pick up summons too.

        IMHO, the boss runs are there because the designers see it as a part of the challenge and experience, maybe to give you breathing room, and because bossfight bonfires would screw up their checkpoint design before you completed the area. Note how you often seem to get bonfires there after you beat the boss (and thus the area), but never right before them.

        1. Preciousgollum says:

          That’s part of the excitement of not knowing if a fog door leads to a boss, or new area.

          If every bonfire was right next to a boss door, it would make exploration less exciting
          However, Dark Souls 2 & 3 practically started removing a lot of the boss run tedium. And incorporating ‘Boss Bonfires + Shortcuts’ into their level design.

          Also, World Of Warcraft made the revival corpse run famous, despite it being tedious, and why don’t people complain about it more? Isn’t that system an utter waste of time?

      2. Redrock says:

        For what it’s worth, I think that Sekiro removing boss runs was a tremendous improvement to the From formula.

      3. KotBasil says:

        Quite good reasons, thank you!

        With this in mind, I came to the conclusion that “boss runs” are actually a part of boss fights in Souls games. Like, phase 1. If you learn it well, you get rewarded with additional souls, or items, or summons, or simply with an ability to get back to the boss quickly. If you fumble it, you get a disadvantage of starting the main fight with less health, or lose time.

        Doesn’t mean I like it or completely agree with it, but I can see the reasoning now.

        1. Preciousgollum says:

          There is a consumable item called Homeward Bone where, if you are quick enough after realising that you hit a boss door while holding a lot of souls, you can use it to teleport back to a bonfire, with your souls, so it is all a part of the risk/reward game play loop.

          So, if you ever were in a situation where you had a gauntlet to get to the boss, you basically learn to not die twice before picking up your souls from before, so they will accumulate. Basically, this way, at least SOME soft progress can be made even if you are struggling in a particular section.

          Sen’s Fortress in DS1 was originally a pain because the WHOLE LEVEL was a rush to the boss, before you stumble upon multiple shortcuts and ways to save progress. I kind of of doubt that FromSoft will ever do such a ‘Hardcore’ traps and dungeons vertical level like Sen’s Fortress ever again. However, again, the difficulty comes from environmental pitfall challenges that are basically fixed in terms of their difficulty. The only way is to make the level itself easier.

    2. Syal says:

      I really don’t play these games, but Dark Souls at least has… not necessarily Metroidvania, but branching paths. I watched Slowbeef play through DS1, and I remember him saying he had about half a dozen goals at any given time. I think the idea behind the boss runs is to encourage you to forget about this boss for a while and explore a different route.

  17. Gurgl says:

    After beating Dark Souls and getting into Dark Souls 2 a few months later, it quickly occurred to me that there was no way I was going through that boring and miserable slog again; and wouldn’t you know it, alt-tabbing and savescumming through Dark Souls 2 was actually a lot of fun. You can play it somewhat like a traditional third-person action-RPG (like Amalur / Risen / War in the North / Dragon’s Dogma) without the constant worry, it’s truely liberating. Sure, saving and loading become tedious chores, but it’s still a net positive.

    It really emphasizes the importance of training: in Dark Souls 2, past the very beginning, there were very long portions in the middle game where I pretty much never died except to bosses, i.e. I still kept paranoia-saving, but almost never had to load. I’m no psychologist, but I’m pretty sure that playing stressfree also does wonders to performance. Besides if being stressed out and worried truely was the “intended experience” I wouldn’t want it anyway. What a terrible thing to take for granted in an entertainment product.

    Since I essentially played on easy mode and loved it, I’m curious as to whether there exists an argument that I made the game inferior either to myself or to someone else.


    I feel like games taking themselves so seriously is hurtful overal, and at the very least it’s cringy and ridiculous. We’re talking about videogames, entertainment. Don’t make it miserable in order to fulfill a sort of vision of how serious or harsh it needs to be in order to remain pure and virtuous.

    Apparently in Spec Ops The Line you are supposed to stop playing, it’s your fault that you feel like you have to go on regardless, just like Walker, you see. Apparently in Dark Souls you are supposed to be miserable and want to quit, but power through anyway, just like the ghosts in-universe, you see. Apparently in Guild Wars you need absurd reqs to wield Shiro’s daggers because they are super-special and you need to be a very proficient warrior, you see. Give me a break.

    Let’s imagine if another game had taken itself so seriously:
    “Cooperative mode? But what if it makes the game too easy? There would be two players against the same amount of enemies, that would ruin it. And wouldn’t it also ruin the idea that you are a lone super-soldier against an insurmontable enemy? And wouldn’t the sinister sequences look less scary? And wait, how would that even work plot-wise? You mean there would be two Master Chief? Preposterous!”

    NO ONE CARES for fuck’s sake, it’s a videogame, just let me play.


    Remember Fable 3 where they believed players were unable to understand videogame abstractions, so we got buried in tedious interface trinklets and it took ages to do something that should be an afterthought. But you see, we absolutely had to have that plot-mandated sanctuary and 3D dungeon to manage our inventory, because apparently players are braindead morons who cannot grasp plot and atmosphere unless the game mechanics are hammering their toes.

    Let me pause, let me save, let me load, let me manage my saves, and by whatever God you swear to, just let me team up without the session ending as soon as someone coughs the wrong way and without 2P being a Christmas tree. I know your game is a cultural artsy experience but most people really, really don’t care, and I would argue, even a lot of people who played through and genuinely enjoyed it would love it even more if the game mechanics weren’t so full of themselves.

    Interface isn’t game design, matchmaking isn’t game design. Don’t make it tedious to make a point, it’s busywork, it’s a tool, it should be streamlined as much as possible.

    Lacking basic industry features isn’t some grandiose game design. You think S.T.A.L.K.E.R. isn’t widely recognised as hard, atmospheric and intense? And yet you can save, load, manage your saves, and pause.


    It’s not like the Dark Souls games are average or mediocre games that need to rely on a gimmick to sell their brand, they have a good number of legitimate qualities and walling them off to so many people is just a huge waste. The visual design is still superb, the combat still “feels” good (great damage / pain visual feedback even when you largely overpower trash mobs, so it’s not like difficulty mandates it), the exploration is still enticing, the trickle lore will still make you curious.

    In fact as evidenced by my Dark Souls 2 playthough, I feel the game really isn’t that far off to being noob-friendly, I wonder if a simple health regen wouldn’t do the trick so a bad player will still take long to get through a spot, but at least approach each encounter fresh. That, and non-gimmicky coop.

    TL;DR: people who struggle with Dark Souls, try trainers or savescumming, the game design is still strong enough that it remains a legitimately good experience regardless… which, I think, is the best argument in favour of easy mode: you really cannot ruin Dark Souls.

    1. tmtvl says:

      We’re talking about videogames, entertainment.

      I agree, people who claim that videogames are “art” are self-important snobs. Paintings are art, movies are art, music is art, videogames are toys for children.

      1. Jim says:

        Would you classify novels as art? I view videogames in a surprisingly similar way to books, for the most part. There are books with complex, intriguing plots, compelling characters, rock-solid worldbuilding, etc…and then there are books like, say, 100 Knock-Knock Jokes or sixth-grader math textbooks or outdated fairytales or a thousand other less “artistic” categories within the whole. Is Lord of the Rings made a “toy for children” just because there are books out there that actually are toys for children or focused more upon raw entertainment than great storytelling?
        I’m not saying that’s what Dark Souls is, or that my probably flawed comparison is directly analogous to videogames at all. But what I am saying is that there’s an argument to be made that there are videogames that could be considered art, even if I don’t necessarily hold that view. Just because To The Moon or The Witcher 3 or Oxenfree or OneShot or Transistor or Sunless Sea and anything else I could name are videogames doesn’t mean they should be judged solely as “toys for children”. They still have the same potential to create wonderful stories that can encourage reflection, regardless of whether they appeal to you or me personally. And for videogames, the mechanics and interface and difficulty can absolutely be an aspect of how the game’s story is conveyed. There are millions of games out there; surely there’s room for some that actually want to be taken seriously and appeal to very specific kinds of people?
        I actually agree with many of Gurgl’s points, but your claim that people proclaiming videogames to be art are self-important snobs really rubs me the wrong way. For me, it suggests a rather ironically snobbish attitude: it seems like you’re declaring what people should and shouldn’t respect and value on its own merits, based solely on your ideals of what a videogame should only ever be.
        The mass noun for “art”, as defined by Oxford Dictionaries at least, is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works primarily to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.” I don’t actually agree that that’s all art, in a broader sense, can be, but since that’s the definition that pops up first in my Google search it’s probably the one most people would use, so let’s go with it. I would say that that definition of art wouldn’t fit a vast, vast majority of videogames into that category, and certainly not Dark Souls, but could you really say it doesn’t include ANY games in there?

        P.S. Sorry if I’ve accidentally conflated any of Gurgl’s expressed opinions with yours or said something obviously incorrect, which I likely have at some point in that long-winded ramble. My defense would be that I’m really not as intelligent as all my sesquipedalian loquaciousness might erroneously indicate.

        1. Gurgl says:

          He was satirizing what he thinks is my point of view. For the record, I have no issue with games as art, but that’s not really an important point in this debate.

          The point is much simpler: Dark Souls is trying to convey a mood, and to do so it tries to make the game itself as unwelcoming and unfriendly as the in-game world. While the idea was good, it was also largely experimental by Demon’s Souls and many broken ideas were kept simply because they were there first.

          In a parallel timeline, do you really believe Soulborne fans, even purists, would advocate for the removal of a traditional coop system in favor of the broken mess we have at the moment? Sadly, the broken mess got there first and now we are stuck with it. The coop system is a pain because it insists on having an in-game justification.

          I’m sceptical about the benefits of that in-game justification vs the benefits of simply playing with your friends hassle-free. Mutilating basic game mechanics in the name of the lore is almost always a terrible deal.

      2. Preciousgollum says:

        Video games contain all of those things: Paintings, Music and Movies. If you suggest that those are all art forms, then that makes Video games a work of art.

        Otherwise, we could go the other way and suggest that all of these forms of expressions are like toys for the immature (which they sort of are…) so maybe art is a toy and/or toys are art.

  18. Gunther says:

    Remember when there was a brief craze for “Five Nights At Freddies” style jump-scare games?

    I hate being jump-scared and those games were unplayable for me – too punishing to endure. But I understood that the jump-scare was part of the experience; the thing that made the rest of the game so atmospheric and tense for the people who loved them. A version of FNAF where those jump-scares where removed and the screen just faded to black when you lost wouldn’t be worth playing.

    Or how about the brutal way you can lose all your progress in Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy? I saw streamers brought to literal tears by that game, and checkpoints would completely remove that frustration… But I don’t think the game could survive that change. Foddy would agree, going by his narration:

    Feeling frustrated? It’s underrated.
    An orange is sweet juicy fruit,
    locked inside a bitter peel.
    That’s not how I feel about a challenge;
    I only want the bitterness.
    It’s coffee, it’s grapefruit, it’s licorice.

    We have the same taste, you and I:
    it’s not ambition,
    it’s ambition’s opposite.
    An obdurate mission to taste defeat.
    You’ll feel bad if you win.
    So I put this snake in for you.

    I’m not enough of a fan of Souls games to know if they’re the same – if they can be made easier without also being made worse.

    1. Kylroy says:

      The underlying games of the FNAF series are pretty bare-bones – the kind of thing you would have seen in an online flash game a decade or more ago. Essentially nobody played FNAF for the game – if timer-minding and resource juggling is what you want, there are lots of equally good games out there.

      Getting Over It was an exercise in player abuse and masochism that, likewise, had a very simple game underneath it. I suppose there’s nothing quite like it’s janky man-with-hammer-in-a-pot gamplay that comes to mind, but more general platformers of all levels of difficulty abound.

      Dark Souls, on the other hand, has a very involved game going on under the atmosphere and crushing difficulty.

  19. Joshua says:

    Interesting that I just had a conversation about Wastelands 2 on this page yesterday. In that game, I would say that the intended game experience is for the player to NOT save scum. A very explicit theme of the game is that the Wasteland is rough and your job as one of the few law-men in the area is oftenheart-breaking, and that you won’t be able to save the day every time, making you cherish the victories that you earn that much more. Sometimes people you try to save will die, either by “there’s 0% chance to win” game writer fiat, or by “you’ll have to do a very specific set of steps to come out with the good ending”. You’re expected to finish the game and read through the ending “here’s what happened to X afterwards” credits and feel proud of your accomplishments and regret your failures. Some of the game design frustrations that I have, particularly the fact that you have to create your squad and pick skills not knowing which will be useful in the near future, or which skills will be duplicative of NPCs who will soon join your team, is part of that theme -play with the hand you’re dealt, not the hand that you wish you had.

    But, here’s the thing: you don’t have to play that way. Just because that’s the designer-intended experience, doesn’t mean you can’t save-scum to your heart’s content and read walkthroughs to get the best possible starting team and best endings (where possible) for any quests that come your way. It’s the player’s choice.

  20. Crokus Younghand says:

    One way to make the games easily learnable would be to make the enemies the same size as the player with same weapons and movement set. However, they will be using those in ways that have a high skill ceiling which (hopefully) the player hasn’t reached yet.

    This way, when the boss actually attacks you, you see something new to learn which gives a you precise “target”.

    But of course, all the enemies in Soulslike games are larger than you (with giant bosses) whose move set and weapons completely differ from you. So, there is nothing to learn from watching them and the only way to learn becomes dying again and again.

    I really like the idea of a Soulslike game and hate the From Software’s execution of it. Making your game difficult should not exclude having empathy for the player, we are not in Sierra adventures era anymore.

    1. Christopher says:

      But the all your enemies are just regular humans with the same abilities as you instead of rats, giant knights, aliens, dragons etc

      Granted I thought Absolver was that.

    2. Vinsomer says:

      So… For Honor?

  21. Joshua says:

    While I like games with higher skill curves, I can’t stand much punishment. And if I’m failing, I’d like to get an early idea of what I’m doing wrong. As a forty-something with a job, wife, house to maintain, and graduate school, I’ve got little patience for endlessly repeating content to finally surpass it. The accomplishment of success is outweighed by the annoyance of all of those defeats, and that’s not where I’d care to spend my spare time.

  22. Christopher says:

    I’m also happy Souls exists. And try changing it up, importantly. You can only go through your first Dark Souls for the first time once, and I was getting burned out on the familiarity. Bloodborne and Sekiro are vital injections of new life into it all.

  23. Jack V says:

    It feels like this argument is really similar to the one we had when games with save/load became common. It used to be, you HAD to complete a whole level of a game at once, because there was no mechanism for saving and reloading.

    Then that became easy, and was introduced. And then people started to expect it, and then games started to be designed around it. And then consoles complicated everything by having really common save points but no free save. Etc.

    And I’m still nostalgic for, when I was young, and had more time, and when I learned how to do the first levels of a game so well I could complete them flawlessly ten times on the trot, because the only way to deal with later levels was to have multiple chances.

    But now, I don’t have that time, and I don’t want to sink that time into most games. Some games learning to complete them perfectly is a lot more fun than learning to completely them at all, some games learning to complete them perfectly is just a massive pain.

    I think it’s worth having games that are aimed at that high skill ceiling, and allowing people to save-scum their way through them undermines that. But I still think, it’s natural to have that as the DEFAULT mode for a game, there’s no reason to have it as the ONLY mode. Have an easy mode where people can save anywhere. Have an easy mode where people are invulnerable. Call it “cheat mode” if you want. Turn off scores/achievements/something if you want.

    Sure, they’re not getting the experience the game is MOST about. But a lot of work goes into your game. If people love the story, or the mechanics, but don’t like (or physically can’t enjoy) the main genre of the game, why not let them enjoy the bits they do enjoy?

    The same thing happens elsewhere. If you’re partially sighted, or blind, you’re not going to get as much out of most movies as most people do. It’s good there’s some moves that are made so you CAN get as much out of it. And we SHOULD make movies as accessible as possible, with audio descriptions etc. That helps people who can’t see them. And also people who are too busy and watching the movie at the same time as something else. Or summarising movies for a project. Or many other things. Someone who says “you don’t get as much out of it” is right, but someone who says “we should force everyone to get the full experience or nothing at all” is being oblivious and probably an arsehole.

    Likewise, some people think “if you have a cheat mode, everyone will use it”. Well, there’s some truth to that, but I don’t think it’s a good argument. You can encourage people away from easy mode without just removing it entirely. If you want to communicate “this isn’t exactly the same game, it’s more like a weak simulator of it”, then feel free. If you want to make it a weird option you have to enable in an admin console, well, that’s nearly as good. But not having it doesn’t work. You can still make the regular way the central experience, even if it’s not the only experience.

  24. Redrock says:

    This whole debate in relation to Sekiro puzzles me. Sekiro is, for me, the least stressful From Software game. Sure, there’s no option to grind, but the punishment for death is very, very light, and there’re almost no corpse runs. I think I’m close to beating this one, and that would make Sekiro the first From game I’ve ever beaten.

    Personally, I think the whole debate is very misguided, because it’s built on the idea that Soulsborne is something everyone should experience, while, in reality, they’re very niche games. Moreover, without that difficulty there’s really not that much to those games. Sure, there’s the level design and the worldbuilding, but all of that only works because of the way the difficulty demands your complete attention and concentration, which leads to a very powerful feeling of investment and immersion. Take that away and what’s left? A bare-bones story, almost complete lack of interesting meaningful dialogue or characters, and a world that, while beautifully designed, is extremely rigid and non-interactive. Soulsborne games are the definition of “more than the sum of its parts”, and could easily fall apart if one part of them is removed. I guess my argument boils down to “an easy mode would ruin Dark Souls not because that game is so great, but because it’s really not as great as people think”. Yup, I said it. I’m ready to face your wrath.

    1. slug camargo says:

      As a huge From fanboy I want to froth at the mouth at the wording in your reasoning, but I just can’t find a hole to poke in it. It truly is pretty much that.

      I would add, just for clarification, that when we say “niche” it’s not like we’re talking about a dozen crazed hardcore fanboys: For all this overblown twitter scandal, Sekiro has been doing pretty handsomely in terms of sales. Right now it’s the second top-selling game in Steam, right below Witcher 3 which is running a massive discount at the moment. So no, it doesn’t need to reach a wider audience, either.

      1. Redrock says:

        When I say niche, I really mean that it’s aimed at people who enjoy that particular type of action gameplay. I mean niche in the same way as Paradox 4x gamesor character action games like DMC or Bayonetta, which, I feel, is different from the “do a bit of everything” gameplay of your Assassin Creeds and Uncharteds that try to appeal to everyone and their mum.

  25. slug camargo says:

    And to be honest, I don’t think we NEED a justification for not having easy mode. Hidetaka Miyazaki made exactly the game he meant to. I don’t personally enjoy the result, but he’s sticking to his vision and not compromising in pursuit of sales or mainstream appeal. Frankly I wish this industry had more of that sort of thing. The Soulsborne games are a very specific game for a very specific audience, and as long as the game is pleasing its intended audience then I’m happy it exists.

    This is as far as the whole stupid debate should’ve gone. Some games just aren’t meant for everybody, period. Yahtzee made basically the same point when he reviewed Skate 2, ten f’ing years ago. We really should listen to that guy more.

    1. Erik says:

      135% agreed. That should have summed it up and been the end.

      Alas, we exist in a world full of whiners and fanbois. And when those meet, it’s like Mentos & Diet Coke, and it gets all over EVERYTHING.

  26. kdansky says:

    As a Dark Souls purist, I completely agree that summoning a friend to defeat a hard boss undercuts the core experience, and that most other Dark Souls purists will scoff at summoning anyone on their first play-through. One might even argue that Sekiro lacks that feature very deliberately.

    Dark/Demon Souls had multiplayer not because of balance, but because it was interesting.

    One of the things I like very much about Fromsoft games is that they make an actual design choice on difficulty and savescumming. Skyrim just ignores the problem and makes the player deal with it on the meta-level: Arguably quick-saving is by far the most powerful magic spell you have in your arsenal, and that’s without abusing how buggy it actually is.

    Mario also does not allow you to save after every jump, though you can have that experience in an emulator. It’s a very different game.

  27. Dreadjaws says:

    And to be honest, I don’t think we NEED a justification for not having easy mode. Hidetaka Miyazaki made exactly the game he meant to. I don’t personally enjoy the result, but he’s sticking to his vision and not compromising in pursuit of sales or mainstream appeal. Frankly I wish this industry had more of that sort of thing. The Soulsborne games are a very specific game for a very specific audience, and as long as the game is pleasing its intended audience then I’m happy it exists.

    That’s a nice sentiment and I agree with it, but there’s another way to look at things and is that people might be interested in this kind of game for most of its attributes (graphics, story, general gameplay, etc.) and just being put off by this particular one (difficulty).

    I don’t think having an easy mode would compromise the vision as long as it was optional. People can still play the game as it was intended. Hell, many games with difficulty options actually show in the “normal” or “hard” difficulties a message that says “This is how the game is intended to be played”.

    Remember cheat codes? Games used to be inaccessible to many due to hard difficulties, but they included cheat codes to make them easier for more people to get into them. How is that any different from adding an easy mode to a game that’s intended to be hard? How is it any different from people simply downloading mods that make the games easier?

    I guarantee you many of the people who claim for the old days of difficulty used cheat codes. Or they use mods now. They’ll find a way to justify it, sure (“I only do this until I learn how to do it on my own”), and in the process they’ll destroy their original argument for them not to want an easy mode.

    As long as people are having harmless fun, why does it matter if it’s not played the way you intended? Hell, leaving difficulty aside, how many games are just not played the way they were intended because people are having more fun some other way? How many people play The Sims as a murder simulator? How many people play Fallout 4 as a settlement strategy game, entirely foregoing the story and side-quests? How many people play MMOs as roleplaying stories of normal people, without ever engaging in combat?

    1. dogbeard says:

      I don’t think having an easy mode would compromise the vision as long as it was optional.

      I definitely think it would. One of the defining things about souls games is that the challenge is unrelenting, you don’t have an option to cop out (well, besides summoning someone and hoping they can beat it for you), you can fight harder, you can fight smarter, but the game itself absolutely will not give any leeway, you either beat this particular challenge or you quit. It’s part of what made me fall in love with the series. At first I took lengthy breaks away from the game multiple times, but the thought of “I could probably just beat this if only I…” kept bringing me back, and actually killing the dang thing that kept me blocked up for hours on end felt great. It’s not for everyone, but there are plenty of games made for that particular audience. I probably would have used easy mode on my first playthrough if it was available, and I don’t believe it would have been nearly as fulfilling as what I actually ended up playing. The joy of the game is being given what seems like an insurmountable challenge, and then finding out that it’s not so insurmountable after all. I completely understand if you don’t have the patience, time, or temperament for it, I wouldn’t blame someone at all for it, but struggling against a boss and knowing that there’s an easier version you could breeze past if you just picked the ‘easy’ option would fundamentally ruin the magic of the game for me and a lot of others.

      1. shoeboxjeddy says:

        “One of the defining things about souls games is that the challenge is unrelenting, you don’t have an option to cop out (well, besides summoning someone and hoping they can beat it for you), ”

        Don’t you realize that the parentheses wrecks your entire argument? There’s NO WAY to cop out and avoid difficulty in this UNRELENTING game! Well, unless you do choose to cop out through one of the various ways you can mitigate or remove difficulty…

  28. Water Rabbit says:

    What irks me about this debate in general is that it only focus on Souls games. I have played games that combat was way more difficult and that there wasn’t any easy tools to lower the difficulty. The best example I can think of was the Tomb Raider Reboot — Anniversary from 2007. It by far had the most difficult boss fights due to the camera and janky controls. Additionally, most of the boss fights killed the story momentum. The T-Rex was supposed to be defeated in only one way. The centaur fight was the absolute worst. Add to that the vertical shaft fight at the end that was a combination of both platforming and fighting. This game was far worse than any Souls game for difficulty.

    1. Redrock says:

      It took me more attempts to beat tge final bosses in Wolfenstein II than any boss in Sekiro so far. Maybe I just suck at Wolfenstein, I dunno. But, again, the difficulty in Souls is more about the steep punishment. You could argue that many levels in Hotline Miami are harder than anything in Souls and I certainly think I’ve burned through more attempts before I beat Hotline Miami. But the punishment for failure was very low, while Souls punishes you by taking you resources and wasting a lot of your time.

    2. DeadlyDark says:

      I don’t remember TRA bossfights being especially hard, I think I rather liked them. But its acrobatic gauntlets in the final level/-s were absolutely brutal. I mean, I liked that, but still, I had a rough time

  29. konondrum says:

    At this point I think articles by games journalists about Dark Souls’ difficulty (well intentioned or not) are really doing a big disservice to Dark Souls fans and game culture at large.

    From has managed to carve out a very successful niche for itself by having a vision and sticking to it. That vision is somewhat uncompromising, but (and this is the crucial part that critics want to gloss over) includes in game community tools to aid players of any skill level succeed. These games are designed to be puzzle boxes, pulled apart by the community and shared. They are not weekend rentals to blast through and watch the cut scenes.

    If the idea of dying more than once to the same enemy is not appealing to you, well…. maybe Dark Souls isn’t for you? There are plenty of uncompromising video games past and present, I’m not sure why people feel that Dark Souls is so uniquely unfair.

    I think that part of it, is this unfortunate concept of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out, ugh). Oh, those Dark Souls players are having so much fun, I need to see what all the fuss is about. I heard to lore is really neat and the music is epic! But dang I just lost 5000 souls, and the run back to the boss takes a minute, why don’t they just have an easy mode?

    I know this sounds petty and unfair, but this is the exact same argument we’ve been having for 10 years now! If you really want to walk around in Lordran on a lark, there is a thing called Cheat Engine that exists. But I would imagine if you could walk up and bop Gwyn in the nose a couple of times and win, you’d be like “That it? A 15 second video and credits? Why was the music so sad? All that just to light another bonfire?”

    Dark Souls fans are defensive because they’ve had this same argument innumerable times. And yes, there are obnoxious elements in the community, but judging any community by it’s worst elements is inherently unfair.

    If you really want to explore these worlds and feel overwhelmed (an experience every Souls player has had) there is a vast array of guides, wikis and videos out there to help you out.

    When the Prepare to Die edition launched on PC I bought it right away and bounced off it hard. The game was not what I expected at all. Several months later after reading a suggestion on this site, I checked out EpicNameBro’s videos and I fell in love with the series. If theses games interest you at all, I highly recommend checking him out. His From the Dark series will guide players of any skill level through the game, and give them a much better appreciation for their craft and lore.

    1. Christopher says:

      ENB deserves every recommendation he gets. I got into Souls in a similar way.

    2. Vinsomer says:

      One thing that I find ironic about this argument is people say ‘well, an easy mode would just let me enjoy the story’, and if Dark Souls was a more conventional game, this would be true.

      But the story is told through the terse dialogue of a gallery of unreliable characters, environmental clues and item descriptions. The skills required to uncover the story – environmental awareness, attention to detail, item gathering, patience, memory – these are many of the skills required to overcome combat sections.

    3. RandomInternetCommenter says:

      “That vision is somewhat uncompromising, but (and this is the crucial part that critics want to gloss over) includes in game community tools to aid players of any skill level succeed. These games are designed to be puzzle boxes, pulled apart by the community and shared.”

      Excellent points, and brilliantly put.

      The Dark Souls divide is really a reflection of individual attitudes when presented with a new system: some will embrace it and adapt to its rules, some will fiercely refuse to learn and demand it caters to them.

      I’ll go one step further: people who gripe against Dark Souls difficulty are often antisocial. This is plain as day in the venom displayed in these comments alone, compared to relatively tame answers of Dark Souls advocates. The argument isn’t truly about difficulty, but about the refusal to be part of an alternative community experience where you act on your own yet work with others.

      Let’s be honest: out of the readers who see this comment and advocate for an easy mode, how many of you exclusively play with your friends when online, dismissing “randoms” right off the bat?

      1. Shamus says:

        You claim this isn’t truly about difficulty? Then why are you bothering with the discussion? If the other side are all delusional antisocial liars like you claim they are, then there’s nothing to be gained from arguing with them.

        You’re going to make obnoxious sweeping generalizations about the opposition while accusing them of having a lot of “venom”?

        I have to moderate this thread, so I’d appreciate it if you could make your points without deliberately throwing personal attacks at the entire opposition.

  30. Calmre says:

    This barbershop tier topic/argument grows more and more boring every time i come across it (its been several times, mostly around the launch hype cycle where clicks are many and sweet). It gets blastered all over mainstream gamer media every frigin single time a From game comes out.

    The Dry version
    Their games could’ve had a difficulty slider, for an easier than normal, and a harder than normal mode also. I don’t think it would’ve changed a single thing in the experience. The edgelords would have gotten their hard-on (couldnt resist) those who want to go through a more tolerable experience based on their lower gaming skill level would have gotten their less facegrindy experience and more enjoyment as well. Either you believe that to be true or you don’t. There, every point more or less covered without the endless bitching and moaning that accompanies this 10 year old Demon’s Souls argument.

  31. Carlos García says:

    Related video I think you guys will find interesting, from a high quality channel:

  32. “When I die, I’m not frustrated that I didn’t win, I’m enraged that I’m not allowed to keep practicing. I’m not talking about normal videogame frustration, I’m talking about real anger with adrenaline and broken controllers. It’s why I don’t feel elated when I finally win. I was already boiling mad, and you can’t really slide from “rage” to “overjoyed” because you won in a videogame.”

    Been there. The weird part is that I’ve been playing a game called Outward (sorta descended from Gothic) that has a really punishing death mechanic, and I’m still kinda enjoying it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve yelled at the game a few times, and I quit playing frequently when I’m tired of fighting it, but I’m still enjoying the game overall, and having difficulty analyzing why.

    I also enjoyed the Gothic and Risen games–to a point.

    I think that part of it is that if you’re having trouble in one area, you can go do something else for a while. I don’t think I’d enjoy a linear game where you have no option but to beat your head against this ONE OBSTACLE until you beat it. I did enjoy the Prince of Persia games, but from what I understand those were pretty easy by comparison, and even then I did quite a bit of yelling.

    I do get a thrill when I finally get past an obstacle that was giving me grief, but not if I squeak by after a billion repetitions. I get a thrill when I solve it as an intellectual puzzle. “Maybe if I try this buff and this tactic instead . . .” As long as I can have options for trying different approaches (or I have a window of recovery from a certain number of screwups, like in Prince of Persia), I’m pretty happy. If it’s just “nail this perfectly” I’m liable to screw it up and, even if I do eventually manage to “nail it”, I won’t be particularly pleased. It’ll feel like luck, not skill.

  33. Mr Compassionate says:

    It’s okay to not like Soulsborne Shamus, it’s not for everybody. Fans like me think about Soulsborne the same way you think about the original Mass Effect, as something not everybody will like but you do.

    For people who don’t understand why the fans are defensive about an easy mode here’s an analogy of what it’s like

    Somebody walks into a skate park after having bought a skateboard and helmet. They approach a skater.
    ‘Excuse me I would like to become a skater, I hear it’s popular and looks really cool when done right’
    ‘No problem bro, feel free to practice over there or somebody here can teach you’
    ‘No I just want to be a rad skater, I don’t want to practice and I refuse to let anybody teach me because I haven’t got the time’
    ‘Fine just give it a try’
    They go ahead and give it a go but it’s really, really hard and they feel like they are not getting anywhere no matter how hard they try
    ‘This is impossible, your hobby is bullshit’
    ‘Well it’s actually easier than it looks if you try the following techniques…’
    ‘No it’s impossible. I demand you make it easier for me and people like me who have no idea about this thing and don’t care’
    And when they learn there is no easy mode they call the hobbyist entitled gatekeepers and write articles about it.

    When people call Soulsborne fans entitled gatekeepers it’s so bulls**t because they all have their own favourite franchises they wouldn’t want to be compromised. Mass Effect would be a good example for Shamus. Adding an easy mode to Soulsborne would be the first step on a slippery slope.

    -When it’s your favourite franchise getting watered down it’s becoming ‘mass marketable’ and ‘lowest common denominator’
    -When it’s somebody else’s favourite franchise being protected against that kind of behaviour it’s not integrity it’s ‘gatekeeping’ and ‘entitlement’

  34. KillerAngel says:

    I don’t think that the games are as hard as they seem, and I think there’s a perception problem more than anything.

    Basically there is an optimal way to play souls games, but the optimal way is also simultaneously the most difficult and punishing way to play. The way to deal the most damage the fastest is to have a maxed out stamina stat and maxed out stats that scale whatever weapon you use. With this kind of build you can, in theory, perfectly dodge roll through every attack and still have plenty of stamina to beat the boss up with your insanely scaled damage. However you have put no points in health or something that would allow you to wear heavier/better armor so bosses can easily one shot you.

    Much of the community thinks this is the most fun and best way to play the game. The risks are high but so are the rewards. When people think about these games they think of perfectly rolling through attacks and beating up bosses with ease having spent the time to learn their attack patterns, as you can see from Shamus’ thoughts about it. The problem is that basically every other way to play the game is easier.

    Being an archer or a sorcerer is way easier because you don’t have to close the distance and the risk drops dramatically. Stacking HP and armor/miracles is way easier because the strictness goes way down, but so does your damage. You can take several hits but you can only hit the boss once before you’re running out of stamina and need to back away. Lots of players frown on these options because it dramatically undercuts the excitement of the risk/reward gameplay, but isn’t that the whole point of an easy mode anyway? The designers have supported multiple ways to play the game but everyone feels like they need to perfectly time their rolls to victory instead of playing the game the best way for them.

    In fairness the game doesn’t explain any of this to you explicitly, but unfortunately the community doesn’t either. An aware player can notice all the different builds and styles of NPCs he’s coming across and try some of them for himself, but if a player already thinks he knows how the game is supposed to be played before he’s ever picked it up? Well if that style doesn’t work for him he’s going to have a bad time.

    1. Vinsomer says:

      I think you’re on to something. I think there’s a sense of ‘I want to win, and I want to win my way’ which causes players to ignore the methods of lowering difficulty that do exist.

      That being said, these games have absolutely terrible UIs and do a terrible job of explaining scaling, etc. which accounts for a large amount of (unfair) difficulty as new players will almost certainly ruin their build on their first run. That wasted time is very frustrating and while I like the lack of hand-holding, it should be more obvious how much more important gear is than levels. The most efficient way to play, by far, is to min-max. Put enough stats to equip the weapon you want to equip, make it raw (mundane if/when you have high levels, or fire/chaos/lightning in DS1), stock up on gold pine resin and charcoal pine resin/use magic weapon and sunlight blade, and stick the rest into health, equip load, stamina and ADP. Make sure you have a high stability, 100% phys reduction shield and block almost everything, with enough to fastroll everything you can’t. Low soul memory/SL means you can summon and invade players who are worse than you.

      Basically, the legend never dies is the optimal build for Dark Souls.

  35. Vinsomer says:

    I have to be honest, I think a big part of the reason why it’s so hard to have discussions about this is the constant mischaracterisation of the Souls fanbase as a group of elitist snobs who play the games primarily as part of a superiority complex over ‘casuals’ who refuse to ‘git gud’. And insulting a fanbase or community is the best way to ensure any possibility of actual discussion ends. And yes, here isn’t the worst place this has happened (the discussion on Bob’s article was mosty good and free from personal attacks, insults or general bad behaviour – credit to the audience you’re cultivated here, Shamus) but I’ve seen this exact same discussion happen elsewhere, and it went exactly as I described.

    I mean, isn’t this article an example (though far from the worst) of exactly what I’m talking about?

    Shamus, in your example, the newbie is sensible and understandable, while the dark souls fans are ‘evangelists’ and ‘purists’. It’s not hard to point out the weighted language there, which emphasises the irrationality of the Souls fans, who are really no more irrational than the newbie, and are at least more knowledgable and sensible in their expectations.

    In that very same example, I think it’s perfectly fair for the ‘purist’ to ask why the newbie bought a game famous for its uncompromising nature and high difficulty, only to complain that it’s hard and ask for an easy mode. Or why they haven’t stopped to consider the reasons for what is obviously a deliberate design choice and not a mistake or unintentional omission.

    Sure, someone saying ‘why isnt there an easy mode?’ in a moment of frustration is one thing, but there are dozens of thinkpieces every time a Souls (or just notable hard game, period – saw them with Cuphead’s release) calling for lowered difficulty.

    But having a friend beat the boss for you is far worse than either of those two options. If I play on easy mode where the boss is fighting with a pool noodle, I still have to execute the attacks myself. I still get to see how the boss responds to my movement and how it behaves. I can get a feel for the attack pattern and rhythm, I can learn to recognize the various boss attack animations, and I can learn when to spend my precious stamina on dodge rolls. The game won’t force me to learn those things and I might blunder through the fight with mindless button-mashing, but at least the opportunity for learning is there.

    But is it far worse? I suppose sitting back and letting someone else do the boss for you is no fun in gameplay terms, but let’s be honest, if there’s an easy mode which lowers difficulty enough to eliminate any of the aspects of gameplay that either serve as barriers to players or which potentially create frustration, such as corpse runs and high-damage boss combos and attacks then you’re basically going to reduce the difficulty to the poin where the challenge is non-existant.

    I mean, in both situations you’ve reduced what was a test of skill and composure to a test of nothing, the only difference is at least the player who gets completely piggybacked to victory is aware of their own lack of skill and effort. Which is kind of why I dislike the idea of easy souls: clearly, some players want the achievement, social or personal, of having completed a notoriously difficult game, without actually having to put the time or effort in to actually beat a notoriously difficult game. I actually think achievement culture is partly to blame: both for fostering an expectation among gamers of completion, and in over-socializing aspects of gaming that lead to competitiveness. Sure, as adults, people worried over gamerscore seems silly and childish… but a lot of children and silly people play games.

    And if anything, the summon a friend thing is far better. Not only do you get souls for levelling and progress with covenants, earning powerful items like the FAP ring mentioned earlier, but it also gives you a chance to fight a boss and learn its patterns before fighting him on your save without risking humanity/human effigies – as when you die, you only get sent back where you were in your world before being summoned, unlike death in your world which sends you to the bonfire, forces a corpse run for your souls and requires resources to re-enter human form. And fights can still be challenging with summons as each summon increases enemy health and NG+ bosses in DS2 can have a lot of adds as well. But, crucially, summons make the game easier, but don’t completely erase any notion of challenge. A hard boss like Black Dragon Kalameet, Manus or the Ancient Dragon is still going to be challenging even with 2 summons and the thought of having to fight them with increased health is pretty scary.

    And to be honest, I don’t think we NEED a justification for not having easy mode.

    But that’s the thing: once you combine the trifecta of seemingly sound but fundamentally flawed arguments of ‘Dark Souls is a game which primarily exists to give the elitist fanbase boners over how leet they are’, ‘accessibility is a good thing, which means every game must be as accessible as possible’ and ‘you could just buff health and damage and it would make no difference to anyone else’ (conveniently forgetting about the otherwise cryptic nature of the game, the online modes, and the fact that there are already items like the Ring of Favour and Protection which do exactly that), then suddenly the question isn’t ‘Should Dark Souls have an easy mode?’ but rather ‘Why doesn’t it have an easy mode?’, which is the exact question your reasonable gamer asked in the example.

    1. Shamus says:

      ” if there’s an easy mode which lowers difficulty enough to eliminate any of the aspects of gameplay that either serve as barriers to players or which potentially create frustration, such as corpse runs and high-damage boss combos and attacks then you’re basically going to reduce the difficulty to the poin where the challenge is non-existant.”

      A mode which eliminates all challenge would ruin the game, therefore ANY reduction in difficulty would ruin the game? I’m not asking for easy mode, but if I was, this argument wouldn’t be persuasive because it’s just reductio ad absurdum.

      Your first paragraph starts off acknowledging that folks here are very reasonable, but then talking about other people somewhere out there that make bad arguments. It’s the same deal with my Evangelist / Purist situation. It was designed to illustrate the trap that creates these debates.

      Your last paragraph puts words into my mouth. I very much disagree with the tone AND the premise of those words. You’re addressing me directly, but you’re arguing with a point I VERY SPECIFICALLY did not make.

      1. Vinsomer says:

        I wasn’t trying to put words in your mouth: the last paragraph was meant to address the kind of arguments being made BTL of Bob’s last article and not the points made here, so I’m sorry for not being clear about that. I was trying to agree with you, actually – I think you’re right, but I think the debate slowly trends in that direction from some very sensible starting points, as seen in articles like this. Once people decide that there should be an easy mode, the logical question is ‘why isn’t there?’ Which is unfortunately less an interrogation of game design choices and more an expectation of justification.

        And yes, the folk here are more reasonable than elsewhere, which I think we’re all grateful for. But these debates don’t occur in a vacuum and I have sensed a little of the same assertiveness and belligerence in those arguments leaching their way into some comments in this discussion, even in my own words to a degree. For reference, last time I had this discussion (on the Jimquisition) I was accused of hating disabled people – I have disabled family members, so that hit close to home. So for that, and perhaps getting too heated as well, I’m sorry.

        In any case, people insulting each other is always bad for discussion, and while I perhaps came across as condescending, I also think your use of language doesn’t help matters. After all, if one side is ‘typical’ and the other is ‘evangelists’ and ‘purists’, well that’s hardly balanced language. I think we can all improve at interacting with each other and there are a million tiny things we do, intentional or otherwise, that ensure discussion dies a death of a thousand cuts.

        As for my point on easy mode eliminating challenge: I remember the last time this kind of debate came around. It was when Cuphead released. Cuphead has an easy mode, but it evidently wasn’t easy enough for some as the same discussion came around again. I know that, if Dark Souls had an easy mode with 25% extra health and stamina, there would still be people complaining. At least some of the voices in this debate aren’t asking for less difficulty but the elimination of difficulty in the form of non-optional challenge altogether.

        But another reason why I think these debates suffer is that the Dark Souls community can be frustrating to discuss things with, not because of elitism or slavish devotion to ‘artistic integrity’, but because Miyazaki has an auteur status (you might disagree, but I really think ‘auteur’ is status more than anything else), so any aspect of his games, good or bad, is seen as part of his vision, and critics therefore ‘don’t get it’. It’s the same when discussing Metal Gear Solid. Kojima is an auteur so every aspect of those games, good or bad, is seen as an intentional part of his vision.

        The problem is that the argument for easy mode is one that often doesn’t take into account what that artistic vision actually is. On one hand, some misguided fans defend bad design choices that obstruct that vision, and others argue for changes which, while perhaps convenient or appealing to some, would also obstruct that vision. When criticising a game with a clear vision, I think criticism has to take into account not what certain players wish the game was, but how well the design choices that were and weren’t made elucidate that vision, and now worthy that vision is of expression to begin with. ‘Should Dark Souls have an easy mode’ is not really a pertinent question unless you fundamentally disagree with the notion of basing a game around non-optional challenge, because, bottom line, the game is not meant to be easy. It’s far more fitting to ask ‘how can the player be encouraged to continue playing when faced with difficult challenges’ or ‘how can players unaccustomed to challenging gameplay find enjoyment in a game based around overcoming challenge?’ Or, more broadly, ‘what kind of challenge is enjoyable for players to overcome, and what challenge isn’t?’ And, unlike most thinkpieces talking about Souls difficulty, that requires actual examples of in-game challenges, it involves dealing with the obvious truth that the game is not uniformly challenging but has peaks and valleys, and it involves dealing with the way players learn how to improve through the game’s mechanics. In other words, too much for a single article, and far too much for a single comment. I think the inability for those having the discussion to actually get into specifics is another thing holding it back.

        There are plenty of areas of these games widely criticised by fans. There are bosses like the Bed of Chaos and Dragon God which are widely derided as series lows. There are areas like the Shaded Woods, filled with invisible baskstabbing untargetable enemies which are neither fun nor interesting. I’ve always thought the invisible pathways the player has to cross in the Crystal Caves were totally unfair and unfun. The thing is, these fan criticisms are ones which take into account the core idea of the game, overcoming challenge, which is why they’re more fruitful, and, ultimately, more influential over the design process.

  36. Shen says:

    While I could argue or quibble about points here or there, that comment list is massive and I’m sure they’ve all been said… so I’ll just say, I genuinely appreciate the script separating evangelists and purists. I get we’re annoying either way but still… cheers :)

  37. Zeddy says:

    As far as I can tell, the original vision for Souls was never having you get help from your friends, but from strangers, the world at large. First three games (Demon’s, 1 and 2) didn’t have the password matchmaking, so there was really no reliable way to pair up with your friends at all.

    The way I see it, the challenge of the game was meant to either be overcome by sheer willpower, or push you into seeking help from strangers, or going back and helping strangers yourself, since beating a boss as a phantom would get you your humanity back.

    It’s not for me. I like the game, but I value what little time I have available to play with my friends, and Souls is all too happy to throw it out the window in spades.

  38. Preciousgollum says:

    I played Dark Souls to get away from games like Skyrim that left me hugely disappointed. Now, looking at the state of Fallout 76, I wasn’t wrong…

    Also, I would actually prefer The Elder Scrolls Online to a game like Skyrim, because it also has… a single difficulty – so at no point do I worry that there is something hidden in the ‘Normal’ mode that would make it artificially easy without me knowing about it.
    In ESO, you can either approach these challenges by yourself (it was desiged with a lot of single-player content) or you can play co-op with friends and/or strangers.

    ESO is a game you pay once and enjoy whatever content is available at whatever difficulty it was set at. There are still difficulty spikes, but there are also other players around. You play, and the content can become available/easier by levelling up. I paid once because my younger sister (early teenager) wanted to play ESO, and I will probably never get to whatever ‘the end’ is, because there are other games to play that we have moved on to. And her eyesight is poor. And she beat Asylum Demon in Dark Souls in a couple of attempts (no plunging attack) but she doesn’t want to invest time in Dark Souls because, while she enjoyed it at the time, it doesn’t quite scratch that itch long term probably because it is about sustained angst.
    But she is now a Resident Evil 6 fanatic and good at it (and she has got me to appreciate RE6 more – I ‘Let’s Played’ all the older ones). And then it is back to Metal Gear Online (again). Happy to bounce off between whatever game she is interested in at the time.

    We are all practically spoiled for choice as gamers right now. More good games, and cheaper than ever before. And yet, there is so much complaining! It is like the 18th century story about the man who was given a new dressing gown, but was profoundly unhappy as a result. Too much of a good thing…

    Why is there much complaint/discussion surrounding Fromsoft, but not surrounding MMOs? Aren’t MMOs known for their crushing endgame difficulty and elitist ‘git gud’ playerbases? MMOs are games with lore, world building, communities, and a high skull ceiling that potentially isolate less social or less able gamers… AND a number of them have monthly subscriptions. They also waste a lot of time on grinding content. But some of them are easy enough, and there are LOADS of them to occupy your time. You aren’t missing out by not playing Dark Souls.

    Is it just that MMOs are less popular at the moment?

  39. swz says:

    I was already boiling mad, and you can’t really slide from “rage” to “overjoyed” because you won in a videogame.

    Maybe for you – I personally love these situations, it amounts to basically all the pent up adrenaline releasing into something beautiful and serene, and I wouldn’t even call myslef a huge fan of Soulsbourne games (I adore Bloodborne, but I gave up on DS1 after a couple of hours and got to maybe 50% of DS3). I’d even go as far as to say it has a sort of a meditative effect on me.

    This is probably going to sound a bit patronizing – but from reading your articles (and I do love your writing, even when I don’t agree with all your views) I got the impression that you easily get irritated and thrown off by videogames, and I’m wondering if that’s a side effect of analyzing games basically being your daily job or if it’s something deeper.

    1. Shamus says:

      Something deeper. I’ve been like this as a kid.

      1. Preciousgollum says:

        Ah see the problem for some (including myself) is that poorly designed difficulty options bother me immensely. I instinctively want to know what the ‘correct’ setting should be for the most fesible gaming experience. I can potentially play them all… but which shoe fits…? The more ‘accomodating’ a game is with its difficulty, the more options can lead to analysis paralysis.

        I want to know what a difficulty level’s purpose was – because we all know that some are artificially difficult. I trust that a game like Call of Duty’s Veteran difficulty is usually quite fair, and I won’t touch any of the other settings, whereas Doom’s Nightmare Mode is not the same as Doom’s Nightmare mode… I.e the 2016 version. The original Doom Hardest mode turned it into a different experience entirely, because the enemies respawned – clearly this was artificial difficulty designed for an entirely separate type of challenge.

        Games such as Metal Gear Solid already gives you enemies that are basically myopic in nature, so there are design elements built into the foundation of the game itself to make it less frustrating by default. Do we ever get Stealth games where enemies have realistic levels of vision?

        Dark Souls games are MMOs for people who love-hate MMOs. Whereas something like World of Warcraft ends up relying on team effort to progress at the endgame, Dark Souls is like the Single-Player MMO where it is all up to you and maybe a passing traveller can help once in a while. You can still have that ‘MMO’ experience of epic bosses even if there is nobody else to play with. By comparison, WoW needed you and 39 other like-minded people.

        I haven’t played Sekiro, but I would imagine that the lack of multiplayer summons is on Activision wanting to cash in on a potential resurging trend of super-tough mechanically demanding hardcore Ninja games from Japan that make you feel like a Ninja. So, toughness is kind of embedded into the design goals, like roguelikes are for permadeath.

        The ‘let’s just add easy mode as well as Normal’ is a false-equivalency, because presumably most people use ‘Normal’ anyway. If more people used ‘Easy’, then ‘Easy’ would be relabled ‘Normal’, so then ‘Normal’ would just end up easier for everyone – less work for the developer, and the ‘Hardcore’ people would have no choice but to tolerate an easier game, and would be told to get in line with more casual thinking. It is why games included X-ray vision and on-screen markers instead of just making graphics that people could more easily interpret and deduce.

        Devil May Cry gets away with difficulty options because they design their game like a combat system with upgrades that encourage style as much as challenge – and because their envisioned difficulty for combat is probably ‘too hard’, where as Dark Souls harkens back more to the old Tomb Raider games (which also had one difficulty before they became more about combat and easier platforming in Tomb Raider: Legend). Also, how can Devil May Cry be hard if the character of Dante is basically immortal?

        The levels in old Tomb Raider can be quite hard – it is baked into the design of the game, as is Dark Souls. Instead of ‘Difficulty level’ being tied to stats, Fromsoft would be encouraged to design easier levels entirely (which is sort of what they eventually did) – and then you have a completely different design philosophy.

        Ironically, Lara Croft is the least necessary part of Tomb Raider – they could have had anybody (more women, different women etc) and stuck with perilous exploration. But the new games chose to focus more on ‘Lara”s character and Story’ and ‘Shooting mechanics’ and less on, y’know…. raiding Tombs. The Tomb Raider reboot games feel so… safe. The design is there to make the player feel safe, which is disonnant to the subject matter, but comforting. The encouragement to neuter a game’s rawness will end up leading to even more games with similar safe mechanics. There are only so many ‘tough’ Tomb Raider games to play or replay before a gamer runs out, with no replacement on the horizon to recapture the ‘new’.

        You NEED games like Dark Sous around, untamed warts and all, in order to keep other developers on their toes and to not always think about the safe, bland options for design.

        There is room in this video games industry for all kinds of games.

        If you want a Dark Souls game with an easy mode, then somebody could MAKE a ‘Souls’ type game that appeals to those people who want a less perilous experience. The more the merrier.

  40. Cubic says:

    There are other ways to do easy mode too. For example, GTA V on PS3 offered to reduce difficulty once I had failed a mission a couple times. (or did it offer to skip even? can’t remember) Jak 3 on PS2 dynamically adjusted difficulty behind the scenes, or so it was said in an interview with Naughty Dog. And with emulators you can easily save wherever you like and do lots of fascinating things. I have gotten 100% with games when using OpenEmu that would have been impossible when playing raw, so it drastically reduces difficulty. Perhaps a game could also simply offer a ‘success button’ (L1) to just skip past something that the player considers too hard.

    It does reduce or remove the achievement aspect though. It’s not really satisfying to say “Oh yeah, I beat Dark Souls alright. It was hard … for me.”

  41. Cilvre says:

    Edit: one other point to bring up is dropping a sign so you can be summoned for a boss fight and help someone else was how you got practice in on a boss you didn’t understand before attempting it solo. Death wasn’t as big a loss for you as a summon, though it didn’t help the person who summoned you.

    This may have already been touched on but I’m not going to read the currently 179 comments. Dark Souls 2 did fix this a bit for those wanting to learn and not have to slog through an area repeatedly between the boss fight and a death. They had a spawn limit on the enemies, so you could practice on enemies and eventually clear the area so you had a straight run to the boss, especially if it’s a boss you are having a hard time with. I feel that dark souls is a very fair game, and after you get past losing your souls and such and just learning how to play, then you feel more confident and are better off starting a new character to then see how much better you do running through that first time. I’ve logged hundreds of hours and I can say I learned from demon souls to be super careful and watch everything for a bit before trying to fully engage it. It took me 70 hours to finish my first playthrough but i only died 12 times. further playthroughs had about the same amount of deaths, but it was from me trying new weapons and ideas on how to get through the game.

    Now i’m at the point where I know what areas I can just avoid everything and run through to get to the boss and keep on trucking.

  42. Janne says:

    (note: this is only valid for Dark Souls because I never played the others)

    The game itself has a pretty well designed difficulty. Most of the troubles come from players who are hard-headed and not very observant. You have a large variety of weapons, armor items, consumables, spells and other things going for you. Who says you need to kill every boss with a sword while wearing plate armor? Many problems disappear just as soon as you give up on the “best stats” syndrome and start thinking about what you can really do.

    Gargoyle battle on the rooftop in DS is really where all this comes to a head. If you have convinced yourself your current way of fighting is the “correct” one you may be in for a really long and hard battle. A smart player will figure out how to cut the tail, use ranged weapons while the summon is distracting the dragons, try long swordand light armor instead of short sword and heavy armor, Not to mention pine resin, firebombs or spells. Or going for the mystery route and figuring out a way to have more than one assistant in the battle.

    While the game doesn’t have a strict “difficulty” setting, how you play can directly make the game much easier or harder while still being a legit, intended way of playing. I think it should count.

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