Dead Easy: Difficulty and Design Intent

Recently I’ve been following the debate on Feminist Gaming Matters about the inclusion of easy modes in games.  This is not a new debate – it seems to rear its head every couple of months somewhere. And, as is often the case, the argument focuses quite heavily on Dark Souls, because…well I don’t know. There are hundreds of games out there, many of them difficult, but somehow DS always floats to the fore of these discussions, therefore, I’ll be focusing on it quite heavily here too. I’ll try and make this conversation wider, but a lot of the arguments I want to engage in use SoulsBourne as examples, so of course I’ll discuss them here. 

I would like to highlight that this conversation has two distinct, but interlocking parts to it: making games easy allows players who, for whatever reason want an easier experience e.g. new gamers, younger or older gamers, less skilled players, etc. The second, and more important strand related to making games more accessible for players who are disabled, which could include a number of features, one of which may be an easier level of difficulty. I would like to engage with both of these points, but I will start with the former – the inclusion of a general easy mode for gamers who just wish to have an easier/more relaxing time. 

This ended up being way longer than I expected, so I’ll be splitting my thoughts down into separate blog posts. Look out for more in the future. Feel free to give me your opinions – both on the arguments outlined in this post, and on others you have regarding this topic.

Finally to give some context to this piece, I suggest you also read this editorial on RockPaperShotgun, and this video by Mark Brown.

One of the main arguments brought against the inclusion of easy modes is that it ruins the intended experience. In an interview with Wired in April, Miyazaki talks about the difficulty of the Souls games: “[Making the games difficult is] just something required to make this style of game. Ever since Demon’s Souls, I’ve really been pursuing making games that give players a sense of accomplishment by overcoming tremendous odds.” So here Miyazaki is saying that the difficulty of the games is intentional in order to elicit an emotional reaction from the players. And this really works. Most people when talking about their Souls experiences will mention the real physical feelings they experience when fighting a tough boss: beating heart, sweaty palms, shaking, butterflies in their stomach, etc. When fighting Champion Gundyr I died when he was just one hit from death – I’m sure my neighbour did not appreciate the sheer onslaught of loud swearing that followed that painful defeat. In this way the difficulty really does what it is intended to do – the player is involved in the world and themes of the game in a real way. We feel the fear and the desperation many of the inhabitants of the game feel. We feel the triumph of our wins and I think this adds weight to the questioning at the end of the game over whether we made a difference.

However, consider this: some players may still experience these feelings on an easier mode. Because, let’s be plain here (but not cruel) some people are not as ‘good’ at games than others. Some people may still find a challenge in a version of the game that another may find a cake walk. If this is the case, then why not have an easy mode? The above argument does not hold up then. However, I will admit that realistically, you are unlikely to find a preset game mode that perfectly matches a player’s skill level. Although this does apply to the current difficulty of Dark Souls – some people don’t find the game very difficult as is.

One point that does sway me away from the inclusion of an easy mode, is one also raised by Brown in the above linked video; that players may choose an easier mode than they are capable of. And this is something that personally applies to me. While I play a lot of games, I do not consider myself ‘good’ at games, despite the fact I’m not even sure what that means. I have never played a game on a high difficulty setting. For the longest time I didn’t even pick up Dark Souls because I was intimidated by its reputation of being a difficult game (you can read more about that here). I personally greatly enjoyed Dark Souls and even when I found it challenging, it felt so good to overcome those obstacles. I am sad to think that if this game had an easier mode, I would have taken it and not had the incredible experience that I did. However, everyone is not me, and perhaps there are many gamers more capable of correctly assessing their skill levels who this does not apply to. These people are in no way affected by the inclusion of an easier version. Many games do label their difficulties and indicate which one is the one to choose if you want the game experience the developers intended. I think doing so would really help people like me choose the correct one – perhaps even encouraging players to try the standard difficulty first before letting them choose what they would like the rest of the game to be.

I would also like to point out that Miyazaki and his team are extremely talented at what they do. By this I mean that the game’s difficulty is not the only way they convey the themes of Dark Souls. Everything from weapons, to the environment, to dialogue, to enemy design all highlight the desolation and desperation of this world. If you take away the difficulty, there is still so much left in the game, if the difficulty is the only thing that signals this to you, well I suggest you pay more attention to the incredibly detailed world around you.

I will also quickly point out that Death of the Author is sometimes held up as a counter-argument to Miyazaki’s design intentions. I think there is merit here – Dark Souls does not have a linear narrative, and it is up to the community, or the individual player to piece together the story of this world. Therefore perhaps it doesn’t matter if Miyazaki wants you to play on a harder level of difficulty, the only person who has the ultimate say in your gaming experience and what it means is you. However, I do personally feel like there are limitations to Barthes’ theory, and I would not like to throw everything Miyazaki says about Dark Souls out the window.

An easier difficulty level, which can be used by some who need it, won’t affect the experience that players who wish to stay true to Miyazaki’s vision will have. The inclusion of an easy mode is about choice – it gives you the choice to have an easier time, or to experience the game as FromSoft wants you to. For many though, it will give them the choice to be able to play the game – something some people don’t feel they have right now.

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