Quick Disclaimer: I talk a bit about accessibility and accounting for disabled players. I’m super not an expert on this topic! If I made any missteps in discussing this issue, please let me know.
Last week saw the release of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the new game from Dark Souls developer From Software. As is typically the case when they release a game, there has been a lot of discussion about video game difficulty. It’s also the first From Software title to release since I’ve become a fan of their games. The Dark Souls series transformed my taste in games and taught me that I can enjoy hard games, and that’s been a genuinely positive impact on my life. But as the difficulty discourse circulates, and with the personal experience I have with the friends who have very diverse gaming tastes, I’ve realized that I have a lot of complicated thoughts on this topic.
To summarize: I don’t think From Software is obligated to provide an “easy mode”, but I think that Sekiro would be a better game if it had one. Moreover, I think Sekiro would be even better yet if it had a smart and flexible approach to difficulty options, likely something more complex than “easy mode”.
It would be better because it would prove that the soul of a FromSoft game is not its particular level of difficulty, but the way it builds a world around exploring and struggling, around discovering and overcoming challenges. The folks at From use precise level design and careful difficulty tuning to achieve that end goal, but in my opinion, they’re only delivering that experience to a narrow subset of players. Whether we admit it or not, From Software games are geared towards a relatively specific kind of gamer.
Difficulty vs. Accesibility
It’s important to me that I talk about this in a way that’s agnostic about disability. While it’s obvious that accessibility options make games easier for some folks, disability and difficulty intersect in complicated ways. Implying that something is “too hard for disabled players” is, well, incredibly shitty. Disability is a factor that should be addressed with accessibility settings, and is only tangentially related to the idea of having options for tweaking the mechanical difficulty of the game. Moreover, I think my points about difficulty can be made without implying that specifically disabled players are the ones in need of an “easy mode”. Because many of them aren’t, and many able players are.
Regardless, From Software games are only playable by folks with a particular set of video game skills. There are barriers to entry in terms of coordination, reaction times, observational efficiency, patience, free time, and so on. Sekiro and its peers have a fairly narrow audience.
Essentially, I imagine an alternate-reality version of myself who is just a little bit less coordinated, or a little bit slower to learn patterns, or a little bit slower to interpret attack windups (this is already hard for me). This version of me might have the same enthusiasm going in, but would be desperately annoyed by this game. Alternate Me would want, I don’t know, just one more resurrection. Or maybe just a little bit bigger timing window for deflecting attacks. And if Alternate Me had an option he could toggle, or even an in-game ability that enabled those things, he’d pull through. Maybe that’s all he needs.
But wait, you say, “I have a counterargument!” Well I bet you do! I’ve heard many of them, the majority of which are easy to agree with on some level but are fundamental oversimplifications. So I’d like to get out ahead of those and discuss some of the most common arguments I’ve seen for why Sekiro should have one and only one difficulty level.
“Not every game has to be for everyone”
Well, yeah, absolutely! Everyone has different tastes and that’s totally okay. But here’s what bothers me: what factors should make a game “not for you”? Is it that the game doesn’t appeal to my interests? Or is it that the game outright excludes me by simply being too difficult to complete? To use another medium as an example: should we translate books into other languages, or simply demand that folks put an inordinate amount of time and effort into learning the necessary skills to read them? We should probably just translate them! It’s okay to not have the skills needed to get the original experience.
Would I have played and beaten the new Wolfenstein games if they’d only offered the toughest difficulty option? Honestly, no. Because I’m not that great at shooters. But I did get to play them, because they offered a difficulty I could get through without frustration. If they hadn’t offered “normal” and easier modes, then I wouldn’t have played them; not because of my disinterest, but because of their exclusivity.
So if you, for example, don’t like visual novels, no problem! That’s fine! But if visual novels exclude you directly in some way, then that fucking sucks! And I don’t think that kind of exclusivity is something that devs should want people to experience. In practice, some games won’t be for everyone. But ideally, you should be choosing to pass on big AAA experiences because they don’t appeal to you, not because they (and/or their communities) actively gatekeep you.
“Difficulty is a fundamental part of the design”
This is true! I agree. But difficulty isn’t the only factor here. If difficulty was the only factor, then the game wouldn’t be about a cool-ass one-armed shinobi fighting droves of samurai. Setting, story, and aesthetic aren’t just window dressing for challenging experiences, they’re fundamental to why the challenge is satisfying. If all that matters is difficulty, then why bother with all these gorgeous settings and animations? Perhaps you could just play a game with basic shapes, and when they change colors you have to press a certain button real fast. “Dude, have you beaten Rhombus yet? That boss is crazy!”
But that’s obviously not a reasonable argument. It’s not the pure mechanical elements that make it satisfying. For example, you don’t have to go far to see folks gushing about the oft-misspelled Mikiri Counter skill, in which you can stomp an impending thrust attack to the ground and perform a glorious counterattack. Pulling those off feels great. Not just because they require good timing, but also because they look cool as fuck and make you feel like a badass ninja. It’s not about pure, abstract difficulty. It’s about the intersection of challenge and fantasy.
Games don’t just challenge us, they put us in a context where overcoming arbitrary challenges is dramatic and thrilling. This is even true on the opposite side of the genre aisle. For example, take the Ace Attorney games: just look at the facial expressions, sound effects, and animations and you’ll see what I mean.
“Having an easy mode might ruin the experience of those who are uncertain about the challenge”
This is perhaps the most baffling argument I’ve seen. To me, it feels like game design elitism without any sense of creativity. In a perfect world, the game itself knows the gamer so well that it gives them the exact transcendent experience they want without any prompting. It just knows how to adjust itself to meet their needs.
That’s hard, of course, so instead a lot of games simply offer different difficulty levels. Some, like Shadow of the Tomb Raider, split difficulty into multiple options that can be customized independently or in preset groups. Others, like Celeste, simply provide a togglable mode with a ton of options and sliders that put all the power in the player’s hands. When we say Sekiro should “add an easy mode”, what we mean more generally is that it should provide difficulty options. Plenty of game designers are savvy enough to figure out how to intelligently introduce difficulty variation. Saying that an easy mode would ruin the experience of people who choose it is really just a failure of imagination. If that’s truly the concern, there are plenty of more interesting ways to address the problem.
And conversely, if the devs are clear about which experience is the bespoke, intended one, most players who would have a positive time with that mode will gravitate towards it anyways. If the developers themselves were saying “we shouldn’t include less skilled players, because then other players might ruin their own experiences”, then sure, maybe that’s a real concern. But hearing it from players themselves, who don’t really have business policing the experience of other players, seems disingenuous. This brings me to my next point.
“Designers have artistic intent that should be respected”
This is, once again, not wrong at all on the surface. But fundamental to this argument is the idea that designers shouldn’t have to think about players who are differently capable than themselves or their target player base. And I’d argue that developers of AAA games should absolutely think and care about that, because it helps them reach more people. From Software’s games aren’t niche because they’re intentionally trying to have a small player community; they’re niche because they design along a precise skill level. That might be fine, but it doesn’t mean that their games wouldn’t be improved by finding ways to offer their experience to more people.
“Consistent difficulty creates a shared experience”
This argument might be the most illusory one of all. Having played so much of the Souls games, it’s hard to deny that mentioning certain encounters invokes a universal understanding between players. Ornstein and Smough, The Pursuer, Father Gascoigne, Pontiff Sulyvahn. To those who’ve played the associated games, these names often conjure potent memories. But the consistency of these experiences is only skin deep. Sure, we all technically fought those same bosses. But we probably had different builds going into the fight. And maybe I found a cheese strat online. And maybe you summoned an ally to help you win.
The point is, I could do a crossword puzzle with only my wits and you could do the same one using the internet to research every clue, and we’d still have done the same puzzle. That doesn’t mean we had the same experience, or that we overcame the same difficulties. And our differing experiences doesn’t mean that we can’t still bond over having completed the same challenge; if anything, it gives us more to talk about.
In the end, my pie-in-the-sky vision for a better version of Sekiro would be something like an “adaptive difficulty” toggle. Those who want the base experience need only leave it off. Those who would like the game to shift in response to their adventure can enable it. It would make subtle changes to things like enemy attack animation speed, deflection timing windows, damage dealt by attacks, drop rates of money or items. It would make sure you’re always struggling, but never quite getting truly stuck. It might offer hints that remind you which other routes you haven’t explored yet. It might curtail or disable systems like Dragonrot. It might reduce resource costs for items and upgrades. It might even let you freeze it at whatever difficulty it has adapted to so far.
Do all those things take a lot of work on the part of the devs? Absolutely! And talented as they are, they’d probably come up with much cleverer ways of implementing difficulty options. Ultimately, I think the true question here is how we can take more innovative and flexible approaches to game difficulty. It should be obvious that accounting for a broader player base will incur more cost and more planning. But more difficulty options would absolutely make Sekiro an even better game; not necessarily for me, but for Alternate Me and lots of other players! That’s why this is worth talking about. And if anyone thinks that excluding those players for the sake of some sort of artistic purity or so that they can be sure that their buddy put up with the exact same shit they did in a fight, then maybe they’re the one who’s being entitled about the experience they think they deserve.