In Defence of Soulsborne Difficulty

Fans of the original Demon’s Souls received a pleasant surprise in June when it was announced that a remake by Bluepoint Games would be released as a launch title for the PlayStation 5. Though not as popular as its spiritual successor Dark Souls, the subsequent success of its sister series allowed for the popularity of Demon’s Souls to grow as years went on. This remake is looking not only to please those who remember it from years past, but also to introduce the game to a brand new audience.

Over the last decade, the Soulsborne franchise has become one of the most influential in gaming, with recent years seeing game after game described as “Souls-like” by the press. Each game of the franchise is a masterclass in world-building and level design, but what they’re most famous for, of course, is their unforgiving difficulty. Unlike most high-profile modern games, the Souls games do not give you the luxury of choosing a difficulty level; the game is what it is, and it is up to you to, as they say, “git gud.”

It was unusual to hear, then, that an easy mode was considered for this remake. Though fans of the series typically enjoy the difficult nature of the games, it has led to criticism from others – some saying its lack of an easy mode is harmful to both the game itself and the gaming community. This criticism often claims that the difficulty of these games can alienate potential players and how the frustration that inevitably comes with it can make them unenjoyable. In the end, though, the developers decided not to include an easier difficulty option. This was the right call, and here’s why.

You Are Your Character

The idea of giving a Souls title an ‘easy mode’ stems from a genuine misunderstanding of what these games are. Put simply, the difficulty is what makes these games unique. They became world-renowned for being hard to beat, and without that difficulty they would not have garnered the same amount of attention.

These games are intended as a test. They test your problem-solving skills, your ability to adapt to different enemies and environments, and most obviously, they test your mental resolve. These games are only completed by those players who truly refuse to give in, and what’s being lost in miscommunication is that if you’re not one of those players, that’s okay. You don’t have to complete every game you own. These games are tough, make no mistake, and it’s important to remember that it is okay to fail.

The best way to explain the importance of the difficulty is to examine the relationship between the human player and their in-game avatar. Specifically, in the 2011 release of Dark Souls, your real life experience can mirror what happens to your character in-game. In the land of Lordran, undead humans slowly go hollow. Over time, they try to retain their humanity by keeping up with their tasks and not giving up. Eventually, however, most lose their battle and turn fully hollow, essentially giving up who they are and becoming nothing more than a shell.

This is not unlike the experience of the player; Dark Souls tests their resolve. As they inevitably die time and time again, it is all about whether they can convince themselves to keep going. Some will, pushing themselves on and on and on until they are finally rewarded with the end of the game. Others, however, will not, and will give up – effectively turning hollow, just like their character.

It is this mirror image of the in-game character and the human player that makes these games so enthralling. This isn’t just a character; the Chosen Undead, Bearer of the Curse, the Ashen One, is you. There are thousands of video games out there that allow you full control over how hard want your experience to be; that lack of an option is what makes Souls so unique. This is the world. This is what it’s like. You have to learn and adapt in a way that you don’t on most other games, and this challenge has become its unique selling point.

It’s Not THAT Hard

It should also be noted that the difficulty is often a tad exacerbated. Yes, they’re a lot more difficult than regular games, but they’re not impossible by any means. Like with anything else, it’s a learning curve, albeit a steep one. You’ll find that, as you get the hang of it, you settle into a groove and you become comfortable. It is simply all down to practice. Let’s not forget that you can also summon other players, making the game more fun if playing with a friend and, let’s be honest, much easier.

The effort is all so worth it; the sense of elation I felt when I completed each installment of Dark Souls has yet to be matched by anything else (though Doom Eternal is going to run it close when I get to the end of that brutal game). Furthermore, the dedication you put into these games helps you love and connect to them all the more, something I keenly felt when I defeated the last boss in Dark Souls III and felt more than a twinge of sadness when I succeeded, because…that was it. Yes, I could replay the games, but it would never be the first time again. For all intents and purposes, I was done, and that made me quite sad because I had genuinely fallen in love with the game and its universe by spending so much time in it.

For example, imagine this: You enter the boss room to find a giant spider or a huge knight 10x your own size. The cutscene is terrifying and the boss looks very angry indeed. The music starts playing, big choirs and orchestras setting the tone for an intense fight. With much trepidation, you run up to him, dodge-roll away from his attack, hit him with one combo and – oh, that’s like a third of his life gone already. Before you know it, the boss is dead in 30 seconds and none of it lived up to the build-up.

It just would not be the same.

Easy? No. Accessible…?

Aside from some visual features, such as HUD backing and protanopia, deuteranopia, or tritanopia options for colourblindness, there are hardly any major options to increase the accessibility of the game. Though not giving the game an outright ‘easy mode’ was the good decision, it’s far more difficult to defend its lack of general accessibility. With the technology the new consoles have brought to the table in 2020, it cannot be denied that there should be an accessibility mode for players who are genuinely unable to play these games as they are. Players with disabilities should not be overlooked and unfortunately it seems they have been for this remake. Kyle ‘OneHandMostly,’ a Twitch streamer with Cerebral Palsy, criticised the developers, saying that a statement from their creative director Gavin Moore was “[straight-up] saying we don’t want players with disabilities to experience our game.”

It is a shame that in 2020, large quantities of the gaming community are continuing to be left behind. Surely it’s possible for Bluepoint to create a mode for disabled gamers which would make the game easy enough for them to play whilst retaining enough challenge to provide an equal opportunity to experience a Souls game in the same difficult but rewarding way.

An accessibility mode for disabled gamers should absolutely be an option – but there still should be no ‘easy mode.’ If you struggle, if you fail, that’s fine. But to give these games a true ‘easy mode’ would harm the experience as a whole, making the game feel emptier. The challenge is there for a reason, and to take it away would take away the soul of the game (yes, that was intentional).

Make these games accessible, but do not make them easy.

 

Words by Benjamin Hobson


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