Recently there’s been a lot of discussion around Sekiro, From Software’s latest mysterious and beautiful action epic in (mostly, kinda) the lineage of the now seemingly ubiquitous Souls games before it. As is somewhat par for the course with these games, you’re thrust into an unforgiving world without a whole lot of preamble, given an increasing number of weapons and other tools that you’re tasked with figuring out how to best use to make progress as a lot of things attempt to murder you, and ultimately face a whole lot of difficult combat (and failure) as you make your way through tricky challenges, finely tuned and brutal boss fights, and the accumulation of small lore and story moments. Also true to form, there are a lot of people who aren’t happy with how difficult the game is, and they’ve gotten increasingly insistent that they should be able to play Sekiro how they want to play it, namely with an easy difficulty mode that negates at least a portion of the challenge and potential discomfort.
Those people are wrong.
Well, sort of.
Taking a stand in favor of the game existing as it does is a risky position. I know that I’m immediately going to be called a gatekeeper by many, as the immediate assumption is that any defense of difficulty is done from some competitive ego or a spirit of meanness. Neither of those things is true in my case, but I also get why someone would make that assumption. The Internet is full of jerks who are defending the difficulty of From Software’s games because they’re jerks, and they’re doing it like jerks. I get it. Those people are sometimes just bullies trying to keep themselves part of what they feel is an exclusive club of “hardcore gamers”, which is stupid for several reasons: firstly, because a quick Internet search tells me that over 13 million copies of the Souls games (including Demon’s Souls) had been sold by 2016, and that Dark Souls III was the best-selling game in publisher Namco Bandai’s history; and secondly, because the completion rates of the Souls games are not especially different from the completion rates of most games. Sure, they’re hard-ish, but people beat them with regularity, and then go on to do crazy things like no-hit run every single one of them in sequence. Okay, that’s not exactly the norm, but you get what I’m saying. The skill ceiling isn’t just getting through the games.
So there is no exclusive club, not really. We all know that anyone who had more trouble than they could stomach with most bosses in said games used the easiest and most obvious tool at their disposal: they played cooperatively and summoned other players to help out. This was fundamentally built into the products, so I have trouble with people who suggest that they are too hard (or that From intended them to be only for those with the chops to solo them—clearly not). Even when going it alone the difficulty is often overblown or misattributed purely to design, and while this has all changed with Sekiro, which is single-player only, that’s a matter for later discussion.
My point here is that most of the people talking about difficulty in these games are coming at it from all the wrong angles. Most are probably at least well-intentioned. The defensive gamers want From Software to stay on the same roll they’ve been on, making truly incredible games that seem fated to weather the storms of time for many years to come. They’re afraid that too much change is going to imbalance what has been some inarguably intricate design. I can fully appreciate that. On the other hand, the people demanding that there be changes that allow them to play what has been too difficult for them are only trying to open the games up to a wider audience so that they and others like them be better able to enjoy games that have become cultural touchstones all across the industry, both for developers who’ve learned from what they’ve done so well to the consumers who have purchased and enjoyed them. And all that to say nothing of those who have done deep dives to piece together the cryptic lore and other somewhat well-hidden details the games keep tucked away for the diligent. Of course, everyone wants to play these. They’re amazing games. Why would we look down on someone who just wants to experience them for themselves without smashing their controllers on the furniture?
That there is resistance to easing the steep difficulty climb, of course, begs numerous questions. Do we all have so little faith in From, who have proven themselves time and again, that we think they couldn’t successfully implement an easy mode? Do we really think there are some people who don’t deserve to play these games because they lack either the raw reflexive skill or determination to see it through? Is it actually that the difficulty is so wound up in the design that changes to it would change what makes it special? What’s the actual problem here?
I’m sure opinions vary widely, but I’m here to make a few arguments I’ve been hearing all too rarely that I think deserve a lot more attention than they’re getting. It’s much easier to simply embrace the idea of “everybody should get to play everything”, but I think doing so misses opportunities to better understand game design and the people who undertake it.
Not Everyone Needs to Play Everything
If ever I had an opinion that was unpopular, it’s this one. But hear me out.
Part of what makes people get angry at games and demand easy modes, to begin with, is the fact that they differ from other media. They’re interactive in a way most things aren’t, and that leads us to believe they can be (and perhaps should be) changed to suit us. That’s interesting given that we don’t have the same expectations of other forms of art. If we don’t like an action movie, we don’t think it should have a selectable option to watch a version of it with a better story, nor do we think that difficult books need to have a separate, low-level language option for those without the educational background or mental endurance to get to the end. We don’t ask heavy metal musicians to write pop music. We don’t ask abstract artists to start studying realism. If we don’t like what we see or experience in other forms of art, we tend to simply move on and say that those things aren’t for us.
And that’s the correct response to art. Not everything is for you, and not everything has to be. It should absolutely be okay that there are things you appreciate and might want to experience but can’t or don’t or won’t for any number of reasons. In fact, this can and does often lead to growth, where the desire to reach an experience and interface with it causes us to power through something we otherwise wouldn’t. Activities that get us to push our personal envelopes are usually worth the effort.
But of course, it can go the other way too, especially with games. I hated Shadow of Mordor because even though I loved what it was trying to do, and thought the Nemesis System was one of the coolest ideas I’d ever seen, it was button mashy and stupidly easy, rendering all of that work a total waste. I got a third of the way through and gave up out of boredom after stomping every challenge set out for me even after attempting to artificially inflate the difficulty by killing myself repeatedly (allowing the aforementioned system to give me some stronger bad guys). Which I don’t say to brag. I like difficult games and I don’t consider that a point of ego. It’s just a thing I happen to like. I also like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing. Clearly, I’m in the minority on the Shadow of Mordor case, but that’s my point: taste is subjective, and it’s okay to like different things. Art that tries to be for everyone usually fails at being for anyone, and I don’t think most people have an especially difficult time wrapping their heads around that when it comes to art that isn’t games.
But games are, as always, another matter. If you want to see an opinionated group of people who believe that everything should be exactly how they want it, look no further than gamers. Whether that be because a game is too easy, too hard, has the wrong music, has great combat but bad level design, has beautiful art but not enough story, is too short, too long, too long in the wrong spots, is just the right length but has too much paid DLC, appeals to the wrong demographic—there is no end to the ways that gamers are frequently (and vocally) dissatisfied with games. They’re also often notoriously—ahem—high-spirited, and the Internet’s centrality to their existence makes them all the more susceptible to the alarming sorts of negative behavior we see when people feel protected by the haze of anonymity.
People demanding an easy mode in Sekiro are generally not the kind of people we’re talking about here, but that said, in this case, there’s one thing they have in common with their brethren on the other side of the spectrum: they think they know a lot more about game design than they actually do, and that often leads to oversimplification of what is a genuinely complex process.
Games can have problems, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t have opinions about that. Having spent the last 20 years as an occasional game critic and occasional editor of games critics, of course, I’m not saying that. Sometimes the level design is bad. Sometimes the music does suck. Sometimes the dialogue does feel like it was assigned to an especially disinterested texture artist. Where we go wrong is thinking that we know just how every problem could easily be fixed if that lazy developer would just get off their collective ass and do the work.
Even if we can successfully identify the problem, rarely do we know as much as we think we know about a realistic way to fix it.
It’s Not That Simple: Difficulty Affects Design
To begin with, I’d like to point out a couple of things, the most important of which is that game development is brutal. That we have so many great games is almost a miracle when you look at what a lot of developers have to grapple with. Situations can vary from organized chaos to total bedlam, depending on the group of people doing the work (and who’s in charge of it), but even if you’re a small team of only a few people, there are a lot of moving parts that all need to be lashed together to create a cohesive whole. You’ve got a team of people, or maybe several teams of people, potentially hundreds of them in a dozen departments, making lots of different stuff that has to find its way into a single artistic work that can be packaged and sold, and then has to review well enough and get enough coverage to sell enough to be profitable. If you’re a smaller team, you probably have a somewhat easier time with communication and logistics, but you have more people whose opinions on the game need to be listened to and taken seriously, and team cohesion becomes as much about personalities meshing well as about complementary skillsets.
Making games can be a monumental task even when you’re making something fairly boilerplate, but it’s even harder when you’re trying to take a truly unique idea and make it a reality. As we’ve seen from the colossal failure of Anthem so thoroughly documented by Jason Schreier, there are a whole lot of different potential points of failure, and this goes for big AAA studios and indie devs alike.
I’m not making this preamble just to defend developers, but I do think it’s easy to talk trash when you aren’t sitting in a cubicle doing the work, and you’ll note that the vast majority of people talking about adding an easy mode to Sekiro are either people who have very little to do with games at all beyond being casual consumers, or are journalists who’ve never even tried to make a game. In fact, the number of journalists or journalist-adjacent folks making grand sweeping statements or inappropriate comparisons to other games has me incredibly frustrated. Frankly, they should know better. As I write this, I’m having a discussion on Twitter with someone who told me that because a couple of arbitrary roguelikes and DMC5 have difficulty levels, and because there are difficulty mods for Souls games on PC (to make them harder, I should note), this is unassailable proof that Sekiro could have an easy mode.
Where do I even begin with the problems in that line of thinking? Roguelikes and DMC5 aren’t even roughly comparable, not to each other and certainly not to games like the Souls games or Sekiro. DMC5 is closer, but it isn’t a quarter as deliberate and has wildly different forms of gameplay, environment design, pacing, and exposition. All of those things matter. I think you can mostly imagine why without undue explanation, but that isn’t even the most far-flung argument I’ve heard in terms of “hey, but this game had difficulty options” comparisons. I don’t want to throw too many people under the bus here, but my Twitter feed has been full of people (including a few game developers) making really bad comparisons about games nothing like what From Software makes, from developers nothing like From Software, and attempting to use that as proof that Sekiro can have an easy mode.
I think that lack of logic is pretty self-evident, so let’s take a look at something less obvious, like the aforementioned exposition. The way these games have told their stories is pretty unique, but it also seems at first glance like far and away the least important thing when it comes to difficulty. Story (and these games don’t have a whole lot of big cutscenes, but are fairly quiet to begin with) seems like it would have nothing to do with swinging a sword around or stabbing people and could thus all but be forgotten in a discussion of difficulty.
But it can’t.
One of the most beloved facets of the Souls games, and one of the reasons so many who haven’t actually played them would like to, are because of the interesting ways in which they relay world-building and background information. There’s little in the way of traditional storytelling. We don’t have dark overlords making long speeches about how they want to rule the world, don’t have heroes waddling into taverns and spending time talking with the locals about the latest in local villainy that needs a good questing. From’s games have instead opted for a drip-feed method, where character dialogue is (usually) a mere punctuation mark in the greater refrain, where in lieu of picking up a book on the history of the world or reading a short story or two like you might in an Elder Scrolls game, you read the description of a sword, shield, or fragment of bone buried in a menu, that has a single line about the land from which it originally came, or perhaps its previous owner. In order to piece it all together, you have to find many of these tiny, sometimes secret little moments, and your understanding of the larger whole gradually forms throughout the course of the complete experience.
The way that fits in with difficulty I think is obvious enough once you boil it down. One of the major drives for many players was a desire to interface with this sparse fiction, and it remains a frequently cited motivation. Not only does one get an inherent adrenaline boost and hit of dopamine for overcoming the challenge of defeating a major boss, which is obviously pretty satisfying, but one also then gets the opportunity to explore more of the world, to wander its geography and stumble upon more of those little moments that gently elucidate its many mysteries. You don’t just walk into a cave and kill a bad guy who gushes about all his bad guy stuff. You walk into a cave and find the glint of something forgotten, something that hearkens back to another bit of information you remember reading hours ago, and you slowly begin to draw connections.
Would that have been nearly as compelling if someone could simply have turned on easy mode and blasted their way around the world trying to find it all? Part of what made the item and information hunt so compelling was that it took effort and dedication to track it all down. I’m sure you and I can both think of various ways around that, like limiting which items you could find per difficulty, etc., but that’s yet more work tacked on to a developer that has limited resources in terms of time, money, manpower, and ideas. Plus a lot of the ideas sound kind of … well, not fun.
I’m not mentioning this because I think it’s an unbeatable obstacle, only that it’s an obstacle people don’t commonly consider, and these are the kinds of details that are easy to overlook. It’s not that adding an easy difficulty option is guaranteed or even likely to break a game, but in the case of these particular titles, the atmosphere surrounding them might have ended up worse for the wear, and that atmosphere is a huge part of what led to their success. Where would we be if all the mysteries had been readily accessible to anyone who wanted to flip the switch?
It sounds flippant, but I don’t think it’s so easy to write that off. These games had been building their strange aura since Demon’s Souls first introduced the concept of giving players virtually no information but allowing them to place notes around the world that could be seen by others online. It was genius, and an easy mode would have almost certainly trivialized its value. So too would the whole concept of the interesting brand of Souls co-op and competitive play, where players could be invaded by others online, or summon others to help them fight difficult bosses. What would the point of those systems have been if playing on easy simply kept you safe from invasions and there was no need to consider summoning others? Would a far larger number of players have played on easy to avoid being invaded, and if so, how might that have affected the online mechanics? Would an easy mode have simply left all that stuff intact, and would have people then been upset that it wasn’t so easy? Some chose to play offline as a form of opting out entirely, but that at least meant they weren’t able to summon others, or read online messages. There was still motivation to participate, even if you weren’t the “git gud” type, and there was a bit of risk/reward however you chose to approach it. It’s entirely possible that if From had decided during discussions that an easy mode was more important, those things would either have looked completely different or been removed entirely. It’s all speculation, of course, and maybe they would have found a creative way for them to work together, but my point is simply that these things don’t exist in a vacuum. All of these things have to be considered together, and generally are during the development process. These are undoubtedly discussions that circulated in boardrooms at From’s offices during the development of each game.
Difficulty Affects Design
There’s no escaping that difficulty affects design. It does in many games, and I think does so in From’s games more than most. The careful and deliberate way in which many of their boss fights have been built over the course of these 6 titles is not the sort of thing that’s easy to simply throw damage percentage changes at and call it a day. When developers create games, they spend a huge amount of their time thinking about how long things take, how much effort a player may need to invest in order to achieve a given task, what the payoff for difficult accomplishments is. And when it comes to combat in a game that focuses so heavily on it, the dance of what styles are available, when and how to block, stamina usage, and all those other systems just add another layer of complexity. Because the Souls games (unlike Sekiro) are role-playing games, you’ve also got stuff like encumbrance and varying stamina/health levels and loads of different weapons to consider. That’s a lot of stuff to keep track of when you’re making a tightly controlled experience, which is what these games are.
You don’t simply “make the game easier” without at least considering what fundamental changes may need to be made to achieve what you set out to achieve by making the game in the first place. Maybe you have some great ideas for how to implement different difficulty modes, but then again, maybe you don’t. From has made 6 games in this vein since before their popularity exploded with Demon’s Souls, and they haven’t added an easy mode yet despite the fact that Hidetaka Miyazaki, who directed all but one of them, has openly said he doesn’t want difficulty to keep people away from his games. And yet here we are with Sekiro probably being the most difficult of all of them, and also widely considered to be a masterpiece.
If you check out any of Noclip’s fantastic documentaries (including a well-reasoned little rant from Danny O’Dwyer on this very subject that touches briefly on some more developer-oriented viewpoints), you’ll see a lot of discussions about design and balance, and in the case of Supergiant Games in Hades: Developing Hell, see a glimpse of the inevitable scramble that occurs when something ends up different in players’ hands than intended. Having multiple difficulty modes in some games can be very simple, but in others ends up being like tuning several different versions of the game, and that has to be taken into consideration. Having a throwaway easy mode for people who “just want to experience the game” seems great in hindsight when everyone already knows your game is great, but in the early goings that could potentially cost you in review scores and coverage if you haven’t put enough consideration into how that mode actually works. If it doesn’t retain the same magic, those players still won’t be happy, because they’ll be playing an inferior version of the game, and that can mean negative reception (even critically). What this really means is it’s great to have an easy mode if you can take the time to make it meaningful. And having hard modes is great too, so long as you can do the same with them and not just make the numbers impossibly huge. Any such mode needs to withstand the same scrutiny that your baseline experience does.
Take The Witcher: Wild Hunt. I played that on the hardest difficulty mode, not just because I wanted the enemies to be crazy hard, but because I liked the fact that it forced you to rely on what was supposed to be one of the core features of the titular witchers. They used crazy alchemical concoctions to deal with certain enemies and problems, but it had too often been my experience in the first two games that I could kind of ignore that stuff and just brute force my way through things. I restarted The Witcher 2 later on a harder mode that required more use of the witcher tools, and it was considerably more fun, and so it was no surprise when Wild Hunt felt similarly rewarding on the hardest difficulty. I had friends who gave me stories about accidentally killing things or skipping quest steps, where I had to very carefully track monsters, learn about their weaknesses, and plan accordingly. I reveled in that, and those distinctions were smart design. Many games with difficulty options don’t do nearly as good a job at distinguishing them from each other.
In fact, the Souls games have their New Game + modes, which I don’t find especially compelling, as they’re just a retread of the same content with the same character but everything has more hit points and does more damage. I’m not complaining because those games offered more than enough to satisfy me, but that’s one of the handful of complaints I have with them: a more nuanced hard mode with more interesting facets would certainly have added to their longevity. Here my aforementioned Twitter acquaintance and I agree, as he seems to think the Souls games are far too easy for repeated play, and he’d have preferred a more solid hard mode rather than having to mod difficulty into it.
Difficulty Options Are Awesome, and Accessibility is Not Difficulty
So before you call me a gatekeeper, understand that I support difficulty levels in games, and I wish we saw more of them. My ex-wife used to try to play a lot of things that were just too hard for her, and it was great when there were options so she could enjoy them. But that said, she never demanded that every game have one, or yelled on the Internet at developers who didn’t make those options available. It was generally easy to identify when something was just not made for a person like her.
None of us work for From Software, none of us know all the nuances of their creative process, and none of us know exactly how difficult it was to get the Souls games as well balanced as they’ve generally been. There may well be a lot of very good reasons for why these games still lack an easy mode beyond what seems obvious at first glance. I’ve played a rather obscene number of games over the course of my life, and very few of them have come close to giving me the kinds of experiences that From’s latest batch has. The number of finely tuned boss fights in Bloodborne alone is staggering, and I absolutely do not feel as though I am qualified to tell a developer that’s made such consistently good games how they should be changing their process. And while I do firmly believe that they could (in future, at least) add difficulty options that work well if they spent time in thoughtfully doing so, I also think they should make whatever it is they’re inclined to make in the best way they see fit under the set of financial and logistical limitations they’re under, all of which are unknown to me and to the vast majority of us. Because as we’ve discussed, even shipping a game that isn’t broken is a monumental task, let alone building and supporting something truly special.
I think if we as an industry have anything that deserves more focus, it’s on actual accessibility, not just making games easier or more difficult for people of varying skill levels. It’s entirely okay to make an easy game, like Clover’s brilliant Okami, which was intended from the start to have easy-ish combat and to be relatively stress-free, or to make a brutally hard game, like Dodonpachi or Ikaruga, the latter which includes an “easy” mode which would make most of the uninitiated wonder what the hell hard must look like.
What is a real problem is when there are major limitations in the way games can even be accessed. Input device support, controller remapping, making good design choices in regards to colorblindness or avoiding over-reliance on single-source pieces of information, and many other considerations are often overlooked, and can lead to a wholly different situation where you’ve made something that could be played as intended by people who simply can’t because of deficiencies in the interface, etc. That’s a conversation we’re only just starting to take seriously, and we’re seeing a lot of new creative work that’s taking it in great new directions, but it’s got a long way to go. Difficulty modes can certainly be part of that conversation but are by no means the most important part of it.
Ultimately, what I want people to understand is that things that seem simple at first glance often aren’t, and that when you make sweeping statements like “adding an easy mode would never affect your harder experience”, you have absolutely no way of supporting that statement. Adding an easy mode would totally affect the game, and those changes could be positive, negative, or more likely a mix of both, and would require a deft hand and thoughtful leadership to implement properly while still maintaining balance and vision. In the case of From Software’s Sekiro, I don’t think we would have the same game if the difficulty were allowed to be marginalized without some very careful and creative ideas. The balance is far too fine. Certainly something could have been done, but would it be the same game at the end of the day? Very likely not.
But Sekiro is also kind of an edge case, and this is not every game by any stretch. I love to see difficulty modes in games not only so I can crank the difficulty up to the max, but so when I want to recommend the game to friends I can do so with fewer reservations. But bad difficulty options have sometimes lead to easier modes that are less compelling, and people didn’t enjoy the games I recommended as much as I did, which is again why it’s important that these things get baked in from the start and not shoehorned in at the last minute. It’s all really on a case by case basis, as not every game can adjust difficulty in the same way, and these things take more time and thought than it seems most people believe they do, especially when it comes to critical reception and controlling (insofar as one even can) the experience the public at large will have with your game.
Every developer is made up of people with different development experience, overseen by different directors with very different ideas about design and what they want their games to be. This is at the heart of what art is, when it comes to games or anything else. You may not like that a game is too difficult for you, and I may not like when a game is too easy for me, but in the end, these aren’t our calls to make. We can certainly voice our opinions, but I do hope that we can do so going forward with less of an air of entitlement, and have a little more respect for the fact that crafting a game the caliber of Sekiro is an unbelievably difficult task, one that very few developers manage to achieve. If it takes having a single unforgiving difficulty level to make such an experience possible, that is a condition we should all be willing to accept.
Even if it means we have to give up halfway and watch the rest on YouTube.