Difficulty with the Difficulty Debate

Tackling certain topics, in all but the safest of contexts at best leads you down a highway to nothing. Topics where there is so much toxicity on both sides of the argument that having anything remotely resembling an actual discourse is all but impossible. There is too much baggage and emotion attached and too much noise around the edges that anyone making an honest attempt at the discussion gets drowned out, or worse, lumped in with the toxicity going on more generally.

Truthfully?

I’m fairly happy to just avoid these subjects most of the time. The energy expenditure required for what amounts to shouting into the void (and then have it shout back) just isn’t worth it.

One of those topics I’d quite specifically decided to stay away from is the difficulty debate that inevitably arises whenever a Soulslike game gains any traction with the gaming populace.

Magi made a post on this subject the other day, and the unedited version hit me pretty hard. I won’t quote anything he didn’t want to mention in the follow-up as I appreciate he went to the effort to correct the language and tone used and on further reflection… Well; perhaps it isn’t hard to see why the impression he had was able to exist. Because without any shadow of a doubt, there are those out there whose sum total reason for denying any overt concessions toward difficulty settings are orientated around keeping up their own sense of self-worth. The ‘git gud’ culture is not just a meme, it’s very real.

Further, go looking for articles on the subject and some supposedly fairly reputable outlets and journalists also devolve the entire opposition to a set of toxic trolling basement-dwelling gatekeepers.

Elden Ring – Gazing from a distance at the Raya Lucaria Academy

Here’s something I never thought I’d say: IGN has one of the better, more nuanced articles on the subject. They endeavour to break down the oversimplification that often winds up occurring in this debate where difficulty modes and accessibility get conflated.

All said, I’m going to break with my typical rule of not engaging with this topic and give my personal opinion on the matter.

I’m opposed to adding an ‘easy mode’ as defined by the typical tweaking-the-numbers approach to such things. But! I’m all for increasing options to improve accessibility.

Difficulty and Authorial Intent

Note: This is probably going to be the most contentious part of this post. If you read this and feel like shouting about it; I would ask you at least also get through the following section on accessibility. If you then still disagree that’s OK — I’m all for spirited debate, but let’s at least try to keep it somewhat civil. :)

Let me start in a perhaps unexpected place: Animal Crossing.

A couple of years ago, on a whim and near the onset of this whole COVID thing in New Zealand, I picked up Animal Crossing New Horizons and then determined — despite very much enjoying Stardew Valley — that ACNH was simply not for me.

In the comments to that post, it was suggested — politely and without any malice whatsoever — that I was perhaps playing the game wrong. With the wrong mindset, at least, which spawned a whole other discussion on whether you can play a game wrong or not and the difference between authorial intent and player intent.

The developers of ACNH wanted their players to slow down. Relax. Take their time and sniff the roses, as it were. I, on the other hand, was feeling chafed by the slow rate of progression with real-world time gates and a seemingly insane number of materials (vs my ability to actually find them as compared to the event eggs that were dropping at the time) the game wanted me to grind out.

The ultimate conclusion I came to in this post was that, again, this game wasn’t for me. But that’s OK. Not every game has to be designed to the liking of every person.

Stupid eggs. I still hate them to this day. Although to be fair, they did shortly after this post release a patch to reduce the frequency of their appearance for the remainder of the Easter event.

But let’s say this wasn’t the conclusion I came to. Instead, I went on a campaign to have changes made to suit me and how I wanted to play it.

Can you imagine the reaction? I can. While perhaps you, as an individual, might be able to sit with this and come to the honest conclusion that you’d be fine with the inclusion of such a mode I can all but guarantee there would be a vocal base of users willing to tell me where to go and stick such a suggestion.

And from their side, such a response while perhaps not ‘warranted’ could at least be understood. Even proposed as an additional mode or option, it would very much be seen as an attack on the type of game the existing player base wants and against what the developers envision their game to be.

Dark Souls and Elden Ring are no different. Hidetaki Miyazaki — the video-game director behind the Soulsbourne games — recently gave an interview with the New Yorker, in which he discussed his vision for the games. A recurring theme is his desire to make his games about rising above and overcoming challenges, even ones that may have once felt insurmountable. These challenges need not always be faced alone, either. Sometimes it could be as minor as seeing the fleeting ghost of another player navigating the same space you are. You might be able to learn from the mistakes of others by touching a bloodstain on the ground. Or see where a great many people have struggled when there is a space covered in them. Through to the more overt, being able to leave messages for one another or even — briefly — enter another player’s world and affect them (for better or worse) much more directly for a time.

While I won’t speak on this for the Soulslike genre as a whole — as there is always room for divergence, innovation and whole new sub-genres1 — I think when talking about Miyazaki’s own games, at least, the introduction of an ‘easy mode’ (again, as defined by a mode which simply tweaks numbers in the player’s favour) would be to remove much of the intent behind the games in the first place.

Whether that intent aligns with what you want out of a game is a whole other thing. It may not, just as Animal Crossing ultimately wasn’t a game that aligned with what I want out of a game.

However…

Accessibility Does Not Equal Easy Mode

Godric lets me know I haven’t even seen his final form.

Difficulty, as assessed by an able-bodied person, is one aspect of accessibility, sure. Elden Ring does provide some less overt difficulty options for players to customise their experience with as desired, such as the ability to summon NPC support (or not) as they progress.

But not everyone who games is wholly able-bodied, ranging from aches and pains through to significantly limited limb usage to missing functions of hearing or sight.

Addressing this type of difficulty is, itself, more difficult and we’re only slowly seeing much in the way of advancement in this space. It’s an area that needs more focus than it currently gets to be sure.

Some things are relatively easy to implement, e.g., the ability to set sprint to toggle as opposed to needing a button to be held down. Customising subtitle sizing (or heck, having subtitles full stop).

Others — particularly in the context of a Soulslike — are much more difficult to achieve. Whether an accessibility option makes the game easier or not shouldn’t even be part of this particular conversation though. Just whether it enables people who otherwise couldn’t have to experience it if they so wish to.

Examples of this that may help I can think of? Here are a few, of what could be many, many options, able to be one by one enabled or disabled as the player sees fit, to:

  • Auto-roll through attacks — still require a directional input from the user, but auto-roll through an incoming attack at the appropriate moment. Some attacks can only be rolled through in specific directions relative to the attack, so maintains player involvement more than you might initially think.
  • Push to Toggle Block — rather than requiring holding L1 to raise your shield, simply allow for a push to raise and another push to lower.
  • Keep moving in last-pressed direction until another movement input is received — Although I wonder how you’d allow someone to just ‘stop’ reliably.

These, and all the other accessibility options which should exist, will need an experienced designer and testing with users to see what works best to be sure.

But it’s an effort FromSoftware — and all developers, of games and user experiences more generally — should be making. This isn’t compromising on developer vision or asking to adjust what they deem their game to be. This is asking, within the context of that vision, to be as inclusive and accepting as possible.

Footnotes

  1. Look at Remnant: From the Ashes for example; which introduced guns and difficulty levels! And it’s one of my personal favourite spins on all this.

Naithin

Gamer, reader, writer, husband and father of two boys. Former WoW and Gaming blogger, making a return to the fold to share my love of all things looty.

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