So, I don’t think I’ve written about this whole “does it need an easy mode?” discussion, so that’s what we’ll talk about today. Whenever a souls-like game releases, the discussion comes up over whether or not an easy mode should be part of the game – and as always, people have to argue for or against accessibility. Today’s topic will mostly be around the discussion that this question mentioned in the title sparked. The post itself won’t be about Elden Ring. Personally, I don’t think that it necessarily needs an Easy Mode to work as a game but I do think that accessibility options to lower the difficulty, even temporarily, would be great to lower the hurdle that you have to overcome to get into these games. It’s not just about people new to the genre but also about people that can’t play these games properly because of disabilities or even their age. Hope that didn’t sound ageist. So, does it need an easy mode? We’ll talk about it here today!
Important Note: I originally wrote this post with the intention of talking about the different arguments and commenting on them. I ended up not doing enough research and then I didn’t edit it properly enough, resulting in me writing a lot of things that I didn’t mean in the way they came across. For that, I apologize. The post has since been edited but this post here goes into detail about what the changes were and why I made them.
Anyhow, there are the people that do wish for more accessibility in games like these… and then there are the people that are against it for a plethora of reasons. I’ll go into that later, but first: What is a souls-like game? – According to the most trustworthy source on the internet, a “soulslike or souls-like game, also known as Soulsborne, is a subgenre of action role-playing games known for high levels of difficulty and emphasis on environmental storytelling, inspired by the dark fantasy genre.” The genre had its origin in the “Souls” series developed by FromSoftware, although a bunch of people are sharing concerns about whether or not this is really a true genre of its own or just a collection of shared mechanics. I mean, technically Hollow Knight could be classified as a “souls-like” game but a lot of people would disagree here because it’s not developed by FromSoftware – which I call “Bullshit!” because genres aren’t defined by developers. Mortal Shell, Dark Souls, Sekiro, and Elden Ring are typically what you’d define as “souls-like” but there are also other games that could be described like that, even if the devs themselves don’t call it that. I mean, I kind of agree that it’s just a collection of shared mechanics, but hey, maybe that’s a post for another day?
So when talking about the difficulty in games and accessibility, there are a lot of arguments for or against it. Personally, I’m all for more accessibility in games but I can understand the people that don’t want to see it in their games. If you’re wondering what arguments there are against easier difficulties, it mostly boils down to two things:
- Intended difficulty
- Game Design
So, for starters, these games are intended to be incredibly difficult. They’re punishing. They’re hard. You need to be patient with your timing but also use every window of opportunity that opens up to you. Souls-likes are about perseverance and resilience. It gets frustrating – but when you push through and make it past rough encounters, it feels rewarding and satisfying. On top of that, it’s about strategy instead of pulling a “Leeroy” on enemies. You may be able to sneak past enemies or rush through areas but a lot of times, you’ll have to be aware of where your limits are and hence go about these levels in a bit of a tactical manner. Hence, adding an easy mode would take away from the actual experience. This argument is what the developers and designers of these games often bring up. It’s not supposed to be easy. And while it’s sad that some people can’t seem to beat these games, it’s intended to be that difficult and people need to observe and learn from the game or try something new. Miyazaki said that the games are about “overcoming adversity” and that they (at FromSoftware) “want players to use their cunning, study the game, memorize what’s happening, and learn from their mistakes“.
From a game design perspective, it’s also interesting to know that the game is a different experience when there is the option of making it easier. Because there is no other way of playing the game, the game’s difficulty becomes an obstacle that you need to overcome. Miyazaki also said in that comment I linked to earlier that they don’t try to force difficulty or make things hard for the sake of it. Rather, Elden Ring for instance had less hoops to jump through to be able to enjoy it. It’s a game that is enjoyable even if you get stuck somewhere because of the amount of freedom the player has. There are a lot of new systems in place as well, as I was able to read in several blog posts and as I was able to observe on streams, that give the player more tools to enjoy the game. You have “more agency to dictate [your] approach against, for example, field bosses in the overworld and how [you] utilize stealth in various situations” – which inadvertently makes the game less hard and hence allows more players to beat it but it wasn’t intended to be easier or harder. It just turned out that way, apparently. Some Reddit people also said that having an option in the first place makes it a different game. Even if you don’t utilize it, it takes away from the experience because the game is designed to be harder. If it’s easier now, it loses some of its touch and hence because less of a great experience.
I love souls-like games because of the worlds and the story-telling. The environmental storytelling in Dark Souls 3 is superb. Sekiro feels fun. It’s frustrating but it can also be incredibly satisfying and rewarding. More accessibility wouldn’t be an issue for me because it would mean that other people that I know may be able to also enjoy these games with me. I’d be able to talk to others about the games without them getting stuck somewhere – and they’d be able to enjoy it without struggling to even get past the tutorial. My enjoyment isn’t hindered by the lack of accessibility but even if an easy mode was added, I probably wouldn’t make use of it personally. But from a game design standpoint, it’s understandable that the settings aren’t an option in the first place. After reading that comment by Miyazaki, the game’s designer, I frankly realised that the discussion has a lot more sides to it than I thought.
Personally, I’m for more accessibility but I also understand the game design perspective on the matter and find it plausible. The issue is just that there are plenty of games that go with the time and add multiple difficulty settings. A lot of games have a standard difficulty that is “recommended” due to the game being designed with that difficulty in mind. And from there, there usually are two difficulties below it that make it easier as well as two more above it that make it harder, and sometimes there is also something like a hardcore-nightmare-turbo-difficult-permadeath-mode whose difficulty can be scaled up as well. A lot of games let you also change the difficulty on the fly. DOOM Eternal has a “power armour” that becomes available to you if you’re dying a lot to a boss enemy or an encounter. You don’t have to use it but I like that the game offers it to you. Similarly, a lot of roguelike games like Hades or Risk of Rain 2 have modifiers that make the game harder, on top of difficulty/accessibility settings. Hades has a “God Mode” that makes you take less damage but it ramps up over the multiple deaths you have. That’s close enough to an “easy mode”, right? Meanwhile, you can also ramp up the difficulty through the “Pact of Punishment” once you “beat the game” a bunch of times, adding extra hurdles to your run like stronger enemies, less healing, or even stronger bosses. Risk of Rain and Risk of Rain 2 have a “Drizzle” difficulty that is more forgiving although still rather difficult. “Rainstorm” is the intended difficulty with “Monsoon” being a lot harder and more punishing. Still, once you master the game, the runs become somewhat easy on Monsoon which is why there are also the “artefacts” that increase the difficulty further with modifiers and the like. It’s completely optional and you can enjoy the game even without activating those modifiers. You can enjoy the game on easier and on harder difficulties.
While I understand that the existence of an easy mode could potentially lessen the impact of the game – solid argument – I don’t think that the existence of an easy mode in these aforementioned games actually lessened the impact of the games here. Roguelikes are meant to be hard as well but I guess it’s hard to make the comparison because of how different roguelike games and “boomer shooters” like Doom and Serious Sam are compared to Action RPGs and Soulslikes like Dark Souls or Sekiro. Personally, I think that this argument may be valid but I could see how it could get dunked on simply because of how different these genres are.
I just think that having the option to make the game harder or easier is never a wrong idea. It’s a great feature. The same goes for arachnophobia mode or colour-blind mode or even an attempt at making the game more accessible, even if it doesn’t cover everything, which goes a long way. Being able to rebind keys or being able to change graphic settings to reduce motion sickness is also another thing. I don’t think that making games more accessible means reducing the game’s impact or tainting its experience. It just makes it possible for more people to experience the game in the first place. Being able to skip a section, getting “god mode” for a section of a game or being able to temporarily reduce the difficulty is a compromise that people should be able to live with. More people being able to enjoy the game despite disabilities, fears or other factors should be a great thing and it could result in more friendships and communities and bonds and stuff. But the issue is that the game design perspective is also very valid in its arguments and not everyone that argues against it is “against accessibility”. The people that argue against the “easy mode” are the people that love the game the most and they want others to enjoy the game just like how they did: By overcoming hurdles and challenges. By becoming a better player. By experiencing the game the way it was meant to be experienced. I wish there was a good compromise for this but frankly, there probably will never be one for souls-likes as a genre, given how these games are designed to be challenging in contrast to other games that are about skill expression, about exploration, about narration and other things. Outer Wilds shouldn’t have a permadeath mode because it’s an exploration game. And therefore, Elden Ring shouldn’t have an easy mode because it’s a challenging game.