Every Game Should Have An Easy Mode

A new Dark Souls game just came out, so once again it was time for players to begin the arduous journey of rekindling the flame of tired discussions. Cameron Kunzelman recently talked about the possibility of an easy mode for Dark Souls, responding in detail to arguments by Matt Lees, Chris Franklin, and Adam Smith, all of whom take slightly different roads to presenting the game’s difficulty as integral to the experience.

Certainly, the specific design choices these games make in terms of challenge create a tense, but serene atmosphere that I appreciate immensely. Regardless, there’s not a doubt in my mind that they should allow players to bypass these challenges and traverse their worlds quickly and easily should they choose to do so, simply because I believe all games should equip their players with such tools if possible.

The discussion around difficulty and Dark Souls tends to be led by fans of the series (in part because critics are discouraged from discussing games they have not played to completion) and consequently the arguments they voice center on honoring artistic intent and preserving the specific experience they cherish. Unfortunately, in doing so they reduce the conversation to a one-dimensional view of our relationship with games.

Games do not exist in our lives simply as a direct connection to the hypothetical experience a designer intended for us. They exist first and foremost as objects we interact with, as media artifacts whose affordances define the ways in which we may or may not engage with their content. Why is this differentiation important? Because as objects, games are failing us.

Books allow you to skim or skip ahead, movies allow you to fast forward or select scenes, only games steadfastly shake their heads and insist that you show your mettle before advancing. In the context of trying to distinguish games from other media, this is frequently touted as a unique asset, proving the exceptionalism of our field via its singular relationship to its audience. However, this quirk can also be a weakness, and it need not be maintained at all costs.

To argue that a game ought to be experienced a certain way is well and good (if a little misguided considering how wildly people’s experiences fluctuate already) but the truth is that not everyone who launches a game is necessarily looking to “experience it”. I often find myself wanting to revisit old games for reference, to refresh my memory on specific parts before writing about them. Others might explore them for research, out of an interest in their stories, worlds and characters. Others still might enter them to create art of their own, ingame photography, recordings or videos.

All of these uses are currently held back by the insistence that those who enter must engage with a game the way it’s meant to be played. Without the tools to navigate their structures and systems easily, games remain opaque to curation, impossible to quote or reference, and challenging, at best, to exhibit, research or preserve. Some of these gaps are unwittingly filled in by walkthrough writing and Let’s Play culture, but it’s a less than ideal solution, especially considering the challenges of trying to preserve these media alongside games.

With those stakes in mind, it feels disingenious to me that this discussion is persistently framed around preserving the integrity of the Dark Souls experience rather than preserving games as a whole. In reality it is about equipping players with the tools necessary to approach games in accordance with their needs. This doesn’t undermine the intended experience anymore than the ability to read pages out of order makes writing a broken form of storytelling.

Perhaps easy mode isn’t the right term for what I’m looking for. Indeed, I think it’s a very loaded label to center this discussion on, implying that its proponents are after an easy route to, as Stephen Beirne calls it, “ the pretend aristocracy of folks who have finished a videogame”. What I am arguing for is a tourism mode, a researcher mode, a student mode, an artist mode.

Sometimes it seems like games criticism has trouble trusting audiences to make informed decisions about how to have the best experience. Sometimes it feels like we are forever trapped in the role of that one friend who tries selling you on their favorite things so hard that they unwittingly put you off them. The person who pauses the movie when they feel you’ve become too distracted. That’s not the person we should be. We ought to have a little more faith in people to make informed decisions about how they can best enjoy a thing. More importantly, we should not let our insistence that others enjoy something the exact same way we enjoy it limit our means for how to access this medium.

It’s especially strange to me that this discussion takes place around Dark Souls of all games, which is already pretty open-ended in letting you define your own experience. In this great video, Extra Credits covers how the games intentionally allow you to exploit ranged combat, architectural chokepoints and enemies limited pursuit distances to reduce the risk of death at the expense of slower progress. If you want to tune up the difficulty on the other hand, there are ways to do so both through challenge covenants and the equipment limitations of self-set fashion goals.

Some players don’t even consider progressing through its storyline the main point of Dark Souls, focusing instead on its many different flavors of PVP combat. I personally enjoy the cooperative aspects of the game immensely, and will often help other players fight bosses until I’m so overlevelled for the current area that I’m no longer being matched with anyone. In a sense, this too makes my own trek through the game much easier.

Beyond all this, Dark Souls already acknowledges that besides the active role you play in your own game world, you are also a passive part of the game for other players, who can read your messages, see where you died, and catch brief glimpses of your ghostly outline should you come near them. All it would take to allow easy travel across the game is an option to foreground this side of the game, giving players the option to spend their entire Dark Souls experience as a ghost wandering through this world, visiting other players.

In a game about hollow shells wandering far and wide in search of meaning, would it really be out of character to let players go for a walk?

This article was created with the help of Patreon. If you’d like to see more games writing of a similarly heady bent, and have money to spare, please consider supporting me on there.

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