The Witcher 3 and Easy Modes in Dark Souls
Full disclaimer, I absolutely love The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and this comparison is in no way meant to be a criticism of it. Rather, I am trying to address the idea that Dark Souls 3, and games like it, should have an “easy mode”. The Witcher 3 and the Dark Souls 3 games have certain mechanical similarities in their combat that involve timing light and heavy attacks, magic, usable items, and dodges against enemy attacks. Different character builds are possible in each game, allowing the player to focus on various aspects of combat, or to try and use all of them together. But the Witcher 3 has four different difficulty levels, a quest tracker, and a mini-map that points you towards your goal with a little dotted line, so why can’t Dark Souls 3 have them too?
In short, it is a difference of design. Dark Souls 3 was designed to be hard for a reason. The director of the games, and president of FromSoftware, Hidetaka Miyazaki has said that when the studio started working on Demon’s Souls, the predecessor of Dark Souls 3, the goal was to give the player a “feeling of accomplishment after overcoming tremendous odds.” (find the interview here) He calls this a particular kind of game, and that is exactly what it is. Even more broadly, Dark Souls is a game about mechanical mastery to an extreme level, and it takes real skill to gain this mastery. The Witcher 3, on the other hand, is a true RPG that is trying to tell a story. If you don’t want to master the combat mechanics, then you can select an easier difficulty, keep the mini-map on, and enjoy listening to Geralt’s lovely, gravely voice.
But why would an easy mode be bad for Dark Souls? Experienced and more serious players can easily select the ‘normal’ difficulty and have the experience that Miyazaki envisioned. So what’s the harm? Well, let’s look at how The Witcher 3 starts off. Right away, you are asked to select your difficulty. Cool, that’s pretty standard for RPG’s, and those people who want to can select Death March while those who don’t can choose Sword and Story and everyone gets to have fun. But is everyone having the same experience? Strictly speaking, no. Not at all. True, the same events are happening on screen, you’re doing the same quests, and making the same choices, but enemies are dealing different amounts of damage, have different amounts of health, and you are gaining different amounts of experience. For example, on the Death March difficulty in The Witcher 3, enemies have 80% more health and deal 230% more damage and you gain 80% experience, compared to 10% more health and 40% more damage on Sword and Story. Changing these three numbers is really the only way to make a game easier or harder. In a game that is all about combat like Dark Souls 3, you cannot change things like damage and health of enemies or the player without changing the experience the player is having. No matter how ‘good’ you are at video games, when you play Dark Souls 3 enemies will kill you in two or three hits, and you will need two or three hits to beat most enemies. Because FromSoftware wants to have tight control over the experience of playing their games and changing the difficulty inherently changes the experience, it really would break these games to include an easy mode.
Defeating a boss without really trying is exactly what Miyazaki does not want to have happen in these games. He wants you to have to try, die, learn, try, repeat as necessary, and succeed. That is why beating a boss, or even just making it through an area in Dark Souls is so satisfying, and why so many people love these games. Easy mode robs the game of this feeling, and defeats the purpose of making this kind of game in the first place. Putting an option on the game, even one with a message that says easy mode is highly discouraged, doesn’t alleviate this problem. Having the option to change the difficulty mid-game, or even going back and starting over entirely with an easier difficulty still defeats the purpose of the game challenging its players.
In another game that might be a problem, but these kinds of games are designed so that they take skill. Not a special kind of skill either, just practice with the game. Random numbers don’t determine your success, because you are presented with very exact information about how much damage you are doing relative to how much health enemies have, and you have all the tools needed to avoid taking damage yourself. It might not be easy, but the encounters are designed to be challenging while still being fair. In most cases, there are encounters in the area before a boss that prepare you to face the kind of attacks and patterns the boss will use against you. In front of the Abyss Watcher’s fight there are two Darkwraiths that teach you how to dodge multiple powerful enemies at once. The Crystal Sage has two mages that cast powerful magic from multiple directions immediately before his arena. The Dragon Slayer Armor is guarded by Lothric Knights wielding huge swords that swing slow and hit hard. Oceiros has a bunch of the darkness monsters in his garden, to teach you how to avoid his quick charges. The ruins of Izalith area all about dodging fireballs and combustion pyromancies before you can challenge the Demon King. The game is designed so that you have to overcome a set of challenges before demonstrating mastery by overcoming the boss that tests your skills to avoid those attacks.
Admittedly, it can take time to master those skills, and a lack of progress can be disheartening. But this is where Dark Souls really stands out for me personally. In each of the Dark Souls games there are two kinds of progress, character progress and player progress. Character progress is the kind of progress we normally think about in video games, moving forward with the story. In Dark Souls this is represented by beating bosses, exploring new areas, and lighting bonfires. Player progress is your progress as a player, and it is possible, almost unavoidable, that you progress even if you are dying repeatedly to the same enemy. All games have a learning curve, but Dark Souls, and action games like it, really test the player on this and challenge the player to really test their skills. What this means for the player is that spending an hour or two trying to beat a boss is not time wasted, because you were making progress. It was just player progress, not character progress.
Dark Souls is more concerned with your player progress than with your character progress by design. If it wanted you to simply move through the game it would let you keep your souls when you died, spawn you back at the fog gate when fighting bosses, keep enemies from respawning, or let you turn the difficulty down. These are very similar to the systems in the Witcher 3 that let the player keep moving forward at a nice pace. The Witcher 3 auto-saves right before every major encounter and loads right back to that point, making it easy to try again. You can change the difficulty at any point, and the limited number of spells, potions, and items means it is always easy to understand what tools you have to make things easier.
This does not mean that either game is better or worse than the other. Dark Souls and the Witcher 3 were designed to accomplish different things, challenging the player and telling a story respectively, and each is extremely well designed to match its goal. If Dark Souls were concerned with telling a distinct story and keeping the player moving through it at a reasonable pace, then it would be a poorly designed game. Dark Souls, and any Souls-like, are not trying to be that kind of game, they want to challenge their players in order to give them a rush of accomplishment that is well earned, rather than being action games that rely on cut scenes and scripted moments to get adrenaline pumping.
It must also be mentioned that games can be hard and include an easy mode. Dark Souls is not, and should not, be used as an example of why no game should ever include a difficulty slider for the player to choose from. Rather, it represents a developer having a certain goal in mind that does not allow for the inclusion of a strict easy mode. The truth is, Dark Souls does allow it’s players to dynamically select their difficulty through the way they choose to play the game. Utilizing ranged attacks, magic, and spell buffs makes the encounters throughout all 3 Dark Souls games much easier to handle, as does summoning phantoms and paying attention to messages left by other players. Dark Souls 2 does some very interesting things with game difficulty, and comes the closest in the series to including a “mode” that is strictly harder that warrants it’s own article. None of these factors, however, drastically change the fact that enemies, and bosses in particular, have the ability to kill the player as fast or faster than you can kill them. But if you can master the mechanics of dodging and attacking, these games don’t seem anywhere near as difficult as when you first picked them up.