Sekiro and Difficulty: Why Cheese is Far Worse than an Easy Mode
I am not discussing accessibility in this article. I am discussing exclusively the problem of difficulty. Some forms of disability may be comparable to the effects I mention under “Physical experience”, but by and large I am not concerned with it.
Also, no spoilers, but there are vague descriptions of certain late-game interactions.
To start, we need to clarify some misconceptions about difficulty. Difficulty is not a property of a game itself. Whereas we may say “This is a fighting game” or “This is a short game” or “This game focuses on story over gameplay” and thereby refer to objective (or at least intersubjective) properties of the game, difficulty describes one’s experience of engaging with the game.
As a trivial example, consider a math test. It is an objective claim to say “The math test is about algebra”. But to say “the math test is difficult” without specifying for whom it is difficult is incorrect. A high-school algebra test may be difficult for those high-school students, but it is certainly not difficult for the teacher or a graduate student studying category theory. A high-school algebra test may alternatively be easy for those high-school students, but it is probably not easy for a kid in elementary school. Same thing goes for books. The reason 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 (where it is not banned) are assigned to middle- and high-school students is because “the themes are too difficult for younger kids”. This is an almost stupidly obvious thing to say. The difficulty of a text depends significantly on the reader’s history with similar texts and their knowledge of such texts.
What, then, are the properties of the player that lead to a experience of difficulty with a game? I think that there are by-and-large two key properties for games like Sekiro.
There is a trivial and non-trivial aspect to this. In the trivial sense, there are things you can do in the game which are not obvious and not necessary, but which give you good advantages. A certain boss takes extra damage if you use the spear-pull prosthetic when it falls over. In the non-trivial sense, you have to generally learn enemies’ “tells”. Two bosses can create a smokescreen and then do an extremely painful dash attack from behind it. It is difficult to react to this attack if you do not notice that the sword glints from behind the smoke only before the dash attack. Yet players’ abilities to find the tells depends on their general knowledge of how tells are constructed across action games and in FROM games specifically. A player new to the genre might simply assume that they need “faster reaction speed” or something, especially given how fast the game already is. Many people have in fact expressed frustration that there “isn’t a tell” for smokescreen attacks. A player with more experience will look for subtle markers.
Case in point: many people have complained that they do not have fast enough reaction speed to beat the Ashina Elite miniboss. Yet once you figure out the tell, reaction speed is not particularly important. A good game will seek to even this disparity by teaching the player how to look for tells (this is ultimately the function of Ashina Elite), but even the process of extrapolating from what the game teaches to all that it tests is highly dependent on prior knowledge. And as we know, many players did not figure out the tells of Ashina Elite, instead opting for cheese.
In faster action games, and especially Sekiro, it is not possible to play by consciously observing every enemy attack and thinking about how to react. In order to become fluent with the game, you must be able to perform unconsciously. This is much more apparent in sports which involve complex movements. Applying topspin to a stroke in tennis is an extremely complex process that involves modifying the angle and location of contact, and rotating the wrist with extremely precise timing. It is almost impossible to do consciously, and most players could not actually explain how they are applying topspin. Admittedly, the circuit is simpler for games (except fighting games); the most complex circuit in Sekiro is probably the response to the final boss’ lightning attack: jump > guard > take the hit > toss it back.
The key point here is that there is cross-domain applicability; circuits learned in one system can be reapplied to other systems. (This is called “transfer learning” in ML.) This is why one’s first fighting game is always the hardest to learn. It is also why people who play tennis are at least decent at badminton with a little effort. While you often have to “unlearn” circuits in new domains (eg. people who keep trying to dodge through attacks in Sekiro), setting up an see attack > block circuit is far easier when you previously trained a see attack > roll circuit. If you want a neural explanation: these circuits have overlapping neural circuitry, so setting up one circuit will make it easier to set up the other. Thus, your experience with games with similar circuits (Sekiro has circuits comparable to soulslikes and “reaction-heavy” games in general) will contribute to your experience of difficulty. In general, setting up new circuits gets more difficult with age (due to decreasing neuroplasticity), which means that older players new to the genre will have a pretty bad time.
Games and Books
Insofar as “difficulty” or “challenge” is an aspect of the “experience of the game”, players will not have comparable experiences. If it is the experience of difficulty that matters, it is logically imperative to create means to modify the properties of the game such that players have similar experiences of difficulty.
As mentioned, the difficulty of a book also depends on various properties of the reader (which are somewhat different than the ones above; physical experience is not particularly relevant for books). It does not seem, however, that anyone has ever requested an “easy version” of Anti-Oedipus or Critique of Pure Reason, even though it is certainly true that the difficulty is part of the experience of reading them, especially for the former. If games are more-or-less similar to books, then it appears there is no reason to request an “easy version” of a game. This, I think, is the most interesting argument and the most important juncture of discussion. There are some critical observations worth making.
First, while books generally do not have “easy versions”, they do have the equivalent of walkthroughs. For every person who has complained that Critique of Pure Reason is too hard, there is a guidebook named something like Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: A Critical Guide, which has the specific purpose of making it easier to read the original book. One may observe that no guidebook actually changes the content of Critique of Pure Reason itself, which is why it is comparable to a walkthrough. Oddly, it is often recommended that enterprising students read a “walkthrough” of a difficult book before reading the book itself. Perhaps it is more comparable to playing checkers before playing chess.
Also, there are ways to read a book that have significant effects on its difficulty. For example, while I often read French books in French, I chose to read Anti-Oedipus in English for the specific purpose of making it easier. I also chose to search up every term that was even the slightest bit vague to make sure I understood what was going on (this is something a reader from 1972 could not have done). This is roughly comparable to the notion of “strategy” or “character progression” in a game, or in general game-internal difficulty controls. In Sekiro, the final boss of the bad ending has an attack sequence with an extremely long windup that is much harder to block than any other attack in the game. You can choose to simply use firecrackers whenever the boss starts the windup, and this choice affects the difficulty. This is a strategy decision. In Soulsborne, if a boss is too difficult, you can grind some stat points for vitality or endurance or strength, or you can upgrade your weapon, or you can get better armor. Prayer beads, gourd seeds, and skills have a similar but smaller effect in Sekiro. This is a matter of character progression. You can make the game easier or harder, and nobody has complained about these mechanisms. In fact, most players will utilize these mechanisms to their fullest extent, even if doing so makes the game too easy for them.
The point remains that there is no request for a book to be made easier by modifying the content proper. Why, then, do people request it for games? The answer is simple: it is trivial to modify the content of a game in order to make it easier. It is trivial to make the game easier by dropping enemy health. It is trivial to make enemies easier by decreasing their aggressiveness values. It is trivial to make defense easier by increasing posture. (NG+ makes the game harder by modifying these.) It is not trivial to rewrite Anti-Oedipus such that a reader less familiar with DG’s black sheep can feel sufficiently, but not excessively, challenged.
The difference then comes down to the question of whether game-external difficulty controls should be provided. It is not productive to point to other forms of art, since games are unique in that such controls are trivial to implement. In fact, there are already two such controls in Sekiro: the bell and Kuro’s Charm. To restate: Sekiro already has difficulty modes; they are just harder ones. If you are someone for whom the game is fairly easy due to extensive knowledge of similar games (such as a speedrunner), then you can use the control to make the experience of difficulty closer to what is “intended”. Challenge runs can also be classified as game-external rules that increase difficulty. However, if you are someone for whom the game is excessively hard because you are new to the genre and have little physical experience with the circuits of video games, there is no means of making your experience of difficulty closer to the standard or “intended” experience.
When it comes to difficulty mechanisms, we have a table of game-internal or game-external, and easier or harder. What we have shown is that people only oppose game-external mechanisms that make the game easier (and as the uncaring response to walkthroughs shows, only when those game-external mechanisms modify the “content” somehow).
Thus, here are the “OK” ways to make a game easier:
- Learning the mechanics more thoroughly
- Standard character progression
- (Not in Sekiro) Grinding character progression
- Strategies to completely negate or avoid challenging parts of the game (from simple to cheese)
And here are the “not-OK” ways:
- Easy modes
- Mods and cheats
My impression is that anti-easymoders are somewhat inconsistent. To me, grinding character progression, walkthroughs, anything beyond the most basic strategies, mods, and easy modes are all comparable. I do not see a meaningful difference between grinding Vitality in Souls and an easy mode. “Creative intent” does not differentiate them, either: Miyazaki surely did not intend for you to skip two phases of a three-phase boss by stealth kills. In fact, this is actually a far greater offense, as I see it, than using an easy mode cheat, as it involves simply not engaging with the game.
My point is that a consistent position should either declare many more restrictions on the correct way to play, or be generally permissive. Given everything we previously discussed, if you care about the “experience of difficulty”, you have no choice but to opt for permissivity, as different players require different extents of game simplification in order to reach the “standard” or “intended” experience.
Here is my normative recommendation. I am in favor of easy modes — whether these be developer-implemented or mods/cheats — much in the same way that I do not see much of a problem with the existence of strategies to make the game easier. Again, most people do not take particular issue with using stronger strategies to get past difficult junctures of the game. This said, I think players should construct their own restrictions on how they will play the game in order to construct a proper experience of difficulty. The experience of difficulty is obviously key to a FROM game, and if people need controls to bring that experience within the range of their capabilities, so be it.
However, I am not in favor of people cheesing bosses, as I think this constitutes a failure to engage with the game and a failure to engage with the experience. It is honestly baffling to me that the Sekiro subreddit sees so many posts about how important it is that there is no easy mode, and yet posts concerning boss cheese are highly upvoted and always near the top of the subreddit. At the time of writing this, I found TWO highly upvoted boss cheese posts on the front page; one for Ashina Elite and one for the boss guarding the cave door. It seems to me absolutely absurd to claim that decreasing enemy health by 10% would “destroy the experience” and result in “you cheating yourself” when people are completely willing to resort to cheese to basically skip bosses. My position is the opposite. The easy mode is reasonable, cheese is not. People who use an easy mode are still engaging with the game and its systems, people who cheese are not.
Ultimately, I agree that a key consideration for a FROM game is the experience of challenge and difficulty. Easy modes can function to allow such an experience to be made available to people with little knowledge or physical experience in the genre. When such people use an easy mode, they are getting an experience that is probably still more difficult than a Souls veteran’s experience with the bell rung.
What therefore seems to me to be inappropriate are methods that disengage from the game‘s systems. Cheese is one such method. The various shenanigans speedrunners do are similar (but speedrunners are clearly engaging with a different goal), and I would consider it inappropriate for someone not speedrunning to use speedrunners’ shenanigans to avoid engaging with the game’s systems.
A case in point is CrossCode. A certain dungeon puzzle type in CrossCode has you moving reflecting walls and activating elemental machines with specific timings in order to allow a moving ball to reach its destination. There are two aspects to this puzzle: you have to figure out the solution, and then you have to execute it. CrossCode has accessibility options (“easy mode”s) that allow you to slow the movement of things in these puzzles. It seems to me completely fair to use this option if you find the puzzle to be too fast (one of the last such puzzles is extremely fast). On the other hand, using a walkthrough trivializes the puzzle completely. Yet according to the prevailing logic, it is the walkthrough which is fine, and it is the accessibility option which destroys creative intent. According to the prevailing logic, if a bug allowed you to skip the puzzle, that would also be completely fine.
People need different aids to engage with the “experience” and the difficulty of different games. It seems to me that engagement is fundamentally what we want, and whatever helps people engage cannot be that harmful. Easy modes help people engage, whereas cheese does not — consider whether your judgements on them aren’t reversed.