How difficult is too difficult?
It's this question that is at the heart of the kerfuffle over recent comments from Dark Souls game director Hidetaka Miyazaki. Speaking about the effect of his popular RPG's notoriously high level of difficulty on players, Miyazaki told Metro: "I personally want my games to be described as satisfying rather than difficult. As a matter of fact, I am aiming at giving players sense of accomplishment in the use of difficulty.
"Having said that, however, it is true that Dark Souls is rather difficult and a number of people may hesitate to play. This fact is really sad to me and I am thinking about whether I should prepare another difficulty that everyone can complete or carefully send all gamers the messages behind our difficult games.
"However, I suppose gamers do not particularly prefer easy games. What they want is interesting and worthwhile games to play, so I think it is natural that hindrance or stress that does not attribute to such interesting and worthwhile elements will be removed in the end.
"If the number of easy games is increasing nowadays, I guess it is because difficulty is not related to interesting and worthwhile game elements in many games among players."
I should note that following the running of the original article, Namco BANDAI claimed that there was a 'translation mistake' in Miyazaki's original response, and that he actually still seeks to maintain the "current difficulty level" of the game.
Nevertheless, let's keep things hypothetical for now and ponder whether or not often frustrating games like Dark Souls would benefit from the addition of a so-called "easy mode."
It's no secret that mind-numbing difficulty has become a staple of the Souls franchise, so much so that it could be considered the series' premiere feature. Great press and excellent word of mouth largely contributed to predecessor Demon's Souls success, and once players had wiki-ed and grinded their way through all of that game's puzzles and challenges, anticipation became high for the next, even harder conquest to come from developer From Software.
And in that sense, Dark Souls did not disappoint. While the core mechanics of the RPG did not change all too much, there was an all-around deadlier sense surrounding your every move. Caution, tactics, and a keen memory were stressed more than ever, and as a result fans became happy masochists once again.
The challenge, to Souls players, is what makes the game click. On the surface, the way you actually play Dark Souls is simple. You make your way to a section of the world, and then you fight your way through it. Combat isn't complex, consisting of the familiar strike-block-dodge tactics of many action-RPGs prior. Certain bosses are infamously stressful, sure, but even then it's just a matter of getting the right help from online co-op helpers, grinding your level enough, or memorizing each enemy's patterns and having at it until you execute the right game plan to perfection. And so on.
But doing all that is still just plain hard, especially on the first time through. It's never cheap. Bugs are at a minimum, and every time you fail, it's almost always because of something you failed to do. It's a game that effectively teaches you about personal accountability.
In an era where games have become increasingly less difficult in general, Dark Souls is a throwback to a time where games were "tests" just as much as they were "experiences." And heaps of players love it because of that. It's a big reason why so many gamers today look back so fondly on the days of gaming's past.
We don't live in the past anymore, though. There'll always be a time where people need to come back to reality, even when discussing video games. Times have changed, and gaming is now a bona fide "mainstream" thing, if you still use such terms.
With this being the case, it's no surprise that gamers who may not have tried a game like Dark Souls in the past would want to do so now. In the age of the Internet, positive word of mouth amongst users—something Dark Souls has in spades—is perhaps the most powerful tool in a title's arsenal. "Casuals," as these newcomers are called, are going to want in on the fun. And once they're in, they're in for a rude awakening.
So why rob them of the pain? It's difficult for me to see the backlash to Miyazaki's hypothetical "easy mode" proposal as a case of selfishness on the part of current Dark Souls users. Unless From's plan is to make the entire Dark Souls experience easier—something that the above comments don't appear to hint at—then I don't see why the implementation of a completely optional easy mode that would accommodate new players eager to learn the game so many love is such a problem. A game isn't your spouse—it's a product, and it's meant to be experienced by others.
If nothing else, an optional easy mode would only build the already-booming Dark Souls community. Greater initial accessibility means more players, and more players means a higher chance of new full-on fans. Just look at the multitude of Dark Souls players that do second "New Game Plus" playthroughs after already beating the game; with the easier difficulty, Dark Souls' oddly alluring replayability may bring out the masochist in more of us.
The root of this debate is really something quite simple: pride. Some gamers just don't want to share. That's kind of sad.
Conquering a game like Dark Souls is something you can legitimately brag about—a feat that fewer and fewer games today can claim. With the possible easy mode, this "hardcore" crowd may claim, that rarified air will only become polluted by players with no respect for the struggle.
That's not really true, though, so long as the potential easy difficulty mode is kept optional. So long as that aspect of choice is maintained, those current disapproving Dark Souls players can continue to die and grind to their hearts' content, with no dreaded "casuals" there to dare sully the integrity of such a great game.
It's funny, though—something tells me those less "hardcore" players wouldn't be too concerned with their counterpart's affairs in the first place. Maybe that's a process we should all learn to adopt.
Date: September 14, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*