Month: April 2016

Dark Souls, Difficulty, and Accessibility

by Jed Pressgrove

Ignore the Souls fanboy hype: Dark Souls is not uniquely difficult. The discussion on whether Dark Souls should have an easy mode might make you believe otherwise. Both sides of the debate seem to suggest that difficulty and accessibility have an inverse relationship: the easier a game is, the more accessible it is, and the harder a game is, the less accessible it is.

Video game history does not confirm this suggestion. Tetris and Pac-Man are two of the most accessible games ever; neither is easy. Last Action Hero on the Nintendo Entertainment System is not hard to complete, but its miserable combat is not very appealing to a general audience.

A certain type of difficulty could affect accessibility. That Dark Souls has a more uniform hardness (rather than the gradual difficulty of Tetris) could mean fewer people will enjoy it. But being consistently and mercilessly difficult didn’t hurt Flappy Bird’s wide appeal.

This fact leads me to think that some do not want to judge Dark Souls based on its design. Every element of Dark Souls that could be called inaccessible — including the laughably ambiguous and drearily metatexual storytelling that some would like to subject themselves to in an easy mode — follows the intention of the developers, who are very much aware of the vague and unforgiving nature of a sizable chunk of games for the Atari 2600, Nintendo Entertainment System, and other consoles. (One of modern game criticism’s biggest shortcomings is the frequent lack of comparison between Dark Souls and Castlevania. Most commentators haven’t noted Dark Souls resembles Castlevania II in 3-D form in some ways.)

The Dark Souls easy mode debate often overlooks two other things: (1) it’s perfectly fine to hate a game’s design, and (2) Dark Souls 3 represents an easy mode. The second point is very important, as the developers have made an effort to make Dark Souls more accessible via reduced damage, fast travel, a hub — they’ve even thrown in messages that tell you to turn back from particularly dangerous paths. But is Dark Souls 3 all that interesting? And is this effort to please the audience enough?

Based on the easy mode debate, the answers to both questions are “No!” This realization comes back to the Souls fanboy’s insistence that Dark Souls is uniquely difficult, a claim that anyone who knows their history knows is false at worst and dubious at best. We should refute claims that ignore history and question the instant-gratification fairy tale of an easy mode making a game better and more accessible.