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.

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3 comments

  1. I don’t understand how dark souls 3 having different world design means it’s an easy mode. It is unbalanced and heavily favors faster weapons like straight swords and katanas, but it is not any easier than Dark Souls 1, it’s actually harder in many ways.
    Anyone who’s played Dark Souls 1 enough to have memorized the secret paths and world map should know that not having warping from the start is more of an anoyance than a challenge. Coming back to firelink shrine from the catacombs at the start of the game is interesting, it makes you commit to exploration, but being stuck is not exactly fun. A more interesting solution could have been something like having limited warps or having homeward bones used as a currency for warping, and balancing how many you could get at the start of the game. Could even have had something like a covenant for invasion to let you kill and take the bones from other players.

  2. One of my favourite games is Berserk, an old arcade game from 1980, which relentlessly yells “DESTROY THE HUMAN” at you in a horribly digitized voice while you try to play it. More games like this, is what I’m into. Anti-player perspectives. Kill me, as a human being not as a 3d model!

  3. Excellent observations, particularly when it comes to the Castlevania II v. Dark Souls comparison. I revisited the first and am still dragging myself to get through the latter. Both have somewhat counter-intuitive designs that might evoke a specific experience well, but whose ultimate game play effect is one of tedium and dart throwing to figure out just what the heck is going on.

    I do enjoy the world-building, but the fact that you have to piece together so much from item descriptions versus the game play itself has consistently bugged me. In a way, Dark Souls 2 (which is my favorite of the Dark Souls games) was most honest by outright telling the player, “Look, you’re here to jump through the hoops we nudge you to jump through, and fuck you if you want an explanation as to why.” Set adrift like that, I felt more like I was building a community of survivors who warmed to each other instead of the separate zombies of DS1 and DS3.

    Overall, I agree with your point about DS3’s difficulty. I was actually surprised this last weekend when I spoiled myself a bit to see how much of the game I had left and it was only two bosses (and I was further surprised when I found out one of those two bosses could be cheesed by having a phantom use a ranged weapon while I plowed into it with my largest sword). In DS2 I spent weeks fumbling around Drangelic and letting myself get lost in the waves and ambient noise. Everything in DS3 feels too direct, which befits your role as not a random undead but one of the unkindled, but sacrifices some of the evocative elements present in DS2’s more difficult points.

    Anywho, keep it up!

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