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Dark Souls' Uncompromising Design Leaves No Space For An Easy Mode

It ain't easy

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Dark Souls [official site] isn’t for everyone in the same way that a bowl of piping hot broth isn’t for everyone. Let it cool for a while, add some seasoning, and people might happily tuck in and enjoy, but if you expect them to eat it exactly as you would – whether that’s by chugging it down in a few swift gulps or taking tiny sips long after it’s gone cold – a fair few folks would rather have a nice sandwich instead. Nothing wrong with that. Nobody should have to drink soup through a straw.

Or should they? Given the cries of ‘git gud’ that greet many complaints about the difficulty – or inaccessibility – of Dark Souls, it’s tempting to see those who love the series as precisely the sort of people who would chase you away from the bowl if you brought a spoon to the soup kitchen. “NO SPOONS” they’d shriek “YOU WON’T APPRECIATE IT IF YOU DON’T GET IT ALL DOWN YOUR CHIN AND THE FRONT OF YOUR JUMPER BEFORE YOU MANAGE TO SWALLOW A MOUTHFUL”

I wholly agree with these kitchen monsters.

Dark Souls is the kind of meal that you take as it’s served. No condiments, no seasoning. The chef has done his work and if you so much as think about asking for the salt and pepper, he is going to salt the next batch with his own tears.

Now, I wouldn’t want to eat in a restaurant that dictates terms to me. I don’t enjoy food in the same way that I enjoy art and entertainment. I know what I like to eat but I wouldn’t dream of trying to analyse why I like it afterwards, and I’m usually shovelling something in my mouth to make sure I stay alive and (relatively) healthy rather than to discover some transcendental experience. If I was searching for the perfect meal though, I’d feel a bit let down if I was expected to muck about too much with the flavours myself.

Dark Souls allows you to choose an approach, from the initial selection of a class and the freedom to alter character builds through to the decisions you make regarding covenants and NPCs, but it doesn’t modify its own behaviour to accommodate that approach. Struggle to overcome a section or a boss and it won’t bump the hitpoints of enemies down or dull their reactions. Nor will it mock you. It’s a weirdly unresponsive series that so often treats the player character as an incidental creature. Yeah, you’re there, kindling embers, kicking through ashes, sparking cinders, but even when it’s killing you with a massive monster, Dark Souls seems like it’s shrugging.

I think that’s because of the mechanical nature of the whole game. AI, enemy placement, combat animations – it’s all predictable, to the extent that you can exploit every element, and as soon as you die, most enemies will walk away as if getting back to their patrol route is far more important and taxing than vanquishing some kind of sun-praising hero. They’re more concerned with fulfilling their eternal function in the world, whatever that might be, than dealing with distractions.

Dynamic difficulty balancing would interfere with that sense of an uncaring world, but I have stronger objections to the idea of an easy/easier difficulty setting in the Souls games. I don’t know how it would work.

When I tell people who don’t know the games particularly well about a tough boss, they often make the assumption that I’ve spent ages chipping away at an enormous health bar and that the sheer length of time they take to die is a key part of the difficulty. That’s rarely the case. While there are examples of bosses that demand perfection for a prolonged period, it’s usually possible to hack away great chunks of those health bars with a single blow delivered to just the right spot. The brilliance of the Souls bosses is built on inventive designs and clever patterns rather than gruelling wars of attrition.

That being the case, it would be very tricky to modify bossfights without detracting from the experience significantly. Sure, you could reduce the damage that their attacks inflict or make those health bars a little thinner, but that would treat complex design as a simple mathematical issue. Less for them, more for the player. Fights would be almost as difficult if one fewer successful attacks were needed and would be entirely pointless if entire sequences were removed in order to speed things along.

An Estus flask with more swigs of the good stuff – lovely, healing liquids – is a possibility. If it were possible to recharge your health after every major scrap, you’d spend less time dying and replaying…but you’d also spend more time gathering souls and would risk losing loads everytime you died. And bossfights or difficult sequences of enemies would still wipe you out completely from time to time. The frustration of Dark Souls is rarely felt most keenly when a fight finishes and you’re left with a fragment of health and no way to heal – it’s when you fail to finish the fight over and over again that desperation sets in.

In considering possible ways to introduce an easier mode, I thought about allowing people to bank souls. What I mean by that is that you’d be able to head back to the Firelink Shrine – or any bonfire – and cash in any souls you’ve gathered, even if you don’t have enough to spend on an upgrade. The way it works at present is that you’re stuck with the souls you can’t spend and risk losing them, which becomes a source of anxiety in the late-game when upgrade costs are much higher.

If you could bank those souls, saving a few thousand at a time and working toward an upgrade or new level step by step, would that make the game more accessible?

I don’t think so. I think it’d make the games an awful grindfest, encouraging repetition of areas that you’ve already mastered. That’s at odds with the way the games operate as they stand – there’s lots of reptition, yes, but you’re generally repeating tasks until you’ve mastered them and then moving on. Dark Souls is a learning process and once you’ve passed the test, you get to go and play in a new area, with new friends and enemies.

And I think that’s the root of the problem. I know so many people who feel excluded from Dark Souls because they love what they’ve heard about it and want to experience it for themselves, but can’t get past the pain of repeated defeats. As I’ve written elsewhere, I find Dark Souls far more forgiving than games that give me a set number of lives and make me start all over again if I run out. There’s no precious limited commodity to worry about in Dark Souls – it’s far more important, as I see it, that the game lets you live as many lives as you choose to rather than that it takes those lives away from you. It’s like Hotline Miami in that regard. The fact that death is a momentary inconvenience makes me feel empowered.

The difficulty isn’t an elitist exclusionary choice, even if some like to see it that way. It’s part of the design, thematically, mechanically and artistically. Repetition and death, and the learning experiences that come with them, are as much a part of Dark Souls as the ability to pause combat or chat to your companions is an essential part of a BioWare RPG.

One of the reasons I love games so much is that they don’t often insist on themselves in the same way that many artforms do. I am the person who wants the salt and the pepper and the condiments so that I can tailor the meal to my tastes. Games allow me to do that. Sure, I can fiddle with the contrast settings when I watch a movie but I’d rather have the DP and director come round to my place and prep it exactly as they reckon it should be.

In an ideal world, I sometimes think every game should be like Invisible, Inc., which allows such individualised tweaking of the game setup and difficulty that I’m amazed by how generous it is everytime I play. If I want my next few hours to be made up of nerve-rattling tension, Invisible, Inc. can accommodate me, but if I’d rather play a lazy game of infiltration and cybercool, it’s happy to go along with that as well. That’s lovely.

I think Dark Souls might collapse if it compromised. If there was an easy mode, people would play it and then ask those of us who’d been here all along, ‘what was all the fuss about?’ That’s what happened to me when I had to cheat my way through sections of The Witness. The joy of a solution lost, I couldn’t understand the appeal. That’s because I’m rubbish at the kind of puzzles it presented me with – not my failing, not the game’s failing. We’re just incompatible.

Now, of course I’m going to tell you to try again if you did find Dark Souls just that little bit too unforgiving. I think I’ve made a good case for its lack of compromise and I’ve hopefully managed to make a case for the reasons behind its much-praised and much-lamented design.

But if you never manage to leave the Asylum, that’s ok. There are hundreds, thousands of other games. Some of them are very good. None of them are Dark Souls, sure, but then I’m told that these are all good games and there’s not a fucking chance I’ll enjoy even half of them. I wouldn’t want them to change for my sake though. It’s fine. It’s all fine.

Dark Souls III is available now.

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