The Dark Souls ‘easy’ difficulty controversy… but it was always an easy game

7 mins read

The Dark Souls community has recently confused me. I’m sure most people who regularly read gaming news would have noticed this but there was a bit of an uproar over the very thought that From Software was considering implementing an “easy mode” into Dark Souls.

The uproar was around how an easy mode would ruin the “purity” of the game’s vision, because the mere existence of an easy mode meant that the “pure” normal mode was ruined, or some other equally silly rationale. But that’s not what confused me. I do understand that people that really love a game (or game series) don’t necessarily like it when developers try and make their game more accessible. There’s a certain sense of pride in belonging to a small, dedicated community, and no one wants casual players messing with that sense of community. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I understand it.

No, my confusion stems from something else – these people don’t seem to realise that Dark Souls is almost a painfully easy game. Let me explain (before you head down to the comments to troll away); it’s not that I’m a super-soldier gamer that ran through Dark Souls in one go. My avatar died a lot of times on the way to completing it like most people’s. No, the reason the game is painfully easy is simple: it’s almost impossible to fail at Dark Souls.

Dark Souls, like Monster Hunter and a select handful of other modern “hard” games turn avatar death into an integral part of the game. Yes, there is a lot of trap-based death and titanic monsters capable of one-hit killing players, but each death at the hands of these mechanisms yields experience. Not in-game statistics, but real-world understanding that help get you past the obstacle the next time. In other words you’ll avoid that deadly falling rock trap next time or you’ll understand the monster’s movements and successfully take it down. What was previously impossible becomes manageable and even easy. It might take a hundred or a thousand times to get even one metre further on in the game, but with persistence it will happen.

Now, you could say that this has always been the way with games. The original Super Mario Bros or even something like Nethack are of course incredibly difficult games, and just like in Dark Souls, it’s possible to memorise routines understand the mechanics and learn how to time jumps or attacks.

The difference between those old school games and Dark Souls is the fact that it’s possible to fail at the old school games, but Dark Souls never hands players an “F.” There are three little Mario lives at the start of Super Mario Bros, and aside from picking up a new life through coins or a rare mushroom, that’s all you’ve got. Run out and it’s back to the start of the game. A game like Nethack’s the same. You could be deep into level 20 after weeks of dedicated playing, and BAM! One wayward spell and it’s Game Over. Both games have told you in no uncertain terms that you’ve failed, and so those lives become precious resources.

In Dark Souls, life is not a finite resource – it’s a readily replenishable learning tool. There’s no real fear of death – in fact, often when I arrived at an area I was not sure about I would go on a sprint around the area. It’d draw the attention of so many enemies that death was inevitable, but it gave me a better understanding of the layout of the land for my next attempt.

Similarly, every time I went into a battle with a boss demon I would use the first couple of attempts to simply block ad dodge as much as possible before dying for the sole purpose of learning his attack patterns and prepare myself for the “riskier” attempts where I would counter-attack. I would die, and be whisked back a short distance to a campfire ready to start anew. Yes I would lose some souls and other powers that I’d built up, but those could be re-earned through some grinding. That is of course time-consuming and I’m sure Dark Soul hardcore veterans would have more effective strategies than I, but I had no fear of a “Game Over” and so Dark Souls was testing my perseverance, not making me sweat on my decisions.

In an interview with From Software in Edge Magazine for Demon’s Souls (the spiritual prequel to Dark Souls), the developers mentioned that originally they had toyed with the idea of having permadeath in the game. That would have made the experience genuinely difficult, because it would then have been possible to fail.

But it didn’t happen, so the Souls games instead cultivate a careful perception of difficulty without actually being difficult – once you realise that death in the game is actually a positive learning process and not a punishment you realise that Dark Souls like most other modern games exists not to challenge players, but to be experienced and, yes, completed.

So let the people with less time or patience have an easy mode, if you ask me. It compromises the Souls vision none whatsoever.

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  • Man, if there was permadeath I would be awful at this game.

    This was an interesting read. Dark Souls to me is more risk and reward. Do you keep on going without lighting a bonfire, risking losing all your collected souls, or do you rest at a bonfire, and respawn every single enemy you just defeated.

  • I guess for me a game can't be truly difficult unless there's the possibility of losing progress. When I played the two Souls games I always felt like I made progress – even when I died.

    I would never have finished either game if there was permadeath. Guaranteed. 😛

  • That's the joy of it right there! Having to learn how to handle situations, and then slowly seeing your strategy pay off. An "easy" mode would remove the work you had to do for payoff, and cheapen it. I think players liked having to work for satisfaction in an environment where most games just hand the experience to you on a platter. And yeah, it IS easy once you've got the mechanics and learn the layout of the land etc, but the challenge comes from having to take it for yourself rather than rely on a minimap, being perpetually guided and handheld etc. Took 100hours for my 1st playthrough (I got to exploring a LOT), but now bash through in 25 or less while still making a leisurely pace. I love the risk and reward mechanic and how it's fused to the core gameplay, and if you make that less challenging you take away the appeal of the objective and wind up with another solid but otherwise unremarkable action-RPG. I think without the challenge you'd really lose sense of any progress in the game beyond arbitrarily pushing buttons to make things happen. Those who can't beat the Souls games can always watch others do it…
    And apparently the "easy mode" comment was a mistranslation 😉

  • to make a game that only includes high levels of difficulty is plain stupid. unless you want to exclude a huge number of people = market … who would dearly love to play the game. but can't .

  • I agree with that. I heard about all the penalties you get from dying from so many reviews, but then I played the game and… there were none. I think the most souls I've ever lost was around 8000 or so. Most of the time it's pretty easy to retrieve them after you die. And humanity is mostly useless besides for kindling bonfires so… Besides those two things you lose pretty much nothing else.

    Also, you mentioned dying in Monster Hunter being an integral part of the game, but I'd have to disagree. As long as you play it safe and keep on the defensive the first time you fight a monster, you shouldn't really ever die. It's pretty easy to learn most monster's patterns. Much more beneficial to sit back and study the monster (they do give you 55 minutes) than attack it head-on the first time you see it. You also lose a lot more for dying in those games than you do in Dark Souls.

  • You light the bonfire, because you will respawn there when you die instead of two miles back at which point you'll have to fight all those enemies that were behind you again anyway 😛

  • This game's difficulty is massively overrated. Don't believe the media saying it's the hardest game ever, it's not. I mean c'mon, when I bought the game the store employee tried to talk me out of it because he heard it was so difficult. That's just silly.

  • I agree with you. Point is, though, that Dark Souls is held up as a "hard" game, but in reality it's as accessible as any other game on the market. It's challenging, but even a complete newbie to gaming can beat it.

    I'm not criticising Dark Souls for that, just clarifying what the game's about.

  • I have a trick that works great in Dark Souls. When I run into an enemy that I think will be challenging, I grab his attention, and then backtrack a fair bit. He'll follow me, naturally. Then, if he does kill me, after I respawn I get to work my way through the easy enemies to reclaim the souls without having to deal with the tough guy again.

    And I die a lot in Monster Hunter 😛

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