We've Always Made Our Own Easy Modes. 'Sekiro' Is No Exception
Games have, forever and ever, been about pushing back on the designer’s intent, sometimes at their encouragement, sometimes in spite of it.
Image courtesy of Activision
More people should be able to enjoy cool games. That’s a simple premise, right? Now imagine an incredibly complex, mechanically dense game that requires hours of investment to truly understand, and it’s expected that you're going to lose over and over before it makes sense. Now also imagine the ability to choose between a bunch of difficulty options, and the ability to tweak victory conditions, specifically so you can cater to what you’re good and bad at.
This isn’t a fantasy. I’m literally talking about Civilization VI, a hardcore strategy game that allows you to modify the heck out of its base ruleset to fit what you’re looking for. Players are already finding ways to do things like this on their own, so why not empower them? And if Civilization can, why not Souls?
But nothing causes the Internet to lose its shit faster than suggesting a FromSoftware game could, may the “git gud” gods forgive such transgressions, appeal to more people if there was a way to adjust the difficulty in some way. “Easy mode” discourse around FromSoftware is cyclical, not unlike the stories FromSoftware is fond of telling in its games, and it usually ends in the same place, as summed up by a tweet I received, after suggesting their latest game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, could be easily tweaked to make it more accessible:
“Let the devs make it how they want.”
(My pitch, for what it’s worth, was making resurrections, a mechanic that allows players to come back to life after dying, unlimited. Let people come back as many times as they want.)
It’s frustrating to admit I’m about to spend a thousand words on this when adding such options is, at its core, a basic sign of respect for the tens of thousands of players with disabilities who are regularly prevented from playing and enjoying games that don’t consider them “real” players? But we’re here, so we might as well spend some time figuring it out.
Perhaps some are making this argument in good faith, a sign of respect towards a developer who found success bucking industry trends, only to themselves become a trendsetter. But in reality, it comes across as people who are not using the phrase git gud ironically, but a badge of elitist honor meant to signal their membership in a club where part of the enjoyment comes from knowing other people aren’t—or can’t—be part of it. It’s gatekeeping, a way of keeping something special to themselves, while hiding behind phrases like “artistic integrity." (Even if they're just as likely as anyone else to take every advantage they can get to make it through a game, designer intent be damned.)
As a kid, I loved renting games and slamming the cartridge into my Game Genie, a device that allowed you to input codes and mess with the game. I wasn’t interested in playing whatever the designers had “intended,” I was interested in breaking the game apart and screwing around with the parts. Unlimited lives, walking through walls, infinite ammo—let me do what I want! Eventually, I’d take the Game Genie out, and play the game as “intended.”
This continued as I got older, culminating in Grand Theft Auto III, a game without multiplayer that, weirdly, quickly became the most popular multiplayer game in my high school. The rules were simple: tap in the cheat code for all weapons—R2, R2, L1, R2, Left, Down, Right, Up, Left, Down, Right, Up—and try to survive at a five star wanted level for as long as possible. When you died, you passed the controller around, and the next person did the same thing.
That ruled. I had fun screwing around. Were those experiences invalid because it wasn’t the authored path by the designer, the one that demanded I beat the game with three continues?
I'm not alone, either. People have always sought different ways to play a game, and we hypocritically conflate the terms "easy," "effective," and "fun" with whatever makes us situationally look better. Players used to hold their PSPs in weird ways, a method called the "claw," in order to control Monster Hunter's camera correctly. Capcom probably didn't plan for that! Cheat Engine, essentially a modern day Game Genie, is a piece of software entirely devoted to letting you, well, cheat. Every person has a story where they glitched through a wall, or watched a boss glitch to their death, and celebrated that advancement as canon. Hell, FromSoftware games used to celebrate their glitches, allowing players to progress, even if a boss accidentally fell off a cliff. (Sekiro no longer does this.)
And for the record, is cheesing an exploit? A cheat? A way for players to artificially adjust the difficulty when they're tired of a specific encounter? Because by god, lock me up and throw me into gamer jail for the way I dispatched a boss this morning in Sekiro, waiting for the environment to poison a confused AI while I waited behind a cliff:
FromSoftware can, should, and will do as they want, as they have decades now. A different developer wouldn’t have made a game as risky and different as Sekiro, and their ability to continually surprise people like me, who’ve put hundreds of hours into their games and keep waiting for them to run out of new and exciting ideas, suggests many great games to come.
Isn’t the point of the artistic integrity argument that FromSoftware is smart? Are we to believe they wouldn’t come up with an equally smart way to tackle this question? Hell, taken to its logical conclusion, maybe FromSoftware should be dinged for adding better, cleaner, and more understandable UI elements to their games over time. Why is FromSoftware spending so much time trying to make it easier to understand their games???? I liked it better when I didn’t know what a stat did, honestly. Putting points into the void is part of the challenge, bro.
As this conversation has played out over the past week or so, it’s been interesting to watch different developers, especially ones who are fans of FromSoftware, chime in. Spelunky designer Derek Yu wrote a lengthy thread about the challenges of communicating difficulty, difficulty levels, and balancing a vision with player desires. He’s not wrong, but concluded most obvious changes would “cause many ‘in-between’ players to miss the point of the games,” which is an awfully presumptuous way of looking at what people get from them.
More specifically, not everyone is here for the combat challenge! These games are so much more than watching a health bar deplete over time. They’re also gorgeously realized worlds, full of powerful storytelling and memorable characters, all delivered in a very unconventional style. There’s a Souls creator, VaatiVidya, who’s made a career out of intricate lore analysis videos that rack up millions upon millions of views on YouTube. I know all sorts of people who have only interacted with FromSoftware’s creations through Let’s Play videos, suggesting there’s an opportunity for the developer to meet them halfway.
Last year, I interviewed Celeste designer Matt Thorsen about how decision to include an “assist mode”in his hardcore platformer, a game spoken about in the same breath as Super Meat Boy or Spelunky. It’s that kind of game. And yet, Celeste lets you modify pieces of the game that would otherwise seem basic, even intrinsic, to the experience, like how many air dashes you can do. Air dashing is one of Celeste’s basic mechanics, with every piece of geometry dropped into place based on the expectation of the player being able to X, not Y. This means Celeste includes a developer-approved option to throw all of that into chaos.
“From my perspective as the game's designer,” he said, “Assist Mode breaks the game. I spent many hours fine-tuning the difficulty of Celeste, so it's easy for me to feel precious about my designs. But ultimately, we want to empower the player and give them a good experience, and sometimes that means letting go.”
"It’s frustrating to admit I’m about to spend a thousand words on this when adding such options is, at its core, a basic sign of respect for the tens of thousands of players with disabilities who are regularly prevented from playing and enjoying games that don’t consider them 'real' players?"
Thorson even specifically told me Celeste is “meant to be hard.” Sounds like Sekiro, no?
Celeste was my favorite game of 2018. A huge part of the reason I enjoyed it was bashing my head and fingers into its intricate, detailed platforming challenges. But if someone wants to enjoy its equally touching story about mental health, or give up on a particularly tough section, that’s fine. It means two people were able to enjoy Celeste on their own terms.
I, personally, would like more people to enjoy games like Sekiro. I would still be able to hit the baddies. I would still feel cool. If more people were able to hit the baddies in less hits, or perhaps explore a world with no baddies at all, that’d be fine. (Ubisoft added a “discovery mode” to Assassin’s Creed, removing all combat. It’s great). It’ll take nothing away from the infinite pride I still feel from one shotting O&S in the original Dark Souls. That’s still mine.
Heck, I’m not even pure.
The final boss in Bloodborne: The Old Hunters, the grotesque Orphan of Kos, is a bastard. Staged in front of a beautifully ugly body of water, a dying sun hanging overhead, Orphan of Kos is big, fast, and brutal. He beat the shit out of me. I died, as one does in these games, over and over and over. Eventually, I’d had enough, and summoned a stranger to help me with the fight, the one and only time I did so while playing Bloodborne, and one of only a handful of times I’ve ever done so while playing a FromSoftware game. The stranger knew what they were doing, and Orphan of Kos quickly fell. The fight, and my journey, was over.
Depending on who you talk to, what I did is cheating. It’s allowed by the game, sure, but again, depending on who you talk to, that’s not how you’re supposed to play Bloodborne. The way you’re supposed to play Bloodborne—or, well, Souls—is fighting them yourself. This shifting of goal posts—remember, Sekiro doesn't include the ability to play co-op or summon strangers—is part of the gatekeeping process. The goal posts are always being moved in favor of the gatekeepers.
I was tired. Other people beat Orphan of Kos on their own. Good for them. But even in that moment, that stranger and I still shared a great deal of what it meant to play Bloodborne: our awe at the boss design and complexity, the surprise as the city of Yharnam was cast under a different moonlight, the dawning realization of what your “insight” score meant. I would feel the same about anyone who talked to me about Sekiro’s giant snake, creepy monks, or unique skill trees even if they didn’t face the same ”midterm exam” I did.
Games have, forever and ever, been about pushing back on the designer’s intent, sometimes at their encouragement, sometimes in spite of it. Have you ever downloaded a mod? Looked up a walkthrough? Asked a friend for advice? Congratulations, you’ve undermined the developer’s intent. You’re tainted. The question of Sekiro, or games like it, getting an “easy mode” is itself a vindication of FromSoftware’s original mission statement; they’ve made something more people want to enjoy. For years, though, a select group of players who’d felt seen and heard by that mission statement are worried it’ll be taken away.
But no one wants to take it away, and if people experiencing joy on terms different than your own brings pain and anxiety, maybe the place to start looking for changes is actually within.
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