What follows below is a comment that became a blog post worth of content, so it’s now that blog post! It’s not required, but recommend that you first read the excellent post On Dark Souls and Easy Modes by Cameron Kunzelman, to witch this post is a response.
I’m hesitant to comment on Dark Souls articles because of the toxicity that has developed around these games. Some of that exists just in gaming now, or has always exists but surfaces more now, and some of it encouraged by the disgraceful and dishonest marking behind these games as a “true game for true gamers”.
You said “All [..] these pieces are written from the position of a fan” and that’s why I’m risking a comment (such a brave soul I am! ha!).
I’m a recent Souls fan, I started with Bloodborne and then followed up with Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls 1 and 2, King’s Field, and played them all many times over. I’m currently a fight or two from the end of Dark Souls 3 – at least I assume I am, I’ve been playing this one blind.
I do not care for “hard” games. I didn’t get into Spelunky, Super Meat Boy, or even Rogue Legacy. I got pulled in by the story of They Bleed Pixels and used Cheat Engine to finish it. So it really confused me why the Souls games could not only pull me in, but get me to NG+4 Bloodborne and track down every achievement or trophy, item, and quest.
At the high level, the Souls games offer a combination of The Legend of Zelda (Zelda 1 on NES) and Mega Man 1-3 I haven’t seen in a long time. Like Zelda one there is no explicit quest log or NPC telling me what I should be doing next. Like Mega Man mastery is more about pattern recognition than twitch reflex skill. I dig puzzle games and overall loved The Witness for it’s purity in this aspect of puzzle design. For me, the Souls games are The Witness With Combat.
It’s not just the combat puzzle though, it’s the lore and story too. I did an entire 91 video “lore play” series of Bloodborne with my oldest daughter just so I could talk about the lore and fan theories. I wanted to discuss not only item descripts and level design, but also item placement, enemy armor, and building architecture because these all tie in as well.
So why “not as a fan”? I’m a hobbyist game developer, I run a local game design meetup, and volunteer time to teach high school and middle school students game design. I’m as passionate about the study of game design as I am about playing them. I’ve been mentally taking apart Souls games for the past year, noting the chemical combination. measuring the atomic weights, and decoding the cyphers to try and understand their design and why it works. “Easy mode” is something I’ve thought a lot about, but not as a fan, as a (tiny, dreaming, hobbyist) game designer.
I think the problem is complex, more complex than I seen anyone discuss. To start off, I do not think the Souls games are as hard as they are held up to be. Marketing, and to an extent game reviews hold up the notion that these games are the pinnacle of skill based gameplay but I don’t think they even rate when comparing them to fighting games or bullet hell shooter or an average rogue-like. They are different however, and being different creates a barrier that is assumed to difficulty. If you don’t speak Korean it will seem difficult at first encounter even though it is one of the simplest most consistent languages spoken today.
I “tested” this in a sample size of one by doing a let’s play of Demon’s Souls with my wife. She has hundreds of hours in games like Stardew Valley, Blue Dragon, and anything Final Fantasy. She does have more experience in fighting games than me, but among family and friends and I rarely ever see her in an online competitive game outside of Hearthstone.
It started rough, but she had seen enough of me playing Souls games to know better than charge in and button mash. Or, when she did charge in and button mash she knew why it didn’t work. It was mostly a blind play through (I helped her get though the poison area of Valley Of Defilement because eff that zone and lower Blight Town with it). She figured out how to cheese some of the bosses however she played a heavy armor faith build so there wasn’t as much cheese as a magic light build would have offered. By the end however she went toe to toe with the Maneaters and Old King Allant.
In the east mode examples you listed “removing mimics” and you can already do this. First you can spot any mimic by the position of it’s chain or by watching it breath (the chest lid slowly goes up and down, revealing teeth as it does). If you toss a Lloyd’s Talisman (Hunter’s Charm in DS3) on the mimic, it will relax and open its mouth, allowing you to take the item it held without a fight.
Traps almost always are marked if you are looking and can be safely triggered or disarmed. I say almost, because there are some cases they are not and even many Souls fans call these out as “unfair”. No game is perfect.
Bosses and levels can be weakened by using the summoning mechanic. Even if you play offline to avoid invasions there are NPCs you can summon. Many bosses drop greatly in challenge with a second player as they generally are not designed to handle two targets at once. Plus, if you are playing for the lore and setting, many of these NPCs require that you coop with them to advance their story.
I watch a lot of Souls let’s plays. As a designer let’s plays are amazing – a way to observe how players actually play the game, what they see and what they skip. I’ve watched countless players run past the item that would have made the next area easier, or skip the line of dialog that told them the weakness of the next boss. This doesn’t count things I don’t think are ever said in game, like using a Lloyd’s talisman on a mimic. How could you know this? Wiki? A friend? The notes in game are great but I’ve never read a player note that explained opening a minic this way.
I think one option would be to have an NPC sitting out in front of a room with a minic, and after you get eaten once could have some dialog that explained using an item and even handing you a few Lloyd’s talismans to test out right then. You will still need to learn to check for a mimic, and keep the suspense before opening a chest the minic provides, but now you know an option for dealing with them other than fighting.
Ultimately you have to take into account that games have become more explicit in tutorials over the years. I watch players run past every note in the start of a souls Game and I can imagine a focus test group making a note of this and suggesting From Software force player to read all dialog before proceeding. I don’t want that – I think most don’t want that – but what do you do with the player who runs past everything and then complains the game is unfair? Sure, cruel fans will mock them, but as a designer you want to help that person. As a designer you live in the paradox that you cannot make a game for everyone but you don’t want to exclude anyone.
So I consider these things and wonder what if you tracked the notes read, and if someone skips them all and dies a few times to the tutorial enemies you add some helpful information to the “You Died” screen? What if the level changes to make the tutorial more explicit? What if an NPC – that crestfallen warrior who is a recurring them – is there at the start and un prompted just says something that is a tip when you load back in?
I think there is some merit to the claim that adding an easy mode would change what the game is. I also think there is a lot of room to go before we get to a simple god mode cheat, or heath boost for the player. My first play through of a souls game lands in the 40-60 hour range, but a subsequent play through ends up at 10-15 hours. I think you would miss a lot if you could do a 10 hour first run in a souls game and would get to the end and wonder what the big deal was. Because in truth, the lore and story is very simple – no new groups is being broken here. The strong appeal comes from the time spent to create the feeling of an immersive world.
Bioshock, Last of Us, the new Tomb Raider games, these all do a good job on their story it’s true. I won’t argue that, but I will argue they have not created the world that the Souls games have. A world player obsess with and discuss like deep fans of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings do. There are no EpicNameBros, VaatiVidyas, or AGermanSpys for these games and their subreddits do not get the depth of discussion the Souls games enjoy.
So to end my epic length comment (I think this is a case where I’m also going to post it to my blog!), I think there is an approach to be found in a Souls game that makes it more accessible with resorting to a difficulty select screen or compromising the experience. From Software has even shown they are thinking about this as well, with mechanics like Dark Souls 2 removing enemies if the player repeats an area too much. (This was probably cut from DS3 because it actually made farming and grinding – another way to change difficulty by the player – harder to do).
I hope to see more discussion like yours and the sources you cited because it will ultimately push the genre forward. And yes, it’s a genre now, there are already many indie souls-like games and I think we’ll be seeing some AAA souls-like games announced, possibly as soon as this year’s E3. If there is one constant about the game industry it’s that success brings clones and I’m just fine with that!