I’m writing my Masters on Dark Souls – it’s a series that I have a lot of love for. In one of the Souls FB groups I’m in, somebody clipped in this image (below) about an easy mode. The comments went wild. It’s an interesting conversation, and there’s a whole bunch of different elements involved. I’ll unpack them a bit.
So here’s the image in question.
I’ll break with tradition for this post and just bullet point a whole lot of stuff – I imagine we’re going to run out of space, otherwise.
1. Disabled Access
Disabled access in games is always important and good. If you’re disabled, you shouldn’t be cut off from joining in the fun. If you’re colour blind, you might have trouble with games that require colour differentiation, like The Witness. If you’re deaf, you’re not going to hear sound cues like approaching enemies. Games should be better at having colour-blind modes, or closed captions that describe noises in the environment. Or even just the ability to reassign buttons, so that if you can’t move one arm, you can still try and play one-handed. These are just the wheelchair access of video games. We need them. They’re good. They’re also very different to an Easy Mode, which is the special controversial topic we’re leading up to.
This is a minor technical issue, but it’s worth keeping in mind. When your game has multiplayer elements, you have to consider how any accessibility changes will affect online play. For bowling, kids often have the side bars turned on, so they won’t get gutter balls all the time and lose horribly. That’s Easy Mode, really, but it’s fine, because if you’re playing with kids you probably aren’t being super competitive against them. Also, kids don’t end up in high-level competitive bowling tournaments. There are different spaces for different levels of a game. The issue with something like Dark Souls is that it currently doesn’t allow for that kind of separation.
3. Difficulty as Aesthetic
Gameplay has aesthetic value. In Dark Souls, the difficulty of gameplay has aesthetic value. There aren’t difficulty levels, because the difficulty comes from learning how to play, how to beat each individual enemy. There’s no Hard Setting where the game just arbitrarily changes some stats – well, technically there is (Calamity Ring, Company of Champions). But the games don’t have an Easy Setting where all the enemy stats just get dialed down. There’s a base level of difficulty, and that’s what you have to meet.
Okay real talk. Often people who play video games are fucking assholes. There’s a culture in the Dark Souls community that associate skill at Dark Souls with social status. If you’re good, you’re part of the club, and if you’re not, you’re a loser. Typically this culture is dominated by men. There are lighter, friendlier, more jokey forms of this, but there’s also a hardcore asshole culture. For the assholes, beating this tough game is a marker of elite masculinity. These people don’t want others claiming similar status without going through the same trials. Let’s ignore these people. They suck.
5. Easy Mode
When games have difficulty modes, there’s not really any controversy around difficulty. Sometimes games denigrate people for playing on easy (Wolfenstein 2, you asshole), but by and large it’s fine. As explained above, Easy Mode for Dark Souls is controversial because of the way difficulty works in that case. Personally I’m not in favour of it. I think it would ruin the experience. That said, it’s broadly good for video games to be accessible. If all video games demanded an insane level of performance, nobody would play them. Some people just want to have a good time, and it’s good that there are chill relaxing games for them to play. What’s really important is diversity. That means some games have a lower bar for entry, and, logically, some need to have a higher bar. We need space for hard games to exist. Some people probably won’t be able to cope with those hard games, and that’s fine – there are a lot of other games out there. Hard games still ideally need to be accessible for disabled people, but again, that’s a different issue.
6. Mental Health Access
Some people can’t cope with horror or gore for mental health reasons. That’s totally legitimate and fine. However, there are arguments that games with horror or gore should have PG versions so that the people who can’t cope are still able to experience the game. They run the argument under the Disabled Access argument: if you’re deaf, and unable to play the game properly because of it, there should be some form of support. The same should be true for mental health reasons, so the argument goes. It is true that people tend to take physical health issues more seriously than mental health issues. If you’ve got a broken leg, well, that’s not your fault, it’s broken. But if you’ve got crippling anxiety, you get a much harder time. People tell you to just get over it, and that’s shit. That said, personally I’m not convinced that modifying content is the correct response. If you can’t cope with the content of a game, that’s okay. Don’t play it. Not playing something because of mental disability comes under the same rule as not playing something because of physical disability: diversity is important, and accessibility is important – but it’s important across the medium as a whole, rather than in each specific game. It’s worth considering the portion of games that become inaccessible to different types of disability. Just about all games have colour and sound, so it’s important to make sure those games are accessible for people who can’t do colour or sound. But how many games have horror or gore? Comparatively, it must be a much smaller percentage. If 90% of all games had horror or gore, there would be a diversity/access issue. In the meantime, it doesn’t seem like a huge thing. That said, it’s also worth thinking about…
If a horror game is released with a horror-free mode, I wouldn’t really care. It wouldn’t bother me. If a horror game was forced to have a horror-free mode by the government, or was harassed into it by an online campaign, that would be lame. If FromSoft released an Easy Mode for Dark Souls tomorrow, my opinions wouldn’t matter. They’ve released something for their game. It’s their choice. If I don’t like it, I can fuck off somewhere else. I’m not being forced to play it. Similarly, if they release a no-horror optional mode, that’s fine too. I’m not being forced to play it. It might be a lesser piece of art (or it might be better), but I don’t have to play it, so it doesn’t really matter. I’ve got choices.
8. The Market
Last point. If all games were exclusively designed to be PG-13, that would be shit, and we’d have a conversation about making R-rated games for people who just want to play horror games or whatever. We’ve already had this conversation in different mediums – for example, the Comics Code Authority in the States effectively banned comics from having gore or foul language. Eventually the culture shifted and the market got broader. Now it’s more diverse. The same applies to video games: we’re having conversations based on the issues that exist in the medium today. Currently, we don’t have enough access for disabled people. They need access to a bigger chunk of the market. Wherever you stand on Easy Modes or gore filters, we’re not talking about these things in isolation. It’s about the shape of the market, and how these features are represented in the market more broadly. Diversity is basically always better than no diversity. If nothing else, it means you’ll only have trouble with some games, instead of all of them.