So, recently I watched Chris Franklin’s Errant Signal video essay on Dark Souls 3 and he touches on the idea of an easy mode for Dark Souls to make it more accessible to a greater number of gamers; he posits that you would lose something special about the game if you played on easy mode.
I guess there is a bit of a discussion going on about this in the game community because recently Franklin tweeted an essay by Cameron Kunzelman who responds to the Errant Signal video as well as several other sources that suggest an easy mode for Dark Souls 3 would be a bad idea. Kunzelman argues that this isn’t true, and you can read his thoughts in the post I linked to. (Right as I was about to publish I saw Chris Franklin tweet another well written essay, by Joe Köller, that’s basically saying the same things that I’m saying in this blogpost, except in fewer words and slightly different focus.)
All of this got me thinking. So, this discussion about whether there should be an easy mode for Dark Souls 3 goes beyond Dark Souls. It goes much deeper, into the very nature of how games are designed and played.
The real issue here is: How much control should the players have over their own experience? Usually the game community will argue for more player agency because choice is integral to the gameplay experience. So, it’s ironic and hypocritical that when it comes to Dark Souls 3 (or, as an older example, skipping combat sections in Mass Effect) suddenly players are saying that there shouldn’t be any player agency regarding how you progress (See Appendix A).
This kind of strict authoritarian control over the audience is something I’ve argued against for years (the link is to a post I made years ago arguing the same thing as in this post, although it is long and rambling and even I don’t have the patience to read the whole thing anymore). Players shouldn’t be forced to replay sections of a game over and over just to progress to the next area unless they want to engage in that experience. They should have the option of either playing the game as it was intended or playing the game as is most enjoyable for them. And if they choose not to play the game as intended, and they miss out on something, then that’s their loss.
Giving people more options opens up the medium to exploration, analysis, interpretation, and intelligent discourse, which only benefits the community and the individual player. (See Appendix D)
And part of what frustrates me with how restrictive the Dark Souls method of design is that other mediums don’t have these restrictions. Books, film, and even board games don’t force me to experience them in only one way (See Appendix A).
GAMES SHOULD HAVE A FREE EXPLORATION MODE
Ultimately the argument that games, like Dark Souls 3, shouldn’t have an easy mode, is an argument made out of insecurity and arrogance. It’s like gamers are worried that if everyone doesn’t play a game in the way it was intended that something horrible will happen. Or possibly they just think that their way of playing is the only legitimate way that should be allowed. (See Appendix C)
For years I’ve argued that every game should have an Exploration Mode. I’m talking about what would amount to a god mode with the ability to pause enemies, instakill enemies, fly, activate noclip, take no damage, rewind time, and skip to any section of the game, forward or backward.
And it’s kind of inevitable that this kind of mode is going to start appearing more and more in games. There will be more and more pressure for this to happen in the coming decades.
As the core game community gets older and they will be less forgiving of having their time wasted; they will begin to demand an Exploration Mode feature.
As the number of students seriously studying game design increases there will be more of a demand for this Exploration Mode so they don’t have to waste 30 minutes of gameplay just to get to one room to study the architecture or the boss battle design.
Game journalists will begin demanding this Exploration Mode so they can replay portions of the game they’re reviewing/analyzing to double check their facts or to grab a quick screenshot.
And, as games become more narrative and more artistic people will want the ability to explore the games with the same freedom they explore other forms of narrative and art, whether analog or digital.
And if players are allowed to progress through a game freely without restriction, then they’ll be able to see everything the game has to offer, and this will make them more willing to go back and play the game as it was intended, even if they find it frustrating (See Appendix D).
APPENDIX A: GAMES ARE MORE RESTRICTIVE AND LINEAR THAN ANY OTHER MEDIUM
A ballsy statement, I know, so let me rephrase it slightly: creative work made in digital media is the most restrictive creative work. After all, the restrictiveness we’re talking about here is exclusive to games made in digital form, while games made in analog form (board games) don’t have the same restrictions. And other things made in digital form, such as books and movies, can have the same restrictiveness as a digital game like Dark Souls if the author’s wanted them to.
If the only way to get through an area is to replay it over and over, well, that is very linear and restrictive. If the only way to progress through a level is to find the red key card, well, that is very linear and restrictive. If the only way to beat a boss is to have strong enough weapons and armor, well, you get the point.
And, yes, usually the argument is that video games provide more choice and more freedom to the audience than things like film and literature. But, what this debate about an easy mode in Dark Souls really reveals is that a lot of people actually do feel severally restricted by the absence of Free Exploration and they don’t feel like they have freedom that they should.
After all, analog media can’t force the audience to reread, or rewatch, or replay anything whether the audience is doing what the author wants or not. With analog media the audience can explore the creative work nonlinearly by skipping forwards, going backwards, and engaging in the work in unintended ways.
If I’m reading a book and I get to a section that I find boring or frustrating I can just skip it (see Appendix D). Can’t do that with a video game. In a book I’m not forced to reread that section until I prove that I understand it. Nor am I forced to go back through Chapter 14 to find a red key card before I can progress to Chapter 15. (Although, actually, with digital books you could put in these types of restrictions. For example, you could have a quiz at the end of each page that forces the reader to show that he actually read it, and the reader can’t turn to the next page until he answers correctly. But, no one would actually want to read a book that way, now would they.)
If I want to reread a section of a book from an hour ago I can just flip back to that section and read it. In a video game I can only do that if I have a previous save game, and even then it might not be in the exact spot I want and I have to replay 20 minutes of gameplay I’m not interested in just to get to the part I am interested in. (Although, again, with digital books you actually could put in restrictions that prevent people from going backwards as well.)
Even in a board game, like Chess, I can start playing in the middle of a game or go backwards and forwards through moves. I can explore the gameplay in anyway I want. Can’t really do that in digital games. (Although, again, in a digital version of Chess you actually could put in restrictions that limit how the player plays.)
The point is that in terms of exploring, progressing, and accessing the creative work, games made in digital form are colossally more restrictive than any other medium.
APPENDIX B: WHY I WILL NEVER PLAY A DARK SOULS GAME
They are too restrictive. I already know not to waste my time. And this applies to a lot of digital games out there. I’ll just stop playing them when they become too annoying. I’d keep playing them if I could skip the annoying bits, but I really don’t feel like wasting my time.
I’m not going to put up with dying over and over again, and then replaying fifteen minutes of gameplay I already beat just to get to the place I died, over and over. That is obnoxious. And, sure, some people find that type of gameplay fun, but I don’t.
The sad part is that the storytelling in Dark Souls isn’t a waste of my time, the art design isn’t a waste of my time, the level design isn’t a waste of my time, but in order to access those portions of the game I have to waste my time dealing with unforgiving difficulty levels.
APPENDIX C: COMMON ARGUMENTS AGAINST FREE EXPLORATION IN DIGITAL GAMES
One thing Franklin points out in his Errant Signal video is that after enduring a frustrating, brutal portion of the game, the constant failure makes your eventual success feel that much better. You feel accomplished and you feel like you’ve received a genuine reward.
Except that the problem with this argument is that I don’t. I have never felt rewarded, accomplished, or powerful after dealing with an extremely frustrating portion of a game where I had to die over and over. After beating those sections of the game I only feel angry, annoyed, and sick of the game.
Other common arguments usually revolve around: the games shouldn’t be easy because they’re not meant to be easy; an easy mode is not the way the game was intended to be played; it would ruin the experience, or the player would miss out on key experiences by playing on easy mode; it would break the game.
My counter argument to all this is: So what?
That’s not a justification for handicapping another person’s access to the full game.
If you want to play the game the way it was meant to, then play the game that way. But there’s no reason that everyone else should play the game the way that works best for you. Players shouldn’t be forced to progress through the game’s content in an antagonistic way.
Most arguments against an easy mode in Dark Souls (or alternate methods of progress in other games) tacitly assume that somehow having an easy mode would erase the intended way the game is played. But it doesn’t. The intended experience doesn’t disappear just because there are other options. The intended experience is still there waiting for anyone who is willing to engage in it.
This about options. This is about choice. If there was an easy mode in Dark Souls there would still be the option to play the game as intended.
I’ve also seen at least one person say, “Well, why don’t you just watch a Let’s Play video to get the story and level design.” The answer is, because we’re talking about the restrictiveness and lack of freedom in digital games. The Dark Souls difficulty is extremely restrictive which is what makes it obnoxious to players like myself. A Let’s Play video is even more restrictive because I wouldn’t be able to go where I want, explore the things I want, at the pace that I want to.
Ultimately, I think it’s narcissistic and self absorbed for fans to say, “This is the way we enjoy the game, so no one should be allowed to enjoy it any other way.” Same goes for the developer. It is the designer’s responsibility to make the best intended experience that he can, but it is not his responsibility to force everyone to experience it.
APPENDIX D: EXAMPLES OF WHERE FREE EXPLORATION MODES IMPROVED DIGITAL GAMES AND BOOKS, FOR ME
D.1 EXAMPLES FROM GAMES WHERE FREE EXPLORATION TO THE MEDIUM IMPROVED MY EXPERIENCE
When I was younger and the first Starcraft came out I played the single player campaign and did okay. However, when Brood War came out I just couldn’t get through it. It was way too hard. I still wanted to experience the story though so I just popped in the cheat codes and got through the campaign that way. It wasn’t until many years later that I went back to Brood War and played it the way it was intended. Years later the difficulty was perfect for me and I had a lot of fun playing it.
Did being able to play Brood War on “easy mode” ruin the experience for me? No. It actually improved my experience because I was able to access the part of the game I was most interested in. And then, I was able to go back and play the game as it was intended when I was ready and I was able to enjoy it that way as well. But if I never had those cheat codes then all I would have remembered about Brood Wars was that it was a pain in the ass and I might never have gone back and given it a second chance.
And that story is true of many games I’ve played such as Quake 2, Unreal Tournament, etc., where I was able to use cheat codes or console commands to play through the games however I wanted to. Did that ability ruin my experience? No. Not only did I have a lot of fun that way, but the enjoyment of that experience actually made me more willing to go back and play the games as intended regardless of how frustrating certain portions may have been.
If I hadn’t had that freedom to avoid the frustrating parts then my memories of these games would be filled with frustration and anger, rather than fun and freedom, and I probably wouldn’t have been interested in going back and playing them again later.
And of course I could throw in a bunch of examples from board games, but you get the point.
D.2 EXAMPLES FROM BOOKS WHERE FREE EXPLORATION TO THE MEDIUM IMPROVED MY EXPERIENCE
One of the things I hate feeling is tension and anxiety. So, when I’m reading a book and I can tell that it’s building up to some tense moment or revelation I will actually skip ahead to where the revelation happens, find out what it is, and then go back and read the section I skipped without having to feel tense.
One particular example of this was in Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. There’s a scene where Maester Aemon is about to make a revelation to Jon Snow. The conversation was going along and I was feeling really tense, which I don’t like, so I skipped to the end of the conversation. I read the revelation, was blown away, and then went back to the beginning of the conversation and read the build up to the revelation. I was blown away a second time by HOW the conversation led up to the reveal.
Is that the way the book was meant to be read? No. Did it ruin my experience? No. Reading the book in a way that wasn’t intended actually improved my experience because I was able to read it in a way that appealed to me personally. If I had been forced to go through that section, the way a video game like Dark Souls would have forced me, I’d actually enjoy it less.
Another example comes from the science fiction book Excession by Iain M. Banks. It’s part of his Culture series which takes place in a post singularity galaxy whose most memorable characters are the sentient, AI ships that kind of guide the galactic events. Towards the end of this particular book, right as it’s building towards a climax, the book veers away from the galactic struggle of hyper-intelligent, sentient ships against an unknown cosmic event and the possible outbreak of interstellar warfare, and goes on a ~20 page dull, romantic flashback about two human characters that I had zero interest in. I was bored and annoyed, and I wanted to just get back to the part that I was interested in. So, I got back to it. I skipped the section I found boring and just picked up reading when the book got back to the story I was interested in. I still have not read that section of the book to this day.
Is that the way the book was intended to be read? No. Did I miss out on some moments that might have been important to the experience? Possibly. But what’s most important is that I got to read the book in the way that I felt best suited me. I got to make that choice, not the developer, and not the fanbois. If I missed something important by skipping that section then, oh well, that’s my loss I guess.
Those two examples show how by engaging in the books in a way that wasn’t intended (skipping sections) actually improved my enjoyment. And importantly, these examples could never take place in most games as they are designed today.