It’s a topic which comes up every single time a Souls game drops — does the game or series need difficulty settings to make it more palatable to a wider audience? It’s a question with its heart in the right place — the new game drops, Dark Souls fans go wild for it and newcomers wonder if the game couldn’t find a way to be more accommodating. The reality is, people asking for an easier setting for Dark Souls aren’t, in their mind, asking for anything beyond the ability to experience the world Dark Souls fans have come to love.
And yet all they get in return is hostility, or at best sarcastic derision. Dark Souls fans themselves reject the concept vehemently, and to outsiders looking in it’s a rejection borne of nothing but elitism.
But it’s not that, really. Dark Souls as a cultural phenomenon is certainly not immune to elitism, of course, and the fact that FROM Software’s games have required players to acquire an elite degree of skills lends itself to the concept — at some level, the game is inaccessible to those who lack the physical dexterity required to dodge away. But the rejection of the idea of an easier difficulty setting isn’t based in elitism, regardless of how aggressive the rejection can get from fans. Instead, it’s based in the sort of tired defensiveness that leads to aggressive rejections of all sorts of ideas — like fans of Wrestling angrily dismissing those who declare that Wrestling is fake and therefore without value.
That is to say, requesting that Dark Souls as a series acquire a difficulty setting is misunderstanding the games themselves. Because despite the marketing campaigns and despite the language used in reviews and youtube videos, and despite the memes, Dark Souls as a series isn’t about difficulty. It’s not hard for the purpose of being hard. In fact, as many have said before, the series isn’t even that hard. The first portions of Dark Souls 3, for those who have finished the other games in the series, is shockingly, uncharacteristically easy. Although, the flipside is that for those who are new the game has one of the roughest starts yet.
The reality is that difficulty in Dark Souls is self-imposed, as you struggle with learning and appreciating the way the game world works. So for those of us who aren’t new, the first boss is a cakewalk, easier than The Pursuer (arguably the second boss of Dark Souls 2). But newcomers will have a tough time working out how to beat a giant knight who hits for 50% of their health each time he attacks.
It’s about thinking in Dark Souls terms. It’s about thinking in the language of Dark Souls, and it’s essential to the experience. Dark Souls’ difficulty comes from the fact that things within the game are alien, and it comes from the fact that, to learn how those things work you are forced to risk a lot. But after you have learned the language that Dark Souls communicates in, the game isn’t actually that complicated. Bosses move with a rhythm and they have tells which telegraph their attacks. The world between the bonfire and the boss fog is dangerous, but there’s always a (mostly) safe path for you to run down.
Once you think in Dark Souls’ terms, the game isn’t actually that hard. It becomes a process — you analyse the situation, you determine the most efficient solution and then you accomplish it. And when you accomplish it, because you did a fair chunk of work along the way, you feel like you’ve actually accomplished something.
If it still doesn’t make sense to you, take Jonathan Blow’s The Witness. Superficially simplistic, The Witness is a world inhabited by line puzzles which you need to solve to move on. I won’t argue that the line puzzles aren’t difficult — some of them can fuck all the way off — but they’re not difficult for the sake of it. They are puzzles, however. And until you begin to think in the language of the puzzles, you won’t be able to beat the game. The retort is, of course, that The Witness and other puzzle games ease you into the language. Meanwhile you can reach the first boss in Dark Souls 3 inside of 3 minutes. Unlike most puzzle games though, Dark Souls is a medieval horror game — and feelings of isolation, confusion and unknowing are closely related to fear. While those other puzzle games give you the basics of the language, Dark Souls tells you about the alphabet and then expects you to figure it out.
It’s understandable that people might want, at least, a better tutorial system. And it’s probably easy for me, someone who is fluent in the language, to scoff and say that the complexity of the language and the removal of appropriate learning tools is critical to the experience. But it is. Dark Souls 3 had the most successful launch day of any game in publisher Bandai Namco’s stable — probably a better launch day of the 40,000 Naruto games that are out now combined. People have learned the language, despite the deliberately less-than-helpful teaching tools.
The secret is that Dark Souls is just as much a community experience as it is a personal one, and there’s no reason you can’t learn the language using other tools from other sources — be they Youtube, Wikis or Guides. To wrap back to the key point though — nobody would ask Jonathan Blow to make the puzzles in The Witness easier, right?
To change tacks for a moment though, the element of elitism definitely exists with FROM Software games. Players put all sorts of restrictions on themselves and on others. Playing earlier Dark Souls games as a caster was ‘easy mode’. Summoning others to help you with a boss is ‘easy mode’. There are more than a few responses to the question of whether Dark Souls should have difficulty settings — sincerely issued — that Dark Souls games already have easy modes, and that it’s simply a case of finding them. That’s a culture of elitism borne of playing to a (relatively speaking) elite level.
It’s something I’ve witnessed amongst esports players during my tenure as esports editor at Red Bull Australia as well — the nature of being very good at something affords a person access to a sense of elitism which is actually earned.
But the reality is that, in many, many cases, Dark Souls fans (and many pro-Esports players for what it’s worth) evade the concept of elitism by rejecting exclusivity. The phrase ‘git gud’ (get good) might be cringe-inducing in both its sincere and ironic usage, but it does highlight a common philosophy that Dark Souls players subscribe to — the idea that to enjoy and experience the same wonders and thrills that fans enjoy, the only barrier to entry is personal skill level. Git gud is, by its very nature, an inclusive statement — a declaration that Dark Souls fans want you to experience the world, and to do that you need to do only one thing — git gud.
So then, rejection of a difficulty setting for Dark Souls is far from elitism — fans don’t want the game to stay hard to keep others out, they want it to maintain its difficulty to ensure that others understand the brilliance which lies within.
And yes, there are casualties along the way. People who, for whatever reason, lack the physical dexterity to overcome the game’s obstacles will forever be locked out of the Dark Souls games. But the reality is that Dark Souls fans lament the idea that you — the theoretical you who cannot, for whatever reason, accomplish what Dark Souls requires of you — can’t enjoy the world on offer. That’s why people put their white soapstone sign down. That’s why people join the Darkmoon covenant, to fight off invaders. People want you to succeed. And those who invade, who try to kill you as you play — they just want your experience to be that much richer — and it is, thanks to their presence.
Should Dark Souls have difficulty options? No. Should it have an easy mode? No. But the idea that I (or others) don’t want you to have an easy time of playing the game doesn’t mean we don’t want you to play — nothing could be farther from the truth. Every huge Dark Souls fan I know wants you to play it, and they want you to play it the way it was intended. They want you to be enthralled by Miyazaki’s world and the monsters within it. And you can. But instead of thinking Dark Souls might lower to your level, you just have to lift to its.