The One About The Souls Games

This piece was originally slated for another publication a few years ago. It didn’t get published. So here it is. Republished from my now defunct Tumblr blog. Screenshots are all ones I took when playing Bloodborne.

This time, I’m confident I have him. Father Gascgoine has been plaguing me for weeks, but I’ve got it all worked out. I enter the arena, pumped up and ready to do this. For a few minutes, everything’s fine, but then I feel that telltale twinge in my hand. Before I know it, the pain’s burning up my arm and into my neck. I have to put the controller down. My poor health has betrayed me again. I’ll never be good enough to beat a Souls game.

Dark Souls is hard. That’s what it’s known for. In a world where the biggest and most successful games are built on promises about playing your own way, Dark Souls is brutal and unrelenting. FromSoftware’s magnum opus demands you take it on its own terms, a strategy that has proved wildly popular; few games can lay claim to a fanbase as passionate and loyal as Dark Souls.

A debate has raged for years over whether or not Dark Souls would benefit from an easy mode. Fans will tell you that no, difficulty is an essential element of the Dark Souls experience, that much of the game’s fun is found in its difficulty, and they have a point. Others, people who have wanted to embrace the series, but derive enjoyment in games from anything other than challenge, believe that Dark Souls would be better off with an easy mode.

Dark Souls joins all-time greats like Doom and Donkey Kong in establishing its own formula. Indie and AAA game developers alike have borrowed heavily from the Souls series, with games like Salt and Sanctuary, Lords of the Fallen, and Nioh. Before we ask ourselves whether Souls should have an easy mode, we need to understand how Souls games work.

Souls works like this: you, the player, have to travel through the game’s world, conquering its challenging bosses. Whenever you defeat an enemy, you earn a currency, called ‘souls,’ or ‘blood echoes,’ or something similar, which you use to purchase upgrades. If you die, you drop your collection of souls and respawn at the last save point, usually a physical location like a bonfire. Crucially, you cannot bank souls. This means that as your power grows, so does the need to explore world, putting yourself at risk, until you have enough souls to purchase more powerful upgrades.

The combat requires you to play thoughtfully. You must keep an eye on your stamina bar, which drains based on your attacks and movement. Draining your stamina at an inopportune time could result in an unfortunate death. Your attacks are usually animation-driven, which means that when you press a button to attack, you cannot break out of the attack animation until it has completed. A properly-timed attack means the difference between life and death in a Souls game.

These mechanics are then set in a world designed to accommodate them. Souls mechanics would never work in a game like The Witcher 3, where players could simply observe enemies and circle around them, avoiding the confrontation entirely. Souls maps, on the other hand, are built with explicit encounter design in mind. An early encounter in Dark Souls 3 features a dragon that will easily roast unsuspecting players. You rush up some stairs, get roasted, die, and start back at the bonfire, wiser now than you were before. As you progress, you discover shortcuts that make traversal significantly easier.

Over time, you learn about the game’s world. What seemed like cruelty at first is playful and mischievous. The world becomes more readable. Dark Souls thrives on initial surprise and eventual mastery. “Git gud,” the fanbase’s mantra, isn’t so much a statement of derision as a description of the player’s evolution. The more you play, the better you become.

One of the big appeals of turn-based games like XCOM and Civilization is the way they convince their players to keep going. “Just one more turn,” you tell yourself, and before you know it, it’s 5 in the morning and you’ve been up all night and have nearly liberated Earth from an alien menace. The Souls games are like that too, but they use difficulty to accomplish the same thing. Get instakilled by a cleverly-placed boss? Before you know it, you’re back at the nearest bonfire. “That was a cheap death,” you tell yourself, “I can totally get past it.”

Dark Souls is a game of mastery, expertly crafting an emotional narrative to accompany your growing skill. Overcoming that seemingly-impossible boss is thrilling. Laughing along at the designer’s jokey ambushes is enjoyable. Souls engages you, draws you in, and delivers some of the best emotional highs in gaming.

It’s unfair to say that Souls is just a hard game; there are thousands of challenging games out there. Dead Rising 2 creates challenge through time management. Ikaruga’s difficulty is based on player reflex. Souls is a game that uses its difficulty tuning to help establish its compelling formula. Without the difficulty, so much of what makes Souls such a brilliant series would be lost.

Despite this, I wish the Souls games had an easy mode, because I can’t play it like you. I want to share in the stories and strategies. I want to beat Father Gascoigne with a Donkey Conga controller and put the video up on YouTube. I want to master the game’s systems. I want to be a part of this passionate and vibrant community so much, but I can’t.

I can’t because my body is shutting down.

Twelve years ago, I got sick. At first, it was just mild fatigue. Doctors said it was some bug that would pass. Family thought it was teenage laziness. Then it got worse. Prior to getting sick, I’d been learning to fly planes. I used to climb regularly at the YMCA. I loved boating — whether it was a 50 mile camping trip or whitewater rafting, I was there. Within months, I’d almost completely lost my ability to function. One doctor told me that, after looking at my lab results, she was amazed I had the strength to get out of bed at all.

It took four years to get a diagnosis, but instead of having some name to give my illness, like cancer or lupus or something, I was told that some genes just didn’t work right. It was a lot more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it. As a result, I suffer from chronic pain and chronic fatigue, and I also have all the symptoms that come with a severe lack of magnesium, because my body doesn’t absorb it properly.

Chronic fatigue is a deeply misunderstood disease. People don’t get it. If you get cancer or multiple sclerosis, there is some degree of understanding there. Chronic fatigue is much harder to explain. Many people don’t believe it’s real. Some countries classify it as a mental disorder, rather than a physical one. Everything I ever wanted to do in life has been ripped away from me by this illness. Without games writing, which I’m fortunate enough to be able to do from home, I don’t know how I would survive.

During her TED talk on chronic fatigue, documentarian Jennifer Brea pauses and simply states “my brain is not what it used to be.” I know what she means, because I’ve been there. I was so much more than this. Chronic fatigue consumes everything. I’m lucky because for me, there is some degree of hope. With regular treatment, I could go back to living something resembling a normal life, but since the illness limits what jobs I can take, my income is limited, which limits my ability to pay for treatment for my illness. Dealing with my illness is as simple as a potential employer taking a chance on me so I can earn enough to pay for treatment. I don’t know how I’ll ever get to a place where I can afford regular treatment, but I hope that one day I will.

In the meantime, I play games, which are an incredible escape from chronic pain and chronic fatigue. A physical therapist once told me that people like me spend 90% of our attention on keeping pain at bay. Playing games helps offload some of that stress. But, as you can imagine, playing Dark Souls style games for me is a lot harder than it is for most folks, which makes escapism challenging. So many of my friends love finding their Dark Souls groove and playing the game for hours. I’d love to experience that too.

Most of you aren’t likely to have your hands seize up after playing for half an hour, much less be drained for an entire weekend after trying and failing to take down Bloodborne’s Father Gascoigne. An easy mode for me would mean that I could enjoy these games at the same level of effort that you do.

But it’s not that simple. Disability isn’t something most of us talk about openly. Discussing it has a tendency to make people uncomfortable; some even resent having to deal with it. It’s hard to leave the house most days, knowing that most people don’t have the compassion or patience to put up with my illness. Worse still, many people go out of their way to make things worse, justifying it with some weird, self-righteous slant I’ve never understood.

I’ve had employers force me to work in conditions that exacerbated my symptoms because they thought they could convince me that my illness was all in my mind, never mind what the doctor’s notes said. Heck, I got kicked off a podcast; two of my fellow podcasters told me they were doing me a favor. Apparently, cutting off all ties would help me magically get over my illness and manage my life better. When it comes to disability, otherwise good people can do terrible things, going to great lengths to justify their abuse as “for your own good.”

Playing games with my friends or chatting about games on forums, twitter, and Skype gives me the ability to socialize with other people without having to worry about my illness getting in the way. As long as I remain untreated, I’ll be a shut-in, but I can still have human contact through the internet.

While I can talk about my own experiences in great detail, I am far from the only person whose health issues limit gameplay options. Many disabilities limit gameplay. I have a friend with severe arthritis that makes gaming on a console impossible. Two of my friends have epilepsy, which can be triggered by playing certain video games. I’ve met people with color-blindness and deafness; all of these things impact their gameplay experience.

How far should a developer go in ensuring their audience can enjoy their work? Generally, I think it’s best to err on the side of accessibility; if a game can support a color-blind mode, it should. If a designer can ensure that hearing impaired players have good subtitles, their game would benefit from its inclusion.

With my chronic pain and fatigue issues, rapidly mashing buttons in games like Bayonetta or God of War can be physically draining; alternate QTE options would go a long way towards making games more accessible. I was delighted to discover that Dragon Age: Inquisition, a huge, open world game, had an auto-run toggle button. Splatoon offers players a wide variety of playstyles, allowing players to contribute, regardless of ability.

At the same time, I recognize that not every solution is a perfect one; shoot-em-ups like Ikaruga are built to be bright and flashy. Projectiles have to be big and bright enough to dodge. These games can trigger symptoms in epilepsy sufferers, and I don’t think there’s a way to avoid that without fundamentally changing the game’s design.

There is no easy answer, but offering multiple difficulty modes, vision modes, and allowing control customization all go a long way towards keeping games accessible.

Some developers and publishers are going the distance to make sure that disabled gamers are cared for. Microsoft has recently introduced copilot mode, which allows two different controllers to control the same game. The Xbox One Elite controller is great for players with disabilities thanks to its extensive customization options. Unfortunately, Sony does not offer similar disability support, but thanks to devices like Cronusmax Plus, you can use the Xbox One Elite controller on the Playstation 4, or even a mouse and keyboard.

As my health has deteriorated over the past few years, so has my gaming ability. Destiny’s Trials of Osiris event is a competitive multiplayer event where players must win nine matches of five rounds each against an opposing team. I went on a flawless run back in 2015, but I haven’t been since. Controllers are awful for me; playing with them often results in hand cramps and muscle spasms. It’s much less painful to aim with a mouse, so I’ve been eyeing a Cronusmax with an intent to use its mouse and keyboard controls to play Trials of Osiris again.

I was deeply concerned to hear that Jeff Kaplan, Vice President of Blizzard, had argued against the use of these devices. If Kaplan’s shortsighted suggestion became a reality, disabled gamers using assistive technologies would have their consoles rendered useless, not just for Overwatch, but for all games. Kaplan also suggested letting all consoles use mouse and keyboard controls natively, which would be fantastic for disabled gamers, but it’s frustrating to hear that he would even consider the first option.

How would an easy mode in Souls work? It’s simple: let players take a lot more damage before dying. It’s a blast to watch my friends take on the dual-boss fight of Ornstein and Smough, but that fight requires some flawless timing that I can’t always pull off. I tense my muscles when I’m trying to time things perfectly; not having to worry about timing would help me avoid triggering severe pain later on.

Obviously, there are better ways to adjust difficulty, but they would require a lot more work on the developer’s part. Tweaking enemy animations to provide longer ‘tells’ prior to attacking would be a great step. Dark Souls’ movements are animation-based, rather than input-based, which means that once you press a button, your character has to follow through with the animation before making another move. Giving player input priority over animation would let players correct mistakes a lot easier.

To a hardcore Dark Souls player, I’m sure this all sounds like heresy. The suggestions are moot, of course — From is done making Souls games, and it’s unlikely that they would ever patch in an easy mode. Souls is just an example, something I hope that future developers can learn from. I would like to enjoy your favorite game as much as you do, but I can’t, not as it is.

Playing video games literally saved my life. On my worst days, games make life bearable. Games give me community and distraction. So, when it comes to the question of whether Dark Souls have an easy mode, I think the obvious answer is yes. For me, an easy mode would let me play the game like it was meant to be played without worrying about crippling muscle spasms the next day. I just want to enjoy life and spend time with friends; games I can play without agony let me do that.

Ultimately, developers are welcome to do whatever they want to do with the games they want to make. My hope is that this piece initiates a conversation about how to open doors to everyone who wants to play or make video games. Living life with disability is hard mode, and there’s no option to change difficulties. If you have the ability to help us, would you?

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I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.

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GB 'Doc' Burford

GB 'Doc' Burford

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.

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