Difficulty in video games is a controversial topic, and for years there have been two sides to the argument. There are those people who want to ensure difficult games remain difficult, so that developers retain their freedom of expression and the game is enjoyed the way it was originally intended. On the other side there are those who say video games should be opened up to an even wider crowd, introducing more options to adjust how a game plays depending on someone’s skill level.
It’s an interesting argument, and while I can kind of understand why some might see the latter as an attempt to change what makes games unique, I think the positives of accessibility in games vastly outweigh the arguments against it. Ultimately, creating a more accessible industry is something which will improve video games for everyone, including those who argue against it.
Here I will be discussing Dark Souls and how, with a little inspiration from one indie gem, Elden Ring could help evolve From Software’s RPG formula.
The Souls Series
Whenever the conversation surrounding difficulty crops up, you can probably bet on the fact someone will mention the Dark Souls series. Infamous for its brutal difficulty, remorseless boss battles and its unwavering commitment to death as a game mechanic, the Dark Souls trilogy (as well as the wider “Soulsborne” series) are without a doubt some of the most inaccessible video games in circulation.
Just so we’re clear here, I’ve completed all three of the mainline Dark Souls games and Bloodborne – I’m working on Sekiro, slowly. I absolutely adore the series, not only for its fast, visceral and frantic combat but also for the lore that each one of these worlds is filled with. Every Dark Souls game is a rich tapestry of characters, history and engaging narratives, all which can be easily missed as the majority of storytelling is done through exploration, item descriptions, and sparse shreds of dialogue.
While I enjoy the difficulty of the Souls series, I think it holds the series back to an extent. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve mentioned the Souls games to someone, and they’ve turned around and said something to the effect of: “I tried Dark Souls, but couldn’t get past the first boss”. I was one of those people myself. I bounced off Dark Souls around release in favour of the vastly more accessible Skyrim.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think Dark Souls should absolutely retain its difficulty and be playable in the series’ current format, but with some smart changes.
Celeste is not only one of the best platforming games to release in the past ten years, it also sets a brilliant example of how to retain a video game’s difficulty while also providing an accessible experience to a wider group of gamers.
Celeste accomplishes this by introducing an assist mode, which enables players to change specific aspects of the way the game controls. In this mode, players can change game speed, turn on infinite stamina, increase the number of air dashes available and make Celeste invincible. It’s a fantastic mode that opens up Celeste to a new demographic of players who may not be able to tackle it’s difficult platforming gameplay.
Assist mode opens Celeste up to players who may not be great at platforming games, or players who don’t have the free time to master its more difficult sections. Most importantly, assist mode opens the game up to people with physical or mental disabilities, allowing them to modify the game in a way which makes it playable to suit their specific needs.
What’s great about the assist mode is that it in no way impedes on the experience the developer designed for the majority of players. Celeste is still a tough game if you want it to be. There are countless secrets, levels and times to beat, which can all be done without ever touching the assist mode. The simple act of including this option means that fewer people are likely to bounce off the game in frustration.
Unless you’re playing on PC – which has a number of game changing mods – it’s too late to open up the Soulsborne games to other players. Fortunately, there’s another one currently in development. I’m of course talking about the highly anticipated Elden Ring, a joint venture by From Software, and George R. R. Martin, the author behind the wildly successful Game of Thrones series.
We know very little about the game at present, gleaning what we can from the E3 2019 teaser trailer, as well as blurry leaked presentation footage that has recently been doing the rounds. If there’s one thing I’m excited for, it’s the potential for Elden Ring to implement an intuitive assist mode similar to Celeste.
This would be more than simply adding difficulty tiers or an “easy mode” – it would allow players to tailor individual aspects of the game to their own needs. By adapting a number of systems and mechanics core to the Soulsborne experience, Elden Ring could be far more welcoming.
Firstly, having a number of sliders and options for combat could make the game’s many encounters far more manageable. With Elden Ring’s assist mode on, it could enable a multitude of creative modifiers, from weapon reach, parry times, and stamina usage, to enemy damage, regenerative health, or the removal of status ailments. While Souls purists may see this as a dumbing down, others will see this crucial customisation as nothing but empowering, allowing them to beat Elden Ring in a way that works for them.
An assist mode in Elden Ring might also guide players who might struggle with the series’ hands-off approach to exploration and progress. It’s always been easy to get lost in Dark Souls, as the sprawling, interweaving worlds can be quite intimidating with little in the way of signposts – a simple waypoint system could nudge players towards the next area without necessarily holding their hand. It would be way less immersion-breaking than stopping to pull up a wiki or video guide, that’s for sure.
The best part? This wouldn’t compromise Elden Ring in the slightest for those hardcore Soulsborne fans looking to break themselves upon From Software’s upcoming RPG. An assist mode would be purely optional, bending the rules for those who are having a tough time, and tearing down those roadblocks preventing them from experiencing what content Elden Ring has to offer.
The Souls games are some of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had, and I want as many people to share those experiences with me. Elden Ring would lose nothing by becoming more widely accessible, only a false air of purity an elitist minority of players cling onto.
If we truly love video games, surely we should want nothing more than to share the joy they can bring, even if that means lowering the barriers a little.