FromSoftware, Sekiro, and Challenging Games

There has been a fierce debate on Twitter (and probably elsewhere) since the release of Sekiro. The debate is about accessibility when it comes to challenging games. The sides seem to be thus: Challenging games should be more accessible vs. challenging games should not be easy.

This entire debate is rather interesting from a gaming culture standpoint. But before I can dig into why, I need to first address some terminology. I should first note that I'm using the word "challenging" instead of "hard" because I view there as being a difference. To me, a challenging game is a game that has a high level of difficulty for some purpose, usually so that overcoming the game becomes a powerful reward. This is what FromSoftware has generally tried to do. This contrasts with a hard game, which is a game that is difficult for no reason other than to be difficult.

Of course, the distinction between these is in the eye of the beholder, as the saying goes. However, I recall hearing that FromSoftware has stated that the difficulty level of their games is intended to provide the player with a challenging struggle that, when conquered, results in emotions of accomplishment.

Of course, not everyone plays games seeking this sort of thing. Different players play games for different reasons. Some want a more laid back experience, some want to explore, etc. There are a lot of ways of assessing player motivations, from Wizards of the Coasts' player psychographics to Bartle's player types, but they all agree on this point: That players play with different motivations at heart.

This brings us back to FromSoftware's titles. Particularly, Demons's Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, Bloodborne, Dark Souls III, and Sekiro. The latter of these is rather different from the previous five in many respects, but one thing it has in common with them is that it is a difficult game. That difficulty is intended to reward the player for achieving mastery over its various systems, especially combat.

What makes all of this quite strange is that these series of games started off being quite niche. I think it is hard to argue that Demons's Souls was anything other than a niche title when it first released. However, each of these games has earned praise from gamers for the standout quality of its design in combat, level design, lore, atmosphere/mood, and overall experience. This has resulted in increasing popularity (and increasing budgets and thus polish) with each subsequent title.

What has effectively happened is that, largely by virtue of word of mouth, a niche series has grown increasingly mainstream. Which brings us back to accessibility.

But what even is accessibility? This is an important question to ask! Let's look at how the dictionary defines the word (taken from Google):
  • The quality of being able to be reached or entered.
    • The quality of being easy to obtain or use.
    • The quality of being easily understood or appreciated.
    • The quality of being easily reached, entered, or used by people who have a disability.
The debate on the accessibility of FromSoftware's games seems to focus on different definitions of "accessibility." For example, the final definition (of being accessible to those with a disability) has been called out numerous times. This has been an issue of growing consideration in gaming over the past several years, with particular emphasis placed on things like key remapping (for the use of unconventional controllers) and accommodations for colorblindness or photosensitivity.

However, I think the other definitions have also been showing up when people specifically call for an easy mode. What is the purpose of this easy mode? The claim is that it would allow more people to experience FromSoftware's games. But what is the FromSoftware game experience?

These games are meant to be difficult because the audience they are made for, the intended experience they are created to produce, is focused on feelings of accomplishment and achievement for overcoming challenge. Many gamers are drawn to this, which is why FromSoftware's games have exploded in popularity over the past 10 years or so (ever since Demons's Souls was first released in 2009). A theoretically niche title has become a part of the popular zeitgeist. And that is creating this issue.

Think of it this way. We most likely all know the impact of Star Wars on broader culture. It has ingrained itself in many ways. Most people know what a Jedi is or have at least heard of Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo.

Now, imagine a world in which you've heard of these movies but haven't seen them. In this world, you want to see them, but it's hard to find full copies. You can find the first 5, maybe 10 minutes pretty easily. But finding a full recording is nigh impossible. You feel like you're missing out. What is this thing everyone is ranting and raving about, this thing they're holding up as awesome and amazing? You've tried it, but you can't just see all of it. You want more, you feel like you should have more, but you can't get more.

It's an imperfect metaphor, but I think that's sort of what has happened. A niche thing has become mainstream, and people want to be able to understand that thing, but they can't. It isn't made for them. And this is why things are super weird. FromSoftware's games aren't meant to be accessible in the sense that they aren't games made for everyone. They're games made for people seeking a challenge to overcome, and not everyone plays games for that type of experience. But, because they've captured the popular gaming zeitgeist so powerfully, even players these games aren't made for want to experience them. And they can't. They can't get beyond the first 5-10 metaphorical minutes.

This is where I think the calls for an easy mode come from. It's a product of this weird circumstance in which a niche thing has gone mainstream. It isn't for everyone—a lot of art isn't. But it's become a part of the culture in such a big way that people feel like it should, somehow, be for them, or be an experience they get to partake in.

I don't have a solution to this weird distortion. I do sympathize with those who really want to be able to experience FromSoftware games, but can't really because they aren't people who play to overcome a challenge. And similarly, I also sympathize with those who have disabilities that prevent them from being able to succeed in these games.

Maybe FromSoftware games could benefit from an assist mode, like I've heard Celeste has. Maybe there should be a mode for those who simply want to explore and dig into the fascinating lore. Offering the games without the difficulty in many ways robs them of their soul...but maybe not for everyone. On the other hand, maybe people just have to realize that FromSoftware's games aren't for them. That can be hard to accept, but sometimes that happens.

As a personal example of this, Skyrim is a wildly popular game. It's had a huge impact on gaming in general and has massively impacted the culture (especially when it comes to arrows and knees). It's a game I've tried to play, and I just can't get into it. It isn't for me. This is partly because I find the combat boring, but it's more because I have no sense of character motivation or direction. Some players really like that sense of freedom. For me, it makes the game feel purposeless, which results in my being unable to connect with anything in it. I ultimately have no motivation to play because I need, at bare minimum, a sense of purpose. Skyrim doesn't offer me that. As a result, I can't get into it. It isn't for me. And I've had to learn to be OK with that.

In the end, it's FromSoftware's decision how to make their games, where to allocate their resources, and what type of art to create. It sucks when they make something that everyone says is awesome, but for whatever reason, it isn't for you. It really does suck. But, ultimately, they have to make a decision about the best way to serve the people they are making their games for, just like every developer has to do.

Just like every artist has to make decisions about the art they're creating, decisions that will thrill some and disappoint others. And I, for one, would rather miss out on something than to try to force artists to create something they don't want to make.

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