Maybe Sekiro Should Be Hard, I Dunno

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 0.603% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So there’s a new game that I’m currently flinging myself until my nose turns to bloody mush, and that game is called Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. It is from the infamously taxing game developer From Software, which made Dark Souls and Bloodborne.

These games are difficult to beat, and Sekiro in particular is uncompromising. The designers looked at their past games to learn all the ways that people faked their way past difficult bosses, and put in workarounds. Yes, maybe players used to dodge around bosses in Dark Souls, or they just attacked blindly until they got lucky in Bloodborne. But Sekiro says, “Parrying blows is important, even if it’s hard to do. You learn to block incoming attacks or you die.”

And you do die. Over and over again. Until eventually you get the timing right and you win.

Or, you know, you quit the game.

And “accessibility” is a major concern in gaming these days, and should be. Not only are gamers getting older, and as such suffering from poorer vision and arthritis, but there have always been gamers who don’t have the fine motor controls to be able to defeat a game – or, in fact, all the limbs or fingers to do so.

So the saying goes that games like Sekiro should have an easy mode – or at least fine-tunable controls like the game Celeste, a platform game which is also extremely hard but has a set of “assist” controls that extends your jump time or automatically clings to walls and so forth. Celeste has been hailed because it lets gamers who can’t physically match the speed or finesse of the game still experience it.

“It doesn’t take away from your experience of the game to have an easy mode,” the saying goes. “So put one in! It’s as simple as that.”

It kinda isn’t, though.

Now, in 99% of all games, I would absolutely agree with you. Someone wants to play Doom Eternal on one-shot-one-kill mode? Doesn’t bother me, I’m here churning through it on medium. Someone wants to play the new Dragon Age (oh God let there be a new Dragon Age) on story mode, where it skips all the battles? Great. Someone needs a slower timing to master the jumps on Mario? Awesome. People of all sorts should be able to play, and win, videogames!

There’s a bullshit idea carried over from the quarter-guzzling roots of arcades that videogames should be experienced as pure challenge – and frankly, that’s a ridiculously reductionistic take on the medium. Videogames are art, and art takes on many forms, and if you’re playing videogames for the story or the pretty art or even a mild challenge, they’re still videogames.

You should be having fun.

But the thing is, most people will agree that they don’t want changes that take away the fun of the core game play experience.

I’d argue that the core game play experience of Sekiro or Bloodborne or Dark Souls is despair.

I’ll be honest: there was a boss in Bloodborne that literally killed me fifty times, and that’s not counting the times I died trying to fight my way to his lair. I spent probably about four hours convinced I couldn’t beat him, losing over and over again…

And part of that gaming experience was knowing there was no other way. Bloodborne had one difficulty setting, and it was alike for everyone who’d just installed the game. If it had an easier difficulty mode, I would have stepped down like I have before when I felt a game got too bullshit – I loved Dragon Age: Origins, but the final battle was too hard so I stepped down. I feel no guilt for this. I wanted to see what happened.

But with Bloodborne…. I couldn’t.

So I had to keep pounding my head against the same boss, with friends telling me how I could do it, getting incrementally better each time and learning new strategies until eventually, with a mixture of skill and luck, I beat the Blood-Starved Beast.

That game experience would not have happened if I’d had any other option. I absolutely would have changed the settings just for this one dude.

As a result, the triumph when I’d mastered it was fiercer than other games.

And that’s the gameplay loop of the From Software games: I can’t do this I can’t do this I can’t do this oh wait oh hell I might no I lost again I can’t I can’t I DID.

For the full experience, you need to a) have no other choices, and b) give into that despair.

Same with Sekiro. It’s actually not as hard as it sounds thus far, though it is hard: there are strategies you can use to counter the hard once. I met a frail old dude who was way too fast for me to block, but I could poison him. I met an enraged ogre who had too much health, but I could set him on fire. In truth, it sounds like there are walls, but you just have to get sneaky.

But it is hard. Very hard. And that style of challenge is not fun for everybody, nor even necessarily fun for us all the time. And while yes, you can make any game into a grim lesson in “Git gud” by playing, I dunno, Rock Band with an angry cat tied to a stick, most games are designed to have a fairly straightforward (and shallow) difficulty curve, and that is a good thing because that’s what most people enjoy. Too many gamers want every game to be a gruelling slog because that’s the way they personally relax, but I like to think that “controller-flinging difficulty” should not be the only metric for enjoyment.

The Dark Souls genre of games is a goddamned difficulty cliff, however, and what fun there is to be had lies is in discovering that hey, you can climb Mount Everest.

Which is why when people go, “Games should be accessible to anybody!” I agree heartily, then think, “…but the whole point of this genre of games is to push you beyond what you believe you can accomplish, and if you can reset the difficulty, that experience doesn’t happen.”

I don’t know. It wouldn’t hurt me per se to have an Easy mode on Sekiro; I don’t wrap my pride up in my gaming, and if I can’t beat Sekiro I won’t be overly fussed. Maybe I’m not that good at games, and that’s fine; I save my fierce indomitability for my writing, which is why I wrote eight terrible novels before I finally published my first one.

But though it wouldn’t hurt me, it would change the experience of those games, and those games only. Because for me, I am not strong enough to resist the allure of the easy mode. Making the game more accessible would give me an out, which I would take, and then it would be the same as every other game not in the genre of “Play my way or die.”

And I don’t know. I like accessibility. But some games aren’t about being accessible – and I say this as a person who may not be able to get the full experience out of a game I sunk $60 into. I’ve seen videos of the final boss. I may not have the reflexes to beat the guy.

Not knowing whether I can do it is a large part of why I’m playing. And I don’t know if anything else would fill that same, unique, urge.

4 Comments

  1. Anonymous Alex
    Apr 6, 2019

    OK, so I initially read the title as “Maybe Sekiro Should Be Heard,” and I’m wondering who Sekiro is and who’s preventing Sekiro’s tale from being told and why haven’t I heard about this before?

    -Alex

  2. Imrix
    Apr 6, 2019

    Like I said last time on your Bloodborne post, FromSoft has a particular niche. You’re right, accessibility is important in games, and I would agree that games should features to increase their accessibility… As much as possible without compromising the desired experience. Would Doom’s experience be compromised by an easy mode? Nah, you still get that fast-moving, run-and-gun, visceral catharsis kind of feel. Would Dragon Age? Nah, the story and the character dynamics aren’t dependent on combat difficulty. Most games don’t RELY on their difficulty for their experience, so there’s no reason for them not to offer easy modes.

    That’s why FromSoft games are built towards a niche, rather than being a genre-defining norm. They’re something of a breakout hit in that niche, but it is still a niche. And yet, it’s a niche that exists, and DOES rely on its difficulty – not just the challenge, but a particular style of challenge, at once mercilessly punishing, but scrupulously fair.

    So, an easy mode probably would damage the design goals of FromSoft games. As a result, some people won’t be able to enjoy those games. And that’s… That’s okay. No game, no work of fiction, is or should try to be all things to all people. Whether a game or a book or a movie, at some point they have to focus on what they want to be, the experience they want to impart. And that won’t be for everyone. Heck, it’s not for me – I’ve never actually played a FromSoft game. I UNDERSTAND them well because a lot of my friends are big fans of their work, and so I’ve been witness to them talking at length about the games, but that understanding has mostly served to let me make up my mind and conclude, “seems cool, but it’s not my thing.”

    And that’s okay. Given the state of my Steam backlog, do I really need to go out of my way for new experiences? Do you? Do any of us?

    • Imrix
      Apr 6, 2019

      To clarify a point that jumps out to me on re-reading; that last point comes from my understanding that a LOT of people these days have long Steam backlogs. There’s memes about it and everything. By all means, seek out new experiences, broaden your horizons. But I got like 200 titles waiting for me to play them already, including experimental indie stuff already. I’ve got plenty on my horizon-broadening plate already, and I’d bet most of the people who’ll read this are in a similar situation

  3. Raven Black
    Apr 6, 2019

    Have you played “Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy”? It’s a strangely compelling distilled essence of that kind of experience. An interesting twist of it is that most of the time if you fail you try again (like the problem is a boss after a save point) but occasionally you can make a mistake so bad that you lose even more progress, like going back three bosses worth, and when it happens, because it’s your own fault, it’s weirdly hilarious and cathartic.

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