With the release of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the toxic Git Gud™ superfans that infected From Software’s Dark Souls and Bloodbourne series have reared their ugly heads again to insist that the samurai inspired Action-RPG doesn’t need an easy mode.
You know what? Fair enough. From a purely game design perspective, I can totally see why one would want to skip the Easy-Normal-Hard-Insane difficulty modes that really only differ in the amount of enemies per encounter, their damage output, and the amount of hits it takes to kill them. It’s artificial difficulty. Pump up the multipliers and call it a day.
However, the argument that difficulty in video games is somehow supposed to be about achieving personal growth by throwing yourself at a virtual meat grinder over and over until your fingers bleed is ridiculous and stinks of gatekeeping. Maybe I would rather, I don’t know, get to play through the entire game I just spent $59.99 + tax on than come across a section with a crazy difficulty spike that will take hours of practice and countless “You Died” screens to beat. Back in my younger days, before a 9-5 started to viciously drain me of my life force, I had the time to do nothing but replay levels over and over until a sheer force of will and dumb luck allowed me to pass difficult video game sections. Nowadays I’d be lucky to get in an uninterrupted hour of gaming before bed at night. The last thing I want to do is spend that hour replaying the same bullshit mission over and over again until I reluctantly turn off my Xbox One and go to bed.
The Git Gud™ audience fails to recognize that there are different demographics of people playing the same games. One easy example to look at is the Super Smash Brothers franchise. The game has always been marketed as a party game. Invite some friends over, crack open some beers (or juiceboxes) and watch Pikachu smack Captain Falcon with a lightsab– I mean “beam sword”. On the other hand, there’s a massive community of very serious and competitive Smash players that have spawned world-wide e-sports competitions. These are the kinds of players that can rattle off how many frames every animation in the game takes to complete. Both groups of people have something they can enjoy in Smash and neither group is forced to play the way the other prefers.
While Smash is an example of skill accessibility in multiplayer-focused games, single player campaigns have also included ways to carry along players who aren’t as skilled. The Chicken Hat would be offered to players who fail a mission 3 times in a row in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. The hat has the special ability to make stealth portions of the game much easier by making Snake nearly invisible to enemies. Players who are frustrated by failing a specific section of the game can throw on the hat, power through the mission, and carry on with their playthroughs as they would normally. Hardcore players have no obligation to use it and it doesn’t affect the game at all, save for the fact that the highest rank you can receive on a mission while wearing the hat is an ‘A’. Also it looks ridiculous.
Another honorable mention for a game that nurtures beginners without alienating skilled gamers is Plague Inc: Evolved. The pandemic apocalypse simulator does offer the standard “Easy, Normal, Hard, etc.” difficulty options. You unlock new types of diseases by wiping out the entire world with your unlocked pathogen types, starting with Bacterial, on normal difficulty. If you fail to eradicate humankind repeatedly on normal difficulty, you can choose to use “Pity Mode”, which allows you to unlock the next pathogen type by clearing the level on casual difficulty instead. You won’t be able to get the highest score/rank (notice a pattern?), but you won’t be stuck repeating the same mission over and over until you win either.
Sekiro is a tough game from a company that’s known for making tough games. I get that. But there’s absolutely no downside to including features that allow for less skilled players to enjoy the game that these developers have put thousands of man-hours into. Is it really that successful if you lose more than half of your players 3 hours in because of a difficulty wall? Why not introduce an option in Sekiro where the parry timing window is much wider, or the helpful item drop rate is increased to help those who are struggling?
I’m all for difficulty in games, don’t get me wrong. I’ve criticized games like Pokemon: Let’s Go for continuing to dumb-down an already brain-dead easy franchise. Giving players the option to challenge themselves is part of what video games are about and I’d never advocate for an across the board challenge decrease, but I think developers should recognize that they have an opportunity to pull in a much wider audience by figuring out a way to cater to both those who take pleasure in torture and and those who just want to go along for the ride.