When the subject of difficulty modes come up, an ever-raging debate follows. A strong case is made by self-proclaimed “hardcore gamers” who argue that adding easier modes will ruin games and dilute experiences. Games like Dark Souls and Cuphead are defended and praised for their harsh difficulty curves. There is a case to be made for these challenges being a core part of the experience. Despite the validity of those points, it does not change the fact that having some type of easy mode actually makes games better.
Nostalgia is often the reason cited by many for preserving older, albeit outdated features, designs, or ideas. This concept of clinging to the past is a reason why Dark Souls exists and is a strong reason why the Anti-Easy-Mode crowd (or Anti-EMS) exist. Back in the days of arcades, designing overly challenging modes that withheld power from the player was the norm because it was the only way to make money. Rather than paying up front like we do today, having to insert a quarter for a life meant that you needed to hone your skills to make each 25₵ count.
With the evolution of games, this model changed, because making a game that was difficult for difficulty sake wasn’t rewarding, and came across as frustrating. Life systems have been nearly phased out of video games, with only certain games like Sonic titles utilizing them to any real degree. Gaming has evolved past the need for difficulty as a way to measure length thanks to the progression technology.
Why does easy mode exist? The biggest reason is inclusivity. This is a word that can often be treated as toxic, as many times just the idea of “casual” gamers joining the landscape is considered wrong. The problem with that line of thinking is that gatekeeping away diversity actively fights against progress. Attracting mothers who only play games like Bejeweled, or having a mode for younger kids to excel at Mario isn’t hurting anyone, and in fact, is making games better. By gaining a more diverse crowd, developers have more input to fix issues that otherwise would have been left unattended.
Series like Call of Duty have seen the benefits and the downfalls of innovation. It was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare that shifted the franchise broke records and gained praise. However, despite setting the groundwork to push wargames into a modern setting, Activision let Call of Duty get too comfortable in its niche. This opened the door for the Battlefield franchise to innovate, pushing the setting back into the World War era of World War 1.
Resident Evil has also flourished, and arguably only exists, due to innovation. After setting the example for survival horror, it lost ground in the market until it broke its mold and released Resident Evil 4, a more action-heavy horror game that once again, became the go-to design for horror titles. Resident Evil 7 would be the next breakout hit due to the developers changing the formula again. They matched and built on the expanding first-person camp style of horror that had become popular, taking the series out of action and more towards its horror roots. Without change, without a call for growth, games can’t reach their maximum potential.
OBJECTION! I hear you say. Not all games follow this trend, as many franchises have found success with little to no changes to their formula. Start-up games also don’t benefit from including new players, as every player is experiencing that IP for the first time. Yes, that is true. However, what helps new games get such a popular appeal? The story, in games like The Last of Us, are what gain appeal, and it’s the focus on the narrative that makes easy mode beneficial to those games as well.
Writing in gaming has grown in major leaps and bounds, with deeper, lore-heavy titles such as the Zelda or Fallout series praised for the unique and breathtaking worlds that have grown. These tales are sometimes stronger selling points than the gameplay, with people willing to slog through bad combat systems or repetitive play just to learn about a hero and the world they live in. Until Nier: Automata, Yoko Taro games were known for their story-telling and the unique way the plot was told. It wasn’t until Platinum Games partnered up that combat was praised, with even his biggest fans criticizing the gameplay of Drakengard and the original Nier.
What easy modes do is allow more people to gain access to these truly epic tales that exist in gaming. Horizon: Zero Dawn gained a lot of flak at first from Anti-EMS when they released a story difficulty in August 2017. This made combat a walk in the park so that the story could easily be experienced by less skilled gamers. By granting players who had difficulty taking on the encounters a shortcut to success, they were given access to a beautiful story, starring one of the best characters in gaming in the last decade.
But now we get to the controversial part, Dark Souls. Dark Souls and any Souls-like game should have an easy mode. To this point, I’ve talked about what including people can do for games, but not yet discussed what it means for Anti-EMS and average gamers. If Dark Souls and Souls-like games were given an easy mode, it would not affect any single person who didn’t want it.
Breaking the game is the biggest reason offered when this topic is discussed. By making an easy mode, you remove what makes these games good. The thing is, that’s a lie. Look at a game like The Surge, built as a Souls-like, no easy mode, just one cruel difficulty. If the challenge was all that made the game good, it would be as well received as a game like Bloodborne, another game stacking the odds against you. Yet currently on Metacritic, The Surge has a 73 metascore, with 7.0 from fans, while Bloodborne currently sits at an impressive 92 metascore and an 8.9 from the fans. Why are the scores not equal if intense hardship is what makes this genre popular?
Because the story, lore, aesthetic, and thematic elements are just as important as gameplay, thriving against the excuses of Anti-EMS. As I’ve already stated, these features can allow players to overlook and fight against bad combat and systems. The lore and universe are not only why Dark Souls became such a smash hit, but why Five Nights at Freddy’s took the world by storm. The hidden lore, the backstory behind the characters, and the growing, unsolved narrative are what has catapulted the game into the status it’s gained.
The thing about difficulty modes and features that weakens enemies is that unless you turn it on, it won’t affect you. No one is making you play Horizon: Zero Dawn on story difficulty. Likewise, accessibility options (such as auto-drive and auto-steering in Mario Kart 8) are features that don’t need to be used. Having these features gives younger children and disabled players a chance to enjoy the same content (online and offline) that so many people get to enjoy freely. This doesn’t take the enjoyment away from those who choose not to use these settings, it just makes things more accessible.
The gaming industry is not the same as it was a long time ago. Roger Ebert once stated (and defended on multiple occasions) that in his opinion video games could not be art. If he were alive today, it is highly possible that the argument could be made that it could not be further from the truth. In fact, that argument is stronger than ever and grows stronger by the day.
Games feature worlds that other forms of entertainment could only dream of having. They also allow you to interact with these worlds in ways that cannot be duplicated or rivaled in any other medium. The evolution of building lore through multiple mechanics has become its own art form, able to transform mediocre titles into cult hits through small clues placed in games.
Why should the outdated model of exclusivity continue to exist in gaming? So many long-time gamers once wore the title as a badge of honor, using the medium to escape from daily stress. The stereotype of the loner, basement-dwelling virgin has been dying for years, and people from all walks of life enjoy gaming. Whether you are male, female, gay straight, bisexual, trans, etc, there is a path toward gaming for you.
Easy modes should exist for those who wish to use them. For the young child who doesn’t have the skill to take on the difficult challenges yet in games. For the disabled veteran who can’t work a controller anymore the same way many of us can. For the single parent who wants to experience an epic tale, but only gets small amounts of time to progress between raising their children. It is for them, and so many more, that the Anti-EMS of the world need to work together and not push these players away. They are welcome in our world, as they should be. We’re not in Kansas anymore, so let’s stop thinking so black and white.