Easy Mode: You Gotta Want It

So, one of the positions in the whole Sekiro/Soulsborne/difficulty/easy-mode debate is what I would sum up as “easy mode should be there for the players who need it.” A couple of examples:

  • Jarrod Johnston explains why he’s no longer anti-Easy, mentioning that previously he “never thought that someone might not have the ability to improve, and it took a while for [him] to understand that getting through a tough game can be more than just a matter of time and commitment.”

  • Mark Brown explains his complicated view on questions like “Should Dark Souls have an Easy Mode?", making a few statements like, “I’m in favor of giving people more ways to play if they need them…” but emphasizing the importance of making sure players know what the intended experience is. He also describes Celeste’s Assist Mode by saying, “This isn’t an easy mode that I might switch down to if the game’s kicking my butt. It’s an assist mode that’s just there for those who really feel they need it.”

On the surface, I’m in agreement with these folks - we all want easy modes or similar accommodations in games. We’re on the same side of the overall debate. But I’d sum up my position slightly differently, as “easy mode should be there for the players who want it.” It’s only one word of difference, but I think it’s an important one.

To me, the word “need” is strange to use for an entertainment product. Sure, casual players don’t need to be able to beat Sekiro, but neither do hardcore ones. Nobody needs to be able to play a video game.

Phrasing things in terms of need feels to me like a reluctant concession to the reality of disabled gamers. I can imagine someone saying, “You want an easy mode? You should just git gud! …oh, you are actually physically incapable of gitting gud? Well, I guess in that case it’s sort of okay. But everyone else should still git gud!”

Framing easy mode as okay only when needed is still gatekeeping. Who decides when someone “needs” easy mode? Some people have obvious or severe disabilities but others don’t. Maybe you agree that this one-handed gamer is not capable of beating Sekiro without easy mode, so that player “needs” easy mode - but what about this one with intermittent hand tremors, for whom the game takes twice as long because when their hand shakes they tend to lose the fight they’re on? They can still beat the game as normal - do they “need” easy mode? Is it okay for them to use it? What if another one-handed gamer practices for hundreds of hours and beats Sekiro with their feet? Does that mean that being one-handed no longer qualifies as “needing” easy mode?

I suspect that people taking the “need” position haven’t really considered edge cases. I suspect their stance is that disability is a valid reason to use easy mode but laziness is not, and it doesn’t really occur to them that “laziness” is poorly-defined and there’s a significant spectrum here rather than clear-cut boundaries.

The defense I usually hear is that playing the game as “intended” creates great experiences, and if you are capable of achieving these you should do so. But of course the problem with this is that - in addition to having different capabilities - different people like different things. The experience one player thinks is great can be clearly not worth the trouble to another. Thinking that the way you enjoyed a game is the only legitimate way to enjoy it is an empathy failure and an unjustified rejection of the experience of others.

Why try to make someone feel guilty for using easy mode when they don’t “need” to, if it maximizes their enjoyment of a game? Far better, I think, to just recognize that different people have different obstacles and different priorities. Letting them choose their own experiences is a good thing. Easy mode should be there for the players who want it.