Elden Ring's still going strong after it quickly became FromSoftware's most successful video game of all time last February, reaching over 12 million copies sold in less than a month- quickly eclipsing Dark Souls 3, which took four years to sell 10 million copies. Now more than ever, fans and critics are asking FromSoftware the same question that has plagued their games since Demon Souls set the standard for their brutally difficult "Soulsborne" titles: why isn't there an easy mode?
This question was actually answered by Hidetaka Miyazaki, director of almost all of FromSoftware's Soulsborne games, in an interview with the New Yorker. Miyazaki stated that FromSoftware "are always looking to improve, but, in our games specifically, hardship is what gives meaning to the experience. So it’s not something we’re willing to abandon at the moment. It’s our identity.”
Seems pretty straightforward, right? To add to that, there's another quote from earlier in the New Yorker interview in which Miyazaki effectively admits that the design of the games- specifically their notorious difficulty- leads to some players getting that feeling of meaning by overcoming the difficulty at the cost of those who cannot. He said “I do feel apologetic toward anyone who feels there’s just too much to overcome in my games. I just want as many players as possible to experience the joy that comes from overcoming hardship.”
That's what makes the design of these Soulsborne games so fascinating. Miyazaki and the rest of the FromSoftware devs know that some players absolutely will not overcome the challenges they create, but it's a trade-off they're willing to make. How can the players who conquer a game's greatest challenges feel accomplished without other players failing to do the same?
One way to put that into perspective is by looking at the literal achievements of the game- tasks that are given to the player by the game's developer as a sort of completion checklist- and the stats that can be found within them. For example, in the Xbox achievement system, you can see what percentages of the game's players attained any of the game's achievements. As of right now, I am one of the 1.93% of players who have completed every single one of the Elden Ring achievements, including defeating every major boss and getting all three of the main endings available. Humble brag.
However, the more interesting stats can be found in the most commonly earned achievements, and in how low these numbers are. Let's take a look at the first achievements that players will earn as they go through Elden Ring. As of right now:
So in over two months, only about one in every five players have even gotten far enough to access the final boss of the game, and only about half of players even killed the first major boss of the game. That's an incredibly small number, and with the game being so difficult to complete, it's no wonder that thousands of PC players have been downloading mods to make the game easier to play. Since its original upload on March 12th, the "Easy Mode for Elden Ring" mod created by user "odashikonbu" has been downloaded over 76,000 times.
At first I thought that the success of such a mod was simply funny, an interesting statistic, but then I considered what Miyazaki said about the difficulty of his games. Why is it that thousands of players have downloaded a mod that directly contradicts the game's purposefully-hard design? Do they not care that the game is meant to be difficult? Do they feel entitled to change the dynamics of the game because they bought it? Are they?
It brings to mind the concept of the Death of the Author, a perspective in which the creator of something certainly is allowed to have their own intentions regarding the meaning of their work, but that these intentions don't actually matter when compared to the audience. A common example is how fans of franchises like Star Wars or Harry Potter will disregard the opinions and statements of the creator, ignoring or even outright contradicting the creator's intent.
JK Rowling, specifically, has been at the center of a variety of controversies, both related and not related to Harry Potter. She has made a habit of declaring things about the world of Harry Potter that many fans disregard as needless retcons. A few of these declarations include the reveal that the character Albus Dumbledore was gay (despite the novels never discussing this at all), the casting of a black woman as Hermione Granger in the Cursed Child play (despite the movies and book covers portraying her as white), and the revelation during the Cursed Child play that series antagonist Voldemort had fathered a child some time during the novels. These revelations are criticized for many reasons, but the fact that fans feel enough self-entitlement to disagree about the world that Rowling created (despite the fact that she created it) is fascinating.
Some of these fans are villainized, often called "toxic" by others who disagree with their self-entitlement. One recent example of this criticism can be found in the newest Scream movie, in which the film's masked antagonist is trying to inspire a new horror movie based on their killing spree because they didn't like the last movie in their favorite slasher franchise, which started as a series based on the original Scream film's events. During their villain monologue, they declare that "nobody takes the true fans seriously, not really. They just laugh at us, and why? Because we love something? We're just a fucking joke to them! How can fandom be toxic? It's about love! You don't fucking understand, these movies are important to people."
Another, more classic example, is the iconic Stephen King character Annie Wilkes, the antagonist of his 1987 novel Misery. In the novel, Annie Wilkes takes author Paul Sheldon captive and forces him to rewrite the ending of his latest novel, in which the protagonist- Misery- was killed off. She goes as far as to declare to Sheldon that "You murdered my Misery!"
Not just Misery, her Misery. That's about as self-entitled as someone can get.
But is self-entitlement wrong? Is it wrong for someone to believe that the creator's original intent is less important than their own? In gaming, specifically, mods have always popular, and some developers- like Bethesda- have welcomed mods with open arms. On the console versions of Bethesda's Skyrim and Fallout 4 games, for instance, players can select from a wide variety of mods that others have created, including mods that entirely break the game's original design. Achievements are locked while mods are active, however, so even as they embrace the modding community, Bethesda seems to put a special value on the act of completing the checklist they created in the way they intended.
I've given the idea of the Death of the Author a lot of thought, specifically because I myself am a writer, having released dozens of short stories online since 2018. I used to see my own opinions about my own stories as absolute- objective, the word of God- but whenever I get a comment by a reader that contradicts what I was going for, I feel zero desire to correct them. It's perhaps more important to introduce something that audiences feel welcome to engage with in general, to find their own enjoyment in instead of finding only exactly what I've designed for them.
I look back on the statistics from the Xbox achievements in Elden Ring, and I can't help but feel like some players are being left behind needlessly. The game offers so much more than simply feeling accomplished, it offers the excitement and wonder of exploring the various environments. Sure, I felt accomplished when I defeated the Fire Giant boss- which only about one in every four players on Xbox have done- but the cutscene that followed would have been special regardless of whether the Fire Giant was difficult in the first place.
On the other hand, my experience with the original Dark Souls was entirely satisfying because of how hard it was to beat the first time around. It took me over two months to finally reach the ending of the game for the first time, and when I passed through the gateway to the final boss, I was overwhelmed. The other boss fights were mainly accompanied by a soundtrack that I could best describe as an orchestral nightmare with an immediate sense of urgency, pounding drums and sharp winds and string, all punctuated by an epic choir that seemed to accompany every major confrontation in the game.
The final fight with Gwyn, the Lord of Cinder, was what the entire game had been building up to. I'd fought every major boss in the game, nearly shattering my controller out of frustration countless times in the process, for the privilege of facing him. I expected a white-knuckled, sweaty-palmed fight on a massive stage with another epic song to back it.
Instead, I entered a small fighting area, lit only by Gwyn's burning blade and the bonfire he guarded. The music was a soft, melodic piano that conveyed the feeling not of some epic boss fight, but an epilogue- or a eulogy. Gwyn himself was far less that I expected, barely taller than my character and not nearly as threatening as the previous major bosses had been. He was Hollowed, which in Dark Souls meant that he'd succumbed to the curse of undeath, and had become a shell of his former self. When I defeated him, he didn't explode violently or even say a single word, he simply fell to his knees and turned to ash.
Only through going through the trials that the developers had put before me- wondering constantly how insane the last boss would be if these lesser threats were giving me so much trouble- could I truly appreciate the weight of the experience that Miyazaki and his team had created.
If I had simply made the game easy via mods, I don't know if I would even remember the song that accompanied the fight.
So I'm conflicted. Is it the design and intent of the creator that matters more, or access on behalf of the player? Should someone be forced to leave a journey unfinished because they can't complete it, or is it unwarranted self-entitlement to demand that the journey be made easier for you?
That's the fun of this little thought exercise: there is no right answer. It's all subjective, which itself leans towards the support of the Death of the Author. Let the Author's opinions remain opinions, refuse to let them become gospel if you want, contradict what they were going for if it suits you.
On behalf of all authors, though, I'd just humbly request that you don't go all Annie Wilkes on us when you don't like what we're saying.