Recently we had a conversation about accessible games and avoiding making things too obscure. During the chat, the topic of Soulsborne came up and I was asked an interesting question: For a game that is so demanding, why does the Souls Series avoid accessibility complaints?
While it may not look it at first glance, the Souls series is not that hard to understand at the base level. Action games, or those focused on the player skill, by their design are easier to learn. When you’re playing a Souls game, it’s very easy to grasp what the buttons do and what’s going on.
Even though there is leveling and RPG progression, it’s never the focal point of the series. The player’s skill will ultimately see them through or stop them. As with most action games, the Souls series is very 1:1 in how it works.
When I swing my weapon, I immediately know the range and speed of it. Despite using every button on the controller, the Souls series is not button-heavy. The reason is that at any one time you’re only using a specific set of buttons. With combat, you’re focusing on the shoulder buttons and the dodge button as an example.
Combat may be challenging in the Souls series, but it’s easy to read and learn from. If an enemy attacks with X, then I should learn how to counter it. Nothing new in terms of design is introduced, but the game continues to add to the basic foundation.
Downtime can turn the player off on a game, especially in games where death or failure can constantly happen. The Souls series has gotten really good at keeping time wasted down. Bonfires provide checkpoints around the world, and fast travel is now standard in subsequent games.
Opening up permanent shortcuts is another major point and has two impacts. The first is that it provides easier access to areas and cuts down on backtracking or repeating completed sections. Secondly, it’s proof that the player is making headway in the game. One of the worst feelings in a game is when the player is either stuck or is going backwards in terms of progression.
The shortcuts in the Souls series shows the player that they have made major progress in a given area, and their reward is being able to skip completed sections. This is also a part of the amazing level design of the series that creates a game space with these logical shortcuts. Many times, a single area will have multiple shortcuts; usually one from the beginning to a mid-point, and one possibly from the start or mid to the end of the level.
Another detail is that there is usually a short delay going from the shortcut to the boss of the area. Considering how easy it is to die for new players, having that short turnaround is important to keep them from being frustrated.
The Souls series may have some of the most challenging boss fights around, but they don’t leave the player without any additional options. The ability to summon help in the form of other players or NPCs can turn things around.
Side systems such as leveling and upgrading can make a good player better. Even the level designs will usually have several paths forward for the player. It’s very rare to come to a situation that is just a metaphorical brick wall with no other way to progress.
The final point and the genius of how the series is accessible is that it never takes the focus off of the player. As we’ve talked about, the Souls series never introduces elements or systems that distract from the player learning and playing the game. The upgrade systems will never take away from the player’s skill impacting success or failure.
With that said, there is always a point where the player reaches their absolute limit in terms of skill mastery. The additional systems can help, but they can only go so far.
One of the hardest things to do in terms of game design is to create something that is deep without feeling complex. There are many deep games across different genres, but it’s rare to find those that are accessible.
When we talk about accessible games, it’s not just about quality of life features, but creating something that anyone can sit down and start playing.
And while the Souls series will probably not be a “first time gamer’s choice” any time soon, it’s still as deep and inviting for anyone who wants to work for their fun. As long as you can make your foundation or core gameplay loop as easy to understand as possible, you will at least get people wanting to give it a go.
Throwing someone into the fire from the get-go may be exciting, but remember this: Losing without understanding why is never fun.