This was originally going to be a single video that strung together a bunch of micro-essays, but this difficulty discussion kind of got away from me and became its own full-length thing. It’s for the better, perhaps. If you want an interesting, similar-but-different take on this subject, check out Mark Brown’s video. Anyways, the transcript:
So, I’m late to the whole Dark Souls thing. I didn’t really click with the genre until Bloodborne, so I’m missing two whole games worth of plot and lore but I’m also trying to comment on the final third in what is supposedly a trilogy. This would be awkward in any context, but this is Dark Souls, where most of the story is told through architecture, flavor text, and vague character dialog. This means I can’t even really just look up what happened in the previous games. The point is, I’m not really going to be able to do my normal conversation about themes and ideas because I’m missing way too much context. And honestly, far better and more knowledgeable analyses of these games already exist. Instead over the next few weeks I’m gonna poke at a variety of ideas that Dark Souls 3 has caused me to think about since playing it. Consider these essays a non-Dark Soul’s fan’s thoughts on Dark Souls 3.
Dark Souls is renowned for its difficulty, so let’s break that concept down and unpack it a little bit. What, if anything, defines this game’s difficulty?
Well, first, the game offers little forgiveness. Each life you spawn with a handful of flasks to recover health, and aside from a few rare places to heal in the game world that’s about all you get. This makes health a precious resource and each hit enemies land have consequence. It’s not a game that tolerates mistakes, and the sooner you screw up the more perfect your subsequent actions will have to be. Healing damage from trash mobs on the to a boss means you have that many fewer flasks for the big fight.
Dark Souls also has animation driven play where swings and slices and parries all need to be played out in full. This is unusual in 2016 – most third person action games are all about empowerment, and tweening between animations quickly based on player inputs to keep a good sense game feel up is considered important. Dark Souls takes the opposite approach – every swing is completed in full and if you queue up additional moves you’re committing yourself to doing them, even if you later realize you’re going to be hit as a result. This makes every battle an exercise in last minute planning – do you want to commit to your heavy swing in hopes it finishes off the bad guy before they can land a hit? Do you instead want to run away and hope their swing misses you? Or do you want to do nothing and wait until the time is right to dodge? You need to always be looking for tells about which attack is coming next and know how to counter it, while also being aware of your surroundings lest you drag other monsters into the fray. Combat here isn’t hard in a twitch skills kind of way, but instead it’s a sort of situational analysis and response kind of difficulty. Choosing to dodge too early or to swing when you don’t have time to complete your strike can be fatal. This means memorizing all of the enemy’s animations to look for tells as to what to do next, and that list is rather extensive.
The game also provides sense of tension by making loss meaningful. First, there’s the literal loss of progress – if you die you respawn at the last bonfire you rested at, which could be five or ten minutes of careful exploration away from where you died. But more interestingly, as you play each monster you slay drops souls as a sort of currency. If you die you drop your entire pile of souls, but you can still return to where you died and collect them. However, if you die again without collecting them those souls are lost forever. This results in some really interesting scenarios when you’re carrying a ton of souls but see a giant monster around the corner – do you want to risk it? Worse, sometimes you will stumble into a bossfight you’re not ready for – and then you’re locked into a cycle of either trying to go back for your souls and killing the boss or doing additional exploration to level up while potentially losing all of that progress. More than anything it tries to enable risky behavior by asking you to go back to the place where you died – where you failed – in order to preserve progress. This makes teh game hard in the sense that it pushes players to return to areas that beat them; areas they found difficult or else it will erase the things they’ve earned.
And all of this adds up to a game that feels… punishing. Harsh. Unforgiving. It dumps your progress, it burns your time, it asks for you undivided attention at all times. But the game was never intended to be hard for hard’s sake. Speaking to The Metro, game director Hidetaka Miyazaki said: “I personally want my games to be described as satisfying rather than difficult. As a matter of fact, I am aiming at giving players sense of accomplishment in the use of difficulty.”
And in that regard I’d argue the game succeeds. Maybe not as well as it aspires to, but it definitely is able to give a sense of accomplishment, and it draws that sense from its difficulty. It’s not a game that’s hard because it’s sadistic. Instead it is a game that revels in presenting something that seems insurmountable and making it not only beatable but, with time, easy. Fighting giants and dragons and tree gods in a world where even small monsters pose a serious threat can feel impossible, but it isn’t.
The real trick to Dark Souls – and, I think, the real reason its difficulty is so divisive – is that it’s a game about learning. You could make the argument that any game about system mastery is about learning, and that’s arguably true but also kind of reductive. Dark Souls isn’t about the kind of learning that comes from practice or muscle memory in the way that, say, a fighting game is. Instead Dark Souls is a series of set pieces that you learn to conquer by encountering them, internalizing them, and moving on. An ambush may get you once, but then you learn to avoid it. A particularly tough enemy may block you at a bottleneck, but you learn to read its tells and avoid its damage. A group of enemies may seem insurmountable, but clever thinking or picking them off one at a time may help even the odds. You uncover the dead ends, you discover the shortcuts, you memorize the locations of bon fires and ambushes, you find the weak points on bosses. It’s a game about learning in that it’s a game about getting to know the game’s world and inhabitants rather than internalizing its systems.
And by learning the ins and outs of the game’s world and its monsters – by being able to know the fastest paths, how to avoid danger, and how to deal damage when necessary, these initially impossible tasks get broken down into very manageable checklists and procedures. Armed with the knowledge of where to go, what to avoid, and how to deal with monsters in combat, the game really isn’t that hard. But to earn that knowledge – to get to that point where walking in and beating a boss is feasible – you have to deal with the repetition, the harsh punishments, the wrist-slapping that comes with the game’s tutelage. You will be brow-beaten until you understand.
Whether these games work for you or not depends entirely on how you feel about that. Some people balk at the idea of suffering through hours of repeating the same area over and over again, measuring progress in inches, only to reach a boss that requires an additional few hours of repeated tries just to unlock the next area and start all over. To others, it’s a challenge to rise to – every ambush encountered or attack tell memorized is another tool in the toolbelt, another addition to the knowledge bank that is the true source of your power in the game. And there is a tremendous sense of achievement in being able to casually walk through an area that had terrorized you just hours before hand. Some of it is aided by stat upgrades, sure, but the monsters there are still a threat – you just know how to deal with them. It’s the videogame equivalent of taming the wild, of bringing a feral thing to heel even if it takes time and dedication to do so.
So is Dark Souls hard? Yeah, it is hard. But it’s not hard in a way where randomness and outright acts of aimless cruelty drive its difficulty. Instead it’s hard like a strict but fair teacher. I think the game has a reputation for being Pinhead – a sadomasochist who thinks pleasure and pain are inexorably linked. But it’s really more of a Pai Mei from Kill Bill – a teacher who means well but thinks taking out an eye is an appropriate response to disrespect. Both characters really want to hurt you, but one thinks you enjoy it while the other uses it to enforce discipline.
All of that strict instruction can feel really rewarding if you’re the type to persevere until you’ve mastered what is asked of you, but all of that relentless disciplining and chastisement also turns a lot of people off of the game. I mean, why do you think it took me four tries at From Software games to finally stick with one? Dark Souls is hard enough that even people with decent game literacy struggle with it, and there are plenty of people who genuinely can’t make progress. So we reach the question of: Does Dark Souls need an easy mode?
The question of whether to open a game up to a wider audience is a decidedly political one in the games space – we’re not four years removed from Jennifer Hepler having to delete her Twitter account because she suggested that players should be able to skip combat scenes the way they can can skip cutscenes and the reactionary gamer crowd responded… pretty much how the reactionary gamer crowd responds to everything at this point. But Hepler’s point was valid – games like Dragon’s Age or Mass Effect are games that had people interested in their combat gameplay loop and in their narrative systems. If we let players interested in shooting skip or minimize the story systems, why not the opposite for people that struggle with or don’t care for shooting?
The idea of releasing an easy mode for Dark Souls that broadens the game’s appeal is noble – far be it for me to say accessibility is a bad thing. But unlike Mass Effect, there really aren’t any other systems to lean on. Mostly it’s just combat. And the problem is it’s hard to “easy-ify” the combat’s core conceit of learning through repeated failure. Like, the game’s intent is for you to die a lot, and the goal of making the game easier is to not make you die a lot. They’re inherently at odds. Like, look at DOOM. All of DOOM’s difficulties ask you to dodge missiles and shoot monsters, and higher levels of difficulty just ask you to dodge more missiles and shoot more monsters. The core of the game can scale with how hard it is.
But the core of Dark Souls really is dying a bunch to learn how to not die. The reason you remember ambush locations is because they are often fatal or near enough to it. Enemy animations are memorized because miscalculating your response to an attack can be lethal. Player animations don’t tween in order to force the player to think about their next move before committing rather than just slamming the A button repeatedly. If you peel the damage done back down and crank the damage dealt up the emphasis on that knowledge, hard-earned through 1,000 deaths, fades. And with it would go that sense of accomplishment, of completing a task that at one point felt impossible. And that’s not the game Miyazaki and From Software set out to make. You would still get all the vistas and see the enemies and read the background lore, but you’d also be playing a fundamentally different game. That’s not to say that an easier mode for Dark Souls can’t exist or that it would be bad, just that it would be different.
Ultimately it’s the developers who have to make the call about what that difference means to their game and whether to include easier modes. But Dark Souls – more than most games – makes a compelling argument for its difficulty. It’s not system-mastery-as-machismo and it’s not thoughtlessly mimicking coin-op or NES difficulty out of blind nostalgia. It has its design goals and it achieves them even if it means alienating a lot of its potential audience. One could argue that’s such a commitment to artistic intent is bold – but then again, one could argue the same thing about Pei Mei’s teaching style.