Difficulty in Gaming
Back in February 5th, 2009, a relatively unknown game by the name of “Demon’s Souls” was released for the Playstation 3. At the time, I was 22, and not heavy into the console gaming scene. Mostly around that age I was playing World of Warcraft on the PC, or casually enjoying a game or two on the PS3. I vaguely remember around this time being absolutely obsessed with Dragon Age: Origins, as I had not discovered Demon’s Souls when it was released.
It wasn’t until maybe around early 2010 I found Demon’s Souls on a random trip to GameStop, sitting in the pre-owned section. On the back of the box they advertised some of the most interesting concepts I had seen in a game up until this point: “Leave hints, view the deaths of past players, work cooperatively, or invade another’s game!,” Unrestricted choice, and Ever-changing World just to name a few. If any of that caught your attention – trust me – it caught mine and I didn’t know anything about it. I still remember asking myself, “How did I never hear anything about this game?” So I bought it, and brought it home.
For those of you that have never touched a “Soulsborne”, then you can’t even begin to know how I felt the first time I dropped into this game. Demon’s Souls belongs to a genre of games that are very difficult, at first glance seem to have a very disjointed story (but they actually don’t, it is told uniquely through item tooltip descriptions, world building, and boss dialogue), and the tutorial literally is a few tooltips/dialogue boxes, then you’re thrust into an open ended world, expected to figure things out on your own.
I’ll be the first to tell you, I played this game for 30 or so odd minutes, then shelved it, thinking, “Who the hell would want to play something like this?” When you die in a Soulsborne game, you lose all your experience (that is, currency that you spend on character attributes to make you stronger), you go back to the last checkpoint, and the ultimate icing on the cake – all of the enemies you killed (minus a few exceptions) respawned.
The first time I died, I thought, “Holy sh** – this is absolutely brutal – how can anyone handle this?” My character ethereally rose from the ground, at the start of the area. I sat there in absolute awe, I could not believe a game in 2009 hadn’t heard the concept of picking up where you left off when you died, this was absurd. Needless to say Demon’s Souls collected dust for the next couple months.
One of the things that really stuck out to me is the homage to an older game like Super Mario Brothers. Long ago, when Mario released on the NES in September 1985, way before Demon’s Souls was even an inkling on someone’s’ mind, that same mechanic had already been planted as a seed. When you die in Mario, you start back at the beginning with all the enemies respawned. Kind of really puts things in perspective, a mechanic we covet so dearly in Soulsborne games had its’ roots steeped into the very early generation of gaming.
It wasn’t until late 2010, while thumbing through my backlog, that my finger came to rest on the spine of Demon’s Souls once again. I figured that enough time had passed, maybe I can glance at a few videos about it, and see if I can maybe put this game to the test. So I took to the web, and browsed some gameplay – and what I was watching, was stunning. I could not believe the amount of content that was in this game, the world, and monster variety that was there – but I couldn’t get past the first 15 minutes of the area. So after a little bit of GameFAQs browsing (does everyone still remember that site?), I loaded the disc back into the PS3, and from that point on, I have been a Soulsborne fanatic.
Soulsborne games have become a genre simply by the way the game operates, and its’ brutal difficulty. While in my opinion “Souls” games have become easier, because human nature is to adapt, and adjust to challenges set before them – at their very essence, they are games made for people looking for a challenge.
Difficulty in gaming has been around since the earliest gaming systems were invented, but sometime in the last 20 or so odd years, gaming as a whole, has instituted systems, and mechanics that have “casualized” (made easier) video gaming as a whole. Far too often we see games made to cater to the majority of players, making sure they are able to beat the game, no matter the circumstances.
As I touched on before, Demon’s Souls nearly resets the game completely as you die – you are then tasked with taking on the entire level again, up until defeating that level’s boss. Through clever level design, as you advance through the world, you unlock multiple extra paths, allowing you to traverse faster, even if you die (level-state changes remain through death).
Credit for YouTube Video @ LetsGameInHD
Thus you are learning through repeated deaths, a cycle you cannot break unless you kill that level’s boss. That, at its’ core, is what makes this genre so appealing, and rewarding.
Difficulty in gaming has made sort of a comeback in this day and age. More people are finding they love the challenge, and developers are making difficulties for their games to cater to this demographic, instead of simply only giving them one or two difficulty options. I personally believe “Souls” games have done a great job at reviving an ancient art of gaming, that had been lost since save cards were invented, and checkpoint systems were abandoned.
Challenge is important, and good game developers have found that overcoming challenge is a rewarding experience in and of itself. You never truly feel successful until you overcome some giant hurdle, and “Souls” games do a very good job at that. Average gaming these days has no problem allowing you to plow through their game at an alarming pace, providing you numerous continues, checkpoints, quick-saves, abundant healing, or forgivable mechanics. In Souls’ games, you either kill the boss, or he kills you – if you die, you go back to the start of the level, and have to traverse the entire level to even get the opportunity to engage that boss again.
This kind of focus pushes you to really pay attention to mistakes, and dig into the details of your game-play. After dying numerous times to a boss, and then overcoming that boss, you are literally overwhelmed by a series of emotions that are almost indescribable, unless you have accomplished something like it. In “Bloodborne” (another Soulsborne game, made by the same director) there was a boss called “Orphan of Kos” at the end of the expansion. I died to this guy, literally, over one hundred times. Each time I died, I felt like I learned a little bit of something to use against him, or a nugget of info that I needed to adapt to. It’s this kind of difficulty that creates a reward by itself. If victory comes easy, it is less sweet, and “Souls” games have intelligently managed to weave this euphoria into their genre simple by sticking to their guns of keeping them difficult.
This is my Orphan of Kos Kill @ The Busy Gamer
One of the last things that really makes a game difficult, is responsive, intuitive combat – and enemy types/positions that can surprise you. The craziest aspect of all “Soulsborne” games is the combat. In all Souls games, generally you have a slower, less arcadey, tight knit combat system. Every choice you make is the difference between dying and surviving, because if you swing and miss, you are left open to punishment from the enemies. This also translates to the monsters within the game as well. There are generally five basic options: Block, Parry, Attack, Roll, Spell/Item Use.
Each option here leaves you open for a punishment, some reward you through excellent use, and that is what makes the combat in Souls unique, every choice you make is important, and mastering combat is just another rewarding experience the difficulty of the game brings to you.
Last but not least is the enemy placement. Souls games are not above punishing you with an enemy/object out of your sight, that will swoop in and instantly killing you. Sometimes a part of the game is learning through death, and the developers use that to their advantage.
I think developers should continue to consider difficulty as a badge of honor. It’s not exactly my place for me to say that games don’t deserve casual options, but they should not shun difficulty, because gamers like me strive to test the limits of our abilities. Look at Playstation 4’s recent release of “God of War” – in this game they have the easiest of difficulties, then a difficulty so hard even I could barely touch it. The difficulty option was so hard, it turned the first boss fight into something you really had to work hard for, and not many could accomplish. With that being said, I also believe that beating something on the hardest difficulty should come with a reward for players to show off, like avatars, wallpapers, tags, titles, etc. Developers should really consider what to give back to someone who decides to push through a game’s hardest of hurdles.
Difficulty is rewarding in and of itself, but some badges of honor would be nice. So to all the players out there who game on the hardest difficulty, like me, I salute you!
Until next time,