Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Why Dark Souls Is So Hard

Before playing the Souls games, if someone would have told me that they wanted to design a game that was not only difficult, but also would force players to repeat lengthy sections of game already played through after dying, I would have said it was a bad idea. That sort of game-design, I thought, was an inferior relic of the past. That's how NES games were made. And that was an unfortunate consequence of the technology of the time, not a virtue. Forcing players to repeat challenging sections of a game today is just unnecessarily punishing and would result in nothing more than pain and frustration.

All that is actually true. But what I forgot (until I played Demon's Souls) was that those old NES games, with all their faults, achieved something that modern games have lost sight of. Along with the pain and frustration comes powerful feelings, including fear, anxiety, excitement, and elation. These emotions are not produced by narrative (storytelling, cinematic, etc.), but by the game design itself in which difficulty and punishment play an integral part.

The Souls series is infamous for their killer difficulty, and plenty of people have claimed this as part of its charm and what makes it so unique and fun. The thing is, I think people tend to get this slightly wrong when they describe the design principle at play. People like to say that it's all about the joy of overcoming a challenge. Actually, I think it's more like the relief that comes from conquering a fear. In other words, Souls games are more about the things that take place within, rather than without.

You see, when you make it to the Tower Knight, the effect of his massive frame depends a great deal on the fact that you've just survived a gauntlet of crossbowmen, armored knights, snarling dogs, and a fire-breathing dragon. That battle was tough enough, and no doubt, you've probably died more than once on your way. Passing through that last fog-gate, all this struggle fleshes out and frames the impending confrontation, giving it special meaning. Essentially, it invests the Tower Knight with the power to punish you, i.e., the power to send you back all the way to the beginning of the level. The consequence of this is real tension. You know that the Tower Knight can do more that just bash your character with his giant spear. Much more significantly, he can demolish what you've accomplished up to this point. And that is far more intimidating.

It's interesting to think about how much bigger-budget games try to evoke feelings from the players through dynamic set-pieces, compelling narratives, and professional voice actors. The aim of these devices is to draw the player in, and in certain cases, they prove effective. But Dark Souls and Demon's Souls achieve a deep immersion by simply giving the player a real stake in the outcome of in-game events. The difference here is that narrative conventions can only invest players in illusory goals (save the world, for example, that exist outside the player), while Souls games invest the player in goals that pertain to his/her actual self (master your fear and defeat the boss or be banished to the beginning and lose your progress).

I think this is a principle of game-design that reveals itself in many parts of the Souls games. It makes sense, for example, that narrative is largely absent from the games. Bits and pieces can be discovered through item descriptions and NPC dialogues. But nothing resembling a story with a plot is presented at any point. As a result, players invent their own stories for what is taking place, which makes them own what takes place in the game in a way that a narrative-driven game cannot. The same logic applies to the lack of explanation regarding game-mechanics. You have to discover these things on your own, and as a result, these discoveries become part of your self, and thus further immerse you into the game world.

Of course, none of this would work if the game were not fundamentally well-made. Crushing difficulty turns into apathy or despair if the world it takes place in doesn't have an underlying consistency. The Souls games have this, and so they succeed where other difficult games fail. The tools for survival must be present to you from the beginning, and the basic rules of the game must never change. Dark Souls and Demon's Souls maintain this contract with the player at virtually all times, and as a result, the player has faith in his ability to persevere to the end.

So to all those interested individuals wondering if they should try one of these games (but feeling a little intimidated by all the talk of difficulty), understand that such feelings are the point. You're supposed to feel intimidated, when you play these games. This is also the reward, because these negative emotions tie in directly to the positive ones you will experience after you overcome your fear.

The only downside to this structure is that Souls games are never so good as the first time you play them. No matter how many NG+'s you play to, the Tower Knight will never be quite be so terrifying as he was on NG. The same goes for Ornstein and Smough and the Four Kings. Sure, they get "harder," in the sense that they hit harder and have more health. But the "hardness" of the Souls games is really only in service to the feelings that they evoke, and those feelings also depend on the dread that comes from knowing what's behind you and NOT knowing what's coming next.

I'm looking forward to Dark Souls II, but am also wondering if it will provide the same highs that the other Souls games did. I played the beta, and it was certainly challenging. But, though I like the open-world design of Dark Souls, I feel the bonfire system sometimes undermines the tension of boss fights by making it too easy to return to them after dying. In some ways, Demon's Souls did this better. What do you think? Can Dark Souls II bring back those feelings of terror and triumph elicited by its predecessors?


  1. Great article. With the director from the Monster Hunter series on board, I have every faith in Dark Souls 2. As long as the bonfires are far enough apart it retains the quality you describe while still enabling the open world nature which isn't possible with the hub structure of the Nexus.

    1. My sense from the beta was that they are maintaining that quality. I especially liked the black phantom guardians before the Chariot boss. I kind of wish they would have regenerated though after each player death. In the beta, once you beat them, they did not respawn.

    2. I noticed :)
      I suspect they might not even be in final game. They did the same when they were showcasing DaS1 at Eurogamer... filled Undead Burg with red versions of those giant shielded knights, but I suspect it is designed to slow people down on demo builds more than represent the final game.