For a long time I’ve been wanting to contrast Batman with Dark Souls. But every time I get into it I realize we’re just going to end up having the same frustrating arguments that always arise whenever someone mentions Dark Souls.
Dark Souls is famous for being “hard”. But then some people will insist, with a straight face, that Dark Souls is “Not that hard” and someone else says the game is “Tough but fair” and someone else says it’s not hard because videogame torture devices like I Wanna Be The Guy exist. Still other people use Dark Souls as a universal metaphor of arduous challenge. As in: “Ghost Peppers are the Dark Souls of spicy food.”
On top of this is the judgemental attitudes people throw at each other over what difficulty level they play on. George Carlin once said:
Have you ever noticed when you’re driving that anyone who’s driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac?
Anyone playing easier than you is a filthy casual noob and anyone playing the game harder than you is a masochistic tryhard.
The point is that some people are really particular about what difficulty levels other people should play on, and so every discussion on what difficulty is ends up getting sidetracked into this side-argument on the “intended experience” and “the right way to play”.
Three Dimensional Difficulty
On top of this, our conversations about game difficulty are fundamentally broken. We have countless people all arguing past each other because they all have different standards and criteria for determining what makes a game “hard”. We’ve been using a simplistic model that imagines difficulty as something that exists on a single axis, with the low end being “easy” and the high end being “hard”. And to a certain extent, this makes sense. That’s how the games themselves present it.
Back in the days of Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM, selecting “New Game” would take you to a menu where you can choose somewhere on the gradient between “Ultimate Baby Mode” and “Technically Possible for Humans”. And that system has stuck around. But since then games have grown in sophistication, audience, and complexity. We have more games than ever before and those games offer a greater range of experiences to appeal to more varying tastes. Games have long since evolved past the stage of being simple mechanical challenges designed to devour quarters, and so I think it’s time we updated the way we think about difficulty.
I’m going to put forth the notion that game difficulty is at least a three-dimensional problem. If we want to pull apart what makes some games “hard” or “easy” then I think we can talk about three independant design choices that all feed into this concept we call “difficulty”.
I realize making up nomenclature and sorting things into categories is a horribly tedious and pretentious thing to do. But I think it’s less tedious than the misunderstandings we keep having over difficulty, and if trying to clear that up gets me marked as pretentious, then I’m willing to bear that burden.
Look, you don’t have to use my definitions, and you don’t have to divide difficulty up like I do. But I hope we can at least agree that when we talk about a game being “hard” we’re dealing with more than one concept.
I think of mastery as how much mechanical depth the game has to offer. Like, “How good can you get at the game?” Or, how much better is the best player from the worst, and how easy is it to tell the difference?
In the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider there’s a sequence where Lara is sliding down a hill as the tumbling wreckage of an aircraft bears down on her. There’s debris in the way, and the player has to slide around the obstacles to reach the bottom alive. If you make a mistake, you die and start over.
Let’s imagine two players are both going through this sequence. One is a new player who’s just barely good enough to get through it, and the other is the world champion Tomb Raiderer. This player is the greatest and most legendary human being to ever raid a tomb or slide down this particular hill.
By watching the screen, can you tell which one of them is playing? Probably not. You can’t do this section faster, or more efficiently, or more stylishly. There aren’t secret techniques, special moves, or shortcuts. You either pass or fail. Once you’re good enough to make it through alive, you’ve effectively become as good as you can get at this.
And that’s fine. This set-piece is basically a cutscene with some light interactivity to keep you on your toes and allow the player to participate in the danger. It’s more about creating emotion and less interested in offering challenge. Quicktime events are the same way, which is why people often hate them. There’s no room for player expression. There’s no mastery. The game tells you what to do and you do it.
Contrast this with something like Super Mario Brothers 2 and the difference becomes obvious. You can play SMB quickly. Efficiently. Stylishly. You only need to look for a couple of seconds before you can tell if the player is new to the game or if they’re a master.
If you’re really enjoying the gameplay of a particular game, then you might feel compelled to learn to play it better. Maybe you’ll increase that linear difficulty slider. Maybe you’ll play to beat your best score. Maybe you’ll play under self-imposed limitations. A game with deep mastery is a game where there’s a huge performance delta between skilled players and newbies.
How many mistakes are you allowed to make before you fail? (Usually this means “death” or “game over”.) How much do your mistakes haunt you after you’ve made them? Hotline Miami is an incredibly strict game, because you’re not allowed to make any mistakes. Any hit means instant death.
Dark Souls isn’t nearly that strict, but it’s still more severe than most games. You can’t take a lot of damage, and when you do it doesn’t magically regenerate. Foes don’t helpfully drop health potions for you to use and you’re not going to find any healing in the environment. Every hit drains your supply of health / estus flasks, thus reducing your ability to absorb damage later. Those resources aren’t replenished until you reach a bonfire.
A shooter with regenerating health is not strict at all. You can make lots of mistakes, and all mistakes are wiped away once you find a safe place to cower for a few seconds. It doesn’t matter if you got through the fight without a scratch or if you got shot a hundred times. As long as you survive you’ll be at full health again by the time you reach the next fight.
Then you have games like Half-Life 2, which is the opposite of strict. While invisible to first-time players, the game actually rewards mistakes. When your health is low, the bad guys miss more, you find more medpacks, and each medpack delivers more healing. When your health is high, the bad guys shoot straight, they hit harder, and medpacks deliver less healing. This is why you can survive for twenty minutes with your health hovering somewhere in the middle, but then you get full health and a full shield and lose it all in thirty seconds. It’s all part of the magic trick Half-Life 2 is performing to make you feel threatened without actually killing you. The game tries to funnel players of all skill levels into the state where they feel like they’re doing fine, but not too fine.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach to game design, but it does sort of blur the player’s ability to appraise their own performance. It’s like lifting in a gym where weights magically get heavier as your muscles get stronger and lighter when you’re getting tired. You might be improving or you might be faltering, but it’s kind of hard to tell.
So what happens when you fail? What’s the cost to the player in terms of time and progress? In Hotline Miami, you’re sent back just a few seconds to the start of the level. You die often, but restarts are instant and painless. Other games have permadeath, so the cost of failure starts off as trivial and gradually increases as you play.
Too Human even went so far as to deliberately and explicitly punish the player with an unskippable 20 second cutscene on death. In my mind, that’s brutal. In terms of individual frustration, that’s worse than having a one-minute run back to where I died. Sure, twenty seconds is less than a minute, but during those twenty seconds you stop playing the game. Holding the run button is boring, but it’s far better than watching a cutscene you’ve seen a dozen times already.
The Problem With Punishment
Of the three, I think punishment is the contentious one. From reading what Souls fans have to say about the game, I gather that they need punishment for the challenge to be interesting to them. If the game isn’t threatening to punish them, then they feel like there’s no threat and thus no stakes. They’ll talk about the loop of punishment and retrying, and how it makes their eventual victory more rewarding.
I know it’s trite to distill a difference of opinion into a simple binary “there are two kinds of people”, but there really do seem to be two fundamentally different kinds of people. I don’t just mean “some like it, some don’t.” I mean there are two drastically different ways human beings respond to punishment in games.
I LOVE the new Hitman. If you took away quicksave and quickload, I’d HATE it. On the other hand, once I master a level I want to try beating it in a single run with no reloading. For me, punishment is a dangerous thing. I can enjoy the stakes-raising danger of punishment. I’ve played through stuff like Quake and Half-Life 2 with self-imposed permadeath. I’ve built sprawling mansions and fortresses in Minecraft worlds where death is permanent and the cost of failure might mean the loss of dozens of hours of effort. But the notable thing about punishment in these situations is:
- It was always self-imposed.
- It was NEVER when I was learning. It was always after I’d basically mastered the game and was looking to test myself.
Let’s say I’m playing a song on the piano and I hit a wrong note. My first instinct is to go back just a few notes, replay them, and make sure I hit the right note this time. I’ve just made a mistake, and I want to correct it as quickly as possible. I may even play those few notes over and over again (correctly this time) just to make sure the proper behavior is ingrained. I know what I did wrong, and I don’t want that wrong motion to get burned into my muscle memory. The last thing I want to do is go all the way back to the very beginning of the song and start over.
If I’m playing Dark Souls and I can’t get the hang of the timing on a boss, then I end up dying and slogging through a bunch of trash mobs before I can try again. That will take a few minutes. By the time I get back to the point where I made the mistake, I’ll have lost track of what I did wrong. In fact, in terms of developing muscle memory the most familiar thing is also the wrongest thing. Which means I’m more likely to repeat my previous mistake, thus further burning those wrong things into my memory. Or I have a moment of hesitation where I struggle to NOT do what I did last time, and end up getting killed because of the uncertainty.
This punishment is not enhancing my enjoyment of the game. It’s actually enraging. I become angry and frustrated and I resent every single moment wasted trying to fight my way back to where I left off.
For me (and I imagine a lot of people who dislike Dark Souls) the cycle of punishment doesn’t make the eventual victory “more rewarding”. It takes away the fun I would otherwise be having throwing myself at a challenge again and again until I master it. The thing that ruins the game for me is the same ingredient that makes the game so compelling for fans. You literally can’t please one group without ruining the game for the other.
Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal. There are lots of genres out there to cater to diverse tastes. That’s the whole reason we bother to classify games into genres: To help us find the stuff we’ll love and avoid the stuff we’ll hate. But Dark Souls is pretty much the only game in the AAA space where these people can get this particular experience. Even eight years after Demon’s Souls kicked off this craze, we’re not seeing the raft of clones, remixes, and copycats you’d expect from something this popular. And the few instances we do see come from the indies.
I think this is why Dark Souls fans have a reputation for being difficult and defensive. When there’s only one game in your genre, the last thing you want is for developers to make it more “mainstream” in response to the constant bitching about the game being “too hard”. If the masses had their way – if the game was changed to make it more palatable to folks like me – then the genre would stop existing.
So I get why we so often end up in these absurdist arguments where a Dark Souls fan is explaining to you earnestly and with no hint of irony that you would enjoy the game if you just played it differently, or thought about it differently, or followed their specific build advice. Many people really do think I’m somehow “missing out” by not playing this game.
So that’s difficulty. No, this list isn’t complete and it can’t be applied to all games. (Try putting adventure games on the Mastery / Strictness / Punishment scale. It’s odd.) But at least we have a framework for comparing different games in a way that won’t immediately end in misunderstanding.
Some games are hard because they have deep systems that take time to master. Some games are hard because they’re unforgiving and even small mistakes lead to failure. And some games are hard because the punishment for failure is severe in terms of time required to return to the point where you made the mistake.
Next time we’ll bring this back to talking about Batman.
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