Sometimes Dark Souls players will tell you they like the game because it’s “fair”. This has probably caused more misunderstandings and arguments than anything else about the game, because “fair” is a horribly loaded word with contradictory meanings in different contexts and for different players.
When someone says fair, which one of these ideas are they talking about?
- Everyone competes according to the exact same rules and starting conditions.
- Everyone is forced to compete in such a way that victory is equally likely for all participants.
Those aren’t just different definitions, they’re opposing definitions. And yet people will often talk about “fairness” in terms of gambling, sports, board games, and videogames without ever clarifying which concept of fairness they’re talking about. Is roulette “fair” because every space has equal chances of winning, the wheel is unbiased, and the rules are clear? Or is it “unfair” because the odds clearly favor the house? If I play golf against Tiger Woods, is the game “fair” before or after we institute a stroke handicap that allows for our vastly different skill levels?
In Dark Souls, there’s a bit where you can get hit with a boulder. Some dudes roll it down the stairs at you, and if you’re not ready for it then it will pulverize you. It’s a small moment near the start of the game but it’s sort of infamous as a moment of confusion, indignation, or dismay for new players that blunder into it unaware. Let’s compare this to some other games.
In Tomb Raider 2014, there’s a cutscene where Lara stupidly blunders into the villain’s lair, loudly announces herself, and then initiates a confrontation using the worst weapon. Naturally she ends up captured for her trouble. This moment sometimes strikes players as unfair, because they feel they could have avoided this setback if they’d been allowed to retain control of their character.
So the Dark Souls boulder is “fair” because the game doesn’t force you to get run over by it in a cutscene. It’s up to you, your memory, and your reflexes. Tomb Raider is “unfair” because no matter how good you get at the game, you still have to accept this setback of being captured by guys you could easily defeat outside of a cutscene.
On the other hand…
In Arkham City, there’s a sequence where Batman has to cross a frozen pool. At the start, Batman announces that the ice is unstable and he brings up a little scanner to show the player how close the ice is to breaking. A minute later there’s a five-second cutscene where a shark jumps upJust go with it. and tries to bite our hero. Cutscene-Batman dodges out of the way and control is returned to the player. Now the player understands that the ice is brittle, and they understand that they’ll die if they fall in. The challenge and the stakes are clearly defined. If they player fails, they can’t claim the game didn’t warn them.
So the boulder is “unfair” because Dark Souls doesn’t telegraph the possibility of traps before you encounter them and Batman is “fair” because the rules and the threat were made clear ahead of time.
“But Shamus, the boulder isn’t some random thing. The game is teaching the player to watch out for traps.”
Obviously. The difference is that Batman does the same thing, but it does so before you encounter the danger. Batman doesn’t teach you about the weak ice by letting you jog over it, fall through, die, and then try again armed with that foreknowledge. It telegraphs the danger before you face it, while Dark Souls reveals the danger by having it run over you. Dark Souls teaches through failure and negative experience. (Which is in keeping with the overall tone of the world.) You can argue that you prefer one over the other, but this difference touches on what makes Dark Souls different and why some people call it unfair. People arguing over whether or not the game is fair are usually talking about two different sorts of fairness.
In the case of Dark Souls, “fair” means that all damage is theoretically avoidable. The game is about learning timing, enemy positions, attack patterns, and how to recognize enemy tells. Batman is the same thing. But rather than use the term “fair” I prefer to think of it as “perfectible”, because perfect play is possible and avoiding damage is based entirely on the player’s skill and knowledge. Compare this with a shooter where hits are unavoidable, or to an RPG where hits are controlled by dice rolls.
Like Dark Souls, Batman is perfectible. A sufficiently skilled player can get through an entire encounter without ever taking a hit or breaking their combo. The other thing these two games have in common is that they both feature a lot of mastery-type depth. The difference between a new player and an experienced one is obvious and massive, as is the difference between an experienced player and a master.
The difference between the games comes down to strictness and punishment. In Dark Souls, your mistakes stay with you until you reach a bonfire, and the game is only too happy to kill you for making a small number of blunders. In Batman, you can usually make lots of blunders and still muddle through. In Dark Souls, you might find yourself ten minutes away from where you died, with a long harrowing road back. In Batman you’re just reset to the most recent checkpoint, which is usually right at the start of the encounter you just failed.
In Dark Souls, you struggle to reach the next bonfire alive. In Batman, reaching the next checkpoint alive is almost a given. The caped crusader is incredibly durable and outside of boss fights or encounters with firearms, he’s always got the upper hand.
How I came to Love Batman: Arkham Whatever
In the Arkham games there are these optional challenge rooms you can face. They’re not part of the core game and take place completely outside the story. The challenge consists of four rounds of combat against increasingly difficult crowds. At the end, you’re rated on your performance. Keeping your combo climbing is the most important thing, but you also get points based on the variety of moves you use and how many different gadgets you can work into the fight. Your performance is rated in terms of gold / silver / bronze medals.
After my first trip through an Arkham gameI can’t remember where in this process I moved from Arkham Asylum to Arkham City, which is why I’m being vague about it here., I decided to give this thing a try. After some fumbling around, I managed to just barely score a bronze medal in the very first (easiest) challenge room. The score required to get a silver was preposterously high. And the gold medal? That was obviously impossible. I shook my head. This was a task for lunatics. I forgot about the challenge rooms and went back to playing the core game.
After another trip through the story mode I tried again and found that bronze medals were suddenly easy to get. In fact, it was hard to imagine sucking so bad at the game that I couldn’t at least score bronze. After some more practice I was just barely able to get the gold. Then I tried the “extreme” difficulty rooms and found I couldn’t even score bronze. Heck, I could barely survive the challenge. Half the time I’d die during the fight and get no score at all.
So then I played the game some more. I tried playing through the game in hard mode. I tried New Game+ mode. The next time I came back to the challenge rooms the normal rooms were easy to the point of being almost boring. I could score gold every time. Surviving the extreme challenges wasn’t a problem, although gold medals were still out of reach.
Then later gold medals were just barely obtainable. Then they were easily obtainable. Then while doing the play-through for this series I found myself playing through an extreme challenge and discovered that without trying I’d gotten about twice the score needed for a gold medal.
And despite the massive increase in skill, there is still a challenge that’s out of my reach and yet trivial for someone else.
Dark Souls has a similar progression. A challenge feels insurmountable, and is then mundane, and eventually trivial. You can feel yourself getting better and it’s exhilarating to see how far you’ve come. The difference is that Dark Souls forces you to to get better before you can proceed, and it punishes you if you fail. Batman usually allows you to muddle through and is happy to let you re-try a boss without making you traverse a bunch of game space and kill a bunch of mooks before you can have another go.
Regardless of whether you prefer Batman or Dark Souls, I think both games are admirable for the high degree of mastery they have to offer. I’d like to see more games focus on their mechanics as a means of entertainment, and not just as filler between the story bits.
Easy to Learn, Hard to Master, and VERY Hard to Replicate
Batman’s gameplay is one of those things that looks deceptively simple. A game developer sees the counter-prompts, the different mooks, the huge popularity, and the big pile of money developer Rocksteady makes with these things. And so they start thinking, “Bah. I could do that!”
Shadow of Mordor made this mistake. They copied the controls, but not the pacing of the game. In Arkham, fights are usually deliberately designed encounters with a fixed number of foes. You do the fight, and then you get to the end and see how you did. Shadow of Mordor missed this, and so fights in that game are this endless running melee with no coherent start or end. Sometimes guys will just keep coming. Instead of trying to fight perfectly, you’re just trying to survive. And since that’s really easy, it doesn’t feel like there’s any challenge. You can stumble your way through a fight or do it flawlessly. It doesn’t matter. The game doesn’t recognize or encourage flawless play. It’s like a game of golf where it doesn’t keep track of your strokes and your only goal is to get to the end.
Remember Me is another game that tried for this kind of brawling and managed to miss a lot of the key ingredients. The combat felt vague and floaty, and the animations lacked the kinesthetic punch that makes Batman so viscerally gratifying.
Usually when a game does well I find myself asking “Why doesn’t the industry make more like this?”Half-life 2 comes to mind. But in the case of Batman it’s pretty clear why Arkham is still peerless. This is a hard kind of game to make. It costs a lot, it’s easy to mess up, and the bar has already been set pretty high.
 Just go with it.
 I can’t remember where in this process I moved from Arkham Asylum to Arkham City, which is why I’m being vague about it here.
 Half-life 2 comes to mind.
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