My column this week revisits some of the ideas a I touched on during my Batman series, where I made the case that difficulty is a multi-dimensional problem and too often we reduce it to a single linear scale. Mostly this is an attempt to un-stick the usual arguments about difficulty so people stop talking past each other. I’m not trying to stop the debates on difficulty. I’m just hoping the debate can move in a more productive direction if we can make our arguments clear.
Also, I know we just had this debate last week when Bob Case talked about it, so this will be familiar territory for most of you. I’m not trying to beat a dead horse, I’m just trying to keep my Escapist content relevant.
There’s a little drama that plays out every time a new Dark Souls game comes out. It goes something like this:
STEREOTYPICAL GAMER COUCH – DAY
Typical Gamer: Man, I really like X. I wish more games did that.
Suddenly, a DARK SOULS EVANGELIST leaps in through the window!
Souls Evangelist: You should try Dark Souls! It has lots of X!
The gamer begins playing Dark Souls and is immediately CRUSHED HORRIBLY.
Typical Gamer: (Weeping tears of newbie shame.) Gah! This is madness! Why doesn’t this game have an easy mode?!?!
Suddenly, a DARK SOULS PURIST bursts in through the door!
Souls Purist: Bah! Why are you playing Dark Souls if you want easy mode? You want to ruin everything that makes this game great!
And so each game adds fuel to the fire. There’s always a fresh influx of people discovering the series for the first time, while also discovering that the game is really not for them. On one hand you’ve got a Soulsborne fan telling you the game’s difficulty is “not really that hard” and on the other side you’ve got a Soulsborne fan telling you the game is really hard on purpose. I often feel like those two need to settle up with each other before they pick a fight with me, but that’s not how debates work on the internet.
The point is that the debate keeps raging on, and people keep talking past each other because they all mean something different by “difficulty”.
When people ask for an easy mode, fans often argue that there IS an easy mode because you can grind for stat boosts or summon a friend. The stat boost thing seems interesting, but then other fans will tell you that it’s all about timing and stats don’t really matter, so if you’re grinding for stats then you’re playing the game wrong. So now the frustrated player is in a triangular argument with different Soulsborne fans telling them two contradictory things. (If grinding for higher stats actually made a big difference, then instead of asking for an easy mode people would be asking for the game to be “less grindy”.)
I’m actually in favor of systems where you can compensate for low skill through a bit of grinding. On the other hand, I don’t think the stats change the balance of power enough to really matter to the frustrated newbie. I never got far enough in a Soulsborne game to personally get a feel for how much of a difference the stats make in the long term, but in the first couple of hours of Dark Souls I found that stats had a barely-perceptible impact on fights. An extra dodge roll now and then is nice, but that boss still kills me quickly if I whiff the dodge and a couple more HP or stamina aren’t going to let me tank a bunch of hits until I get the timing rightTo be clear, it’s been years since I played Dark Souls and I don’t remember exactly how all the stats worked, or what everything was called..
The important thing here is the “summon a friend” argument. I think this is a terrible defense. It makes no sense, it doesn’t help the frustrated player, and it undercuts everything the game is supposedly trying to accomplish. For one, getting gaming time with friends is difficult when you’re an employed adult, not everyone has a friend who’s good at Dark Souls, and the in-game system for playing together is fiddly. If I’m stuck on a boss right NOW, then I’ll have to arrange a meeting with a friend at some point in the future. That doesn’t help me get over this roadblock right now. In the time it takes to get help from a friend, you could just as easily overcome the boss through sheer persistence and practice. Which indeed, is what the game is supposedly about. So inviting a friend takes you away from the “intended experience”.
And that’s assuming I personally know someone who plays the game, that they’re available, and that they play on the same platform I do. And once all of that is solved, there’s still the odd way you have to open the door for your friend without any strangers coming through, because there’s no player-controlled matchmaking.
If you don’t have a friend, you can summon a random player and hope they don’t murder you for giggles.
Great. So now you’ve replaced the frustration of fighting a boss with the frustration of non-specific matchmaking and griefing. That’s not a solution to your original problem, that’s just a new problem on top of the old one!
We Learn by Doing
These games are all about pattern recognition and timing. Having a friend beat the boss for you will clear the boss and allow you to proceed, but you will proceed without learning what you need to know. Functionally, it’s the equivalent of handing the controller to your buddy on the couch and letting them do it for you.
Soulsborne fans insist that having an easy mode or an instant-retry boss would ruin the intended experience. Fine. I won’t argue with that. This isn’t my genre and if fans tell me that’s part of what makes them love the game, then I wouldn’t want to see that changed. But having a friendOr some internet rando , whatever. beat the boss for you is far worse than either of those two options. If I play on easy mode where the boss is fighting with a pool noodle, I still have to execute the attacks myself. I still get to see how the boss responds to my movement and how it behaves. I can get a feel for the attack pattern and rhythm, I can learn to recognize the various boss attack animations, and I can learn when to spend my precious stamina on dodge rolls. The game won’t force me to learn those things and I might blunder through the fight with mindless button-mashing, but at least the opportunity for learning is there.
If someone else fights the boss, then I can’t learn those things. Mastering these fights requires building up muscle memory, and you can only build muscle memory by performing actions yourself. Sure, you could tell a newbie they should dodge 1.32 seconds after the boss begins the wind-up on their big attack, but that doesn’t enable them to play like a pro any more than watching someone play the piano will allow you to do the same. Mastery requires practice, and practice requires participation. Stabbing the boss in the butt while my buddy holds aggro doesn’t teach me how to survive the solo encounter, which is what I need to learn.
In short, summoning a buddy is an inconvenient and unreliable system that allows you to bypass a boss while also preventing you from mastering the combat mechanics. This is the worst thing you could do to a newbie, because they’re going to run into the exact same problem the next time they meet a boss.
Various people will tell you that the game is “all about”…
- …creating a sense of dread.
- …forcing the player to experience the repetition of defeat.
- …testing the player’s tenacity and perseverance, which underscores the themes of the game and the mood of the world.
I accept all of these as true. However, allowing the player to call in a ringer undercuts all of these. The world is a lot less dreadful with a friend. How am I going to experience that oh-so-important defeat if I’m riding someone else’s coattails to victory? How is it a test of tenacity if I can win by giving up and soliciting help?
I’ll accept that fighting a toothless boss on easy mode is a betrayal of the intended experience, but it’s a lot closer to the real thing than ganging up on a boss with a buddy.
Summoning a friend (or stranger) just takes me back to my original problem with Soulsborne games, which is that the games present you with a challenge that takes practice to overcome, and then the game interferes with your ability to practice.
Like I said in my Batman series:
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.
The punishment for failure in a Soulsborne game is that you’re not allowed to practice until you go do something else for a few minutes. This is really disruptive to the learning process, and it’s what makes me unable to enjoy the games. When I die, I’m not frustrated that I didn’t win, I’m enraged that I’m not allowed to keep practicing. I’m not talking about normal videogame frustration, I’m talking about real anger with adrenaline and broken controllers. It’s why I don’t feel elated when I finally win. I was already boiling mad, and you can’t really slide from “rage” to “overjoyed” because you won in a videogame.
This is my main problem with the Soulsborne games, and it’s basically insurmountable. There’s no way to fix the game for me without ruining it for fans, which is why my criticism is descriptive rather than prescriptive. I don’t think changing the game to suit my needs would be a good investment for the developer. It’s also why I’m not interested in pleas from fans to give the game another chance, or that I should try “thinking of it differently”.
No, playing with a buddy won’t help. If I was going to play one of these games, I’d want to learn to do it myself. If I wanted to watch someone else do it I could skip the goofy matchmaking and just watch the dang thing on YouTube. It’s fine that the game has multiplayer, but the ability to summon help is in no way a justification for not having an easy mode.
And to be honest, I don’t think we NEED a justification for not having easy mode. Hidetaka Miyazaki made exactly the game he meant to. I don’t personally enjoy the result, but he’s sticking to his vision and not compromising in pursuit of sales or mainstream appeal. Frankly I wish this industry had more of that sort of thing. The Soulsborne games are a very specific game for a very specific audience, and as long as the game is pleasing its intended audience then I’m happy it exists.
 To be clear, it’s been years since I played Dark Souls and I don’t remember exactly how all the stats worked, or what everything was called.
 Or some internet rando , whatever.
Good to be the King?
Which would you rather be: A king in the middle ages, or a lower-income laborer in the 21st century?
The Best of 2011
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2011.
Do It Again, Stupid
One of the highest-rated games of all time has some of the least interesting gameplay.
There's a wonderful way to balance difficulty in RPGs, and designers try to prevent it. For some reason.
A horrible, railroading, stupid, contrived, and painfully ill-conceived roleplaying campaign. All in good fun.