By Kallim 21 Comments
With the recent appearance of the trailer for Dark Souls I started thinking to myself about... well, many things; for one I came a bit in my pants and I needed to think of a way to solve that issue, but having played Demon’s Souls I was familiar with the kind of difficulty this game most likely will contain. This made me think that it was time to write a blog post for the benefit of my GB-Achievements and anyone who happens to have a gratuitous amount of time to waste. I will mostly be discussing difficulty in games; the importance of a challenge, the positive effects of punishing games and what kinds of difficulty work. Also, let me preface; I am not writing this because I want to swing my giant e-peen across your face. I’m just going to be discussing the various benefits of a challenge in games. No flaming kkthxbye.
For this whole article to have any point the importance of a challenge in games needs to be established, so I’ll start there. First of all I would like to remind people that the importance of a challenge is a universal concept. It is present regardless of what activity you’re pursuing. For example; you’re playing soccer (or football if that’s your thing), you have the ball and you start rushing for the goal. You steel yourself for some heavy resistance, but guess what? The other team has asthma, downs and a healthy dose of arthritis and has no chance in hell of catching you. With the amount of resistance you’re getting of course you score. Now tell me, the end result is the same; you scored! YAY YOU! However, was there really any fulfillment in that? No one can deny that you scored that goal and it may look damn impressive for an outsider, but whatever happened to personal fulfillment? The ironic thing is that if you apply this analogy to games you will see that the only thing that’s left once you remove the challenge is your e-peen. To once again appease the people who think I’m an elitist douche, I would like to clarify that challenge is relative to skill. If you yourself happen to have the same mix of asthma, downs and arthritis this would of course be a challenge for you, and the personal fulfillment is once again present.
In my continuing struggle to make sure my points are valid I feel the need to express another reason for the importance of challenges. A video game unifies the visual arts such as film and audible artistic expressions such as music with interactivity. That makes interactivity the big difference between these artistic mediums. Which effects that has for games and why that can make it a much more expressive artistic medium is something I won’t discuss here. My point is that the interactivity needs to contribute something to the formula for there to be any reason for me to sit through 6 hours of car chases, explosions and antagonistic helicopters when I could do the same in one and a half hours with a movie and skip the trudge through a boring interactive component. I am aware that an interactive component can be engaging on its own without a challenge. RPGs and games like little big planet are good examples of this. However, not every game can be this creative and engaging, and that is where the exhilaration of getting through something truly challenging comes in. Have you ever overcome something that took you maybe even several hours and pushed you to your limits? It’s a wonderful feeling. Personal fulfillment is a magnificent thing. Some people don’t value games to the point where they would care if they completed something, but if you were one of those people you probably wouldn’t be reading this article.
Having established the importance of difficulty I now wish to talk about some different kinds of difficulties and how to do it “right”. To be honest it quite simply isn’t enough to just be “difficult”. We have situations that are simply challenging where you would have to really put out the best possible performance you can to pull through and then we have situations where you need to put out a less stellar performance to pull through but arbitrary random factors keep getting in the way. For example; you need to jump over several pitfalls to get to the end of a challenge. The pitfalls are huge and you barely pull through every time, but as long as you are consistent in your performance there isn’t going to be a huge issue. If you happen to fall it will be your own fault. You get to the other side and you are introduced to a new challenge. A sign above the entrance says in threatening, burning letters “Welcome to Trial and Error”. As you get in you’re relieved to see that it’s pretty much the same challenge, just with slightly smaller pitfalls. You clear the first one without a problem, same with the second one, but just as you’re assured that the whole thing will be a breeze 50 cent jumps out from behind a corner holding a rocket launcher yelling incoherently about a skull and some bitch and promptly wipes you from the face of the earth. You respawn at the beginning, slightly baffled, but you decide to try again. As you prepare to jump the first pitfall you hear a sound that most definitely wasn’t there the last time around and a huge spinning blade suddenly splits you in half. A few hours and hundreds of tries later you find yourself introducing your controller to your TV (Spoilers: THIS IS NOT THE “RIGHT” WAY).
Being a bit of a masochist when it comes to games I have quite a few games I could use for my purpose here, but I will use Ninja Gaiden 2 and Demon’s Souls. I have nothing but love for Ninja Gaiden’s gameplay personally, but it does have some faults; one of those being how they ramp up the difficulty at the later stages. I started out at a low level and worked myself up to the second highest difficulty. I waited a couple of days and then decided to try it out. I loaded up the game, pumped and ready to go. Having forgotten exactly how the game started I wasn’t prepared for what was coming and exactly 6 seconds later I found poor Ryu lying in a pool of his own blood. It turns out that in the jump up to the next difficulty the good natured tutorial ninjas had decided to equip themselves with some exploding throwing knives. The next time I loaded up the game I was prepared and hyped. My strategy had evolved into blocking constantly whenever I wasn’t attacking. A very basic tactic, but one I had never bothered with before because it just slowed down the game. Having cleared these enemies I kept going and cleared my way to the point where they wanted to introduce ranged units as well. Turns out that they had decided to go for some higher tech as well. This time they had replaced their old fashioned bows with rocket launchers. And let me tell you, constant rockets flying at me didn’t go too well with my strategy for blocking whenever I wasn’t on the offensive, seeing as I would have to stand still for this. Now, for anyone who has bothered with clearing this probably has a good solution as to how you fix this problem, but the simplest solution was to start spamming one attack that made sure I was never in the same place for more than a second; the flying swallow, for those of you who have played the game. This killed the fun of the game for me. Of course they threw a lot of other enemies at me later in the game, but this was always the most basic combo I met. And as such I quit halfway through the game. I would say that this is a very difficult game, but it falls into the trial and error category which makes it so that I spend gratuitous amounts of time banging my head against it before making it through, but it leaves me with no personal fulfillment because it was simply a coincidence that I got through when I did.
Demon’s Souls was an extremely pleasant surprise for me. I bought the game after hearing how difficult it was and I wanted to see how long it would take my thick head to crack through Demon’s Souls wall. Its archaic systems, third person combat and heavy stat building was a wet dream to me. For anyone who tried their hand at this, died in the start and got so heavily starved on souls that they simply didn’t get anywhere or heard a story of the same thing from a friend and therefore shied away from the game… I really don’t want to pull this out, but you (or your friend) were playing it wrong. At first sight it looks and plays like a slightly awkward third person action game and all your previous experience with such games imply that you should rush in headlong and decimate the hordes of enemies the game throws at you, and if you should happen to die there will always be a checkpoint there to save you. You may not be conscious of this, but that is how the games you have previously played have psychologically engineered you to react to games of the same type.
How does Demon’s Souls punish you for dying? It takes away all your money and experience combined and says you can’t have it back unless you work yourself back to the point you were at when you lost it. It combines the presence of absolutely no checkpoints with absolute persistency. Meaning; the potions you used during that boss fight? They’re still gone. You broke your sword during the fight? Well, get some new souls by using your backup weapon and fix it! In other words; you REALLY don’t want to die. I don’t think I’m reading too much into it when I say that these systems are there to psychologically engineer you into a player who can successfully play through the game. Those systems are there to motivate you to avoid death by planning things out, not overextending and methodically observe the things you meet before you risk fighting them straight up. These things of course make it so that it’s not something every player will enjoy. I won’t tell you that you are wrong if you didn’t like demon’s souls because you didn’t have the patience to deal with these mechanics. I only hope you’ll consider why they’re there and that it has some very positive and fully intended effects for the player base.
Personally I rarely died in demon’s souls because I took these lessons to heart. I died a couple of times on Flamelurker and the final boss both killed me three times and deleveled me three times when I killed him (I built a retardedly bad character that really wasn’t suited for fighting some bosses), but except for that I pretty much never died. Well, I died that one time when I got infected with the plague and didn’t have enough souls to buy an antidote… How should I have known those rats would give me something that dangerous? Anyways; I wouldn’t say that this makes the game easy or me awesome. I’m actually quite mediocre at games. I would rather say that it’s a testament to how well designed the difficulty of Demon’s Souls is. It was one of the hardest games I’ve ever played, but thanks to the fact that there are almost no random factors you can pretty much avoid dying as long as you’re careful and plan out your moves.