Friday, 10 February 2012

Prepare To Die - Why Dark Souls is Difficult

Dark Souls pt. 1

Dark Souls is famed for its difficulty.  If you went out onto the street and asked people what they know about Dark Souls then you would probably get a blank look and a quickening of the stride.  However, if you then went back indoors and asked some people on the internet who play games you would get one resounding answer "oh yeah, that's that difficult game."

Difficulty is central to Dark Souls but not, as some claim, because the developers are sadistic lunatics who want to make a game which is as difficult as possible.  The difficulty level of Dark Souls is there for a reason.  In fact it’s there for many reasons.

This is not something that the developers shy away from.  In fact, they love it.  They know their target audience.  This is a game that is presented to you as being difficult.  The box says "Prepare to Die!!!", the trailers say "Prepare to Die!!!"... everything says "Prepare to Die!!!"  You are told, repeatedly, that it is going to be a challenge.  This is deliberate.  They want you to be scared.

That feeling of trepidation as you're playing the game is one of its greatest strengths, and the marketing is designed to instil this before you've even put the disc in your console.  The whole game is based around you being scared.  Watch people playing it.  Their shield is up at all times, they stick their head through a doorway and instantly jump back.  Danger is everywhere, and that is a wonderful thing.  How many games can you say have really scared you?  Resident Evil 2 springs to mind, but even that was just cheap “jump” scares – anybody can do that. Dark Souls made me nervous.  Genuinely, and for long periods.

This is a good thing.  You are experiencing emotion as you play the game.  That is Good (see, I even gave it a capital letter.)  It makes you concentrate on what you are doing, it makes you pay attention to what is going on.  It also has another effect...

The feeling when you achieve something is amazing.  Just as there is no down without an up, no yin without a yang, so you need to spend 99% of your time scared and nervous to fully appreciate the moment when you teach that huge, slobbering demon who exactly is the Daddy round here.  There is nothing like it in gaming, there has been nothing like it in gaming for years.  When I beat Ornstein and Smough for the first time I was physically shaking.  It is a wonderful feeling, and you get it because you deserve it.  You did it! (To coin a phrase.)  The game didn’t do it.  The game didn’t hold your hand and tell you what to do.  The game doesn’t give a flying one.  You did it.  You.  Little old you.

Because modern games are dull, aren’t they?  Come on.  Be honest with yourself.  Look down, deep into your gaming heart and admit it.  Yeah, it’s great being a cyborg, or Batman , or the Dragonborn but isn't it all just a little bit tedious?  The chances are that the reason you don’t finish a game these days isn’t because you’re stuck but because you’re bored.  Follow the arrow, there’s some baddies, beat them up, maybe pick a bit of dialogue and get your reward.  Repeat, repeat, repeat.  Booooorrrriiinnnggg.  They’re not games any more, they’re gratification engines.  There are no ups, no downs, just a constant level of “quite nice”.

This game doesn’t do that.  Here there are proper highs and proper lows.  There are moments when you cannot see how you are possibly going to progress.  When you first encounter some of the bosses they kill you in one hit, they smear you all over the nicely rendered stonework in an instant.  This happens to people and they cry “it’s so difficult” but they don’t realise that this is the whole point.  For there to be achievement, there needs to be something to overcome.

Next: You're not alone.

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