Make Canoe my Homepage

Dark Souls a case study in difficulty level

- November 4th, 2011

How tough do you like your gaming? Harrowing ordeal? Funhouse ride?

Dark Souls will be remembered as one the better games of 2011, but also possibly the likeliest to result in broken TVs and hurt feelings. For as well as being a deep, beautifully crafted third-person adventure RPG, it’s controller-throwingly difficult. And cruel.

From Software, which developed the dungeon crawler as a follow-up to 2009’s critically-acclaimed Demon’s Souls, is intent on producing games which appeal to that subset of gamer that demands not only rich, immersive worlds in which to play, but also the toughest challenges anyone can throw their way, and hunger for games which tax, torment, and even royally screw with them.

The following story is true, and also a tad humiliating:

Early in my Dark Souls pilgrimage, I made a grave mistake—I accidentally struck an NPC (non-player character), a nice man who, moments after I defeated my first demon boss and entered a portal into a new area, offered me encouraging words, and clues as to what I was supposed to do next.

Well, anyone who played Ultima way-back-when knows what happens when you attack a friendly in the King’s court (or, gods forbid, the King himself). Suffice to say, he became confrontational. Hostile, even. He was extremely powerful, too—a single sword strike killed me instantly.

Live and learn, right?

No. Lessons in Dark Souls aren’t that easy.

When I re-spawned, he was still bent out of shape. He attacked again, killing me before I reclaimed my dropped souls.

Those souls, incidentally, are Dark Souls’ in-game currency—gold and experience points rolled into one. You can’t level up your character, or buy swords, armour and potions without them.

When killed, you drop the souls you’ve accumulated, and must navigate back to your blood stain to retrieve them. And if you die before managing to reach them, they’re gone.

In short, dying twice in succession can wipe out several hours worth of work.

So, this ridiculous respawn-die-respawn loop with the angered NPC played out five or six times before I accepted that I simply hadn’t leveled up enough to fight this man, this confrontational, hostile man—and I fled.

Live and learn, right?

No.

He pursued me. Down hallways, up staircases, around in circles. I could feel him coming, when slowing to get my bearings, or when tied up in combat with hordes of skeletons. Over and over, he’d kill me, I’d re-spawn and, unwilling to forgive and forget, he’d chase me down and murder me again. This continued for 45 minutes, until he fell off a cliff.

darksoulsbattle600

By the way, nope; reverting to an earlier game save wasn’t an option. Dark Souls anticipated you might say that. You get one save file, and little control over when saves occur.

Yes, you’re understanding correctly—I was griefed by an AI character for a full forty five minutes, a character who would have remained friendly, if I hadn’t loused things up. You haven’t been trolled until you’ve been trolled by Dark Souls. This game will punish you more severely for missteps than just about anything you’ve ever played and at times you’ll be convinced the developers are laughing at you.

And yet, as tough as Dark Souls is, it’s fair. This is actually the aspect of the game’s design I respect most: when you die (and you will—a lot) it’s never cheap, just unexpected, and generally a learning experience. There are rules that govern the Dark Souls universe and, as frustrating as things can get, the game doesn’t betray them. ‘Know your friends from your enemies, or pay a steep price’ is one such rule. It pushes you to be better, too—you quickly come to understand how dire your situation is, and adjust. Skilled play and intelligent choices are well-rewarded. l can’t say enough about how well-built this cruel universe is, and I recommend Dark Souls to anyone up for the challenge.

More generally, many make the case that video games have gotten too easy. Among the more frequent criticisms of present-day game design by veteran gamers is that “modern games hold the player’s hand too much!” Current generation triple-A titles, they lament, seldom pose a serious workout to the thumbs and wits of better players, and game designers appear unwilling to risk the possibility that a player miss something.

There’s no question modern games are designed to be completed—thus permitting gamers with varying degrees of pwnage ability to experience all of the content the game offers. After all, if you were a game designer, how might you feel about a marked percentage of your audience never seeing the final third of your masterpiece because they got stuck on a particularly frustrating boss battle?

In my day (did I really write that? For the love of Battletoads, I did. Somebody kill me.) games didn’t have waypoint markers visible on-screen at all times, highlighting the path to my next objective (and preventing me from straying too far off course, compromising the cinematic ‘directed experience’ modern games aim to provide). They also didn’t feature in-game maps (graph paper, anyone?) or unlimited continues or tutorial sequences that spanned the entire first act. You learned the ropes by trying and failing, and doing a little better next time. That was just part of the experience.

Do you miss it? Do you like games which push your reflexes and your patience to the limits?

___

‘Side Mission’ Chris Vandergaag loves hearing from Canadian gamers, both the core and the casual. Find him on Twitter: @ButNoSeriously

Subscribe to the post

3 comments

  1. Max | November 24, 2011 at 11:28 am

    Well, your example of the crazed NPC chasing you kinda sounds like poor game design to me. It was an accident. One blow. Why not the option of saying sorry? This option was available in one RPG I played. It simply involved putting your sword away and clicking on the character to talk to him. I cannot remember which game it was. And for him to chase you that long? It was one blow. Why not make the gravity of his pursuit relative to the “crime”? This game is very intriguing, but I will not play it. I play games for enjoyment, not frustration!

  2. Cynthia | May 22, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    Chris..
    You’re story is absolutely representative of the unforgiving character of Dark Souls, but you missed one crucial element: reward.
    I’ve been playing this game with my boyfriend for the past week, and we have managed to ring the first bell. In the process, we’ve had mishaps with a number of NPCs. The first attack we made was actually purposeful, just to test out the character, the game, and our strength. We were far below his level, and though we respawned far enough away not to alert him to our presence immediately, we did need to pass him, and learned that he would not forget us (though this seemed fair, as we’d attacked on purpose). After many tries, we eventually defeated him, and learned much about battle. The next NPC we killed was an accident, however. We had just beat our second boss and were jubilantly hopping through the next rooms of the castle, and saw an enemy standing with his back to us below. We’d picked up a number of firebombs from wretch soldiers, and decided to attempt a sneak attack. But, though he looked very much like one, this was not a hollow, evil soldier. He was a worshipper of the sun god, who likely had some great advice and maybe even help or tools to offer in defeating the next boss (which I will not describe to avoid spoilers, but against which we needed all the help we could get, and which we had to avoid for the next many of hours of gameplay before working out a strategy). After eventually defeating him (again following many attempts and learning a lot about battle strategies), though, we were not just left with frustration and more cautious attitudes. We took his armour — the most powerful we’ve yet to find in the game, though we’ve played far past this. Our mistake was harshly punished, but our success was greatly rewarded. Everything you do in this game is incredibly important, not just the mistakes, but the risks and achievements as well. So, although there will be great frustration, Max, the reward is so much more satisfying because of it!

  3. Chris Vandergaag | May 22, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    Well put! Dire consequences, great rewards. Definitely a fun style if you’re in the headspace.

    Lately I’ve been on a JRPG kick, where there’s typically not much consequence if I mess up or go into a situation not properly prepared. Lots of loot collection/grinding at my own pace – finding it more relaxing than Dark Souls to say the least.

Leave a comment

 characters available