Challenge Accepted: Selling on the challenge
Dark Souls doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to difficulty. You will die in this game. You will die over and over, brutally, ripped to shreds by enemies that are there for the explicit purpose of ripping you to shreds. The PC version is subtitled as the Prepare to Die Edition, a not-so-subtle reminder that when you start playing this game death comes for you on swift wings. And swift legs. And swift fins. Basically, everything is going to kill you over and over and you’re going to like it.
Is that challenging?
I’m not asking if the game is really all that hard or not, that’s for reviewers to argue over. (Or, as is more frequently the case, for forum-goers to debate with “oh, it wasn’t that hard” substituting as the gaming equivalent of explaining how many one-armed pushups you can do in an hour.) Rather, it’s a question of how challenging a game can be when its entire purpose is stated right from the start, when you walk in with a solid promise that this game will kill you over and over. Are you getting a challenge, or are you just getting what you paid for?
When I was a kid, the NES was kind of a central hobby of the entire house, with the entire family working together to figure out how to get through tricky sections of certain games. Blaster Master was a house-wide project, and while it took everyone a little while, it wasn’t long before all of us could reliably get to Area 3 in the game. Once everyone started consistently finding their way to the boss, though, things got dicey. It took me weeks of practice to get the boss down, and I was the only one who could manage it, culminating in the house-wide policy of “just get Eliot when you get to Area 3’s boss.” That was about when it became a game just for me, too; the game suddenly stepped up in Area 4 and beyond, so much so that it was no longer within the realm of easy play for the rest of the house.
That was a challenge, all right. The game stepped up and said that the kid gloves were coming off, that now things were going to get tough. And it was unexpected. There was no signpost saying “HERE LIES THE DIFFICULT PORTION OF THE GAME.” It was unexpected.
By contrast, a game like Dark Souls tells you right away that you will die, and die, and die, learning how to play and then learning how to start putting things together again. Despite that, I’ve heard that once you learn what the game wants from you, it’s not really that bracingly sudden; you roll around a lot, get killed as you learn attack patterns, and then emerge triumphant. The challenge is one of reflexes and memorization, which is perfectly valid, but in many ways its chest-pounding warning is more like a confirmation that you won’t find learning the attack patterns to be a walk in the park.
Of course, in order for that to be worth noting, you have to accept the idea that the default difficulty is pegged somewhere lower. And some of that is down to what the player expects.
When I run into a boss in a Persona game, I expect to die once. I expect to lose a life on my first go against a boss in a Mega Man game, and I fully expect that I’ll die a few times on the stage leading up to that boss. None of these things surprise me or cause me to think that something is particularly hard. In most games, I don’t expect I’ll die to a boss unless I’m massively underpowered without realizing it or otherwise rush in ill-advised. On normal difficulty, I just don’t expect to actually die.
Is that normal? Hard to say; I’ve played games for years on end, the industry’s conception of a fair challenge has changed over the years, and we all tend to think we’re above average without realizing how ridiculous that sounds. I think most games at this point are tuned with the expectation that the average player will die a couple of times for various reasons, above-average players won’t, and weaker players will die a few times. Games peg themselves at around that level. But if you go by sheer number of deaths, games like New Super Mario Bros. are incredibly difficult, which isn’t accurate. You die a lot, but the game is built for that, you’re vulnerable for large chunks of play by design, and the levels themselves are short enough that a death is a minor setback.
Deaths make you feel like something is harder, certainly. But a lot of that comes down to how you sell it and how you’ve set up the game to begin with. When I die five times on a level in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, it’s a slightly harder level, but not bad. When I die five times trying to clear the same quest in WildStar, something has gone terribly wrong and I start looking for the trick to make this work correctly. Because I’ve been told not to expect that. And when a game tells me “I am hard” and kills my character dozens of times in the tutorial, I feel vindicated, because here I am, playing this difficult game!
Excepting, of course, that it’s not hard to make a game that kills your character; it’s hard to make a game that kills your character repeatedly while feeling fair.
Pretty much every Mega Man game is meant to pluck lives out of your bank repeatedly, but most of the time it manages to feel fair while doing so. Yes, you died, but it was because you failed to do something correctly. The bad ones are where it feels that you’ve just been arbitrarily killed because the level needs to be longer, or you need to die a few more times for it to feel challenging enough. At the heart of selling a game as challenging is the idea that it will kill you over and over, while at the same time implicitly promising that all of those deaths will feel fair rather than arbitrary.
Whether or not that actually means the game is any more challenging is a matter of opinion, and I’d be lying if I said that dying over and over in a game that promised to kill me over and over felt like a challenge. It’s what I came to the party for.
Feel free to leave your feedback below or via mail, as always. Next time, I want to examine the virtue of easy play; the weak after that, managing expectation in terms of what game you’re playing and whether or not breaking those expectations is worth doing.