The ‘Dark Souls’ difficulty debate is a matter of ideologies, game design

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I have a confession: the Dark Souls 3 tutorial area boss killed me 15 times before I achieved victory.

The first few times Ludex Gundyr ran me through with his halberd I laughed it off, attributing my quick death to nerves and rusty skills.

I began to get angry after rolling off a cliff in the middle of the fight. Why did FROM Software stick such an improbably hard boss no more than ten minutes into the start of the game?

By death number ten I took a break, figuring that getting some food and space would do my mind some good.

The 12th time I died was the breaking point. Rachel rubbed my shoulder and gave an empathetic apology as I began to think about starting a new character.

I gave myself one more chance at besting the big, bulging brute and his brash bashing battle techniques. I accepted my fate and traversed the fog, but then my luck changed.

Something clicked on the 14th attempt. I began to notice a pattern in both stages of the arbiter’s attacks; a weakness in his swing that gave away where he was most vulnerable. The beast still struck me down, but I now had the knowledge to finish the job.

On the 15th try I felled my quarry,  shouting out in victory, scaring my cats, and dropping the controller as my daggers ran through my now fallen foe. You’ll notice that I  progressed through the five stages of grief during this fight. In many ways, fighting a great Dark Souls boss is akin to forming a relationship and seeing it through to its apotheosis.

More to the point, the fight was a harrowing video game experience that runs the gamut of feelings, thoughts, and skill. I have zero regrets about the 15 tries it took to best the boss, but I’m also well aware that many people will look at that experience and tune out from disinterest.

That’s fine. If I’ve learned anything from these games it’s that they are not designed for everyone. That doesn’t mean that the fundamental experience should change for people who wish to experience the Dark Souls world without also going through the same physical and emotional experiences.

That may sound like a long-winded version of saying “get good” as the more hardcore contingent of the Souls community would put it, but the discussion is far more complex than just telling players to improve or get out.

The Dark Souls difficulty discussion is also a matter of ideologies, not just in game design but in real world politics that, from time to time, seep into gaming culture.

The heart of the argument is whether Dark Souls as a series would benefit from a lower difficulty level, or an “easy mode.”

On one side of the argument are hardcore fans that think a mode that would make the game easier undercuts the experience of the game, eliminating the emotional high that comes with metaphorically bashing your head against the wall that is the game’s difficulty.

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Included in that argument, though never expressed, is the clear underlying fear that a lower difficulty somehow de-legitimatizes the experience of the game’s world.

Some players enjoy the success and feeling that comes along with being in a small group of people who revel in that challenge and can defeat what others can barely begin to attempt.

The other side is more concerned with experiencing the depth of detail, characters, locations, and lore that the Souls games are known to provide. Not everyone wants a challenge for challenge’s sake and would prefer an experience that allows for seeing the sights without (as much of) the suffering.

This contingent is also interested in the accessibility of games, wanting the Dark Souls experience to be less about the privileged class who wear the badge of difficulty on their sleeve with pride and more about allowing everyone to dive into the deep depths from FROM has to offer.

As with most things, this debate boils down to an ideological difference: Haves versus have nots, greater good versus the hard work of a certain group.

The gaming equivalent of socialism versus capitalism? If you want to get too in depth, sure.  It’s also potentially a debate of conservatism and progressiveness. Honestly, this is why I think so many people get riled up in regards to Souls games and their difficulty.

Obama DS

One side is arguing that their hard work shouldn’t be made illegitimate for the sake of others while the other side is looking for common ground; even footing for every person.

Perhaps this is all a little too serious a debate debate for a game with demon fetuses and throw-able poo, but the conversation over difficulty in games has gone on for decades and will never cease. My most recent and comparative example is the implementation of the “Looking For Raid” feature in World of Warcraft.

When Blizzard added the LFR feature a few years back, many players who fell into the hardcore raiding contingent felt that the developer was taking away the whole point of 25 and 10 man raids by not only providing an avenue for finding a group within a matter of minutes, but also a much lower difficulty level.

The feature began resoundingly popular, as a sudden influx of people were suddenly able to see end-game content that, before, had only been seen by a fraction of the player base that was willing to grind out hours of work and coordination.

Did the LFR feature actually diminish the experience of that hardcore contingent? Not directly, no. While everyone’s experience is different and varied, I can say from my own view point that LFR changed how I fundamentally looked at that end-game content and affected my drive to push forward.

Deathwing

Up to that point I had been in the hardcore raiding contingent, playing a Discipline Priest and healing in guild raids up to 20 hours a week. My main reason for raiding was for the sake of lore and seeing the sights, though the high-end gear was also a nice bonus.

I immediately jumped into LFR, joining a group who was on the last raid boss of the Cataclysm expansion. I was thrilled, as I had never received the chance to see this content first-hand.

The experience was less than fulfilling. The group cleared the last five bosses in under an hour. There was no celebration and joy for taking down Deathwing. Each fight was the equivalent of rolling your face across a keyboard and somehow typing a full sentence with zero errors. The coordination and challenge and camaraderie was gone, changed into something that anyone could do in their sleep.

Safe to say that it was a let down. I never used LFR again.

Was I forced to use LFR? No. Would others be perfectly fine with giving up the challenge in exchange for seeing all there was to see? Absolutely.

That didn’t change the fact that LFR went against the fundamental design philosophy of what makes World of Warcraft’s raids unique and interesting. The challenge and skill and team work were the whole point and Looking For Raid threw those concepts in the blender, creating something bland and unrecognizable from the thing it was before.

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An easy mode difficulty in Dark Souls would create the same problem. Sure more people would be able to experience the sights and sounds of what the series has to offer, but at what cost?

That view from the mountain top changes dramatically if you didn’t have to climb a wall of bodies to reach the peak.

I also believe that the summoning system solves the problem at hand. Summoning complete strangers — and sometimes friends — to help shine a lantern into the darkness is a unique experience in and of itself, and one that has it’s own thrills.

To this day I get a little sad as my summoning partner evaporates in front of me, waving goodbye after we’ve slayed some massive beast together. It’s such a small thing, but I get sentimental each time. I’m also not ashamed to use the system, as the difficulty of Dark Souls is sometimes just too much to bear.

It’s in those moments where summoning a friend provides the edge and upper hand to not only confront the game’s challenges but also creates a whole new slew of original experiences that are wonderful to behold.

In the end, the ideology at hand matters little when compared to the game design philosophy at work. The Dark Souls games are this specific experience filled with difficulty, anger, silliness, and achievement. Messing with that formula would create a completely different experience that isn’t in line with the one that has mesmerized fans since the release of Demon’s Souls.

Besides, I wouldn’t trade the following experience in Bloodborne for anything in the world.

Will Harrison is a game critic and writer in Toledo, Ohio. He is featured in the GAME ON section of The Toledo Blade, a Pulitzer-prize winning daily newspaper in Toledo. He has also appeared in Unwinnable Magazine, VideoGameWriters, Venture Beat, and Bitmob.

Follow him on Twitter @DoubleUHarrison. 

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