Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Risk and Reward: Dark Souls & The Balance of Difficulty in Gaming

A scene from From Software's Dark Souls II.

“Hand-holding” is the anathema of modern game design, viewed by many as the ball to which creative, risk-taking design is chained. It’s a necessary evil: developers will want their game to reach as many players as possible, and in capturing a market outside of those who already play games frequently, they must introduce their complex mechanics to a layperson who may never have held a controller in their hands before. Guiding them along with clunky, immersion-breaking tutorials or pop-up hints – holding their hand, as it were – may be helpful for them, but it’s also patronizing and frustrating for those who can pick up a game’s mechanics quickly, or those who enjoy the process of sussing it out. Think of it this way: the first screen of Super Mario Bros never included a prompt that said “Press A to jump”, did it?

And because games are such a massively lucrative global market, this design philosophy has become ubiquitous, permeating almost every new studio title that is released. It’s an alarming trend, indicative of an increasingly profit-fueled industry that is content to deliver lazily-designed games so long as they move enough copies (the parallels with Hollywood are, of course, too obvious to explore). Nintendo’s recent The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, for example, was rightfully slammed by industry critics for its blandly repetitive and lackluster design, and its reliance on hand-holding to teach its simple mechanics – something that was particularly upsetting considering the ingenious design of early Zelda titles, which encouraged exploration and risk-taking. Even if their hand-holding isn’t as widespread as that, most games will at least include a section at the outset that explicitly tells the player how to play the game, usually through a box of text that most people won’t even bother to read. No matter how right these developers are about how stupid their demographics might be, nobody likes being told what to do. They just want to play the game.

So what’s the solution? The reason that many developers choose to default to the easy option of presenting the player with an explanatory wall of text is because the opposite – integrating tutorial information into the gameplay itself – is incredibly tricky to do. The 2D platformers of yore, like Capcom’s Mega Man X, were able to marry teaching with level design in a sort of “learn by doing” setting, where the player was encouraged to explore what the game’s controls and mechanics were without risk of failure, before presenting them with puzzles and enemies that challenged their newfound skills. But modern game mechanics are incredibly manifold, requiring far more engagement from the player than what can be understood at a glance. All one needs to do to understand this phenomenon is to look at how game controllers have evolved: games of the 1970s required one button. In the 1980s, they added a few more. Now, controllers are more daunting to the layperson in their complex layouts than even the most convoluted TV remote.

I was prompted to explore this subject by a recent play-through of the 2011 action RPG Dark Souls, by Japanese developer From Software. This title, as well as its predecessor Demon’s Souls, its sequel Dark Souls II, and its spiritual successor Bloodborne, has become infamous in the modern gaming lexicon for its relentless, soul-crushing difficulty. Indeed, their legacy of fearsome toughness is so well-known that many who have never experienced the Souls series will still be able to identify them based on this one characteristic. Appropriately, many gamers acknowledge this reputation while maintaining a comfortable distance from the series, while many others see it as a litmus test of their skill and dedication. And it’s perfectly understandable why someone would avoid the series based on this description – many gamers use video games as an escape, a fun activity that fills their leisure time, and therefore see it as something that should eschew stressful combat and extensive focus at all costs. I perfectly understand this reasoning – which, by the way, is the same reasoning used to justify hours spent slouching in front of cable television programming – but I have no use for it myself. I belong squarely in the latter camp. Dark Souls was a mountain, looming huge and black, that dared me to climb it. It stood out as an unabashed antithesis to other, hand-holding fare. What kind of “hardcore gamer” would I be to deny such a challenge?

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die!

Dark Souls is set in the dark medieval fantasy realm of Lordran, where an undead blight has decimated its once-proud civilization, and populated its crumbling ruins with terrible foes and creatures of unspeakable horror. Your character is dropped into this harsh setting with little more than a broken sword and a rotted shield, and you must persevere in the face of tremendous odds, often without knowing why, or even how in the hell you’re supposed to go about it. Hand-holding, in any form, is conspicuously absent. It goes without saying that you will die – over, and over, and over again. The special PC edition of the game is even called Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition. (That says it all, doesn’t it?) That’s the point at which Dark Souls loses many players: right at the beginning. They feel overwhelmed by what seems to be an impossible challenge, and alienated by a lack of guidance or help. They abandon the game for entertainment that, as one critic put it, offers "fun without failure and progress without pain." But Dark Souls doesn’t offer this kind of experience. It is not a game that can be picked up and played by anyone, even those well familiar with gaming. Dark Souls has booted many a self-professed hardcore gamer, myself included, straight back to the curb. I tried and failed to commit myself to completing it no fewer than three times. But – and this is key to the Dark Souls experience – on the fourth try, I made it.

The game employs a strange online format whereby players can leave messages for one another, scrawled on the ground – warning of impending danger (“difficult foe ahead”) or goading the foolhardy into death (“try jumping off the cliff!”). In this way, the only help the Dark Souls player will receive is from the community of players who are also facing the same challenges, and benefiting from the same advice and warnings. It hearkens to gaming’s pre-internet days, when secret techniques or hidden treasures were only known through word of mouth. Without this mechanic, it would be easy to succumb to the oppressive weight of your many fights that have yet to be fought.

But difficulty is balanced in a radically different way in Dark Souls than in most other games. I’ve grown up in a mostly-unchanging system of incremental difficulty in games, where the challenge increases as the game wears on – puzzles and enemies becoming more complex as my arsenal of items and skills becomes more robust. By the end of most games, my character will be powerful enough to handle anything the game can throw at me, and then some. Providing an adequate challenge at this late-game stage, while still conforming to the incremental difficulty arc established at the get-go, is a problem many game designers face – and often results in the end-game content being incongruously tough, usually by making it unfair (you will be deprived of an essential item or ability, or otherwise hamstrung by the developers for no reason other than you’ve become too powerful and they needed to rein you in). Dark Souls sidesteps this problem entirely. While both your character and your enemies become more well-equipped as you play, so do you – the player.

Success comes at the cost of the time and patience it takes to learn the necessary skills of the combat system – block, parry, riposte, dodge, attack, counterattack – and in this way, you win not by powering up your character, but powering up yourself. Much has been made of the emotional roller-coaster that is Dark Souls, providing frustrating lows of repetition and constant death and exhilarating highs of ultimate victory, and that’s why: Dark Souls connects you to the challenge of the game in a visceral, material way. The only way to win is to get better, and it’s only ever “game over” when you give up.

Is it easy to see, then, why Dark Souls has almost ruined other games for me? The “challenge” inherent in most games now frequently seems false and empty. I’m not saying every game should be designed the way Dark Souls is, or that every game needs to be as punishing in its difficulty. But finding that fine line between punishing and just plain unfair is key to making the player feel as though they – they themselves, not their onscreen avatar – have overcome the obstacles placed in front of them, instead of having followed a set of simple instructions. I don’t want to be pinned with a ribbon for participation. I want to race, whether I’m ready or not, and either sip the sweet wine of victory or taste the dust my foes have left behind. Every triumph in Dark Souls was earned through my real-life blood, sweat, and tears, and the thrill I felt at my own achievement was more authentic than anything I’ve yet experienced in games. So perhaps it’s time to return to a school of design that rewards the curious and courageous player, and doesn’t bother to hold their hand. After all, if they’re taking the time to pick up the controller, they must want to face a challenge – and be rewarded sufficiently for their efforts.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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