To mark the release of FromSoftware’s video game epic, Elden Ring, I will be playing through every Soulsbourne game.
I have never played any of the games in the series, and I’ve been regularly told that they are some of the most difficult games ever made.
I have a checkered history with difficult games. I avoided them actively. Returnal changed that.
After I completed that game, something shifted in me. The standard of challenge, and what I could handle in terms of a game’s mechanics, was permanently elevated. I’ve mentioned in my Returnal review that difficulty is subjective to the intentions of the designers. If difficulty is the intent, it’s not frustrating. If the difficulty is a symptom of poor design, my loved ones ask me why I “play videogames for fun” because I’m screaming so much.
Dark Souls is the thesis statement of difficult by design.
The release of Dark Souls altered the landscape of video games. While its predecessor, Demon’s Souls, was a cult hit on the PS3, it wasn’t until two years later that Dark Souls perfected the mechanics of what would become the Soulsbourne games.
For the uninitiated reader, those mechanics are as follows:
- A world with a fantasy-like setting
- Combat based on timing, reflex, and memorization
- An often opaque story pieced together exclusively through interactions with characters and item descriptions
- Intense Difficulty (more on this in a moment)
Although, I mention the “uninitiated reader”, at this point, I don’t imagine there are many people who even casually play video games that don’t know about Dark Souls. It’s become shorthand for “a difficult game”. The film equivalent would be Requiem for a Dream, Salo, or Human Centipede.
A difficult game in another genre is the “Dark Souls” of that genre. Dead Cells is the Dark Souls of platformers. Into the Breach is the Dark Souls of tactics games. Going from a seated to standing position at my work desk is the Dark Souls of my physical abilities. When you ask anyone what these games are about, it’s the first thing people talk about.
“This game is so hard. I love it.”
I have played through Dark Souls, and I can say with confidence that this game is appropriately hard, and I love it. Let me explain.
Difficulty in video games is usually tiered into Easy, Normal, and Hard. Their differences in these levels is based on scalers, ie, the harder it gets, the stronger your enemies are, and the less health you have. I’m fine with having difficulty levels in games. However, I have slowly grown into the belief that only being able to play in one mode of difficulty forces the game designers to make smarter decisions in-game.
It is in a game designer’s interest (most of the time) to have the player not only finish the game but enjoy it. By including levels of difficulty, it becomes incentivized for designers to have the player be able to complete the game in one specific path, but with harder or easier enemies depending on the levels of difficulty.
Dark Souls has multiple paths to your objective, each more obscure and exciting to discover than the next. The more you discover, the more you understand that, without tutorials, the game is trying to teach you how to play it.
Every boss fight in the game has multiple paths to success. You can go in, as you are, and fight it out. Or you can summon help near the boss’s entrance. Or you can cheese it.
Cheese-ing is where you break the rules or mechanics of the game in a way that benefits you. Running behind a torch and then drawing an enemy towards it until they accidentally get stuck in the flame. Throwing bombs over a wall before you even see that boss so that when you arrive to the arena, they are already dead.
This is one of the many ways that the game has built its vast community. Go to YouTube and watch the thousands of ways that gamers have tried to beat this game. Beating it with only crossbows. Without stamina. With only sorcery. There are over 120 players who have beaten this forty-hour game in less than an hour. There is a Facebook group with over 30 thousand members that is only interested in the different types of outfits that you can create out of the different armors in this game.
The game’s “multiplayer” involves players leaving hints around the world that your character can see, which will either help you or trick you. Players can be summoned to your world to help you or they can invade to kill you and take your stuff. It’s the game’s supposed punishing difficulty that has forged this community. And it strangely reflects a human part of nature. There are people who’ve gone through something difficult and don’t want others to have the same struggle. And then there are hurt people that hurt people. Dark Souls lets you express which you are.
Then there is the concept of grinding, where you kill the same type of enemies, over and over, to increase your experience levels. You earn souls every time you kill an enemy, souls that you drop if you die, that you lose permanently if you die again before picking them up. It’s this feature critics of the game mention as the barrier of difficulty.
But by going around and killing enemies to grow your souls which you can spend to level up and upgrade your equipment, you can yourself adjust the difficulty. Grinding in most games is boring, and yes, it can be repetitive in Dark Souls too. But almost any enemy can kill you in this game, so even the most delicate grinding run can end in your death. Dark Souls makes grinding bearable.
That’s not to mention how puzzlebox the exploration of this game’s world can be. You’ll pass locked doors throughout your runs. Know that, at some point, you will walk back through them. There are mysteries that you can usually see but that are just out of reach, and the feeling of opening a door, hours later, and finding out that you’ve found a shortcut to that treasure is thrilling. This might be the magic trick that makes Dark Souls so special. Everything feels measured and precise, while simultaneously being a ridiculous video game that you can glitch through to success.
This all leads to the philosophical implications of Dark Souls. There are no less than six longform Youtube videos on just Dark Souls philosophy, ranging from how it tackles the big questions in life, to how it’s an allegory for depression.
I believe the reason that this game has left so many gamers in a pensive state is because it asks so much from you, and the way the world unfolds to you. This game is lonely. There are characters in this game, but they are all on their own journeys. People will help you, but only if you seek it. There is a very basic plot, but it’s your actions that are in the foreground. How you approach the game (because its design allows you to some leeway) and how you deal with frustration is what you must contend with. And thus, Dark Souls becomes a reflection of the player. No other game with a silent, player-created protagonist so boldly puts you, the player, into the character that you are playing.
I came into my own philosophical quandary during this game. What price was I willing to pay for progress? I ran into a few sections that were incredibly difficult to navigate. To move the story forward, I had to get past these points. I could have put down the game. I instead chose to grind out opponents to raise my level. The price I paid for progress was my time. A couple of hours to improve my character, and I got past these points with little problem.
As in Dark Souls, as in life. Dark Souls tells you that nothing is really that hard. You just have to be willing to pay a price to get it.
Elden Ring is rapidly edging towards becoming one of the best selling games of all time. All its mechanisms, its challenge, its combat. All of it stems directly from Dark Souls. Often times important games may not be that enjoyable over time. Often times great games may not be that important. Dark Souls has the distinction of being both. When all is said and done, Dark Souls will be spoken of not just as a great game, but one of the fundamental developments in video game history.
Over a decade since the game’s release, and it’s still absolutely thrilling to play. In that decade, thousands of developers have tried to recapture that magic by making difficult, obtuse games.
All have failed.