The phrase “this is like the Dark Souls of (insert medium here)” is heard more often than any of us are fond of, often implying a certain degree of unnecessary difficulty in the work it’s hurled at.
For those who’ve been living under a rock, the Dark Souls video game series is notorious for demanding a certain amount of player skill in order to progress, right alongside occasionally vague plots, often unforgiving boss fights and a general feeling of outright hostility towards the player.
Proponents of the series and other games like them tout their tough-but-fair approach as ultimately rewarding enough to merit any initial frustration.
This raises the interesting point that video games are the only form of art that requires a certain amount of skill to appreciate, at least in most cases.
In order to enjoy the full story of a game one has bought and purchased, one must first progress through a series of trials that said game has set for the player, partially for entertainment’s sake and partially because it is at this point expected.
I believe that this is the cornerstone of what makes video games so engaging as an art form.
Learning something, demonstrating one’s prowess and then being rewarded with an item or a snippet of story plays the brain’s reward centers like a musical instrument.
This element of challenge that is unique to video gaming is implemented in various ways, depending on genre, and I find that some result in a better finished product than others.
Clearly, determining whether a work of art is objectively “good” or “bad” is next to impossible, as all art has value in the mind of the right beholder, but there are some instances where difficulty is used to artificially extend the play-time of a game that might otherwise be quite short.
Examples of this include the now-infamous monkey puzzle from the “The Lion King” tie-in for the Super NES.
The puzzle boiled down to trial and error, with a little bit of finicky input for good measure, and it often ended up being the part of the game where players gave up. This, in my opinion, constitutes a nearly objective “bad” design element of a game.
Then there’s the kind of challenge intended to be overcome not with skill, but repetition, such as the loot systems found in nearly every massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG).
This involves forcing a player to repeat quests, levels or objectives over and over in the hopes of obtaining a randomly dropped item they need in order to be competitive with their fellow players.
This cycle of spending hours on a menial task only to finally obtain the goal one was seeking, thus releasing a burst of sweet dopamine, often ends up claiming untold amounts of players’ lives, not to mention their hard-earned cash in the form of subscription fees.
In games without monthly subscription fees or pay-to-win mechanics, I find this to be a mere annoyance, but in games that actively charge players for the privilege of running on a virtual hamster wheel, I’m of the opinion that it counts as exploitation. I’m not a fan.
Then there’s the third kind, the kind I find adds value to every game it’s present in. This third kind of challenge presents itself as a part of the story, integral to experiencing the game as the artist had intended.
In games like “Dark Souls,” “Bloodborne” or smaller indie hits like “Celeste,” the challenge is present to make you, the player, feel the frustrations, trials and ultimately victories the main character experiences over the course of the game.
It’s not random chance, it isn’t present just to pad out an otherwise dull experience and it doesn’t exist to coax the player into paying real-world money for the opportunity to finish a product they’ve already paid for.
It’s a narrative tool that rewards deep engagement with the narrative and mechanics of the game, often leading to a more satisfying overall experience.
It may cost blood, sweat and tears, but when the game is conquered, you’ve earned the right to go back to the beginning again and see just how far you’ve come.
The thrill of discovering that you’ve mastered a new skill is almost as satisfying in a game as it is in real life, and it takes excellent game design to instill that emotion.
Your game must hook the audience right at the start to merit their continued playing.
Keep those rules consistent throughout the experience while avoiding “cheap failures,” then provide players with a satisfying enough story or reward to make them feel like all that work was worth it.
I have nothing against difficult games, but they must be difficult for the right reasons and in the right way.
Like with food that’s ridiculously spicy for the sole purpose of being ridiculously spicy, games that are difficult for difficulty’s sake are painful and ultimately pointless.
Like a good curry or spicy chicken sandwich, games that temper their difficulty with fairness and reward in equal measure may be occasionally painful, but ultimately, the experience leaves the player satisfied.