Why do we play video games? Is it to experience deep and moving stories? Do we play to marvel at the artistic and graphical capabilities of a game’s engine? Or, is it simply to win?
One could argue that, for the large majority of gamers, it’s to win. Be it defeating a difficult boss, collecting all the hidden items, or reigning supreme in multiplayer matches —we play video games to win. Strangely enough, however, games seem to be offering less and less opportunity to “win.” Despite this new trend, last month saw the release of Dark Souls, a game that many are calling “the most difficult game ever made”, and giving gamers who love to win a run for their money.
Dark Souls, the spiritual sequel to 2009’s Demon’s Souls and developed by From Software, is an action-RPG set in a dark world brimming with challenge and danger. The game sets itself apart from other titles in the genre—and most games in the past decade— by touting extremely difficult, yet immensely rewarding gameplay. It takes time, patience, and skill to be able to traverse the game’s open world and defeat its many daunting undead creatures. But is this high level of challenge a good thing, or is its steep learning curve too much for most gamers to handle?
To be fair, Dark Souls’ tense gameplay will result in numerous failures for players, but those failures are more learning mechanic than punishment. Like old-school arcade games and RPGs, each decision within the game is crucial to the player’s progression and completing the game is only accomplished through trial and error—lots of it. But while difficult games like this may seem daunting, it makes one wonder why there aren’t more games like this.
In some cases, a game may create a scenario that is needlessly punishing or difficult. In those instances, it is no longer a learning experience — it’s poor design. This type of unfair challenge isn’t what I’m talking about when I say games like Dark Souls are difficult.
Instead, one can find comparisons to Dark Souls’ challange in games like the original Super Mario Bros for the NES. The game may be thought of as a beloved title from many a gamer’s childhood, but it remains one of the most intricate, difficult video games ever made, requiring pixel-perfect precision and timing on the player’s part in order to complete each level, save the princess and get the high score. Back then, having the high score and bragging rights was the pinnacle of success in the videogame world.
But video games aren’t like that anymore.
Today, we have games explicitly laying out paths to goals, telling us exactly how to defeat a boss monster, heavy-handed hints as to where to find secret levels or the best weapons and armor in a game; it has become the norm. In 2008’s Prince of Persia, players faced no consequences for being defeated by an enemy or falling down a cavernous pit. They were simply brought back to where they miscalculated a jump, or were skewered by an enemy, to try again at no cost. No consequences, no second thoughts. It took the challenge out of the gameplay and flavor out of victory.
If there is nothing to overcome in order to beat the game, then it isn’t much of a game, is it? Sure, this may alleviate some of the frustration and annoyance that can go along with the consequences of failure, and keep the story and gameplay moving forward, but if a game is designed well, these mistakes can be learning tools. We play video games to get better at them, not to watch the game play itself. In instances like this, we aren’t so much playing as participating in an interactive movie.
Last year’s Heavy Rain is a perfect example of a game acting more like a movie; even if the puzzles offered a challenge, failing them simply meant that part of the story was changed. It’s a consequence, sure, but not one that gives players the sense that by failing, you’ll lose the game.
The whole reason we play video games is to win. You can’t win if you could never lose in the first place. By taking that aspect of game design away, you are systematically defeating the purpose of video games. Depth and challenge are positive things for a video game to have and are a crucial component to our enjoyment of them.
I will admit that video games are going through a change. Game developers are trying to figure out just how far they can push game design in order to create something more artistically fulfilling. I want a great experience and stories too, but only in addition to fun and rewarding gameplay.
There have been some great things done in melding cinematic and narrative experiences with gameplay, but when artistic expression starts to interfere with the “game” elements of video games, we begin to lose sight of why we enjoy the hobby so much in the first place. Losing might not be fun, but neither is not winning, and games are ultimately about challenge and fun.
Dark Souls reminds us why we play video games by creating deep and rewarding gameplay. It might be hard, it might be intimidating, and at times even confusing, but at no point do any of these obstacles hamper one’s experience with the game. Overcoming each obstacle is the very basis of the game, and when you do, the sense of accomplishment and victory is so compelling that you will plunge headfirst into the next challenge. For hardcore gamers, Dark Souls and games like it are our bread and butter. We should welcome them with open arms and revel in every tense, breath-taking moment they offer.
This piece was originally written by Brendan as an editorial for Oregon State University’s Daily Barometer newspaper. Are you a fan of challenging games? Do you prefer being rewarded for your actions, or is it a good thing games are becoming less difficult? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to read our Dark Souls review here.