Dark Souls and the Difficulty Myth

To create a believable world, the developers of Dark Souls included talking mushrooms.

Dark Souls is the hardest game you’ll ever play. It will make you throw your controller at your TV in frustration and then pick it up and go right back for more. That’s what all the marketing surrounding the Dark Souls series of games has been telling us since the game’s inception. This stereotype was massively perpetuated by major gaming media outlets for years and it fed directly back into the game’s marketing team. In turn, they did things like name their PC Port the Prepare To Die Edition, further imagining the game they were marketing as the hardest thing players would ever lay their hands on. Yet, the strange thing about Dark Souls is that it’s actually not a terribly difficult game, despite all the pomp.

 

Prepare To Die

I don’t want to give the illusion that Dark Souls is so easy that your blind grandma could beat it with her toes or anything like that. The game offers a great deal of challenge, especially for a first time player, but challenging does not necessarily carry the same definition as difficult. Certainly Dark Souls will put a player’s skills to the test through a series of progressively more complex areas and boss fights. However, even though it might take the average player a few deaths before they learn the patterns they need to follow to conquer an area or boss, players do learn. That line, though it is a fine one, is what separates outright difficulty from a satisfying challenge.

Usually, the player in Dark Souls is not throwing themselves at a brick wall over and over again for hours on end without making progress. Usually. Certainly there are moments in the games that make that crossover from challenging into difficult territory. Things that most everyone seems to have trouble with their first time around, such as the Capra Demon boss fight, is one of those more difficult moments that can put your patience to the test. If you don’t figure out fairly quickly how to dodge that initial leap attack and avoid the Capra Demon’s dogs you’re in for a long struggle. Moments like this, however, are relatively few and far between.

Here the player stands with Dark Soul, the hero of Dark Souls.

Dark Souls is the Dark Souls of Dark Souls

So why the obsession with the seeming difficulty of a game which doesn’t actively seek to be specifically difficult, but instead tries to challenge its players? Dark Souls, at the time when it came out, was essentially the designated “next big thing” for gaming, whether or not media outlets actively reported on it in this way. They often did, but not always. It wasn’t just the media, but gamers themselves who were talking about Dark Souls in this way. The game was challenging players in ways that they felt they hadn’t been by a single player game in a long time. Some people thought of Dark Souls as hearkening back to a time when video games were exceptionally difficult. Of course, games from that time were usually difficult due to technical limitations, whereas the Souls series is considered difficult because of excellent game design.

That’s where Dark Souls shines. It’s not in difficulty. It’s not in a calling for a simpler time. Dark Souls shines because it stands as a paragon of really great game design. Even today journalists are constantly comparing every game that comes out to it. In one sense, it’s language that gamers can relate to. Comparing one games features to another is a favourite pastime of gamers the world over. On the flip side of that, it’s lost its meaning when it comes to using the Souls games as a yardstick.

 

What is Dark Souls, really?

I think at this point that’s the question to ask. It holds this sacred place in the collective consciousness of gamers for being something that it’s not. It’s typically not some hellish experience as many make it out to be. Dark Souls is instead a game that blended its gameplay elements and story elements together in a really familiar-but-new package. It’s a game that was simultaneously substance and style with a fully realized high fantasy plot laying just beneath the surface. For a lot of people, myself included, that was what made the game special beyond just how challenging it was. It was challenging, and that’s understandably an important aspect of the game. But despite the marketing always trying to portray the challenge of Dark Souls as its true singular alluring feature, it’s a game that’s worth so much more than what the marketing team is trying to sell you.

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