Gaming with Takeshi: European Extreme
Leigh Walsh (she of Takeshi and the Kid) kicks off her new gaming column with a sideways look at game difficulty. And reviews Dark Souls into the bargain.
I’m looking through the various features on Steam, and one in particular that is crying out for attention is the popular action RPG Dark Souls; this edition is aptly name “Prepare to Die”. Here is the tag-line;
“Dark Souls will be the most deeply challenging game you play this year. Can you live through a million deaths and earn your legacy?
Am I the only one who thinks this doesn’t sound like any fun at all? The game’s whole marketing buzz here is based solely on its unreasonable difficulty level. Dark Souls isn’t alone, of course, but it does depress me a little because it’s a game I wanted to play. There aren’t many good expansive fantasy action RPGs out there – the Elder Scrolls series is a popular one, and then you have the Witcher with it’s eleventy seven different submenus and potion brewing statistics. I like the overall style of Dark Souls more than a lot of games.
This is a game that I haven’t played, but I’ve had recommended to me several times, like it’s some kind of experience I shouldn’t miss. And herein lies the problem – if it’s something everyone should experience, it should be more accessible. By definition, a game that is more difficult will be less accessible as some people just won’t have the patience for it. I would like to play Dark Souls, but I doubt I’d be able to get very far in it. There are some games – STGs/Bullet Hell Shooters(Danmaku) for example, that base themselves around difficulty, it’s an inherently hard thing, so it’s more understandable that it won’t be as accessible. Even then, there are still plenty of STGs that the average gamer can complete on easy.
It’s not an uncommon idea to represent – games are too wimpy nowadays, how about a real challenge, that’s where the real fun lies. The problem is that generally it isn’t. “Difficulty” in video games often equates to repetition for all but the naturally most talented. How much time you can sink into doing the same thing over and over, and how you keep your cool during this repetition. Dying a million deaths might be fine if the game offered me a million new experiences – but chances are, it doesn’t. And people are slow to criticise this or point it out, because it means they’re the wimpy gamer. You’re expecting to live up to a tough guy image of appreciating frustratingly hard games. And sure enough most defences for Dark Souls blame gamers for being “stupid”. To me, that sounds like making excuses. Just admit it’s not a very accessible game.
This isn’t something new for video games, it’s just that in modern times it’s something that’s celebrated. A lot of people fondly remember the 8 bit era, and as a composer of music often reminiscent of those games, you might think many of my favourite titles are to be found there. But in reality, many of those games were of pretty poor quality and a big factor of this was using artificial difficulty to pad the game’s length – something you don’t have to do with modern titles.
I’ve heard this called the “one more go!” factor, but this only applies to those games that were actually fun and you felt yourself getting further in – which are usually the easier games like Super Mario Bros. et. all. There are games that are moderately challenging. Then there are games that just throw a lot of shit at you and expect the player to put up with it – Ninja Gaiden for example, a famously difficult game. One thing people probably miss from the retro era is games that you couldn’t clear in your first go – even the first Sonic the Hedgehog is pretty difficult, though a lot of people forget that. But again, that depends on the replay value of the game and whether you feel yourself getting further each time, instead of just frustrated by the same problems shooting you down again and again.
One game which particularly gets my goat on this is the indie title “Super Meat Boy”. It’s been called the best platformer of this millennium, etc. etc. as these hipster sort of games often are. Honestly, no it isn’t. First off, I’d be reluctant to call it a “Platformer” in the sense that we’ve come to known. It’s meant to be remiscant of NES era games – many of the ones I’ve suggested we should be forgetting. Is it a fun game in parts? Yes it is. And sometimes it does feel challenging, like you have to sit down and focus and get through this part.
But other times, it’s just obnoxious. The jump key doesn’t work half of the time, this is an acknowledged problem but it has not been patched(nor have the severe, game-breaking bugs in the Mac version on the hospital level). And this is the thing – when a game is very difficult, it often shows up the seams; makes them stick out like a meat-grinder in the face. If the player doesn’t feel in control, it doesn’t feel like their loss.
The idea that a twitch platformer can work up such an audience with such poor controls is a testament to how naive people are over “difficult” games. “When I die in Super Meat Boy, it feels like my fault” – people delude themselves with this. Maybe it was, or maybe the controls or wobbly physics engine fucked up again(it’s not just about momentum – Super Meat Boy’s physics don’t work realistically or like most 2D platformer physics engines we’re accustomed to). There are games I’ve played that feel like that. Super Meat Boy is absolutely not one of them.
People have almost forgotten that very hard difficulty levels in some video games were actually meant in jest – remember “Nightmare” in Doom? They were intended to be unfair and borderline unplayable. But in slightly more recent years, you have for example the famous Extreme mode of the European PS2 Metal Gear Solid series, famed for their “Nightmare” like difficulty. You have parody games like “I want to be the guy” – getting serious Youtube Let’s Plays/playthroughs when it was meant to troll such gamers in the first place.
On contrast, I can appreciate a difficult game like the Touhou Project series (actually one of the less maddeningly difficult Danmaku titles), even though I don’t think I’ve properly finished a title yet. When I was really into playing these games, I could actually feel myself getting better at them, instead of stroggling on to the next checkpoint. You start to learn bullet patterns, find blind spots, build better reflexes, get used to how and where you can move. That’s a really important feeling that’s lost in a lot of “difficult” games. Moreover, they have an “easy” setting, while you can’t get the true ending you can at least get to and beat the final boss in most titles. It’s a difficult game that’s made itself accessible, unlike Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy, which honestly, don’t give a shit and are more than a little pretentious in how they go about it.
Video Games should be fun. Instead of focusing on a game being too “easy” – did you enjoy the experience? Even if you weren’t at great risk of dying over and over again, did you still feel positive after playing it? IGN have said in their review of Dark Souls that it’s not one to play if you play games for fun. It’s amazing how often this can get overlooked in games – for example is the multiplayer in Call of Duty “fun” for the majority of people? Someone stepping into it just gets sniped over and over, and any complaints will be met with the same defences difficulty in video games always gets. To me, again, it’s an excuse – it’s difficult but not impossible to create a shooter that anyone can jump into – Team Fortress 2 for example. Often developers that focus on difficulty and high skill ceilings don’t set the bar very high themselves.
It’s easy to make a game that throws far too much at the player and through a strange kind of natural selection, pushes away players who can’t adapt to the stress or poor controls. It’s harder to make a game that’s genuinely fun and challenging. I think a lot of games are better at striking this balance than people give them credit. A lot of the time – it’s an issue of interface design; usability. In the world of software design, these are big issues – unless you’re Adobe and have the market sewn up, these are important issues. But in games, because of the attitude of gamers, they get overlooked – another example being the PC version of Skyrim’s UI. Gamers can get in the way of games being good because they don’t want to come off as weak or entitled.
Maybe Dark Souls isn’t quite as bad as it’s reputation – it is amusing people calling it the “hardest game of all time”; such talk makes me feel quite old. But it is marketing itself on a facade of difficult games having some kind of grand integrity to them, when often the reverse is more accurate.
Play games for fun, not to prove what a double hard bastard you are. The next time you catch a friend getting hyped up for the next big stressathon, just ask them “Are you sure? This skill level isn’t even remotely fair.”