Difficulty in games can be something of a polarized topic. The most often I hear it brought up is when a game fails to do it right, either in being too easy and unsatisfying or too hard and frustrating. It’s much less often that I hear a review along the lines “This game was appropriately difficult”, most likely because there are more obvious features to call out in a game; graphics, storylines, and sound effects prominently. These are all more or less transferable things, which you could get some sense of from pictures, gameplay clips, or story synopses, and they’re easier to justify in quality. When we talk about difficulty in games, however, we come to a feature which can only be experienced in any appreciable measure by playing the game.
My favorite game is Dark Souls. It’s not the game that I currently play the most, or have played the most (World of Warcraft was a different era), but as for games that I like, Dark Souls tops the list. It’s got deep combat mechanics, a rewarding gameplay cycle, a far-reaching story that is much larger than your character’s involvement, and an immersive world which seamlessly canonizes online interactions with other players while not diluting your role in it. Most people know it as “That really, really hard game that came after Demon Souls”, and while most people will agree on that point, their opinions on whether it’s good or not vary just a bit.
Personally, I think Dark Souls is an example of game difficulty done right (mostly). I’ll admit that it is going to be a very hard game for a lot of people. There are some parts which just don’t seem fair when you approach them the most obvious way, and there’s a level of persistence and patience you have to have for finding out how to make the game’s many challenges easier. There are some gameplay aspects which are unnecessarily obscure or unintuitive, but Dark Souls does a lot well.
What difficulty does is fulfill two parts of the Challenge-Reward-Challenge cycle of gaming, wherein a player overcomes adversity, is rewarded, and then uses his newly acquired power to overcome the next greater and more powerful challenge. When it’s done right, the player feels challenged but not overwhelmed, and ideally his prior rewards should actually have factored in somehow. This creates a sense of meaningful continuous progression. The player’s previous efforts are validated, because his acquired Rewards have come in useful; and his present efforts are validated by properly using those Rewards in conjunction with his mechanical skills to overcome a Challenge he could not have before. When it’s done wrong, the whole affair starts to feel pointless and arbitrary. If the Rewards are not useful in the future, either through being worthless themselves or the Challenges being too easy, then the question on mind is “What was the point of bothering with that whole business then?”, and it leads to thinking that future Challenges are just as empty, so why bother?
There are few things in Dark Souls which feel truly unrewarding, and few Challenges which I felt I didn’t need or benefit from my prior Rewards. The basic gameplay cycle Dark Souls runs on is to explore a new area, dealing with the enemies there, until you find a bonfire (a checkpoint where you can resurrect when you die), then find the boss in that area. There are Challenges and Rewards in each part of this cycle. Exploring an area means fighting new enemies, but also finding useful items hidden away in distant corners. Finding a bonfire requires surviving long enough to find it, but making it to the bonfire means you can more boldly explore this new area, with the confidence of resurrecting within it instead of somewhere more distant when you die. Defeating bosses is always a matter of preparation and strategy. There are numerous preparatory means of making specific boss fights easier, from summoning NPC allies from Summoning Signs beforehand to assist you to acquiring and using suitable equipment, such as fire-resistant gear against a boss who favors those attacks. Coming up with a solid strategy can make up for shortcomings in preparation, and many bosses allow several different successful strategies, instead of having one specific weakness to be exploited in one specific way.
It’s also just as important how difficulty is done in a game as how difficult it is. It is incredibly easy, lazy, and harmful to make a game difficult through repetition. This comes in a lot of forms and degrees, the most simple of which is giving enemies an unnecessarily large pool of Hit Points. If every orc you had to fight in Skyrim had a hundred times more Hit Points, the game would probably be more difficult, but not in any truly productive way. Challenges have to be able to hold the player’s interest for as long as it takes to complete them, and orcs have a rather simple attack pattern which really doesn’t hold up in novelty more than a minute or two. Adding ten times as many orcs to each Challenge is usually just as harmful; it’s just more of the same to deal with before moving on. The ideal way to do difficulty is in a way that a clever, smart, and/or prepared player can bypass to some degree. There may be a trap that kills you instantly, which makes the direct approach impossibly difficult, but leaving a variety of ways to bypass the trap, such as disarming it, jumping over it, or finding an alternate route, subverts some of the difficulty through the player’s actions. Difficulty may principally boil down to an arbitrary cycle, but in practice, the player should feel that what he is doing is novel and meaningful.
Dark Souls does difficulty in a generally productive way. Most bosses can be defeated with a variety of strategies, some of which are not necessarily as obvious, but make for an easier fight. This rewards especially clever players while not making it impossible for others. With online play, it also easy to summon other players to help you, making boss fights much more manageable for those who like to cooperate. The world is also fairly open and allows several different routes through it, meaning that there is some player choice in confronting certain challenges or going elsewhere until he feels more prepared. Though it is possible to lose unspent Souls, the Experience Point equivalent, when you die, the vast majority of your progress is persistent. You never lose equipment or statistics which you have already boosted. You can even recover your lost Souls if you can make it back to where you died. This adds both a cushion and counter-play to gameplay mechanics that some would simply call “unforgiving”.
For all the praise I’ve given it, though, Dark Souls actually does difficulty wrong in some ways. Most of this involves accessibility and communication. There is a lot of depth to Dark Souls combat which just isn’t communicated clearly in gameplay. Parrying, which is when you use your shield or an offhand weapon to deflect attacks and deliver a powerful counterattack, has next to no in-game explanation, and yet is a trademark of “skilled” play. The parry animation for shields somewhat resembles a shield bash, so for the longest time, I was baffled at why it wasn’t knocking back enemies. In addition to that, different shields and weapons have subtlety different parrying properties related to animation frames, which is quite simply hidden information that can only be discerned in roundabout ways. As ubiquitous as it is, backstabbing (which is a very useful high damage attack which can only be performed from behind) is never clearly introduced to my memory. The Dexterity attribute slightly increases the casting speed for magic spells, which isn’t mentioned anywhere in-game. All attributes become much less useful to increase beyond a score of 40 because of a diminishing returns system, which isn’t explained in-game either. These things can add unnecessary difficulty to Dark Souls by hiding effective choices from the player in ways that cannot intuitively be discovered in game.
These are all interesting gameplay mechanics which, while not critical, can make the game much easier if understood and mastered. However, the problem is that the game either doesn’t mention them at all, such that players may not even notice they exist, or does such a poor job of explaining their workings that much of their depth and purpose will be lost. What’s the difference if a certain shield has a longer parry window if that information is not available? Where is it ever mentioned that rolling in no armor provides more “invincibility frames” (which are moments when a player cannot be hit by attacks at all) than rolling in Heavy Armor? The entire concept of riposte, which involves striking an opponent for bonus damage with a piercing attack at a certain time of their own attack, was foreign to me until I found a certain item which helped it (though what ripostes were and how they exactly worked was still a mystery until I looked it up). Once these mechanics are known and explored (often through exceedingly tedious and roundabout experimentation or out-of-game sources), the game acquires a newfound depth and finesse which players can attempt to tap into to. But when the information is that obscure, most players won’t even know that the depth is there; and if the player doesn’t get to know that an option is there, it may as well not be.
Overall, Dark Souls does high difficulty well. The game is unquestionably harsh to new players, but I contend that the difficulty creates an especially rewarding play cycle throughout the game. The fault that I find in it is the poor presentation and explanation of subtle mechanics. While these mechanics add depth to gameplay, the game would be more accessible if these elements were more exposed. I’m not asking for a half hour tutorial that holds you hand through parrying an orc with a wooden sword, but the least the game could do is make sure the player knows what avenues there are to explore in gameplay depth, and that it’s clear when significant differences can be made to these mechanics through equipment and such. A game can be hard, but there should be a way to beat it, and a non-obtuse way to discover it.