Why the Souls series’ hardened rep?
“Prepare to die,” Dark Souls warns, flashlight under face, as if 30 years of video games hasn’t already prepared me.
“I’m not a masochist,” people say, letting six years of Souls pass from afar, like they’re looking out a train window at a neighborhood they dare not stop in.
“I played this game, which makes me good and not bad. Perhaps if you were good you would play this game, but it seems you are bad? This game? It’s good, or not bad. I played this game because I am really strong,” Souls fans say, probably.
Conversation around From Software’s turgid-uttered sacred cow, the Souls series (Bloodborne, too) has such a strange fixation on difficulty, of shuddering players shivering under its hurts so good sadism. Namco Bandai fed into it with Dark Souls and Dark Souls II‘s marketing. I’ve died hundreds of times in hundreds of games. And it’s very strange how people nod in agreement to the novelty of death and difficulty as if instant fail states were not one of gaming’s founding blocks (to the point where some people have stupid arguments about whether things are or are not games).
It reminds me of how Telltale’s recent adventure games trump up “player choice” as if players haven’t been choosing since positioning their Pong paddle. Ok, “narrative” choice? Umm, how about text adventures from 1981. Come on.
Souls games aren’t hard. I don’t say that as a nose-upturned, “gotten gud” vet. They are about endurance and resilience more than sadistic, chronic difficulty. They are a challenge, but not monstrous or mean as people often make them out. Heck, I’ve seen someone who plays maybe one or two games a year get a platinum trophy in Demon’s Souls. There’s no club. Anyone can do this. They’re designed to let anyone play and finish.
Over on the webpage (and mobile application) Twitter, one-time Destructoid contributor Stephen Beirne (no relation!) loosed a series of posts about Souls and I am in accord. “I can’t get behind the argument that Dark Souls is abusive due to its (presented sense of) difficulty. And I think this is because I find Dark Souls to be far, far less difficult than a game like, for example, Super Mario Brothers. Platforming is difficult! It’s very difficult! It’s not fun and it’s agonizing and it’s pointless and hateful.”
I love platformers, but this raises some great points, aside from the subjectivity of difficulty. No one’s good at everything. I am bad at not having loads of sex, for example. Irish Stephen (not to be confused with Welsh Stephen) is bad at platformers. Young Steven (me) was bad at telling Kurt Russell and Patrick Swayze apart.
There is a relative novelty to Souls games, though, and I think that’s where some of the obsession over exaggerating the difficulty comes from (aside from general chest pounding reinforced by marketing to try and create a positive-feeling in-group). But it isn’t in death. It’s as a 3D action game.
Late ’80s, early ’90s gaming was filthy with platformers. Mario, a pop culture icon up there with Michael Jordan and the wild shirtless Mark Farner, comes from New Jump City. The genre has only gotten easier, shedding quarter-gobbling design (the removal of “lives”), allowing you to skip levels after repeated death. While some folks are plum bad at ’em, we’ve had a lot of tries at being good at them.
Compare to the 3D action game, which might not have even hit its stride until the PS2-era in the 2000s (PS1-era ones tended to be wonky and platforming-heavy), but at least didn’t even exist until 3D graphics. In our young medium, the 3D action genre is younger still, (blood)born(e) of platformers and agèd over the last decade.
Souls games occupy a genre that has a decent chance at being a new challenge to folks. It also operates different than genre-defining stuff like Devil May Cry or God of War, thanks in part to the RPG bits. The latter, reflex-based ilk are linear and need momentum. And so you can limp along, button mash, and be not all that good, for which they’ll stratify you (chumps skirt by with C-ranks and stamina, experts carve up the world with SSS-rank endless combos). But you’re still getting through, moving along. Even I meandered my way through the “hard” Devil May Cry games. And on the RPG side of the Souls mix, there’s a history of having the numbers and grind fallback, limited reflex-oriented fighting.
And suddenly, Souls, where the difference isn’t “coast by or be good,” but, more closely, “coast by or die.” It rewrites the expectations of 3D, third-person action relative to genre standard bearers. All it asks you to do is get by, and so it skews the relationship to death and performance.
The general experience of Devil May Cry is that sometimes you’ll die. Mostly, you’ll empty out rooms with the killing precision of a child flailing at a piñata. Eventually, you’ll be an expert slayer. Souls changes that bell curve. Mostly you’ll die. Eventually you’ll get by. Rarely, you’ll be a wrecking machine, an offensive weapon. It’s about winning, eventually, instead of winning more and more impressively.
Souls offers other outs, too. You can go grind and level up, get more gear, buy more arrows. You can often fuck off elsewhere, to another stage, or on another path, rather than bang your head against one boss. Masochistic? When’s the last time a text adventure let you type, “this is stupid, next question?” How about trying to suss a point-and-click puzzle that expects you to pry open a manhole, stretch a patch of human skin over it into a trampoline, and jump up through an open window? Souls games are designed to encourage you towards eventual success, even if it means breaks, detours, or extra hours.
You don’t get a gold star for killing the Flame Lurker without the ribcage exploit. You don’t get a demerit for safely perching yourself with a bow and taking 100 potshots to down a far off creature. In Souls‘ judgment, it’s all the same. What matters is you did it. I don’t find that sadistic at all.