We pitch games badly.
Describing a game by a single trait or characteristic does a poor job of explaining what might make it special. Proclaiming a game is “fun,” or saying that “it’s hard,” doesn’t help explain what makes a game worthwhile. The Souls series is particularly victimized by this kind of off-hand analysis.
Repeated deaths are the way of the world in Dark Souls or Demon Souls. Monetary gains and experience points are tied to the player’s ‘souls’ and dying twice in a row tosses all their hard work out the window — sounds awfully hard, right? Well it is, but what’s left out from this description is that From Software has managed to inextricably tie the length of time a player has survived, to how severe the penalty of their death will be. For instance, if they have just lost everything, they are welcome to sprint for an exit, or try risky maneuvers to steer enemies off cliffs — the game expects you to spend some time pushing the limits of its design.The games are challenging, but they are clearly designed to be bested.
In actuality, the Souls games use difficulty as a way to invest the player in the game’s universe; in essence, the game’s punishing gameplay is a brushstroke on its canvas. By creating such high stakes for the player, these games create a constant sense of dread. Challenge isn’t the only thing dead-set on building up this atmosphere; the game’s art design, musical composition, even controls all strive for the same goal. Describing the series as “hard” is not too far off from explaining Thatgamecompany’s Flower as a game that is really green. The statement isn’t wrong, but it also is not a valuable assessment; it’s empty and misses the point entirely.
Worse yet, in the case of Dark Souls, it serves to push people away from something they might enjoy. The difference between saying: “it’s hard” and saying “it forces you to pay attention” is night and day. Saying “it’s hard” implies there is a barrier to entry that is potentially insurmountable. Meanwhile, acknowledging that that game “forces you to pay attention” captures the spirit of the game’s slow paced, sometimes stealthy, sometimes horror-esque back and forth. The battles are action-packed, but unlike Megaman, Guitar Hero, or Super Hexagon, Dark Souls is at its core a Role-playing game, with sections of gameplay devoted entirely to respite from its harrowing difficulty.
Let’s not forget most players look forward to overcoming a challenge, but don’t necessarily think the games they play are hard. Quote unquote casual games are hard. You can’t say that Dark Souls is harder than Flappy Bird, it’s not. Even when it doesn’t seem like it, people —generally— want to be challenged. Games present an opportunity for constant learning. Whether it’s through story, reflexes, or puzzles, games create a space for adapting to new situations and solving conflicts, but if we’ve already mastered a scenario after ten minutes, it tends to leave a bad taste in our mouths. Conversely, if we perceive something as hard —or that the challenge is not worth the time investment— we lose interest. Try to think how many people refuse to try DOTA 2 or League of Legends because they’re pitched as overly complex.
None of this is to suggest we shouldn’t use words like “hard” when describing or analyzing games, a lot of titles are genuinely hard —including Dark Souls— but we need to consider how these terms are perceived— especially to someone unfamiliar with a game’s real appeal. Challenge is an important metric for games; the industry has been including a difficulty slider (i.e. easy/medium/hard) for almost thirty years. Anecdotally, Silent Hill fans will remember the series went as far as to have a difficulty slider for its riddles, which goes to show how important its developers felt the game’s challenge was to getting the porridge “just right.”
What is important is that we consider how we frame games. “Hard” is a trait, not a description. A game’s relative level of difficulty is not an adequate assessment of its purpose. Most of us are guilty of getting excited, and immediately scaring our loved ones away from a title by calling it something that it was not. With a game like Dark Souls it’s easy to get caught up in how many times the game caught you off guard, but before making any sweeping generalizations, it’s worth considering how layered the whole experience is. Take the time to present what ideas make you excited to get back to a game’s world; appreciate how much craft it takes to setup your demise, and to somehow keep you coming back for more. With all things said and done, games are multifaceted experiences and we should credit their makers with multifaceted descriptions.