I took the last week off because I unexpectedly needed a bit of a break from writing, but I’m back for a new entry! Today I’d like to talk about a game series that’s near and dear to my heart: the Souls series. The main series is, of course, the Dark Souls series – but there is also Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne, as well as games that have similar styles like Nioh and The Surge. Elements of the Souls series have popped up in all sorts of other genres due to its immense popularity and it’s been one of the more influential modern series in terms of game design.
It’s also unfortunately gotten a bit of a reputation due to a certain subset of its fans. The Souls games are often heralded as a series for “true gamers” and the internet meme of “git gud” is often closely associated with it because the so-called “difficulty” of the Souls games is what lots of people like to talk about as if that’s what draws people to the series. Souls games are almost a trial by fire in the gaming world and lots of arguments have been had over whether the series needs an easy mode or a better way to get new people into the game. And since I’m a huge fan of the series, I have opinions on the subject. So here’s what I think:
The Souls games aren’t hard.
Now let me be clear. Just because I’m saying games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne aren’t hard doesn’t mean I’m saying they’re easy either. More importantly, I’m not saying they aren’t hard because I’ve had a particularly easy time with them. What I’m saying is that the difficulty of Dark Souls and its kin has been almost Flanderized in a way. Gaming media in particular had a nasty habit of making “Dark Souls” a modifier of genres just to convey that the game is difficult – the “Dark Souls of first person shooters” for example. This awards video by VaatiVidya even makes fun of the “Dark Souls of” media at the beginning and proceeds to title his 2017 year in review as “The Dark Souls of Awards.”
It means that Souls games have an almost pretentious vibe thanks to this atmosphere surrounding them despite most of the game’s fans being welcome to newcomers and having lots of tips and tricks to help out. In fact one of the main draws of the Souls games is a co-op type mode where you can summon other people to help you through hard parts. The online mode lets you leave helpful (or not helpful if you’re feeling sadistic) messages that can show up for other players in their worlds. And yes, sure, there are parts of the games you can entirely miss without consulting a strategy guide because some of the hidden items are hidden pretty hard. But that doesn’t make the game hard.
Yes, sure, this can happen when you’re playing Dark Souls III. But you know what also can happen in Dark Souls III? This. I’m well aware that if you plunk down a person who has never played a video game before and tell them to start playing Dark Souls, they’re going to wonder if you’re secretly a sadist. Souls games aren’t entry level video games, much like you don’t throw a person who’s never played basketball before into a game versus the Golden State Warriors. But everything about the game is pattern-based. If you have patience and a decent memory, you can overcome everything the game throws at you.
In all the Souls games, whenever you die or rest at a bonfire (the game’s checkpoint system) all the enemies reset. But they always reset to the same location. That archer that took you by surprise when you rounded a corner during your last failed attempt? He’s going to be in the exact same place, so all you have to do is apply a little critical thinking to figure out how you’re going to take him out before he gets you this time. Even the bosses have specific move sets that, once you figure them out, you can learn the timing of when to dodge and when to attack. It’s actually very similar to the side-scrolling Mega Man games (another favorite series of mine) in that once you know the patterns most of the levels and/or bosses become trivial. That’s the reason you can often see fans of the series performing Soul Level 1 runs through most games – it ups the challenge since they never upgrade their character, but it’s still feasible for them to beat everyone in the game because they know the locations of all the enemies as well as boss patterns.
There’s no randomization to the Souls games. There’s no RNG – there aren’t any surprise critical hits. You can do attacks for more damage (or get hurt for more damage) if you master parries and backstabs, but you’ll never get hit by an enemy that’s been doing 50 damage to you every time it hits you, only to get hit for 200 this one time due to an unseen dice roll by the system. You’re always informed when you’re about to be poisoned or have another status effects. You can see your health and your stamina bars. Everything about the game and your status is laid out for you – you may need to learn what everything means through the menu system, but the game gives you all the information you need to survive and nothing is hidden.
Let’s look at another game that I recently picked up for the Switch – Darkest Dungeon. It’s another game that got the “Dark Souls” treatment of difficulty. It’s a game that warns you when it starts that people in your party are going to die permanently and that’s just a fact of this game and you have to accept you’re going to lose party members. I’m okay with that – after all, I pretty much love the modern XCOM series and playing that on Ironman forces you to live with decisions that get your squad killed. But the problem with Darkest Dungeon is that its supposed difficulty is unfair. I was playing and doing well with my team of dungeon explorers – nobody had died yet. I was starting to easily clear the level 1 dungeons and some of my better party members had reached level 3. So I decided to explore a level 3 dungeon. In the second encounter in the dungeon, I fought a group of enemies that critical hit my best party member and killed him permanently before I had a chance to act. This soured me on the game and I haven’t played it since.
The reason it soured me was because it felt unfair. It felt cheap. In XCOM games, most of the time when I lose a character it’s because I messed up on positioning or got too aggressive. In Dark Souls and its ilk, when I die it’s usually because I made a mistake – I misjudged an attack window on a boss and got punished for it, or I forgot there was a knight with a long spear that could knock me off the stairway. In Darkest Dungeon, I didn’t do anything wrong. I waited until all my characters were level 3 before attempting a level 3 dungeon (and the game actually has the characters say whether they’re ready or not ready to go into the dungeon, so I was doubly assured by the game it was the right course of action). I hadn’t pushed too hard into the dungeon or overstayed my welcome – I’d barely started exploring it. And I hadn’t made a mistake during the battle – my character was dead before I had a chance to act. It was just a randomly-generated critical hit followed by another randomly-generated critical hit that killed my character.
See this? This was a mistake.
And to me, that’s what makes a game hard or difficult. A game is hard when, no matter what you do, you still end up losing despite having not made any mistakes. Whether it’s because the enemies have too much health in their health pool, or the randomization elements make you extremely unlucky, or the AI is just rigged to get a Blue Shell on the last lap. That’s “hard” to me. “Hard” is a puzzle game like The Witness where the puzzles actually make you think and you stare at the screen for a long time trying to piece all the mysteries together.
Dark Souls and the other Souls-like games are punishing, don’t get me wrong. But I think a lot of people confuse that for difficulty. When you die or make a mistake in Souls games, there are consequences. You lose progress. You lose the souls you’ve collected up until that point, and if you don’t make it back to where you died they’re gone forever. In other games you may die but the checkpoint was right at the start of the boss battle where you died, so you didn’t lose that much and you still have all the stuff you collected. A lot of games nowadays treat dying like that – there aren’t any real consequences. It’s just a minor, frustrating speed bump on your way to completing the story of the game. And that’s a minor flaw in modern game design – if game designers are creating 20-30 hour stories, they obviously want people to play it all the way to the end, so they can’t frustrate people too much, right?
And so this idea of having actual consequences to making mistakes when you play is suddenly considered “hard.” And Dark Souls games get this reputation for being hard along with it, which is then makes certain fans of the games arrogant. There’s a little bit of ego in perpetuating this stereotype of Souls games being hard because, well, if you can easily beat Souls games then you must be a real good gamer, right?
Wrong. You’ve just gotten good at pattern recognition. It’s still something to be proud of, but Souls games are still just video games. Let’s wash away the stereotype of Souls games as difficult and only for masochists. Anybody can be good at a Souls game, and they don’t even need to “git gud” in the process.