Difficulty you are a cruel mistress

Have games these days made us a little to soft? Difficult curves are a corner stone to the game experience, especially when you look at it versus the consumer. These days, everyone wants to have a nice slopping difficulty curve, so the player won’t get discouraged. There’s a concept of Flow, this perfect state where an equally high difficulty of a game is meet with a equally high requirement of skill, the game is hard but requires you mastering the elements it presents you and ultimately over coming it. You reach this happy moment that in my mind goes a little something like “Fuck yeah! I am AWESOME.” You feel powerful from overcoming this grand obstacle. But, there’s a catch, that fight to succeed needs to feel equally rewarding even in failure. Note, its hard, you are going to fail, its just a fact of experimenting and learning. “Why do we fall Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up.” But each time, you are slowly mastering your environment, if not in actuality, in recognition. You see what you should be doing and how you are screwing up, but you still are learning and having that ‘Aha’ moment. One thing I hate in games, in a feeling of helplessness, not helplessness given by narrative, thematic, or to build tension for a climax, but feeling like you just have no control over what you are doing from a play perspective. Helplessness to eventually make the player feel powerful is one thing, helplessness of feeling like you have no control over actual play is another. The best example I can think of is fighting games. There is a concept called ‘zoning’ basically controlling space between you and your opponent with reach or projectiles. The problem is there is the possibility that you can do it so well, your opponent can’t doing anything about it. You’re stuck; helpless. I personally believe you can do the same with excessive aggression where you are stuck being attacked. Skill is taken out of the equation for you, and the burden of your victory falls to your opponent screwing up. Keep that in mind: burden of victory, skill, progression, and difficulty.

Now we come to the game that has spurred this: Dark Souls. I love epic dark fantasy and action rpgs, and hearing a game is hard feels more like a taunt than anything else. That and shinny free if pre-ordered collector’s edition art book and stuff. Anyway, there’s been a lot of talk about the difficulty in this game, which got me really excited it. I love that fighting through and the feeling of victory after overcoming the obstacle. But I was meet by something a little different with Dark Souls, it wasn’t so much as the game was difficult as it was difficult to play. I hesitate to use the word cheap but so far I’ve had this overwhelming feeling of just getting pushed around not because I was bad at the game but because I wasn’t allowed to be. With action oriented games, combat is a big deal. Tooling, tightening, and retesting that combat so it feels just right, gratifying and rewarding, often times becoming a puzzle or dance between you and your enemy; a deadly ballet if you will. But this is something that has hung me up with Dark Souls, it doesn’t feel very tight or tooled. There’s a lag to when I attack or try to dodge, there just isn’t a crispness that I feels needed in a game that’s so unrelenting. I miss an attack and the lag from recovery or even wind up gets me killed. Over and over and over again. Its not so much hard as I just can’t do shit. I’m shackled into getting railed, smashed, stabbed, burned, gang jumped and I just can’t react to the moment at hand. Remember that principle of learning from your failures and flow? Yeah, I’m not learning much besides ‘Don’t get hit.’ since if I screw up because I wouldn’t dodge as quick as I press or I get mashy with the button and an extra action pops out and causes me to get smacked and I just die. That’s it. Done. I’m not seeing where I went wrong, not realizing how to play the game and getting that happy moment. I’m getting frustrated, pissed off, and discouraged. There’s no recognition of where I went wrong, and I don’t feel like I died because of my lack of skill but because of the game forcing me to be open to attack. And then there’s just the ration of the damage I dish out and take versus what I’m up against. Even with the weak enemies, I have to work so hard to get a single attack in that deals maybe a fifth of their health, probably less, and yet, they get one hit on me, I’m left open by that initial attack and then the follow up and finally the death blow. Boom, you’re dead fool. And when that victory finally comes, it doesn’t feel gratifying because of pushing me to my limits and knowledge of the game, but instead I feel like I lucked out and just have a ‘Thank god I don’t have to deal with that again’ feeling.

However, conversely, there is something that Dark Souls is reminding me of that I’ve been sorely lacking in my playing and a lot of games these days: patience. Because of the lag in attacking, I have to wait and plan my attacks and pick and choose my moments. I can’t react on a split second. Its rough. Its really rough. And a little frustrating at the same time, because I want a more active role in my playing experience, not a passive on in waiting for an opening. But in a way, this is a throw back to old platforms, you had to keep reactively dodging and taking your time analyzing your environment or your enemies pattern. One aspect of Dark Souls is the parry and riposte system. You parry the opponent’s attack, then respond with what so far appears to be an instant kill against lower enemies. The only problem is that overwhelming onslaught of life ending attacks and I’m leaving myself open as I get ready to try and parry the enemy I’m focused on. Maybe its going to take more practice on my end. I really can’t figure out the timing for the thing to work most of the time. I am personally one who likes to be very forward, direct and active in my combat, usually using a number of whams to make my point, I like sweeping, damaging attacks with a lot of reach, but Dark Souls seems to be pushing me into a more defensive, predicting style of combat that’s not really my strong suit. But as a whole, Dark Souls is poking holes in a lot of the more modern styles of design. Unrelenting and unforgiving. No hand holding, you died, you fucked up, live with it or go home. Like I said earlier, its rough. I think of games from when I was little, the same thing happened, but I never really gave it a second thought. Sure I got frustrated but what choice did I have? Whine, or go back in. Like I said initially, I feel like Dark Souls is taunting me. Laughing at my futility and fueling a fiery rage to destroy it and stand up to proclaim my dominance of it. Perhaps my stubbornness has some how caused me to shift where I am in that concept of flow. Has it pushed me into flow because I want to succeed or has my lack of patience done the opposite and put me into the frustrated zone? Who knows but for some reason I keep going back for more. Okay Dark Souls, I’m ready for my daily ass kicking.


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