The Souls series developed by From Software is easily considered one of the most difficult games of the generation. And yet, where absurd difficulty in most games are considered bad, From Software manages to weild difficulty as a tool to add further texture to their intricately crafted worlds, rather than as just a "replayability" thing that most games tack on.
There are already a ton of write ups talking about the sense of achievement that one gets from defeating a difficult boss in a Souls game, but that argument would hold true for almost any difficult game, and stretching it would hold true for any game with multiple difficulty levels. I'm sure far fewer people have completed Ninja Gaiden games than Souls game, and thus it can be argued that the sense of achievement is greater in a Ninja Gaiden game.
A new Souls game was released last month, and I came to a new realization after finally defeating a particularly harrowing boss fight. Something snapped, and I gained a new perspective of the world and its characters, as well as the intentions imposed by the difficulty from a game design standpoint. The recent Twitch Plays Pokemon phenomenon also helped solidify my new perspective.
I shall refer to Twitch Plays Pokemon as TPP for the remainder of this article.
The most important concept to tackle for playing around with difficulty in an action-adventure game is the concept of death. Make death simply send you back to the last checkpoint simply means that death has no purpose in the game. Souls games however, are steeply inclined in questions of mortality and the desire to survive, and do a great job of crafting a gripping narrative around what happens when you die, and also in giving death enough drawbacks to make it more undesirable that it usually is, but not too much as to make it annoyingly unplayable.
I won't talk too much about this, since there is nothing new to perceive here than what is already shown.
Richard Clark also wrote an interesting opinion piece on Gamasutra about the cheapness of death in games (he does not talk about Souls games, however).
On The World And NPCs
The worlds of the Souls games are not deadly just to the player, there is a constant atmosphere of struggle that permeates every character that you interact with in the games. Every NPC behaves in a way that the player can instantly identify with. One of the first NPC that the player talks to in every Souls game has names like the Crestfallen Warrior who fills the player with hopelessness about their impending struggle.
And the struggle is not just in their words and moods. The ultimate form of death in the Souls worlds is known as going hollow, and during the course of your adventure, some of these NPCs slowly and progressively lose their minds and go hollow. As you near the end of the game, you will have lost a lot of people you came to consider your friends, and having used their help in some of the earlier boss fights, their demise further amplifies the feeling of loneliness you perceive near the end of the game.
One thing about TPP that confounded social media analysts was the amount of memes and cult references that formed around the game is such a short span of time. The sheer volume of them meant that anyone frequenting any gaming blog or forum could not help but notice these memes and naturally follow them to their source, further augmenting the source's popularity. Many people attribute this to the game's unique form of delivery and interaction, but I argue that the primary reason for this was the absurd difficulty in getting anything done.
Similarly, I surmise that the memes forming around the fair difficulty of the game helped drive interest around the web and ultimately grow its community.
TPP also achieved a manner of communal brotherhood that is rarely seen outside of large and old MMOs. And it did this in the span of a week. Within a few days, a legion of players were collaborating and theorycrafting on various sites like Reddit, to help progress the adventure. Again, where people chalk it up to its uniqueness, I chalk it up to its fair difficulty.
The Souls worlds, besides being filled with notoriously difficult enemies, the environment itself is a challenging foe. All Souls game play out on a single distinct region of the world, and there is a logical (and almost always a seamless) connection from every accessible location to every other accessible location. As such, there are tons of hidden secrets to be found, traps to be avoided, shortcuts to be unlocked, and abyssal pits to jump over (the second leading cause of death in all Souls games is falling).
The game gives players mechanics to help other players by putting down messages in the world. It is for this reason that I always try to play the Souls games as soon as possible, since there is much less exploration happening when every secret is already marked by other players.
Another facet of difficulty is the story. Souls games take a unique approach to storytelling, where they feed the player fragmented bits and pieces about the world, and the player must come to his own conclusion of what happened based on what he sees. Almost every piece of equipment in the world tells a bit of the story (in its chatty description), making the act of finding secrets also feed into unearthing the story elements. Even after this, the story can remain stoically gibberish for many people, and various members of the community have risen up to tell their versions of what happened in the world. There is enough ambiguity in the details that different theories are possible, giving newcomers a chance to add to the collective insight.
In summary, the difficulty of Souls games extends beyond the gameplay: the world and the story itself present challenges that force communal collaboration even outside the game.
On Multiplayer Gameplay
The Souls games have unique implementations of cooperative and competitive multiplayer. Rather than lobbies and matchmaking modes that most games employ, multiplayer in Souls games are steeped in the story of the world as well.
Whereas in most games the cooperative and competitive components are distinct, and often supplemental, the Souls games have both these aspects rigidly embedded into the main storyline gameplay. Where in many games, players often segerate into predominantly PvE (carebears) and PvP communities, in Souls games, they are all mixed together.
The ultimate goal of the inherent difficulty of the game, I believe, is to force players to interact with each other, either cooperatively or competitively. There are many bosses in the game that are simply too difficult for certain classes of characters to defeat without help, and this naturally forces them to summon other players into their world to help them. Why would players want to be summoned?
One reason is to regain humanity: players in Souls games hover between two states, human and hollow; death results in hollowing, where they cannot summon other players, while being human allows you to summon other players at the risk of being invaded by other hollowed players. That's only one reason. In my personal experience, I spent hours trying to beat a boss, which I finally defeated only thanks to summoned friends. I was so grateful to them that I spent the next few hours helping others to defeat the same boss, even if it didn't give me anything.
This is actually reminiscent to the feelings behind the open source movement, where the main reason people do something for free is because they are grateful to the developers of all the free things they are using to make a livelihood.
When people are trying to achieve something good, there are always people trying to subvert them. TPP was a fantastic example of this, where it took only one troll to reset hours of advancement. Counter-intuitively, when subject to a certain limit, such trolling can further enhance the cohesiveness and determination of the group trying to accomplish something.
The same holds true for the Souls games: Does summoning other players to help you trivialize the game? Possibly. Until you count in invasions. Scripted AI enemies and bosses are one thing, but put other players amongst the enemies and the whole dynamic changes. What was a simple romp through a level for three players can quickly ascend into a hilariously memorable cat and rat chase through the level.
I'm not really sure how to summarize this post. I feel like there are still more insights to be gleaned; perhaps more PvP can open my eyes further. I'll keep this post open, and update it as I continue my playthrough of Dark Souls II.