Tough Love: On Dark Souls' Difficulty

An extract from You Died: The Dark Souls Companion

You Died: The Dark Souls Companion is one of the great gaming books of the last few years - it's passionate, perceptive and wonderfully partisan. (We should also mention that it's the work of two friends of Eurogamer, Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth.)

Killingsworth is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to produce a beautiful hardback version of the book, which will include a new chapter. He's kindly allowed us to publish this extract as a taster.

Dark Souls' most obvious trait also happens to be its least interesting; fixating on 'gosh, this game's hard' seems a bit obvious when we could be talking about its themes, its lore, its fascinating game design. Dark Souls is more than a Tough Mudder challenge for the couch-bound. But Dark Souls' difficulty is also inescapable and, rightly or wrongly, it's what the game is most famous for. Ask players for their recollections, and they will tell you the moments that made them cry, the moments when they felt physically and mentally broken by a boss fight, the moments when they nearly gave up. And if you dig a little deeper, examining Dark Souls' difficulty yields a lot of insight into what makes it work.

If a game's punishingly hard, people tend to just give up on it; we've all been there, throwing the controller at the floor after the twelfth attempt at some badly-checkpointed level or irritating boss. What is it about Dark Souls that makes us persevere? Is there something essentially masochistic in the constitution of a Souls fanatic?

Of course, some people do just give up. The breaking point for many arrives somewhere before the 10-hour mark. Often it's the Taurus Demon - on my own first run through the game, I spent four hours hacking bravely away at Taurus' heels on that bridge, having missed the helpful tutorial about plunge attacks back in the Undead Asylum. When I finally beat him, using a rusty dagger on that narrow platform, I nearly cried with relief - though I actually did cry when, weeks later after the game had come out, I discovered how easy that whole process could have been if I'd just climbed the ladder and dropped on his head.

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Most Dark Souls players can name the moment that they broke through 'the wall': you need one big, hard-won victory to cement the cycle of effort, frustration, reward and release that drives people through the game. That first big victory, where you've faced something that seemed impossible at first and conquered it after hours of failure and death and learning, is also necessary before you come to understand the core idea at the heart of Dark Souls' design: death as education.

This is, of course, not conventional game design. Conventional game design eases players into an experience, gradually introducing new concepts and abilities before putting you in any real danger, rather than dropping you right into a world full of things that are trying to kill you as swiftly and horribly as possible and watching you get on with it. This type of game design relies upon trusting the player to persevere, to learn from dying and try again, rather than just put down the controller and walk away, and it's baked into every design decision in Dark Souls. Every death presents an opportunity for reflection and improvement. Even the long run back from the bonfire to the fog gate before a boss arena offers an opportunity to contemplate where you went wrong on your previous attempt.

When Miyazaki took over the reins on Demon's Souls, this concept of death as education was rather difficult to explain, because... well, it hadn't been done before. As we've mentioned, he and his producer from Sony, Takeshi Kajii, actually had to lie to the Sony higher-ups about it to get the game green-lit. "To be quite honest, we didn't really mention that aspect of the game when we did the presentations to Sony," Miyazaki told me back in 2011, on the day Dark Souls was released in Japan. "We knew that people at the publisher would feel [that it was too difficult and off-putting], and that they'd make us change it. So in the product concept presentations I didn't talk about it much.

"Of course I communicated with our producer at Sony, Kajii-san - but he actually agreed with me. Before Demon's came out, both Sony and players would have thought 'What the hell is he talking about, death as education? What is he thinking?' But now everybody is fully aware of the concept.

"The main concept behind the death system is trial-and-error. The difficulty is high, but always achievable. Everyone can achieve without all that much technique - all you need to do is learn, from your deaths, how to overcome the difficulties. Overcoming challenges by learning something in a game is a very rewarding feeling, and that's what I wanted to prioritise in Dark Souls and Demon's Souls. And because of the online [gameplay systems], you can even learn something from somebody else's death. I'd say that was the main concept behind the online [aspects], too."

Miyazaki makes an often-overlooked point about technique. You don't need to be an enormously skilled gamer to play Dark Souls (though it certainly helps, especially if you go for a close-quarters style of play). The range of weapons, magics and techniques that Dark Souls accommodates means that if you're not finding much success with an enormous sword, you're encouraged to experiment with other approaches. Because of the way the game communicates and asks you to learn, anyone can play it as long as they're willing to persevere and adapt.

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"I come down on the side saying that Dark Souls isn't especially difficult, it's just extremely punishing," says Jamie Madigan, a psychologist (and big Dark Souls fan) who specialises in the intersection of games and psychology. "If you don't do something correctly, you're dead. Once you figure things out, it's not especially difficult; probably more so than a lot of games, but it's not on the level of Super Meat Boy or Ori & The Blind Forest or some of those maso-core platforming games, and it's not difficult in the same way that playing a competitive first-person shooter against a really skilled and experienced team is difficult and frustrating.

"Dark Souls does require manual dexterity and twitch reflexes, but it's also pretty obvious in its feedback. I think one of the appealing things about it from a psychology perspective is that we only learn and are motivated to pursue goals to the extent that we get feedback about what we're doing. Dark Souls provides pretty clear, immediate and useful feedback, which our brains are designed to pay attention to and make use of."

Understanding the psychology of Dark Souls and what it does to our brains is the key to understanding why its version of difficulty is so rewarding and absorbing, where difficulty in other games is just frustrating and off-putting. One of the key psychological models behind human motivation is something called self-determination theory, which posits that for a person to persist and feel motivated by an activity, it has to satisfy three different needs: mastery, autonomy, and relatedness. Dark Souls offers mastery in spades, in that you always feel like you are getting better. Autonomy is the feeling that you are free to make choices, and that those choices are meaningful, which Dark Souls also accommodates. And finally, there's relatedness: the feeling of connectedness to people. That's one of the things that prevents Dark Souls' difficulty from being too demoralising: it has a sense of community. You know that you're going through it with thousands of other people, too, and seeing their messages and ghostly presences in your own game helps you feel like you're not alone.

It's also important to feel like we have control. Unfair difficulty is never fun. And though some deaths in Dark Souls are unexpected, they're rarely inexplicable and are usually your fault. If you play through the same sections over and over again, as most people have to, you come to realise that there is fundamentally almost no randomness in Dark Souls. The environment and enemies always behave in the same way. It's what you do that changes, and the predictability of everything else makes mastery possible.

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"If there's no clear relationship between what you do and what the outcome is, it's not as motivating to play because you don't feel like you're accumulating any mastery," Jamie explains. "You don't feel like anything you do has a direct result. So I think that's one reason why [Dark Souls] is so appealing: once you start to learn it, it's essentially predictable."

Over the course of writing this book, one thing I've heard over and over again from Dark Souls players is that, because of the high stakes, both victory and defeat feel more meaningful. This is something that especially appeals to people who have been playing games for decades, because since the early '00s, games have generally been trending away from that kind of challenge.

Dark Souls' translator Ryan Morris sums it up: "[Dark Souls] put the significance of things that were happening back into games. Like, you have to care about dying when your souls are on the line. You have to assess a situation and figure out if it's really worth taking the risk and doing it. And so it keeps you on the edge of your seat, because your time investment in the game is actually at risk, so you get spooked and freaked out."

That physical component to the Dark Souls experience - the sweating palms, the racing heart, the cold, nauseating dread when you fall victim to a little gang of Hollows on your way back to a bonfire and lose 20,000 souls - intrigued me. Other games are exciting, sure, but I don't think I've ever leaped up and screamed at the television, arms raised in jubilation, whilst playing any other game. The way you feel during the final minutes of those tight boss fights, where both you and your foe are millimetres from death and you've been holding your breath for seemingly minutes at a time, is not something most video games are capable of eliciting.

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"We have that reaction whenever we reach any sort of goal in life, a goal that you've been working towards and applying things you've learned," Jamie says. "It's in proportion to the amount of energy and effort you've invested. You have an endorphin release not dissimilar to what you'd have with an orgasm: when you reach a goal your brain releases chemicals that make you feel happy and satisfied.

"In video games, probably a lot like in sports, there's a feedback system. When you're doing something demanding, your heart rate goes up, your skin galvanises, you start to perspire and breathe faster, you have all these physiological reactions - and there's lots of research in the psychology literature showing that those things can feed on each other and cycle back. You're excited, and because you're excited, your heart rate goes up, and you become aware that your heart rate has gone up and you interpret that as evidence that you're excited, and so you get more excited and your heart rate goes up more. And these physiological and psychological systems go back and forth."

It's possible to trick people into this kind of feedback loop, of course. Consider the insidiously addictive, but not meaningfully rewarding appeal of slot machines and less scrupulous free-to-play games, for example. But it's difficult to fake for long.If achievements are illusory, we become wise to it, and the thrill dissipates. Because Dark Souls keeps the stakes consistently high, its thrill does not noticeably dissipate - well, certainly not until you're past your first few playthroughs.

For all the suffering that Dark Souls has inflicted upon us, it's rarely totally demoralising. There's always something else to try or someone to turn to in search of help. And even when they are smacking you in the face with your own incompetence, you get the impression that From's designers are often doing so with a cheeky smile on their faces rather than a sadistic grimace. Dark Souls' sense of humour is greatly under-appreciated: in what other game can you get punched to death by a mushroom?

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"It's all tied in with the difficulty level," Miyazaki said, back on the day of Dark Souls' release. "The development team did think it might be funny to design, for instance, an area where you're forced to play on a tiny little beam with traps everywhere. It's hard, but never impossible, and there is that element of humour - that people might laugh when they get killed, that they might feel caught out by the game. The game design is intended to be such that you don't feel frustration, but instead feel understanding - the urge to try again."

Illustrations by Angus Dick

Screenshots by Duncan Harris

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About the author

Keza MacDonald

Keza MacDonald

Contributor

Keza is the Guardian's video games editor. Previously she has been the UK editor for Kotaku and IGN, and a Eurogamer contributor.

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