Demonic Difficulty: Are Most Games Today Too Easy or Is Demon's Souls Too Hard?
A popular complaint of gamers I would like to call seasoned (though younger gamers would probably just call them old) concerns the relative ease of contemporary games. Now that I am closing in on the halfway point of my life expectancy -- about which I feel fine, thanks -- I think I can talk about the games of my youth without seeming too insufferably wintry. And many of the questions surrounding difficulty in games are, surely, generational.
Twenty years ago, there was no gaming community for most of us. When I was a kid you barely even saw commercials for games. Back then, if someone had handed me a Prima-style game guide for Super Mario Bros. or Kid Icarus I would have lost consciousness from sheer gratitude. Older gamers are able to remember when game cartridges were solitary portals into other, wholly self-contained worlds. When we could not figure something out, which was often, the closest thing we had to the Internet was talking to our friends during recess -- and most of the information was just as bad. Many of us still flush with the recalled indignity of having to beg our parents to allow us to call the Nintendo hotline because we were stuck somewhere in Metroid or could not figure out how to beat one of the bosses in Punch-Out!!. Most of the games we grew up on were as stingy as Great Depression survivors: OK, kid. Here are a few lives. Be careful with them. Once they're gone, the game is over. Have fun.
Looking back on them now, the game experiences of my youth do not seem like much fun, and I am not certain they were fun, exactly. As experiences, they were far harder to define. There was, in fact, something weirdly lab-rat-ish about playing older games. You were asked to make attempt after attempt to figure something out with almost no positive input from the thing itself. Playing those games was like pushing a lever that mostly made you miserable but sometimes produced a small, gray, tasteless pellet. Today's games, by contrast, excrete mango ice cream and whipped nougat at carefully spaced intervals. So, yes, games back then were harder, much harder, but they were also, in my view, a magnitude less enjoyable. We played those games so avidly because they were the only games available to play.
That said, there is something oddly soulless about how modern games approach the question of difficulty. Tutorials are, by and large, rigidly conceived and frequently absurd, having to necessarily oblige the thickest, least-skillful and most-stoned audience members. Some tutorials are so slobberingly accommodating you practically want to leave money for them on the dresser once they have had their way with you. Or think of a game like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. During its puzzle sequences (and, really, these are "puzzles" along the lines of keeping straight the crucial differences between a square and triangle), if you cannot figure something out due to your recent stroke, the game drops a broad hint. You are then given a moment to act on it. If you do not, the game pretty much tells you exactly what you are supposed to do. While playing Uncharted 2, I sometimes had the distant thought of how much I missed the days of being trusted to figure out stuff on my own.
I have now played the famously difficult and famously frustrating and famously withholding Demon's Souls for around 40 hours, and can say I no longer miss those days. Indeed, I finally had to stop playing the game because of the toll it was taking on my relationship. I knew things were bad when my girlfriend updated her Facebook status to read: "I blame Demon's Souls. For everything." She is tremendously accepting of my gaming, and even plays a bit herself; but this game, and what it was doing to me, proved intolerable. My personality changed when I played Demon's Souls, shading from my loving, magnificent, normal self to what she describes as a "tense, jerky dickwad." Unfortunately, I know she is right. After a couple hours of Demon's Souls I was like a one-man talk-radio geyser: self-righteously ranting, frothing, issuing mission statements, debating strategy, attacking the motives of others, declaiming on the relative merits of the mace. It is a brutal experience, this game, and it is like nothing else out there in terms of the vicious and unforgiving manner in which it punishes mistakes and misjudgments. Demon's Souls is stern the way really hard math is stern, the way Yahweh is stern. (And yes, I have read the message boards, the forums, and the blog posts, in which seemingly sane-sounding people say things like, "I don't know why everyone says this game is so hard. It should be harder." I wonder what such people would consider hard. Brain surgery? Conquering Afghanistan? Alchemy?)
In my defense, though: Sweetie, don't you know not to attempt to kiss a guy goodbye IN THE MIDDLE OF A BATTLE IN A GAME WITH NO PAUSE? Yes, my girlfriend did that, and yes, I freaked out. For those of you who have not yet played Demon's Souls, you read it right: There is no pause. What if your dog has a heart attack? No pause. What if a fire starts in your kitchen? Sorry: Defeat the broadsword-swinging skeleton first and deal with the fire second. "Well," you might be thinking, "surely bringing up the PlayStation 3 network screen pauses the game." Nope. "What kind of person," you are most likely thinking now, "would design a game in which you cannot, under any circumstances, pause?" Pale, dead-eyed sadists, is my guess. Admittedly, there are numerous "safe" points in the game, in which you are more or less protected if you stand absolutely still, but this will not save you if your game is "invaded" by another, living gamer maniacally impelled to kill you. Again, yes -- Demon's Souls allows other gamers to come into your game and kill you, even if you do not want them to and are in the middle of an assault on the Shrine of Storms as intricately planned and complicated as the Normandy landing. I have been invaded approximately 200 times by now, and have tasted victory exactly three times, once against someone who inexplicably stopped fighting in the middle of the battle. (His dog, I suspect, had a heart attack.)
Maybe this does not sound so bad to you. Maybe you think it would make in-game death a visceral, heart-pounding event, unlike almost every other modern game, in which dying is about as affecting as a parking ticket. The complicating wrinkle here is twofold. First, when you die and revert to soul form you lose all the precious experience points ("souls," in the game's parlance, and the game world's only currency) you have been collecting. You can only get these lost souls back if you reach the point at which you expired, but you do not regain your physical body. And, in the meantime, all the enemies have respawned and you now have to do the same thing with half as much health. I can only imagine the conversations behind this design decision:
DESIGNER #1: You know what would be really cool? If we made an incredibly difficult game, and then made it even harder.
DESIGNER #2: You mean like with respawning enemies that have 10-inch-long health meters and boss fights that make grown men weep and no pause?
DESIGNER #1: That's certainly part of it. But what I'd really like to do is design levels so tough that they're virtually impossible to get through with full health, and then, when the player dies, ask them to do the levels again with half as much health.
DESIGNER #2: That's a really good idea. Maybe there's some way we could design actual death rays to shoot out of the PlayStation 3. I bet that would make it even harder.
It is true that some concessions have been made by Demon's Souls designers. (It is also true that Hitler made some concessions.) As you can be invaded by other players, you can also request the help of other, more charitable players, and this is where I love Demon's Souls the most, even though you cannot chat in-game with your comrades and mostly communicate via courtly bows and, failing that, by leaving runic, glowing, pre-rendered message hints written on the floor. This straightens the learning curve somewhat, and creates a welcome sense of ghostly connection amid some of the most oppressively lonesome environments in all of gaming. And, as many have pointed out, the game world's enemies do roughly the same thing over and over again. Thus you can, with patience, eventually learn how to deal with Demon's Souls' difficulty, if not ever come to terms with the game's shocking preponderance of one-hit kills.
Some aspects of the game's design, however, come off as rock salt mashed into a gaping wound. The unforgivable number of dodge-roll-necessitating battles on narrow ledges, for instance, or the fact that the mind-boggling inventory screens appear to have been only partially translated from Japanese, or fun little tidbits such as the fact that, late in the game, one non-player character begins to murder other, uniquely valuable NPCs from whom you need to buy important stuff like spells and equipment. This was, in fact, the point at which I nearly destroyed the game disc. Because Demon's Souls saves approximately every 3.5 seconds and allows you only one save file per character, you can never go back and undo anything. If the fault is my own, fine; I grimly accept this, just as I accept the fact that I will one day die. But the murdering NPC killed my spell-and-miracle merchant when I was not even there to prevent it. I went off adventuring, came back, and they were gone. That's funny, I thought. I wonder where they went? Have fun, guys! Catch you when you get back! They never came back. Only when I consulted one of the many Demon's Souls forums (which read like cross between an AA meeting and a Dungeon Master seminar) did I learn what had happened. Demon's Souls offers so little internal guidance that the single most disastrous thing to happen to me late in the game was not even explained to me within the game itself. It is like having a film's key plot points explained during the credits. Of another film. In a different theater.
And yet, I love Demon's Souls. I do not want to, but I do. I love its milieu, which feels as though David Lynch and J. R. R. Tolkien had a Japanese baby who converted to Satanism and grew up to design videogames. I love its windy and torch-lit and strangely upsetting environments. I love how every aspect of the game (even when you are merely switching a weapon from one hand to the other) feels simple but always has precise and complicated ramifications. I even love the negligible story -- because its negligibility is the point. The real story of Demon's Souls is the one you experience yourself, with very little handholding, as you fight for ground and souls inch by sanguinary inch. I love it despite its difficulty. Viewed singularly, Demon's Souls is easily the most frustrating, rewarding game I have played in years. But when I take a step back and view Demon's Souls as a historical object, it offers a terrifying glimpse of what gaming in general might have become had a crueler and (one might as well say it) more Japanese design philosophy prevailed.
This is to say I am very happy that Demon's Souls exists, but I am even happier that game design has evolved to spare us from an existence in which its brand of difficulty is the exception rather than the rule. Demon's Souls, then, is probably too hard, and modern games are probably too easy. If we lived in a world in which this dynamic were reversed, I strongly doubt that anyone would be talking about Demon's Souls. I also suspect that 90 percent of us would have stopped playing games years ago. Everyone else? Lost souls.
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