Some thoughts on modal difficulty in Dark Souls (And on another game, too.)

(I'm mostly looking for some feedback on this and to hear you guys' thoughts on the subject...)

In the realm of mainstream gaming, Halo 3 and Dark Souls can essentially be considered polar opposites in terms of difficulty. While the former serves as a perfect template of what is required in bringing casual players into the fold, the latter is chiefly known for its brutal and unflinching difficulty. In fact, its difficulty is so unflinching that it shuns a hallmark of modern gaming: variable difficulty levels. Ironically, the Halo series, which has always provided a number of different difficulties, may well provide the best argument for why the developers of Dark Souls made the correct choice in eschewing from the norm and allowing the gamer to decide the difficulty level themselves.

Halo 3 may very well be one of the greatest funnels ever conceived; a game that consists primarily of level design filled with the illusion of choice. This isn’t meant as criticism; the Halo series is not one that professes to offer any sort of meaningful choice. It is truly remarkable how quick and smooth the game transitions from allowing you to explore wide open plains to guiding you through a narrow canyon to trigger the next script or disguise a loading time. It’s an enjoyable experience, in the way a roller coaster can be enjoyable. Finishing it is simply a matter of paying the entrance fee and staying on the ride long enough to reap the final pay-off. The developers want you to get to the end and that is a consideration that most players seem to appreciate.

Of course, what I’m describing applies only to the first 3 difficulties. Completing Halo on legendary is an experience that feels more like the day after setting a new personal record for shots of bourbon rather than the waves of accomplishment that wash over you upon finishing Dark Souls. And that’s appropriate, because finishing Halo 3 on legendary is a feat mostly characterized by the same sort of excesses as binge-drinking. Excessive time spent fighting enemies with excessive power, throughout the entirety of which, a small voice in the back of your head tells you that moderation would provide a more pleasurable experience.

The increase in difficulty that comes with playing on legendary in the Halo series is the result of two things: Your health bar gets smaller while your enemies' do just the opposite. Your enemies do not become more intelligent, more numerous or spawn in more tactical positions. Instead of playing a game about a super soldier, you’re now playing a game about a super soldier who didn’t calibrate his shields or wear his helmet and now dies if shot in the head a single time. You’re getting what you asked for, an increase in difficult. This does come at the cost of artificial changes to the capabilities of you and your enemies that make little sense in the framework or story of the game. Put simply, the game doesn't get any smarter.

Dark Souls is also known for its high difficulty level. So what makes the soul-crushing difficulty of Dark Souls so different from the daunting nature of other mainstream titles at their most extreme difficulties? The answer is deceptive in that it lies not in the difficulty of Halo's legendary setting, but in the relative ease of its heroic setting. Halo is designed to be played on heroic, it tells you as much when you choose your difficulty. On the proper difficulty, it suddenly makes sense for the artificial intelligence of the elites to behave in the way they do and for snipers to be positioned where they are.

Heroic Halo Reach"Normal is for beginners who are embarrassed to pick easy. Heroic is what we intended." - Martin O'Donnell

The game begins to benefit from a certain synergy between the player's agency, the AI's behavior and the story -line. Heroic is the difficulty in which you can actually be a super soldier fighting a fearsome intergalactic threat, as opposed to normal where you play as a super soldier fighting moving targets, and legendary, where you play as weakling fighting a fearsome intergalactic threat. Heroic is where the game reaches its potential, both in terms of gameplay and storytelling. And just as Halo is designed around the heroic difficulty, Dark Souls is designed around its own level of difficulty. Both games have a sweet spot that allows all the elements of the enemy and level design to shine through.

Dark Souls is less of a roller coaster ride and more of an uphill battle. The developers have purposely created obscure and vague mechanics that force the player to jump in at the deep-end as they try to make sense of the game's inner workings. Despite a complex combat system and groundbreaking online features, the game’s trademark attribute continues to be its difficulty. This is because, difficulty is not simply something that exists to modify the way things work in Dark Souls, and it is a game mechanic in itself. Just as Halo is built around a three-pronged system of shooting, melee and grenades, the foundation of Dark Souls is its difficulty. Where other games have box art bullet points dedicated to how many characters can be shown onr screen or the fidelity of its graphics, the creators of Dark Souls chose to showcase its difficulty level. Truly, difficulty is the killer feature here. Extreme difficulty allows the game to reach the target zone where the atmosphere, gameplay and bleak storyline of Dark Souls come together in the way they are meant to.

ff.The box doesn't say, "Prepare To Die if you want to."

The same artificiality that is introduced into Halo upon changing its difficulty from heroic would affect Dark Souls as well. The difference is that in a game like Dark Souls that is so finely tuned for its particular level of difficulty, what you are left with is an experience that isn’t just easier, but simply less of a game. Experienced Dark Souls players know the game’s difficulty is derived primarily from its level design.


In terms of time, Dark Souls can be a very lengthy game, but in terms of acreage, it is actually quite small. The entire game can be traversed in mere minutes. What allows the experience to last twenty or thirty hours is the difficulty that encourages careful exploration and requires tactical decision-making. Removing these key elements results in a game that is nothing more than a run-of-the-mill hack and slash, and a quite short one at that. A passage that might take 10 or 20 minutes in another game takes 45 minutes in Dark Souls because the player has been trained to cautiously approach each enemy as if it were capable of killing them -- generally because they are very capable of doing so.

Enemies are hidden in dark corners, archers are just out of reach, and trap-triggering floor panels are only noticeable to the most perceptive players. What use is a cleverly positioned enemy if its damage capability is inadequate? Why be weary of death -traps when there is no punishment for falling for them? Without the fear of punishment threatening the player, there is no reason for them to appreciate the clever game design, and difficulty is at the core of this design.

While most games deal in spectacle, rewarding the player with massive explosions and action-movie referencing set -pieces, the rewards in Dark Souls are much more understated. The prize here isn't in finishing a level and being treated with a loud cut-scene;, it is in finishing a level knowing that is an accomplishment. Incremental stat increases and knowledge about the enemies that surround you are what fuel the player to continue their march forward. Easy thrills just aren't to be had here, not because the game is difficult, but rather because they simply weren't programmed to exist. With an easy mode, you have essentially eliminated the appeal of the game. It may help you complete the game, but it won't help you have fun.



Advocating for the locked down difficulty of Dark Souls isn't about bragging rights. It's about letting a developer express their vision, even if particular players don't think that their skill level isn't in line with that vision. Developers have spent decades moving towards the goal of making games more accessible for players, and this has had a huge effect on the direction of conventional game design, begetting elements like replenishing health and automatic checkpoints.

But what happens when developers actively move in the other direction, making things less accessible? Could it mean the proliferation of less explored concepts like the asynchronous multiplayer? Games like Dark Souls will allow us to find out and explore entirely new directions in game development. Perhaps we've come to the point where the quality of games will benefit from being more concerned with their own artistic vision, rather than appealing to as many players as possible. The mountain is always more rewarding to climb when it the peak doesn't meet you half way.

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