Dark Souls II was just announced, making this the third “Souls” game after Demon Souls and Dark Souls 1. I’m personally a little bit surprised – all of the scuttlebutt I’ve heard has said that sales for Dark Souls were a little behind expectations, and price drops for the game matched that – but three games makes a full franchise, which is never a bad thing.
As someone who’s played the first two games, however quickly I have, I can say that the series’ reputation for punishing difficulty is no exaggeration. In fact, it’s so accurate that it turned me off of each of the games. Maybe this makes me a sissy – as a portion of the series’ fans would no doubt tell me – but I don’t enjoy being sent back to replay certain parts of a game numerous, repeated times just to make sure I get it right. Maybe this makes me a poor retro gamer, but the whole idea of forced punishment for no other reason than to punish the gamer doesn’t appeal to me.
As I make note of every now and then, I’m a grown man with multiple careers, bills, a life, and an ever-decreasing amount of free time to be able to use towards playing video games for casual reasons, much less for hardcore reasons. So when I’m given a game with the fundamental understanding that the game’s appeal is that it’s so hard that it will be the cause of many thrown controllers, I tend to shy away, even if my instinct is to at least dip my toe into the water, knowing it’s going to get chopped off by a piranha. Video games never defined me, so the challenge of climbing the highest mountain so that I could yell down at the peasants trying to achieve my glory never really appealed to me outside of sports games, where the odds are evened out. Well into adulthood, games are a source of pleasure and stress relief. A game that causes so much stress, after I get home from one stressful job and work at another, doesn’t seem like a winning proposition to me. Before someone accuse me of gaming cowardice, I am not against difficulty, as the game FTL: Faster Than Light has been my obsession lately. I can’t even beat the game on Easy – hell, I only made it to the boss once – but at least I have a light at the end of the tunnel to look forward to. Games like Dark Souls only provide light to lure me into a trap.
Still, at least Dark Souls has some context to it. One of the trends of modern gaming, at least outside of the AAA space, is to veer towards more frustratingly difficult games, just for the sole intention of saying a game is hard. The vast majority of these games are what I call New Retro; games that are made with pixel art and wonky controls to appeal to the rose-coloured nostalgia of my generation, and with a difficulty level meant to simulate games that we would spend weeks fighting with, stage by stage, until we got to the end. This change definitely has its fans, but it underscores a couple of points. For one, old games, as has been stated many times, weren’t hard because of a conscious decision by game developers to frustrate their players, but were hard so that gamers felt they got their $50 worth at the time of their budget-busting1 purchase. Arcade games were meant to eat quarters and keep players coming back for more, but they were never celebrated for their challenge as much as they were for their stories and gameplay. In a game like Super Meat Boy, none of that matters; the only selling point is “look at how old this looks”, followed by “look at how hard this is”. It’s easy to fall into that trap; my friends might be acting cheeky when they challenge me to beat a certain game or be a sissy, but it betrays their mindset: the game in reference is not a game so much as a gamer card validation. It’s the video game equivalent of comparing dick size in a locker room.
To me, there’s nothing enjoyable about intentionally subjecting myself to frustration and lost hours. Hopefully for the sake of From Software and Namco Bandai, enough gamers disagree with me to make a third entry in this series worthwhile. In the meantime, I’ll be spending my hour or so of gaming on something that doesn’t make me angrier than I was going in.
1 – According to the US Inflation Calculator, a Nintendo Entertainment System game costing $49.99 in 1989 would cost $93.25 in 2012. Keep that in mind the next time you bitch that an iPhone game costs $3 instead of $1.