Dark Souls and the Praising of Difficulty

Dark Souls isn't a difficult game.

This simple fact - and yes, it is a fact - illustrates a problem with how we approach games as a medium. Shallow attributes - like difficulty - are lauded as critical accomplishments, while deeper meanings go unaddressed. How many times have you seen Dark Souls praised for how "unforgivingly hard" it is? All those times are wrong. That's not to say that Dark Souls shouldn't be praised - it should - but that people praise it for the wrong reasons, and by doing so they reveal a systemic problem with how we approach games.

As most people will tell you, Dark Souls punishes you for not being attentive. Enemies telegraph their moves, but you have to pay attention to their animations to see it. Running blindly into a room is a quick way to earn a one-way trip back to the last bonfire. Overconfidence will result in a fast death and a trip through a gauntlet of enemies.

This is not a particularly bad punishment, though. The only things you lose on death are your location, your souls, and your humanity. You can get all of them back again, and souls/humanity in particular are very easy to reacquire. A punishment in Dark Souls is, for the most part, a light slap on the wrist. There are a few areas that are seriously frustrating to work back through - Anor Londo, Lost Izalith, and Lower Burg leap to mind - but they aren't that bad and certainly not common. A mistake you made against an enemy will never ruin your game.

This is an especially important concern, as Dark Souls saves constantly. If you could ruin your game permanently through a mistake, Dark Souls would be horrendous. Thankfully, the designers saw fit to make the most important character-related actions - leveling up, refilling your estus, kindling, turning human - ones you always, without exception, have access to. No matter what neutral NPC you kill or what bonfire you are at, you can perform these essential tasks. Thus, you are never truly thrust into a situation where you can't progress due to a previous mistake, and you can always grind to make future mistakes more survivable.

Thus, classifying Dark Souls as a punishing game is a bit of a misnomer. It only punishes hubris.

Ask any experienced Dark Souls player about a time they were overconfident because they know the game so well, and chances are they'll have a story. Dark Souls reminds you constantly that you are not above it, both through tricky enemy placements and punishing enemy behaviors. If you go in thinking you can simply breeze through, you're going to get stomped flat.

If you take it carefully, though - measuring out your responses to enemy actions, observing what goes on around you, and focusing your attention on learning - Dark Souls is almost trivially easy. The difficulty comes not from any actual sense of split-second input timing or difficult enemy behaviors, but from the breaking of ingrained behaviors.

Dark Souls is a game about learning, not difficulty.

When you first start playing Dark Souls, chances are you try to brute force situations. You spam attack without waiting for an opening, never use your shield, and simply tank damage instead of avoiding or mitigating it. The game quickly tells you that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated; Dark Souls is a game about being thoughtful and observant, not fast. The very first boss encounter - the Asylum Demon - is an abject lesson in this. You have no weapons and no shield, and you are asked to go after a much more difficult enemy. If you continue bashing your head against it, you simply lose souls and time. However, if you look around the arena, you find a doorway to the next part of the tutorial area, and you leave the boss behind until you have better gear.

This is an important lesson of Dark Souls that many people seem to forget: observe before acting.

You can't brute force Dark Souls like you can with other games. If you die, it's an invitation to evaluate what you did wrong and try a different tack. Every enemy in the game has clear, simple weaknesses that can be exploited by any player, regardless of level or equipment. Every boss has clearly telegraphed moves, and the only difference between an easy boss and a difficult one is how quickly those moves are performed (and also if it has helpers; Capra Demon is considered a glass ceiling for many players, as is Ornstein and Smough).

Doing the same action over and over again in Dark Souls is a waste of time. You are told to take things slowly, to have patience, and to learn. Is it any wonder that people find it difficult? It's a mindset shift away from modern games. Not in a difficulty way - modern games can be plenty difficult - but in a learning way. Dark Souls is a game that encourages you to verse yourself in the game's vocabulary. If you refuse, you are smacked on the wrist with the proverbial ruler, and then you are invited to try again.

Nothing in Dark Souls is permanent. There is no such thing as failure. Dark Souls is neither difficult, nor punishing. It is patient, and when you try to circumvent that patience, you are shown that you can't.

So let's stop praising Dark Souls for being difficult. Let us, instead, praise it for its patience, and for its willingness to teach us a very important lesson: adaptability and the capacity to learn triumph over all obstacles.

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