It’s half past twelve in the afternoon, I have to leave for work in two hours, and I’ve just been killed by gigantic lizard men in Sen’s Fortress. For the sixth time. In the past ten minutes.
I’m playing Dark Souls, the word-of-mouth hit from 2011. Famed for its high difficulty level and satisfying combat mechanics, it’s almost universally adored on the various gaming forums of the internet. It’s easy to see why: in an era of games that seem to aspire to little more than interactive films, Dark Souls hearkens back to a time where games were campaigns of player versus machine, where you worked for weeks, even months, to succeed. I’ve put about 25 hours in so far, and I’m having an absolute ball. It’s fresh, it’s compulsive, and it’s very challenging.
It’s also getting a little bit annoying.
Let me be clear. I’m no stranger to difficult games. In fact, I love them. I’ve completed 2D precision games such as Super Meat Boy, Ikaruga and Contra III, and thoroughly enjoyed learning and playing obtuse strategical games like Dwarf Fortress, Europa Universalis III and even Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. I’m drawn to hardcore games like a moth to a flame. Twenty years of playing video games will do that to you, because once you’ve had a drop of the hard stuff, it’s hard to go back to Bud Lite. I’m far from a pro, but I know a couple of tricks. And in spite of this, Dark Souls is beginning to test my patience a little, because it rigidly adheres to a trope I call “Don’t Buzz the Wire”. It’s not the difficulty that’s frustrating – I love the difficulty – but the way in which it’s presented.
Let’s go back to the gigantic lizard men. They’re guarding the entrance to a fortress I need to get to the top of in order to reach the next stage of the game. Luckily, there’s a save point just outside, so when I die, I’ll respawn right at the front gate. Now, this is generally an ideal situation, but a general rule of Dark Souls is that you need to be on your guard. Even enemies you have long surpassed in strength can surprise you if you’re not paying attention. This isn’t a game you can just mindlessly bash through. And that’s a great thing. I appreciate being made to think about my play.
It’s just that… well… I’ve beaten these guys at least 30 times now. I have to beat them every time I die inside the fortress and get warped back to the beginning. They’re not really a challenge if I’m paying attention and playing carefully. So no sweat, right? Just pay attention and you’ll be fine. Yeah, absolutely – but I’m getting real sick of paying attention to the same fight I’ve been through 30 times before. The boring “circle around them and backstab for a couple of minutes” fight. I’m caught between two unappealing options: do the same part of the game carefully every single time I die, or run the significant risk of being killed because I wasn’t paying enough attention.
There are at least six things in this picture that can kill you, not including your own hubris.
Today, I picked the second option. Which is why I died six times in ten minutes. I wasn’t trying to cheat. I just wanted to get back to where I was before so I could, you know, continue playing the game. And Dark Souls wouldn’t let me. “Sorry!” it seemed to say. “At least an hour of your life is going to be spent doing this menial challenge so you can inch yourself closer to completing this section.” It’s like a book that forces you to re-read the last chapter every time you get distracted.
“Don’t Buzz the Wire”. Remember those games? Maybe you had one at home, or you played one at an event. You have to guide a loop around a winding wire. If the loop touches the wire at any point, a small electrical charge causes a ‘buzz’ and you have to start again from the beginning. They’re great fun for a while. You get very involved in trying to make it to the end. You know you can do it if you just pay close attention. But after a number of failures you get tired of starting again from the beginning, of doing the same parts you’ve already completed over and over, the same parts that have an equal chance of sending you back to the beginning if you slip up. And you decide it’s not worth it, and you go do something else. Because your time is more valuable to you than the questionable reward of reaching the end.
There are ways to ease the pain of starting again. The aforementioned Super Meat Boy contained no punishment for dying, and threw you back into the action instantly. Sure, it may have been frustrating to die just before the end of the level, but if your technique is good, you’ll be back there in a matter of seconds. You won’t have to spend several minutes backtracking every time you die. Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup has not only the ongoing freshness of randomly generated levels (ensuring you don’t get bored facing the exact same challenges every single time you restart), but also a number of time-saving tools such as auto-explore that allow experienced players to breeze through early stages without the drudgery.
Games have moved on from the late 80s and early 90s where unreasonable ‘challenge’ was king. Some may argue they have moved too far into the realm of hand-holding, but surely there is a balance. I like my games hardcore, but I don’t want them to waste my time with mind-numbing repetition. I have no doubt I’ll pick up Dark Souls later tonight and breeze past those gigantic lizard men, and make my way further into Sen’s Fortress. Perhaps I’ll even defeat the Iron Golem waiting menacingly at the top and reach the next area. But for now, the honeymoon is over.
I’m tired of buzzing the wire.