With gamers all over spellbound by the punishing magic that is Dark Souls 3, one writer sets out to identify which qualities make these kinds of difficult games enjoyable.
It will come as a surprise to roughly no one that my background as a RPG enthusiast has left me ill-equipped to battle through games like the recently released Dark Souls 3. Some gamers spent their childhoods platforming through Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie while some spent hours running around in circles on an island populated by strange cactus-men in order to make the numbers beside their characters names slightly higher than they were the day before. I fell into the latter camp, and thus I’ve never been particularly attached to any of the more popular skill-testing action titles.
That is, of course, unless those titles go out of their way to punish me for every single mistake I make. For reasons I’ve never been able to adequately put into words, games like Bloodborne and Super Meat Boy have managed to keep me coming back for more despite my obvious lack of affinity for their gameplay mechanics. Although I’ve only scratched the surface of the game myself, every video I’ve watched regarding Dark Souls 3 makes me believe the same will hold true for From Software’s latest iteration of the beloved series as well. That has me wondering, though – just what is it about these kinds of games that makes them so fun to play despite the fact they can be immensely frustrating at any given moment?
At first, it seemed there was a simple answer. All of these games, I reasoned, have a fascinating and unique gameplay system at their core. While many of them borrow elements from other successful games within their respective genres, games like Bloodborne, Super Meat Boy, or even the old school Ninja Gaiden titles all fall back on small gameplay decisions that make them a little bit different and a lot more challenging. Yet, upon further inspection, this line of thinking doesn’t necessarily hold up. I’ve played lots of games that did something differently that made the gameplay harder that simply didn’t click with me – some to the point that I swore off every other installment ever made (here’s looking at you, Sonic the Hedgehog 2006).
As it turns out, it isn’t the nuanced gameplay and punishing repercussions for failure that made these games great – that element is the baseline, something that should be expected from IPs that want to set themselves apart for their lack of hand-holding and relatively higher levels of difficulty. The trick is to package that gameplay into something that is aesthetically appealing as well.
Take, for instance, the poster child of the hard-to-beat-harder-to-put-down genre of video games in the modern era. The Dark Souls series, as well as weird step-sibling Bloodborne, both pit gamers against hordes of unforgiving monsters in a setting ripped straight out of the Victorian Gothic era. Dungeons are creepy, light comes at a premium, and the drip of water in a cave is as unsettling as the grim knowledge that noise was likely implemented to distract you from an unseen, lurking enemy ready to end your playthrough prematurely. The world of From Software’s extremely popular franchise is a perfect setting for the brutal gameplay that follows the character creation screen in each game.
Even in a game like Super Meat Boy, where the graphics are largely two-dimensional and cartoony, the setting simply works. Often times, the challenges in truly difficult games feels like going through the meat grinder, and whenever my poor Meat Boy would find himself splatted against a wall or impaled in a pit of spikes, I’d feel like it was the perfect representation of my own emotions being beaten down by the game’s truly beautiful and nefarious level design.
Super Meat Boy captures the essence of how these games push the boundaries of frustration and fun in the industry, and does it while providing gamers with ample physical comedy and sparse dialogue. Evidently, not all games need to have several novels worth of dialogue in order to make their narratives compelling, and, to be quite honest, an entire novel written about Meat Boy would probably read like a mash-up of bad science fiction and a Hamburger Helper recipe. That’s the sublime appeal of it, though – successful and meaningfully challenging games like these don’t try to be anything more than what they are, framed by a story and visuals that provide a little extra variety and appeal to the already exact science that is their gameplay mechanics.
Even the old NES version of Ninja Gaiden has the aesthetic appeal to push gamers through its notoriously punishing level schemes. Although the graphics are so dated they look like they were created on an old Nokia cellphone, there’s something to be said for playing the role of the silent, skilled assassin fighting his way through hordes of enemies in pursuit of justice (and, later, romance as well). It’s the kind of game that is synonymous with the kind of nostalgia that has pushed the gaming industry towards making a large quantity of remakes and remasters despite its aged plot and relatively straightforward gameplay.
Ultimately, all of these games also possess the holy grail of game design: detailed and interesting levels that feel different enough from other locations in the same game that there is a real sense of progression, even if that sense stems from a different color background or slightly different looking enemies. After all, there’s nothing like playing through a few hours of Dark Souls, beating a boss after, in my case, several hundred tries, and finding the nearest bonfire before shutting a console down for the night. There’s a tangible level of satisfaction and progression within the best examples of difficult games that makes slowly grinding away at their increasingly maddening boss fights worthwhile in the end.
While that sense of achievement might have been given a visual representation in the age of trophy hunting in video gaming, the pursuit of it has existed long before then. At the heart of each well-loved and difficult video game is the sense that they were well-designed, featured appealing aesthetics to compliment the gameplay, and were fair. Developers aren’t presenting players with insurmountable challenges in these titles, but rather the invitation to develop a skillset that takes time and rewards patience. In an era where the correct length of a video game is always hotly debated, it seems like titles like Dark Souls 3 and Super Meat Boy never really enter that discussion – and there’s a good reason for that.