By Geoffrey Bunting
Everything in life appears designed to make our lives easier. Whether this is effective or not is uncertain. For instance, a smartphone makes staying in contact easier and it makes staying informed easier. But it also makes life into a bubble. Everything is accessible in one place, so why explore anything else when it’s all at our fingertips? A car makes getting around easier, but cycling or walking to many of the places we drive, in the long-run, would be more beneficial. In a lot of ways those things making our lives easier actually make things harder in the long-term, as we become desensitised to socialising and steadily less athletic.
But perhaps that’s life. Aren’t we all becoming more aware of how short, and often cheap, life can be? Aren’t we all looking for short-term gains to keep the abyss at bay? In some ways, perhaps we prefer that life is made harder for us in the long-term, so long as there is the illusion of ease and achievement in the now.
I recently played through Skyrim – with DLC – for the second time. It was a long journey (when did games get so long?) and at the end of it I was glad it was over. Skyrim, if nothing else, is an easy game – very easy – with little to no challenge in it. Being thorough in your play-through, as it is no doubt intended, leaves the endgame being as simple as standing in one spot and slashing away. It was, to be frank, dull. Which is not to say games should be dead-hard, just that there should be some challenging elements somewhere.
I should clarify; I am not a gaming snob. Far from it. I’ll leave that to the forum gamers and their misbegotten egos. If you enjoy Skyrim, great, if you don’t, also great, if you’re ambivalent, still great. You’re great. Moving on.
Games should be fun. Sometimes it’s the challenge that makes the fun, sometimes the story, is good enough.
The point to take on though is that in Skyrim life is not cheap. You’re given all the means to survive without impediment. You are, more or less, the god of the game. You cando anything, except climb up hills at an angle of more than twenty-five degrees.
Enemies that caused you trouble early on become easier dispatched as you grow. The same is true once you find better weapons and armour, and start killing villagers instead of monsters. It is the epitome of quick gains for little effort. It gives you the illusion of making great strides because levelling makes you so much stronger than anything around you.
Is that a problem? Well, no. It fulfils what we are all told we need; it allows that illusion of a good life through short term rewards to perpetuate. But there is another road, a more difficult one. It is a truism that “difficulties strengthen the mind, as labour does the body.” (That’s Seneca). Think about how bad you used to be at science before you learned more about it in school, how hard maths was before you learned its tricks. Believe it or not, games can be the same thing.
Despite what people seem to believe, games in the eighties and nineties were not that hard. They required persistence, learning of jumping distances and enemy patterns, and a bit of speed at times. But they weren’t hard, just involved; requiring a dexterous hand. It was a symptom of limited technology and a need for games to last as long as possible. If Super Mario Bros. had been easy, it would have been over in about two hours and we wouldn’t have had the gaming icon we have today.
Why am I talking about games in the eighties? Well it’s these early games and their supposed difficulty that fans of Dark Souls hark back to when singing its praises. It’s a flawed reasoning. Sure, there are some elements of that early philosophy found in the game, but Dark Souls isn’t as much an homage as people say it is, it’s just hard. Really hard. In this, it is pretty distinct from most modern games. You are never let off. Failure means something and carries with it genuine ramifications. It doesn’t matter how good you are or how high a level you are, the first enemies you meet can still kill you at the end of the game if you get things wrong. It is unforgiving, flawed, and cheap.
Its flaws are, on the whole, technical: dodgy collision mechanics, dodgier AI, etc. All this can be infuriating, yet you can also exploit them. But where old games required mastering and skill, Dark Souls does not – because Dark Souls is dirt cheap. Whether due to poorly placed enemies or the dodgy mechanics that plague this first iteration, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes you die because you don’t quite time your parry right, or because you try to catch the enemy in the wrong pattern, or because you get greedy once their health is down. But you also die often because collisions are bizarre, or something hits you while you’re a mile away from them, the game lages, or because you’re pushed off a ledge by a strangely placed enemy.
Playing Dark Souls is much like knowingly using a temperamental computer. You know you should back up your work, but you also know this will take a long time and you have things to do. If you’re patient, both with the machine and the backing up, you will see incremental gains that will keep you satisfied and your progress up. However, the moment you get greedy, asking for one more hour to complete a task; one more hit, as it were, you’re going to lose all your work and have to start from a long way back.
To most gamers this is a waste. They walk away in a rage and don’t come back. They blame the game for its flaws, for being “too hard”, and in some ways they have every right to. But in doing this; in not returning to it they are missing the point.
All the difficulty and all the flaws add up to an enormous sense of achievement when you overcome the challenge and technical aberrations to defeat that hard boss, or clear that area. Whereas most games hold your hand and show you just how to succeed, Dark Souls throws you in with a few instructions and lets you work it out yourself.
It’s hard work; such hard work. You will die so many times, and when you do you’re thrown back in a literal representation of one step forward two (hundred) steps back. But there’s always a way round this. Patience can show you a place where you can’t get hurt, or help you see gaps and learn patterns, or even help you avoid enemies altogether. And when you find that spot that you can exploit to make things easier, you breathe a sigh of relief, you settle in, and you wonder how you had so much trouble in the first place.
It is at once a poorly and excellently executed game. There is no story and it lacks the polish of many modern games, Skyrim included. But it teaches the virtues of the harder road. Dark Souls seems to say, “You will die”, but it’s actually saying, “This might be tough, but the rewards will be great.”
There’s something I don’t like about Dark Souls and yet I keep coming back. I get a perverse kind of pleasure from its difficulty; from being able to say “I beat that” – and judging by the messages left by other players in my game, I’m not the only one. And in an industry inundated with easy games that preach reward for nothing, Dark Souls is actually a refreshing lesson in the opposite.