I recently picked up a new title from developer From Software called Dark Souls, and it is honestly one of the most difficult games I have ever played. As with their previous title, Demon's Souls, this is a game that refuses to hold hands or give players a wealth of information right away (or honestly, at all).
The combat is brutal, the world within is bleak and unforgiving, and a palpable air of insidious mystery weighs heavily throughout the experience. The back of the box the disk comes in reads in bold “PREPARE TO DIE,” and die often you will. This is clearly not a game for the faint of heart.
I feel that titles like this bring up an important question about accessibility in games: why would a developer create an experience intended to be tremendously difficult? Would this not marginalize some players? Furthermore, why would a developer choose unforgiving difficulty as an organizing principle for an entire game?
This kind of question has boggled me for quite a while now; admittedly, many of the games I find most satisfying are not what one would call challenging. The more I talk with gamers, the more I see that there is a partial rift between players who enjoy experience—as in storytelling, character development, etc.—and those who enjoy the achievement of surmounting daunting odds (these are, of course, not mutually exclusive).
I find some value in this distinction, but many games designed simply to be difficult seem to fall flat in areas of atmosphere and storytelling, both of which Dark Souls has in spades.
As I ruminated on why the difficulty in Dark Souls managed to keep from crossing that tenuous line between compelling and frustrating, I began to think about a class I took at Trinity University—Play Structure and Analysis.
This class is designed for students to take plays, break them down to their structural elements—point of attack, complications, climax, denouement, etc.—and analyze why and how these elements inform and enhance the play itself. I know that may sound dense, but basically the way a story is told and what elements of the story are used to organize the action can greatly influence the impact of a work of art.
So, what does this have to do with Dark Souls? Everything. The world of the game is desolate and inhabited by the undead, of which players are a part, and players are surrounded by non-stop hostility and violence.
Every inch of progress is a victory, every defeat is (due to tightly designed controls and game mechanics) attributable to player error or inexperience, and each gain or loss feeds back directly in to the almost nihilistic atmosphere Dark Souls attempts to create.
The world is a violent unknown, and the sheer difficulty players have traversing it gives body to the sense of dread with a finesse rarely seen in games these days. So, bravo, From Software; I may never finish your game, but in no way does that diminish its sophistication and importance.