Being the masochist that I am, I was elated at finally getting my hands on Dark Souls and being able to once again experience the game of a thousand deaths. This comes after having recently finished a handful of other AAA titles that were infinitely more approachable and forgiving.
Dark Souls lacks the approachability of other games, which may in the end make the game popular to only a relative few, but giving more control to the player instead of heavily guiding them can often lead to more engaging gameplay.
Dark Souls has been described as a game with no “hand-holding”, which is actually something many games try to incorporate. Whether its linear level progression, puzzles with obvious solutions, or predictable A.I., it’s easy for a player to feel coddled throughout the game.
This hand-holding attempts to provide an experience with minimal challenge and confusion, however this can be at the expense of lessened interactivity. Games can be so eager to use established mechanics and design to give a player like me some familiarity, that instead of the game I’m currently playing I often feel like I’m instead playing any other popular title in the same genre with the major difference between the two games only being the context of the story.
After easily accomplishing the same things I’ve done in other games, I eventually reach a point where I fail to be engaged in the gameplay and just end up going through the motions until the credits roll. I try to remedy this by playing the game at a higher difficulty, but that does not change the design of the game enough to immerse me.
When I play an “easy” game, even on a hard difficulty, I usually become upset when I die and blame the game’s design for my death. Contrast to that is a game like Dark Souls where even if I die within 5 minutes of starting the game I usually only blame myself. The reason for this is that while playing Dark Souls I get the feeling that the developers actually don’t want me to complete the game and that the game is designed for me to die, so if I play the game knowing this I don’t really put them at fault when I die.
In other games however I get the impression that the developers want me to move from area to area with minimal frustration, so I end up blaming them if I ever get frustrated. This makes it difficult at times to differentiate whether I am frustrated because of elements like A.I. and level design, or if the game has simply coddled me so much that I have become conditioned to become upset at anything that hinders my speedy progress through the game.
Playing a game that feels like it’s meant to be a rollercoaster where you can have fun with little effort means that I’m either not engaged because the ride is too easy, or at a higher difficulty I’m frustrated because the ride keeps stopping when I die.
I’m not at all suggesting that most games should be like Dark Souls (seriously, don’t do it), and I’m not saying that making games approachable by casual demographics is a bad thing; rather I feel like we may be underestimating the audience a bit.
It is true that a good percentage of players are not going to finish a game that is over 10 hours, but pushing players to the finish line doesn’t help make the experience memorable. Games often try so hard to not bore us that they rush us to the finish, and they consequently end up with players that cannot recall the story or the bosses of the game they just played because they experienced it all without really paying attention.
I think it’s okay to the let the player take a step in the deep end and make them afraid of what’s about to happen or to have them take a few moments to look at a situation and analyze it. Making a game difficult is not the only way for it to be engaging, but if the player does not stop for a few moments to think about what they are doing, they can end up finishing a game without really taking in anything from the experience.