You may have heard that the Souls franchise is hard. You may have even heard that it can make you into some sort of bizarre double-man. The director and supervisor of the series often talked about his desire to use difficulty to facilitate a sense of achievement (as opposed to collecting cheevos). I often hear gamers wearing the Souls series like a suit of armor, as though it were proof of their gaming prowess, and staunchly defending it from any attempts to improve “accessibility,” a word that seems to translate as “easier.” In fact, there was quite the kerfuffle back in 2012 when the internet suspected director Hidetaka Miyazaki of wanting to make an easy mode for Dark Souls 2, a comment that was speedily retracted. And in true PR form, Namco Bandai assured everyone in 2013 that the sequel would be “viciously hard.”
So isn’t it funny that just last month, the video series Extra Credits put out a video detailing how the true genius of Dark Souls 2 is… its easy mode! The producers detail out exactly how to make Dark Souls 2 a much easier experience, and go to great lengths to convince everyone why that’s such a great thing. It’s actually the sort of thing that EpicNameBro spoke out against during the 2012 controversy: he argued that having the option to lessen the difficulty robs the game of its tension and sense of achievement. Now, I disagree with Extra Credits (as I often do), but they’re definitely correct that Dark Souls 2 has what amounts to a “soft” easy mode, and that’s probably the reason why it slipped by so many gamers including EpicNameBro. But I think the important question here isn’t how hard the game is or isn’t. The important question is what kind of difficulty the game has.
In other words, what does it mean to be a truly “hard” game?
A Callback to Castlevania
There’s a comparison I always like to make: the Souls franchise is the logical extension of Castlevania. Now I’m not talking about recent ones like Lords of Shadow or even the oft-celebrated Symphony of the Night. I’m talking about the original Castlevania on the NES. Maybe that sounds weird – after all, on the surface Symphony of the Night and the Souls franchise seem to have more things in common, like large collections of weaponry, open-ended level design, and experience points for killing enemies. However, I find the moment-to-moment game play of a title like Dark Souls to have much more in common with NES Castlevania. Attacks are slow and deliberate with long wind-up times. Taking damage is a really big deal, not just because of how many hit points you lose but also because the resultant stun can put you in a really bad position or even drop you off a cliff. Each individual enemy isn’t just a fly to be swatted – they’re a considerable threat that deserves respect. Mistakes are more punishing in general, and the games command a level of caution that makes you slow down and consider what’s happening around you.
It’s the speed of the combat that makes all the difference. It’s not a simple matter of lining up two sprites on the screen and mashing X to auto-hit your target with instantaneous slashes like newer Castlevania so often does. When you slow combat down, you become much more aware of the individual nuances of the fight, and the execution time and recovery period of each of your swings really make you commit to any attack. When you do make a mistake, the game can fairly punish you for it without having to move so fast that you couldn’t react to it otherwise. It’s a good test for almost any game: if the depth of strategy holds up even while the game is slowed down, it means it has true depth rather than a series of reflex tests.
The Souls franchise also has a really strong mechanism going for it: the stamina bar. It’s a unified resource that powers just about everything you do, from sword swinging to blocking to running to dodging to casting – you name it, and the stamina bar is linked to it in some way. Souls games typically get a lot of mileage out of stamina, and the biggest reason is that spending your stamina on one action means you can’t spend it on something else. If you empty your stamina bar on a long attack chain, you can’t immediately raise a shield to block a counter-attack, so you’re forced to strategize and anticipate future moves. On top of that, stamina regenerates extremely slowly while you hold up your shield, which puts a severe penalty on pure defensive play. It’s more than just a model for realism – it restricts your moves in a very deliberate way and forces you to take risks.
One very clever aspect of the stamina bar is the player’s ability to overdraw it. If you try to perform a move that takes more stamina than you have, the game lets you do it anyway, putting you at a negative stamina value. You still regenerate stamina as quickly as before, but you have to regenerate all the negative stamina first before you can do anything. In that way, this brings much needed clarity to an otherwise more obtuse game play element. Since different moves or even different weapons use different amounts of stamina, it’s really difficult to estimate at a glance whether or not you have the stamina required to execute a move. So what could’ve happened is a situation where the player didn’t quite have enough stamina, and started mashing the button in order to have the move come out as soon as possible, only to have it come out at a frustratingly wrong moment. Instead the designers let players apply a simple test: “Do I have any green in my stamina bar or not?” If yes, he can swing the sword, roll out of the way, or anything else he needs to do without worrying about how much stamina “enough” is, and he willingly enters a disadvantaged position because he judges the risk to be worth it. The stamina system has clarity, depth, and best of all is very simple, meaning that it very elegantly achieves that depth without overloading the player with too many explicit rules.
So the Souls series is founded on a strong core mechanism and is well positioned to make for a very interesting game, and it’s no surprise that so many gamers have flocked to the series. But having a strong core mechanism isn’t enough – you have to follow through and design the content of the game to take best advantage of the system. And that’s where Dark Souls 2 falls down.
Complexity from Simplicity
Dark Souls 2 relies heavily on opaque difficulty. Much like the games that came before it, each enemy has a distinct, finite set of moves. The implications of those moves give the enemy moments where it is strong and moments where it is vulnerable. However, as you approach each enemy for the first time, he’s one big question mark in terms of what he’ll do to you. You can have some idea based on their size and weaponry, but you can’t really fight them effectively until you learn the precise nuances of their attacks. The famed “difficulty” of the series lies in the fact that each of their attacks does a pretty shocking amount of damage to you, and it’s pretty easy to die simply by virtue of “not knowing.”
Now, it should be noted that all games have this phase, the part of the game where you’re learning how it works, and the rules are being laid out and demonstrated to you. However, good games usually move beyond this point, into a phase where the rules start interacting in interesting and diverse ways. Castlevania on the NES does this right away from the start: notice how quickly that the game introduces you to creatures, and then almost immediately has you dealing with them in combination. Dealing with a swerving medusa head is a straight-forward challenge, one that you quickly master. Dealing with a constant stream of them in your face while trying to land hits on the axe knight that’s retreating in the opposite direction, while throwing axes at you, constantly threatening to pull back into the second axe knight… that’s quite a bit more complex. But what’s important is that it’s complexity that arose from simplicity. The player already knows the simple rules that govern the scenario, from the flight pattern and spawn rate of the medusa heads, to the durability and behavior of the axe knights. It’s an interaction that provides a challenge that’s simultaneously familiar and new, it’s stimulating and unique, and it’s built from just two enemies on a flat surface.
This is the nature of elegant game systems – they do more with less. The tactical complexity of fighting two at once of even the same enemy is much greater than the sum of their parts. It’s not twice as complex, it’s more like ten times more complex. You’re not only dealing with the attacks of two enemies, you’re also dealing with the way they potentially interact and overlap, whether it’s by the timing of their attacks or the way their position affects your strategy. The two enemies multiply their complexity rather than only adding onto each other. Games that focus on combining small numbers of things into larger webs of interaction feel more cohesive and purposeful. They are also ultimately more fair. You spend less time learning what things do and more time contending with how they interact. As a result, you go into situations with complete information, and your success is determined by how well you can anticipate the dangers and opportunities posed by the combinations. When you succeed, it’s more satisfying because you put the pieces together on your own without having to be told. You used deductive reasoning and improvisation rather than filling out all the right answers on a test from memory.
Yet, filling out the test from memory is exactly what Dark Souls 2 asks you to do. Dark Souls 2 has over a hundred enemy types without even counting the bosses. Now this might sound like an impressive bullet point to put on the back of the box, but remember: every single enemy type is a set of explicit rules that you first need to learn without any context. It’s another giant question mark that you have to either guess blindly at, or (the safer option) just wait and see what they do. You do form some strategy as you learn to deal with their individual attacks, but it rapidly becomes solved and routine. Once you’ve memorized what you’re supposed to do for any given attack, the enemy is as good as dead – as is the interaction between the player and the game. To continue to challenge you and explore more game depth, the game has to start combining enemy types into new scenarios. Otherwise the game has to introduce you to yet another new enemy type and have you guess at a new question mark.
Disappointingly, Dark Souls 2 so often opts for the latter rather than the former. Instead of presenting the player with the intersecting possibilities of rules he already knows, the game moves on to introduce new rules. Make no mistake, it’s far preferable to use combinations of old rules than to constantly introduce new ones. A player learning nothing but new rules will constantly run into unfair situations where he dies simply because he didn’t know what he was up against. In a way, a player who doesn’t know all of the rules isn’t even playing the game yet. Just because he has a controller in his hands doesn’t mean he understands what’s happening around him, and by focusing on introducing new game elements rather than combining existing ones, Dark Souls 2 unwittingly seeks to prolong the period of “not knowing” as much as possible. Ultimately, the game’s tendency to shy away from well-constructed enemy combinations becomes the reason that the game needed over a hundred enemy types in order to keep the player engaged. Not only that, but the enemies have to deal huge amounts of damage in order to maintain the illusion of difficulty.
Don’t get me wrong – there are definitely moments where Dark Souls 2 has you fighting multiple opponents at once, and unsurprisingly, the best of these moments are where the game shines brightest. There’s a great sequence in the Shrine of Amana where you’re attacked from range by a series of shrine maidens who throw spells at you, and closing the gap to engage each one brings you in range of the next. It turns an otherwise self-paced affair into more of a gauntlet, and it ends with the sudden attack by a pair of aggressive Lindelt clerics as you engage the last caster. It’s a fast-paced scenario that sharply contrasts the pacing of the rest of the game, and it’s exciting in a way that isolated shrine maidens just aren’t.
Another memorable section is the pit in the Undead Crypt. You drop into the center of a room filled with statues and bells. Each time one of the undead rings a bell (which they will try to do constantly), all of the statues spawn a Leydia Pyromancer, a dangerous melee/caster hybrid who threatens from any range. In a confined area littered with obstacles, the challenge lies in the tension of deciding which threats to deal with in what order. Do you keep the undead from ringing the bells as more of them continue to claw their way out of the ground? Do you kill the pyromancers themselves, which are clearly the most threatening thing on the board, knowing that they’re bound to be respawned by a bell? When is the best time to destroy each statue to cut off the source of the danger and get one step closer to victory? The three objectives are in conflict with each other, yet each is directly related to the others, and weighing your immediate priority is a unique and memorable challenge. And notice that here again, a complex and interesting scenario was built from just three components that the player already knew about.
The thing is, Dark Souls 2 doesn’t seem to realize that the complexity that enemy combinations can provide is a good thing. While there are certainly many other examples of enemy combinations in the game, the vast majority of them don’t hold up as well for one common reason: they’re separable. See, in each of the previous examples, there is something to keep the encounter intact, whether it’s extreme-range attacks or an enclosed space. In contrast, most of the time when Dark Souls 2 throws multiple foes at you, it also gives you a way to isolate those foes. Usually it’s a pretty simple matter to draw the enemies backward until some fluke of their AI causes one to hesitate just long enough for you to hack up his buddy while he’s alone. Sometimes you can kill the both of them in one wide-sweeping combo before either of them can act. If nothing else, all enemies have a leashing range that causes them to disengage and drop their guard completely once they get too far from their home turf. Then you can leisurely dispatch them without them even fighting back. As great as the crypt scenario is with the statues and bells, even that is separable: any statues you destroy stay broken forever even if you die. So if you fail the scenario midway through, you’ll never face it at full power ever again even if you wanted to, and it bypasses all the interesting tension and replaces it with a simple “Make suicide runs at the statues until you win.”
The Best Solution Should Be the Most Interesting Solution
What’s notable is that all this enemy separability is actually good for the player, but only from the perspective of the player trying to win. A player only focused on winning wants the game scenarios to be as easy as possible, and he will go out of his way to set up situations that are simplified in order to maximize his chances of victory. The ability to separate otherwise grouped enemies is so powerful, there’s rarely any reason to do anything else. There’s even a message players can leave on the ground that’s specifically dedicated to this: “Try eliminating one at a time” is applicable to almost every scenario in the entire game.
Now, a player can choose not to abuse how separable the enemies are as a personal challenge, but remember: the goal of winning is directly opposed to the goal of having a challenging or interesting experience. It’s one of the ramifications of the burden of optimal play: playing to win is by definition an attempt to push the game state towards something more familiar, towards something the player has already solved, towards something less interesting. So in a very real sense, the player’s instinct is to reduce complexity, and the game’s job is to resist his efforts to do so. It’s not reasonable to expect that players are going to limit or handicap themselves in order to create the best challenge, and even if they wanted to, it’s less reasonable to assume they’d even know how.
You see, one man’s overpowered strategy is another man’s clever solution. Where one player would say “Don’t leash enemies!” another would say “What’s wrong with that?” The biggest obstacle to players figuring out their own handicap is the fact that a single-player game has no baseline for how powerful the player should be. It’s no surprise that different players will have pretty wildly varying ideas of what’s legitimate and what’s “cheap.” Players already fight about cheap strategies in competitive games, and the problem is ten times worse in a single-player game where it’s usually just expected that the player gets to win. Where should the bar of performance be? That’s a hard enough question for the designer who’s with the game every step along the path of development. Why would we expect a player seeing the game for the very first time to be able to answer that? The simple answer is that we shouldn’t. A pretty common attitude among gamers is that if it’s in the game, it’s meant to be used. It stems from the idea that the player is trying to win above all else, and ultimately it’s the most practical and healthy attitude to have for both the designer and the player.
The problem is that there’s loads of things that are technically “in” Dark Souls 2 that are anti-complexity and borderline cheating. Offensive spells (sorceries and hexes in particular) deal high damage from range and stagger most opponents with each hit to produce the infamous “stunlock” effect. Even worse, the attunement stat now increases the number of available casts, and recharging those casts with consumables made a comeback from Demon’s Souls, ensuring that the player never runs out of spells. Stacking high amounts of the poise stat allows players to ignore enemy attacks and power through them with their own. A poise-stacking player is likely to have an experience similar to MMOs where he’s largely not even aware of the enemies’ attacks as he spams his own unstoppable combo and heals the damage afterward with his healing spells, farmed consumables, and twelve estus flasks. Enemies are almost always slower than you and have difficulty tracking or keeping up with you, which means anything you don’t feel like fighting can be flat-out skipped by running past it. Bows have extreme range, a targeting reticle, and can often kill enemies who can’t even reach you. In fact, Dragonrider, one of the early bosses of the game, can be sniped down to one hit point so that he’s effectively dead before you even enter his room. These aren’t even strategies anymore – they’re more like choosing not to play the game!
Remember, though, that the real crime here isn’t that players are having an easy time of it – it’s that those players get a worse game. This is the thing the Extra Credits video gets so distressingly wrong, and it’s founded on their constant assumption that games are a means to an end – that consuming and finishing it is more important than the actual act of playing the game (notice how James, their “game design guru,” just wants to see the story – the game is secondary). Reducing the complexity of the game down to the point where victory is a foregone conclusion, achieved by repeating a few simple actions, isn’t something to be celebrated. Rather it’s the act of forming strategy and problem solving that makes the actual moments of play engaging to us, and games need to force us out of our comfort zone in order to keep us strategizing in new ways.
But a game that puts your earned souls at risk demands victory at all costs, so players are encouraged to repeat degenerate, boring strategies even if they would like to try something new. This is, I believe, what EpicNameBro was getting at when he said that adding an easy mode relieves the pressure that Souls games try to create. You could properly engage Dragonrider in melee combat, master the encounter the designers made for you… y’know, play the game. But there’s really no need for that – it’s a much better solution to just sit around for a few minutes and mindlessly spam arrows at him. The worst part is that the moment you decide on the arrow route, failure has disappeared and you’ve already won, but you still have to waste the time it takes to go through the motions of actually doing it. It would be a better situation if the boss wasn’t even there, and that’s a horrible place for a game to be. Dark Souls 2 comes from a series that professes to be hard, but then when you’re actually engaged with it, it seems kind of afraid to really challenge you. Instead it makes a lot of the challenge optional to the point where you often don’t even have to bother with melee combat, the core mechanism of the game. It’s no coincidence that the game play itself is the most interesting where it’s also the most challenging, but giving the player a way out can cause him to miss out entirely, and that’s what makes for a worse game experience.
The Bigger Picture
Veterans of the series have probably noted by now that previous Souls games are not wholly innocent of these problems either. Poise isn’t new to the Dark Souls lexicon. Farming consumables was one of Demon’s Souls’ hallmarks. Bow sniping worked on plenty of foes you didn’t want to fight legitimately. Lots of enemies are skippable by using the speed-run method. And the other games didn’t always make you fight enemies in groups – “lure it out one at a time” has always been both an available message and a dominant strategy. So the things I’ve been saying are true of the whole series in varying degrees. The series’ idea of difficulty has always tended toward “punishment” rather than complexity.
So we could compare Dark Souls 2 with its predecessors to see how it stacks up. We could talk about how the resurgence of storable healing-items pushed the game toward farming and brought it back to the era of Too Awesome to Use items. We could talk about how those consumables undermined the otherwise logical Estus Flask system. We could talk about how the sluggish heal of the Ring of Restoration turns optimal play into a super-boring waiting game between fights. We could talk about how the Skeptic’s Spice and Simpleton’s Spice mean even more farming in order to lower the stat requirements for all your spells, especially the ones whose effectiveness don’t suffer from your low caster stats. We could talk about how PvP matchmaking based on Soul Memory means that players can’t ever stop their level progression. We could talk about how Soul Memory means that all players must eventually max all stats to 99, and how this dynamic destroys the original purpose of stat diversity that the leveling system was supposed to serve. Believe me, there’s plenty of questionable design decisions that are unique to Dark Souls 2.
But from a broader perspective, what we should talk about are the reasons why everyone’s favorite boss fights seem to be Ornstein & Smough or the twin Darklurkers. We should talk about why getting extra +1’s to your weapon is so much less interesting than picking out your weapon in the first place. We should talk about how silly elemental weaknesses actually are when we’re really honest with ourselves. And we definitely need to talk about what it means to be a “hard” game.
The developers at From Software want very much to make a difficult game, and players seem to be really excited for that kind of experience. But we don’t really have a clear idea of what that actually means yet. Right now, we have this weird idea that a game is hard when you die a lot, and the Souls series thrives on that illusion of difficulty and an oppressive aesthetic. We call the Souls series “tough but fair,” and the reason we call it fair is because it follows its own rules consistently. But it really matters how the toughness and the fairness is actually achieved. The series so often makes each fight into essentially a life toll that initially punishes you for not knowing, but afterwards becomes so simple that you can do it automatically.
But there are these brief, shining moments where Souls creates a whole scenario based on those things that you’ve learned, and forces you to apply those rules in a complex field of battle full of interactions. The game play at those moments is a real joy to learn and master, but it doesn’t happen often enough to believe that the designers are fully aware of why that’s good. And by giving players ways to avoid that complexity, they rob them of the best parts of the game. It’s a shame for a series like this to be held back in that way, a series that has a lot of really creative ideas, especially with multiplayer and the covenants. Building a new Souls game that begins with the idea of unavoidable and inseparable enemy groupings would probably come out looking like a completely different game, but I believe it would be a better one.
But if you don’t believe me, go back and play any of the games again. Go into co-op and just sit back and watch what people do. Watch how routine that the games have become and how disincentivized you are to try out new things. Watch how players opt only for ultra-safe tactics and lure out single enemies in order to guarantee the win. Watch and see how it feels like players are just going through the motions rather than thinking on their feet and engaging with a proper challenge. I did, and it didn’t look hard to me.