Unpacking The 'Difficulty' Of Dark Souls

Growing up I was surrounded by dogs. My parents bred them. At one point we had eight German Short Haired pointers living inside of our house. It was chaos.

As a little boy I always wanted to take the dogs for a walk. More than anything I wanted to be confident enough to let those dogs off the leash, to take them to the woods next to my house and let them run free. But that thought was also terrifying. What if the dogs ran off? What if they wouldn’t come back when I whistled.

The first time I let one of my dogs off the leash it ended in literal tears. She wouldn’t respond to my calls, she kept running off. I chased her around the woods, begging and crying for the dog to come back to me. Zero response. Dead-eyed stares.

Later that night I asked my Dad: ‘Why didn’t she come back?’ ‘How do you get a dog to come back?’

He told me something I’ll never forget.

If you want a dog to come back, you don’t run towards it. You run away from it.


In this extended metaphor you are the dog. The owner, indifferently walking in the opposite direction to you, is Dark Souls.

It’s become common in the extended pantheon of (actually quite good) Dark Souls writing to open with a variation of this gambit: ‘everyone talks about the difficulty of Dark Souls, but that’s not important [insert idea here] is important. [Insert idea here] is the reason why Dark Souls connects with you, not it's difficulty.’

I disagree. Dark Souls’ difficulty is utterly paramount to its success in engaging the player. It filters through the entirety of its experience. It’s the single most important thing about the game. Without exception.

Here’s another one: ‘Dark Souls isn’t difficult. It’s ruthlessly fair. It’s resolutely fair. Once you learn how to play within its systems, Dark Souls is actually quite easy.’

Again, I disagree. Dark Souls is often criminally unfair. Sen’s Fortress is packed with obstacles that kill players without warning. The Tomb of Giants asks you to navigate blindly across an environment dotted with chasms that kill you instantly, again with little to no warning. That is not fair. Dark Souls is not fair.

No, there are many interesting facets of Dark Souls, but its difficulty is by far the most interesting, and I’d argue that all of those facets come in the wake of the game’s core difficulty. Make no mistake Dark Souls is difficult. Any attempt to assert otherwise is the ‘humblebrag’ in action. Difficulty is its defining characteristic. It’s also the reason you can’t stop playing. The reason you run towards the game, panting and salivating, instead of running away, towards freedom.


To be clear, when I use the word ‘difficult’, I use it in the broadest sense. It applies to almost every definition of the word.

1. Not easily or readily done; requiring much labor, skill, or planning to be performed successfully.

That’s one definition, the most obvious definition. Dark Souls is difficult. It’s difficult like a task is difficult, in that the act of playing the game itself is tough. You will die frequently. You will get frustrated. You must acquire some level of knowledge or skill in order to complete the task.

2. Hard to understand or solve

This is a similar definition of the word difficult, but dissimilar enough to highlight a different aspect of Dark Souls’ difficulty: how obtuse the game is to first time players. Dark Souls is difficult like a Rubik’s Cube is difficult. The actual physical actions required to solve a Rubik’s Cube are simple – you turn the device in various direction until the colours match -- but understanding the Rubik’s Cube is the hard part.

Dark Souls is indifferent to the player. It doesn’t tell you its rules. On many occasions it tries really-actually-quite hard to hide those rules from you. On a fundamental level Dark Souls is difficult to understand before it is difficult to play. It hides paths from you. It hides crucial bonfire checkpoints behind hidden walls. At one point it asks you to traverse across a seemingly empty sky where one wrong step will cause you to plummet to your death.

Dark Souls is difficult.

3. Hard to deal with or get on with

Dark Souls is like arguing with a significant other when that significant other completely refuses to engage. Dark Souls is the only video game that will fold its arms with an icy glare and give you the silent treatment for 60 hours straight.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

Something is very wrong.

Dark Souls is ignoring you. Dark Souls is stubbornly waiting for you to find out what the hell is wrong and do something about it. Until then, until you figure it out, Dark Souls will simply refuse to speak to you. It will say nothing at all. It will continue being ‘difficult’.

4. Hard to please or satisfy

Nothing you ever do will convince Dark Souls to love you. Dark Souls is completely indifferent to your existence. Nothing you do will change that. ‘You Defeated’. ‘Victory Achieved’. That is the closest thing you will get to any sort of reward or compliment. One of those phrases doesn’t even make sense grammatically. Dark Souls gives so little fucks about you, the player, that it can’t even be bothered to speak proper English.

Some games beg for your attention. Explosions in the distance, arrows pointing you in the correct direction. Detailed expositive lore conveniently left lying in abandoned dungeons. Some games are desperate for your approval, Dark Souls actively seeks your disdain. Dark Souls want to be hated.

Dark Souls is ugly. Dark Souls is unfair. Dark Souls is uncategorically rude to every single one of its players. Dark Souls wants you to go fuck yourself. Dark Souls is consistently difficult in every definition of the word.


The above metaphor. The owner chasing the dog. The dog chasing the owner. In most video games we are the dog, let off the leash, carelessly roaming free without a care, our owner desperately chasing us down.

“Come back player, come here! Chase this ball. Sit! Roll over! Please listen to every single word I say. Please obey me.”

We have no respect for those games. We have no respect for our owners. We take our owners for granted. I’ll come back to you when I damn well please. Fuck you and fuck your ball. I’ll take my slobber elsewhere. I’ll come back when I’m hungry.

Dark Souls does none of those things. Dark Souls turns around and walks away. And like a barking dog desperate for attention we give chase. And maybe, if we’re lucky, Dark Souls will put us back on the leash.

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Comments

    nice article, Serrels.

    anyway... I'm not playing Dark Souls for the story. its all about the challenge. & the satisfaction you get from beating something trying its hardest to stop you.
    so hell yes, its hard. but that's the point. it's like a sort of meditation - get in the zone / rhythm of the thing & just go with it. let it take you... to many, many deaths.

    also, I'm not very far in it, but that's a giant puppy with a sword. I was not aware of this.
    THIS MAKES THE GAME A BILLION TIMES MORE AWESOMER.

    And the leash is... ?

    I think Dark Souls is like beer. You hate it the first few times. You may even go years between them in the early days. But everybody says it's cool, so you keep trying. Before you know it, you realise that you actually *do* like Dark Souls, and you stay up all night with your brother playing it.

    I think I've mixed my metaphor up in there. Whatever. I'm drunk / been playing too much Dark Souls.

    Last edited 27/02/14 2:46 pm

      Now I feel like I should keep trying beer until I discover it's delights <_<
      If only there was a gateway game into Dark Souls, like cider is to beer!

    I think the important thing about Dark Souls's difficulty is that you are given all of the tools to overcome it if you approach the game with the right mindset and pay attention. That's why I think people consider it "fair".

    For example, in Sen's Fortress, all of the arrow traps are activated by clearly visible pressure plates that you activate. The first one is right at the entrance, so it's teaching you exactly what they are and how to deal with them from the start.

    In the Crystal Caves, the invisible path is marked by falling particles.

    Something I'm really looking forward to with Dark Souls 2 is working out these things as a community. Nowadays, everyone knows about the Drake Sword and can look up whatever they please in the multiple wikis for the game. Back when Dark Souls was first being reviewed, there was a lengthy email chain going around with the various reviewers passing on what information they learned.

    I really want to be a part of something like that.

    By hiding so much from the player, Dark Souls is a game that really rewards exploration and makes discovering things absolutely fantastic.

    Last edited 27/02/14 2:44 pm

      There's a huge strategy guide being released at the same time as the game. I don't really think we'll get a chance to really explore as a community, because someone's gonna mine the secrets of the guide and share them all online pretty quickly...

        I'm also waiting for the PC release. So it looks like I'm pretty screwed.

        Going to try anyhow.

          The community-building part you might not be able to get involved in by then, but at least you can do what I did for my first playthrough, with self-exploration - completely offline. Avoiding any spoilers, hints, or the wiki unless absolutely stumped. (Or, in the case of lore, insatiably curious and satisfied that the level of in-game examination/exploration is about as good as it's going to get.) You know: give the boss a good number of attempts before trying to figure out online what you might be doing wrong. Or trying to figure out why I couldn't hurt ghosts or block them.

          I only started smashing all the lore sites and videos and such after I'd pretty much completed everything up to the final level and figured I'd best research whatever bits I might have missed naturally and go back to clean them up before I end things.

          You and me both. Waiting for the PC release that is. Time to train myself to avert my eyes when I see *anything* that even closely resembles information on DS2

        i avoided anything dark souls for the first few weeks after release, was well into the game before much was 'spoilt' for me. also i got lost...

        Think about it though - that will be the best selling strategy guide ever!

      I always equated Dark Souls to having a bad relationship. It's painful, you know it's bad for you, but you just keep on coming back for more because it feels so good... in a bad way.

      My body is ready for Dark Souls II.

        it's like dating the most beautiful woman you've ever seen, who fulfils every sexual desire - yet she constantly puts you down in front of all your friends and openly calls your mother "a fucking bitch" to her face.

          Whilst making you wear a collar, leash and gag ball in bed.

      I think my favourite part of Demon's Souls was the fact no one (upon its initial Asian release) had any clue what the World Tendency was about. The community spent hours, days, weeks discussing and finally working out how it all worked and while that was somewhat frustrating, being on the forefront sharing and testing theories was extremely exciting.

      Dark Souls continued this traditional of community information gathering and sharing and I think it really does lay the foundations for a great community/fanbase that feels almost united compared to other games. Up until Demon's Souls my experience with game-specific communities was limited to general discussion, newbie help and 'You can find item x at location x' but the Souls series really requires a deep and complex level of community information sharing.

      From Software really have given us new worlds to explore with very little starting knowledge and we are tasked with exploration and mapping everything ourselves. Whilst some aspects like the traps in Sen's Fortress, invisible paths and such may seem unfair, I can't help but LOVE it because it almost adds a level of realism. If you woke up in some strange new world, you'd have to keep your wits about you. Everything is a mystery, everything is a threat and there's that constant reminder that if you're going to go it alone, you need to learn from your mistakes.

      I haven't ever felt such levels of satisfaction in overcoming challenges and hardships of huge proportions than with the Souls series. You truly do get a sense of growing with the game as you progress. It taps into a personal, almost psychological part of each player that reaches far beyond just entertainment. It makes you feel like it almost knows something about you and it calls you in further, testing you.

      Last edited 27/02/14 6:42 pm

    Yep its hard. My first play through had me on the ropes many times. I think many of the commentators that say it's not that difficult come from a place where they have played through it a few times. I say this on my 4th play through and I have to say that these extra times through are like the big fuck you back to Dark Souls. You know what is coming and you can often crush enemies that once puzzled you. You run past a trap that fucked you over the first time with an extended middle finger. It was so empowering to go through again. This then becomes your lasting memory. The pain slowly fades away and the memories of struggles replaced with the joy of mastery.

      Exactly, this is definitely where the "it's not hard" brigade are coming from. It *isn't* that hard of a game... provided that you know what's coming, know how to acquire/craft/wield the best weapons, and continue to pay attention. And it can take many many hours of pain to reach that point.

        I know what you mean. I had similar discussion with a friend regarding Demon's Souls a few years back.

        He argued that the game "wasn't as hard as everyone made out", and that he had progressed through the game with relative ease. This took me aback somewhat, as I had found the game downright maddening at times, dying to traps, struggling with bosses multiple times until I finally came upon the most effective strategy.

        The reality was that he was relying heavily on online strategy guides to outline the best way to approach each situation. He picked his class based on what was considered most effective by the online community (he had a heavy magic emphasis), and knew where to find the best items, and how to approach each boss before he even encountered them. He still enjoyed the game, but in a very different way to someone going in blind and learning by themselves. To each his own I guess.

        I found Dark Souls to be much the same. The first time I played through on the PS3, it was a long and difficult journey. When I went back and started from scratch on the PC, things were significantly easier, simply because I knew what to expect.

        Knowledge is power and all that.

    Was playing last night (I am still well early in the game). Spoke to some old bearded dude, walked down this little passageway. Dropped into a pile of treasure chests. 'Grand' I thought. 'Treasure chests RULE' I said.

    Nek Minnit.

    I ran into some rather unfriendly skeletons that I couldn't for the life of me kill. Swearing was liberal. This new giant badass sword i acquired was too high a level for me to use. More swearing was an unsuccessful solution.

    AND DENNNN

    Decided to sprint away from the skeletons after my third brutalization at their spiny hands. 'Nothing worse than these guys could be ahead, I will just sprint past them!'

    SAY WHAAAAA

    Giant skeleton clubbed me straight off a cliff.

      brilliant. If you're describing the place I'm thinking of, it took me an hour of being repeatedly pulped & lots of twitter rants before someone pointed out that I wasn't supposed to go that way so early.

      not a bad place for a suicide run though to pick up the soul items & binoculars.

        Oh I got the binoculars. Don't you worry about that. Are they coated in my own blood? Yes. Lots. Are the lenses almost definitely scratched by skeleton swords? Absolutely yes.... But I have them.

        After a couple of demented attempts at beating the giant skeleton I went the other way and got mashed up by a giant angry goat on a bridge after SOMEHOW managing to kill the hordes of dudes lobbing firebombs and cross bow bolts at me.

        It's a bastardous nightmare, but I will get there.. and am determined not to use a Wiki whilst doing so.

      I'm sorry but dear god that made me laugh.

      I know exactly what you're talking about. XD

    Dark Souls is incredibly brutal, and while it can be unfair, you're constantly learning something every time you die. That's what I love about it. I've pumped almost 40 hours into it so far, and yet I still feel like I know nothing. But every time I die, I learn something new I didn't know before. When you die, you know exactly why you died, and you then can work out how to not die that way again.

    Any other game that I pump 40 hours into that I have progressed as little as I have in Dark Souls, I would've stopped playing ages ago, but Dark Souls drip-feeds you progress in the most perfect way. There's always something to do, and there's always a dozen ways to go about doing it.

    I also love how little help you get with it, it really creates a sense of community - which is another thing I love about the game; the community around it is amazing. The game is years old, but if you're struggling with almost ANY boss battle, you're bound to find a Phantom to summon and help you. Sure, you get some griefers every now and again, but it's pretty rare that'll happen in comparison to other games. You summon a phantom, and it's nearly always someone who's totally OP compared to you. They will have some kind of armour or weapon you've never seen before, and there's an instant sense of respect. Every Phantom I summon, I see and think "Woah, this Phantom has seen some shit. Shit you can't even imagine"

    I've been playing games since I was a little kid spending way too long playing Enduro on my Atari 2600 (woodgrain console, bitch) and I can safely say that Dark Souls is easily one of the greatest games I've ever played in my entire life.

    Last edited 27/02/14 2:57 pm

      I know how you feel, man. I was trying to defend the forest as part of the Forest Covenant the other night. Needed 3 victories to get a ring. It seriously took me about 40 attempts to get those three victories and even then only one was by myself (one was straight 2-1, the other I got there as my fellow phantom won and I shared the spoils). Made me realise just how terrible I actually am it it!

    I know it's been around for a while now, but I'm really glad to see Mark and so many other people getting back into Dark Souls. It really is a unique experience.

    I don't know about everyone else, but every time I see a new article on Kotaku with Dark Souls in the title it makes me smile.

      Me too. And then it makes me curl up in a fetal position and cry while sucking my thumb.

    I think that the most important part of the article is the recognition that 'difficulty' does not come down to a singular meaning, however, I think the definitions that you've come up with, analogies aside, do not appeal to my what I consider 'difficulty' in a video game, which has more to do with the ease of controls, the consistency of the game's logic, etc. In those aspects, Dark Souls is pretty solid. I am 7 hours playtime into Dark Souls atm (fighting Capra Demon), and I am one of those, who, with no intended humblebrag, would say that I do not consider Dark Souls to be 'difficult'.

    I think it should also be recognised that many players have chosen to dilute the difficulty through the use of guides/wikis etc. It is natural for those players not to consider the game difficult as much of what I have found to be the difficulty of the game so far is to be using systems that are largely unexplained, like the humanity system and how stats interact with equipment, and this aspect of difficulty does not exist for the guide users.

    I'll be picking up where I left off about 50+ hours in later tonight, been meaning to finish it but with all this talk of Dark Souls 2, I'm feeling inspired.

    Fantastic article, really great read! I was a late starter to Dark Souls, having only just started it recently on 360. 40 hours in, and loving every minute of it.

    My key take away from this article is this:

    "Dark Souls wants you to go fuck yourself"

      I hear the original tagline for Dark Souls was "Bite down on the pillow, I'm going in dry"

    It's definitely not a fair game. It's brutally unfair. What it is, though, is consistent. It teaches you rules and those rules remain constant throughout. Things like being able to kill the NPCs and backstab all enemies of a certain size provided they have backs and stuff.

    I dunno about the definition of difficulty, though. I mean... in the gaming context, when I think of a hard game, I think of Nintendo Hard.
    The difficulty found here: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NintendoHard

    When you look at their bullet-point list of the things which made those games hard, you quickly find that Dark Souls either doesn't do it too badly, or does the opposite. Eg: Factors that make up 'Nintendo hard' difficulty are:

    * Lots of enemies (or bullets) that are hard to hit or dodge.
    This doesn't happen very often in Dark Souls. You will usually only be facing a couple of enemies at a time, the number of times you're heavily pelted with attacks on all sides means you either ran ahead too far without finishing off what you were handling, or weren't advancing cautiously enough. Even then, you're not forced into those situations and can usually draw them out once you learn there's a potential cluster-fuck in store for you.

    * Surprise attacks that can only be avoided by sheerest luck or memorization
    Very uncommon. Almost everything that usually takes you by surprise you will often realize after the fact have their location or signs broadcast in advance... just very subtly. Raised plates for traps. Enemies lurking above, are usually visible from before you come up on them... IF you were looking up. Others will broadcast their location from around a corner with grunts and growls. Actual surprises with no clues are generally pretty few.

    * Malevolent Architecture that poses a constant danger of death, even when proceding as cautiously as possible.
    Definitely not the case here. You can always move backward if you need a breather, and there are significant stretches of space which are safe. Just the first time you do them, you won't always know where they are.

    * Dying from the slightest scratch.
    This may be you at first, but once you master the basics of blocking and dodging, not so much. And you always have the option of investing in heavy armour and vitality.

    * Lack of/very few checkpoints/save points.
    Dark Souls is almost the exact opposite of this. You will almost NEVER lose progress. The most progress you can lose is if you've been holding on to a lot of souls that you haven't pumped into levelling up yourself or your equipment. And that's easy-come/easy-go.

    * A limited number of lives and/or continues.
    Dark souls is the exact opposite. You can die infinitely and keep going without having to replay the earlier content to mastery. Dark Souls is a game which has no Game Over screen. (Even when you win.)

    * Losing all/most of your weapons/powerups on death.
    Doesn't happen.... the closest may be losing souls. But even then, you're given the opportunity to get them back.

    * Stiff/clunky/unresponsive controls
    Also not the case. There is consequence and weight to your weapons... If you want a high margin for error, wield a swift, small weapon. But be prepared to do less damage. If you wield the heaviest weapon in the game, yes, your misses will leave you exposed. It's not a flaw in any way, it's a trade-off where you can make your choice. (For my part, I love the balance of speed and power that comes with a fully-upgraded Man-Serpent Greatsword. Missed attacks aren't brutally punishing, and the damage remains high.)

    Compared to what children of the 80s cut our teeth on, Dark Souls remains somewhat difficult if going in blind, but much, much fairer. And knowledge is absolutely power. After my first run through I created a new character and even without investing ANY levels, was able to ring the first bell inside an hour, which had the first time taken me probably closer to twenty hours.

      Twenty hours? For some reason the way you were talking about it I thought you were cruising through it all and took maybe 2-3 for that section. I must have been misreading you.

        Oooh I know how that goes though. I spent at least a couple of days fighting the Skeletons with every different equipment set I could get my hands on, playing with each and trying to find a style that satisfied!

        Sure, it takes as little as an hour on my second or third playthroughs, where I know what weapons and styles I intend to work with from the outset!

        But spending that extra time taking the chance to play out of your depth and get to know the systems is totally worth it.

        I'm pretty sure with the dual wielding, torches and new magic systems I won't find my second bonfire in Dark Souls II until March 17th or 18th!

        Hm. I was only making status updates when I actually DID anything. I think the first week I was getting back into it was just a couple hours every night farming in the Burg and Parish. Remember how at that point I also had a really stupid high end/str/dex? I wasted a LOT of time early on by just doing soul-farming laps of the Parish. (The loop I was telling NegZero about I must've repeated for maybe four or five hours.) Then I worked up the guts to take on the Gargoyles and things started moving much more quickly from there. (Possibly because I dramatically out-levelled everything from that point onward. And I made a bit of a point of not moving on from an area until I was pretty comfortable with running through it without losing health.) I think the only point I spent much time on afterwards was Ornstein and Smough. (They killed me so. Many. Times.)

        Although twenty's probably an exaggeration, I think I had probably rung both bells by then...

        I wish I'd made a note on how many hours were racked up by the time I finished the first playthrough. (Edit: I think it may have been about 80 or so?) NG+ is at about the 90 mark and collected half the Lord Souls, soul level has to be around the 150 mark or something... 50 end/str, 40+ vit/dex.

        Last edited 28/02/14 12:04 am

    I feel like I'm the only one that hates hard games. I get so angry at games that are frustrating and the trivial amount of satisfaction I get from eventually solving some particular problem is never worth it.

    Give me easy mode, so I can experience the whole world and see the whole story.

    But even saying that, I am genuinely glad that these games exist for you masochists!

    2014 and we still can't uprate articles? Kotaku AU team get on this

      I just praise him on Twitter! (which I'm literally about to go do now)

    A beautiful analogy. I'm not entirely certain your reasoning is accurate but I thought it was brilliantly written either way.

    I think the difficulty of Dark Souls is about creating meaningful choices. When we first engage with the Black Knight we have the opportunity to flee, to let it alone and come back stronger at a later time.

    The choice is yours to decide whether it is better to be faster, or to have stronger armour. You decide if you need a shield, and which shield you choose impacts enormously on your playstyle.

    Do I wait for this opponent to come to me, Block/parry and riposte? Or is my weapon fast enough to strike first? Do I have enough reach that I can hit before it finishes it's charge? Do I do enough damage to kill or stagger it with a single blow?

    All these decisions are meaningful in Dark Souls. A point of contrast between Dark Souls and Demon Souls is the Ether Flask which allows more/less healing after making the wrong choice (depending on how willing you are to grind the herbs in the original), meaning that though you may well survive despite your mistakes - depending on your build and progression, but it will cost precious resources for every time you mess up.

    And that means the world. Dark Souls gives you a world where the only way to survive is to play wisely and skillfully. Your mistakes are penalized, rather than your successes rewarded.

    My take on it is that the entire playthrough of Dark Souls is a learning experience. A lot of modern games use the tutorial to teach the player how to play fully as soon as the experience begins, but with Dark Souls, by the end of the game, you've learned how to play the game properly because you have bested all of its challenges. Once you understand the game more fully, and hone your skills, it does become quite easy; however, while you're still learning how to play (on your first playthrough), Dark Souls is ruthlessly challenging and at times unfair (first Seath encounter anyone? Capra Demon?), and that's a huge part of why I love this game.

    Honestly the difficulty in Dark Souls has a lot more to do with the game not holding your hand, and people simply not paying attenion... And it is all the more rewarding for it honestly. If it taught me anything, it's that paying attention pays off huge.

    A few of the areas mentioned in this article become infinitely easier even on the first time through if you simply pay attention. Doing something like sprinting into a dark dungeon or cave simply isn't a smart idea in any world, such 'smarts' honestly deserve an equal and opposite response... That being a brutal death in Dark Souls' case. It's the proverbial slap on the hand, followed by a parental "No! That's wrong!".

    Sen's Fortress for starters... Nothing about the place will kill you without warning. My first time getting there, after the first pressure plate trap utterly destroyed me it became quite apparent it was going to be a common theme... So I progressed more cautiously and wasn't brutally murdered by any of the other traps without it simply being my own fault.

    Tomb of the Giants... I can understand people thinking the place is incredibly unfair, but the area directly before it actually provides you with a means to navigate it quite effectively if you don't just ignore everything. I admit on first playthrough it even took me a bit to figure out that I already had the means to do so.

    All in all, love the first game... Absolutely hanging out for the second. More games like it would be a welcome change.

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