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.
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.