When I’m not writing about video games, or talking about video games, or playing video games my favourite thing to do is go rock climbing.
Rock climbing is the most pointless thing in the world.
I am currently trying to clamber up this one route. It’s a bouldering route inside a cave 20 minutes from my house. Depending on how you do it it’s roughly 10 short, difficult moves from the bottom to the top.
I’ve spent roughly about six hours, over three separate days, trying to do those 10 moves. At an estimate I’ve fallen off maybe 50 times. This is a conservative estimate.
No-one will care if I finally finish this route. Not even my wife, who’s been gritting her teeth for the last month as I train, eat, talk and constantly think about this climb. Not even my climbing friends, who’ve given me advice, or come along to provide support.
It's no big deal. Dozens of people have climbed this route. Maybe hundreds. It’s hard (V8/9 if you are aware of climbing grades) but it’s not that hard.
It is however, for me, close to my limit. For me it is difficult and that’s all that matters.
I’ve been thinking a lot about things that are difficult.
I remember years ago, in the midst of a Trials Evolution addiction, I would come home from climbing and marvel at the incredible similarities between the climbing I had just done and the video game I was currently playing. Trials Evolution was a game about precise movements, precise techniques. It was also about memorising specific movements, about rehearsal — applying those movements in the most efficient way possible.
This is also rock climbing.
But the truth is this: all difficult things are alike. They all provide you with a deeper sense of reward upon completion. They all force you to struggle against your own weakness. They all force you to overcome something. It doesn’t even matter how difficult the task is from an objective perspective, it only matters that you are pushed towards some sort of personal limit. When I passed my driving test I started crying. Literally I shed tears. When my brother passed his driving test he shrugged and went about his day.
The only difference. He passed first time. I failed my driving test five times and passed on my sixth attempt.
As of this moment I am playing Dark Souls III and I’m thinking about video game difficulty. For a while there it was fashionable to enjoy From Software games because of their difficulty. It was fashionable to write about the ways in which Souls games were valuable because they didn’t pander to players, because death and challenge was a constant.
People eventually got tired of talking about that.
Then it became fashionable to say the appeal of Dark Souls wasn’t about difficulty at all. It was about allowing players to grow, it was about lore, core mechanics, the universe building – Dark Souls was a good game for lots of reasons, just don’t mention the difficulty.
But let’s be honest here. If you’re playing Dark Souls, difficulty is important to you.
I know it’s important. I know it's important because fans who bought Dark Souls III early as a result of a region-based error on the Xbox One went into complete meltdown upon finding out that the early, un-updated version of Dark Souls 3 was slightly easier that the 1.01 updated version.
I know it’s important because when I found this out, 10 hours into the game, I – a time poor parent who has to fight for every minute of game time – seriously considered deleted my save file, updating and starting Dark Souls III again from scratch. That was a consideration I made.
For me difficulty is important. For a number of reasons. I like to think I’m self-aware enough to admit that a large part of that is pure ego. Achievement as affirmation: I can do this thing, I am good at this thing.
But mainly it’s about the illusion of value. About replicating the feeling that you have acquired a skill. There is no real world task — crucial to me, my family or the human race — that requires my ability to defeat Ornstein & Smough. That requires my ability to get gold medals on Trials Evolution's extreme tracks. Neither of those achievements are going on my resume any time soon.
These achievements rank with some of my most treasured moments, at least in my gaming life. At least. If I’m being honest they probably rank with some of the coolest things I’ve done in general. These are moments when I pushed against my limits and overcame. That is valuable to me. That is important to me.
And if that sounds silly? If that sounds pathetic? Well, I truly find it difficult to give a shit. We are free to define what’s valuable to us.
No-one will care when I climb that one route I’ve been working on. No-one will care that I beat that boss, or did that track, or finished Super Meat Boy.
But there will be a point in history where no-one will care that Usain Bolt ran 100 metres in 9.58 seconds. That time will come. It's inevitable.
In the end, on some grander scale we can’t comprehend, everything is meaningless. Nothing is important. All we have to cling to are the things that make us happy; our little achievements. All that matters is we encountered something that seemed impossible, but we somehow made it possible.
That’s important, isn’t it?