Join John, the newest author with Podcasters United, as he breaks down the difficulty in Soulsborne games like never before!
Late in the summer of 2012 I first heard about a little game called Dark Souls and ended up grabbing the aptly named “Prepare to Die Edition” on Steam… and let me make a confession: I did not like it at all. Unfortunately, this was a famously atrocious PC port of what would otherwise come to be known as a genre-defining classic. To put it simply, it was a difficult game rendered nigh impossible due to terrible optimization such that it was inaccessible to most, at least on PC. Full disclosure? I wouldn’t end up returning to the first Dark Souls game until the release of its remaster in 2018. But ever since the moment I first stepped into Lordran all those years ago, I was absolutely hooked on FromSoftware’s works and I’ve since gone on to spend countless hours mastering each and every one of their games.
Before I get into it, I would like to emphasize that this is not an inflammatory attempt to tell anyone they “simply do not get it” or need to “git gud”; this is my good-faith defense of a seminal group of games. I am not going to try to convince anyone that they must play any or all FromSoftware’s games, I simply want to advocate for the ever maligned and ardently defended difficulty of the Soulsborne games on three fronts. As a writer first and foremost I contend that artists should be allowed to make their art as they see fit. Furthermore, I’m going to approach the discussion around “accessibility” and why I think that term has been inappropriately entangled with “difficulty,” particularly where these games are concerned. Lastly, I will explore the life-lessons to be gleaned even from video games, particularly when they’re damnably hard.
“That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized, and empathetic.”
By the time of his death in 2013, film critic Roger Ebert had famously asserted on multiple occasions how he thought that video games were not art and likely never would be. This is the same Roger Ebert who gave 3 or more stars and “thumbs up” to four out of the five Fast and Furious films made while he was still alive. Is anyone ready to argue that those movies were “art”? I certainly would not try to argue that all games are art, but I think we can certainly make a case that some games, even a growing number of them, are aspiring to what the cultural elite would distinguish as high art. Foremost, as a gamer and a writer, I am compelled to the defense of art as the work of the artist. What makes video games unique is that a part of their artistic form is the “conversation” developers have with their consumers – basically, how gamers engage with the game to overcome the challenges it offers. In the case of Soulsborne games in particular, difficulty is an integral part of this conversation. Anyone familiar with narrative adventure is aware of the “call to adventure” common in so many fantasy RPGs which follows the prototypical hero’s journey – a part of narrative structure for most of recorded history. And if you’ve played a Soulsborne game for more than ten minutes, I’m certain you’re aware that FromSoftware’s games do not open with this traditional “call to adventure.” Instead, these games invariably open by provoking the player – a giant demon, a blood-crazed werewolf, a multi-armed abomination – some kind of hellish creature from our nightmares tailor-made not just to kill our character but to actively demoralize us as players. We’re supposed to die. We’re supposed to feel the hopeless danger. But more than that, we’re expected to face down the monster and accept the challenge of a world not interested in mercy.
Death is very much a part of these games’ mechanics. You’re the Chosen Undead, the Hunter, the Wolf, the Tarnished. Dying is baked into not just the game design, but the story as well. If you ever gave up on Dark Souls, guess what? You’re a part of the story too. You’re one of the Chosen Undead who didn’t make it; you went Hollow. Gave up on Elden Ring? You’re a Tarnished who lost sight of their Grace. It’s okay that you gave up, because what makes these adventures engaging is that not everyone thinks they can do it. And that’s fine. Art is not for everyone as art must make choices if it’s going to say something of value. Of course, you might ask what does Dark Souls say by beating you over and over again for your mistakes? There is no better encapsulation than a quote from Laurentius, a pyromancer in the first Dark Souls: “Don’t you dare go Hollow.”
This now-famous adage has become a rallying cry of the Soulsborne community as a perfect encapsulation of FromSoftware’s mantra in challenging the player: their world and the people in it crying out, “Don’t give up. Please. This world is dying and you’re the last, best hope. Everyone is afraid, sick, dying, or (un)dead – you included. You are not the hero yet, but you could be.” So, you are not called to succeed absent any strife, you are challenged to become a better version of yourself and fight for yours and everyone else’s humanity. To ask that world to not be ultimately challenging is to take away the fundamental definition of what it means to save Lordran, Yharnam, Ashina, or the Lands Between.
“My advice to other disabled people would be concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.”
My next point is going to be contentious but, first and foremost, let me make something crystal clear: to the extent it can be helped, no one should be excluded from video games because of a disability. I’m continuously impressed by the strides taken by software developers and hardware designers alike to make games work for as many people as possible in everything from colorblind modes to modular controllers and open-ended mapping, closed captioning, narration for those with visual impairment, and so on. Unfortunately, until we perfect some sort of pure neural gaming interface the very nature of video gaming as a hobby necessitates developing certain sets of skills: spatial reasoning, hand-eye coordination, concentration, memorization, etc. and unfortunately that means that there is, at least for now, going to be some barrier to entry to video gaming. With that in mind it is my contention that difficulty and accessibility are not the same thing and to argue such is disingenuous.
Temple Grandin’s autism is a neurological developmental disorder; Stephen Hawking’s ALS is a motor neuron disease which led to his physical disability. That’s just two examples of people with disabilities who acquired PhD’s in applied sciences and affected permanent and lasting changes on their field and the world at large which, I think anyone will agree, are much greater challenges than any video game. With little more than a brief internet search we can find video after video, article after article covering people with disabilities beating all sorts of games (including Soulsbornes) using accessibility options that do not include dynamic or otherwise adjustable difficulty. Accessibility is defined as “when the needs of people with disabilities are specifically considered, and products, services, and facilities are built or modified so that they can be used by people of all abilities”. To suggest that an adjustable difficulty option is going to address the needs of the disabled community, as many in the gaming community have tried to suggest, is rhetoric championed by those with good but (in my opinion) misguided intentions. I realize it’s uncomfortable to read and to be clear I write that as someone with both permanent physical and neurological disabilities who’s struggled with and beaten multiple Soulsborne games multiple times. Refusing to engage with a game simply because of its difficulty is a choice, not a disability. “I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent – no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”
Finally, I’d like to challenge the reader to entertain the notion that the difficulty of Soulsborne games can be broadly beneficial for one’s mindset. The channel Daryl Talks Games over on YouTube has a great video on how many people have referenced FromSoft’s games as a way of overcoming their struggles with mental illness. I strongly urge the reader to give it a watch and for this reason I won’t speak to the impact of Soulsborne games on gamers’ mental health. I will more simply (and less scientifically) assert that overcoming adversity is an important life skill and games, particularly challenging ones, prepare us for such necessary lessons in an otherwise safe environment. Ultimately speaking, what are the consequences of dying in a video game? There’s no GPA to compromise, no tools to break, no one to get hurt. At worst, I simply have to just play more video game. Oh darn.
My reductive humor, like all tough love, is not meant to be dismissive of anyone’s struggle – whether it’s in life or in a game – but if we cannot accept the contrived adversity of a tough fight in a fictitious digital world, then for what adversity are we prepared? If I cannot accept the challenge of Ludwig the Accursed or Isshin, the Sword Saint or Malenia, Blade of Miquella, how will I ever face down the school bully, the toxic boss, or the emotional turmoil of a breakup? But one might say “Life is stressful enough. I play video games to relax, not to be pummeled repeatedly by a shrieking monster.” Unless your video games are strictly confined to The Sims, Animal Crossing, or Stardew Valley and their like, I find it difficult to accept that premise. Let’s look at a list of the top 10 best-selling games of the previous decade: Minecraft is in tenth place, sure, but what’s the rest of the list? Well, Grand Theft Auto V is in first place; Red Dead Redemption II is in there somewhere… and the rest? The other seven are Call of Duty games. The list of most awarded games in history are games like The Last of Us, The Witcher, Skyrim and God of War – games generally not regarded as “cozy games”.
I assert that overwhelmingly gamers do not play games to relax – we play games to feel powerful and get a good story along the way. That’s perfectly fine, but I challenge the reader: what’s the difference between the power gained in Call of Duty: MWII (last year’s best-selling game) and Elden Ring (the second-best)? One makes you earn your power through esoteric stat builds and multiphasic boss mechanics, and the other sells it as a microtransaction. This is not to suggest that if everyone just played Soulsborne games until they “git gud” then the world would be a better place; not at all.
What I am saying is that far more people can play and beat a Soulsborne game than realize it because they gave up too soon. They looked at the challenge and simply said “It’s too hard” because it required more than a few minutes to master a challenge. I’m saying that there are millions more Chosen Undead, Hunters, Wolves, and Tarnished out there and I want them fighting by my side – but for that reason I also want them strong. More importantly what I’m saying is a lot of good-natured and talented people are wasting away because instead of learning to face the demons, they’ve accepted some sort of excuse that the demons in their life continue to remain unconquered. And they’re worse off for it.
And so I urge anyone who’s given up on a Soulsborne game to give yourself another chance. “Git gud” is not a dismissive axiom designed to further punish you. It's that parent, older sibling, or dear friend picking you up and dusting you off and letting you know: “That looks like it hurt. Rub some dirt on it, Chosen. Restore your humanity and get back in there.” Soulsborne fans want you to succeed, but we want you to do it on your own merits. And most of all we want you to know that you’re strong enough.
“Goodbye, then. Be safe, friend. Don’t you dare go Hollow.”
-Laurentius of the Great Swamp
About the Author:
John is the newest author to join the ranks of Podcasters United! John's 30+ year love affair with gaming first started on the tabletop and eventually segued into digital dungeon diving with the original Legend of Zelda on NES. He retired from technical work on air and spacecraft in 2021 and now teaches full-time. When he's not working or gaming he's avidly writing and reading all things sci-fi and fantasy.