MINOR BOSS SPOILERS FOR DARK SOULS III
It’s likely that you’ve heard of the SoulsBorne series. It’s also likely that you’ve heard about its famous, or infamous, allure of challenge. And because of this, every time a video game is termed ‘difficult’, the SoulsBorne series is there to be referenced. ‘Is it as hard as Dark Souls?’, one might say; ‘Seems like a Souls-clone to me’, another may repeat, and ‘Souls-like’ being a term amongst some when referring to similar games. But why is From Software’s ‘hard’ series lauded and applauded, consequently used as that which everything else is compared to? Well, it comes down to a few points, but what I’m talking about is the balance of challenge and reward. Want a slightly longer answer? Let me explain while you look at this dragon.
I remember walking into my local games store – for us New Zealanders it’s EB Games, and I think it is for Australians as well – and gazing over the original Dark Souls back in 2011. This isn’t an exaggerated memory either, this is exactly how it happened because I’m trustworthy. I’d done a little research on great games at the time and many people recommended Dark Souls but cautioned those against it because of the difficulty. I flipped the case over and saw the slogan sprawled from side to side: ‘Prepare to Die’, it said. I was genuinely intimidated. I stood there anxiously questioning whether I should risk it because of my fantasy fetish or play it safe with a copy of Battlefield 3. I didn’t want to waste $100. And I didn’t. I chose the former and was rewarded with one of the best, if not the best, video games I would ever play.
So, I get home, slide the disk into my PlayStation 3 and begin making my way through the Undead Asylum. And then I come across the first of the many, many SoulsBorne bosses: The Asylum Demon. I was a teenager at the time, and this game certainly tickled my damn fancy. This appropriately sized, brown Treebeard-bug, with a gut kicked me all around town as if it knew that I was anxious about playing it; it knew that I was worried even when I was thinking about preparing to die, I didn’t want to die! And then I killed her – for some reason I see this particular demon as a female. I don’t know why. She or it or that died because I consistently hacked away at its feet, belly, and tail for nigh on more than I’d care to recall. It was tough. Very tough. Grueling, even – especially coming off of so many hours of Skyrim. But more than that, the encounter was rewarding.
Achieving victory over the Asylum Demon is akin to the game saying that you have what it takes to play this game. And the same can be said for Iudex Gundyr in Dark Souls III. As he aggressively swipes and lunges at you, it is a natural consequence to learn his patterns and how best to avoid them. For an initially intimidating encounter, as if I were David and Silver-man Gundyr were Goliath, I was learning to overcome the challenge he posed. The same occurred with Vordt of the Boreal Valley, Father Gascoigne in Bloodborne, even the Nameless King. What the game does is suggest that you but a lowly undead, or unkindled, or whatever, you’re just low, who doesn’t have any hope of defeating these moving mountains. But with a little effort and preparation, you do. You achieve victory and you defeat prey, time and again. But not after at the least a few deaths. Because death in the series is a core part of it just as chugging Estus juice is when healing. I mean, the game blatantly tells you this on the back of the cover, and it’s more than a simple scare tactic. There’s even a tally of the total deaths in Dark Souls II on the cliffs of Majula. Therefore, it is evident that death is an aspect that the series embraces, and the player needs to as well. Death is an opportunity for one to learn from past mistakes and capitalize on them.
The player is always learning the ins and outs of an encounter in order to overcome it – all through death. Or natural skill – but who, ever, has natural skill in Dark Souls? The pattern of ‘fight, die, learn’ is absolutely core to how the series plays. However, death in video games is usually handled to present the player with the opportunity to simply attempt a set encounter again. But in SoulsBorne, the player drops the accumulated souls they’ve collected from their previous death and have the pressured opportunity to recollect them. There’s incentive to adventure back to the area or enemy that caught you off guard – a cheap shot, I bet? There’s a risk and reward mentality that tempts the player into venturing further in search of the next bonfire or lamp, further risking your accumulated souls or blood echoes. But make it to the next checkpoint and you’ve earned that which you have collected. In the case of a boss, if you can pull it off, you are handsomely rewarded with possible lost souls, a defeated boss, a huge, sprawling message that says you are victorious – or should I say Artorias? – the boss’ soul, and the great feeling of being rewarded from a challenge.
The series is designed to keep you engaged with a great challenge that you can visualize yourself overcoming; it’s a significant challenge but not an impossible challenge. However, you still need to earn your progression.
For another example, take The Nameless King. The Nameless King is arguably the hardest boss in the base game of Dark Souls III – including the DLC, many now consider that mantle to be stolen by the great black dragon, Midir. The Nameless King presents such a difficult challenge and yet, once you’ve died enough times to learn the encounter, the initial section with the Storm Drake becomes relatively simple. You beat the bird and the King himself absorbs its power – reminiscent of Ornstein and Smough. And this is where many would have the most trouble. However, once you defeat him, what ensues is something so akin to delicious and fantastically edible satisfaction and happiness. And following even your achievement of victory, the game clears the skies, commends you, and finally allows you to breathe.
What the SoulsBorne series does is boast itself as a difficult series of games, but not impossible ones. The series is always pushing the player to do better, to learn, to conquer, and this is, what I believe, to be the fundamental reason for its success. By learning and succeeding, the player is seeing result from their own actions.