I had a conversation with my girlfriend yesterday while shopping for groceries about difficulty in video games. It is a common topic, one often brought up when someone mentions Dark Souls or a “Souls” game. Elitists will tell you that Dark Souls is a good game because it is difficult and keeps the casuals at bay. Personally, there is an element of superiority when I play Dark Souls or a game like it. I enjoy getting good at a game. Having a challenge just handed to me does not give me that sweet rush of dopamine that most gamers crave. This discussion of difficulty however, did not start with a conversation about “Dark Souls.” It started with me talking about the new Legend of Zelda game: Breath of the Wild.
I have been a Zelda fan since I was a kid. Even though I am part of the generation that would have played Ocarina of Time on the Gamecube special edition disc (which I eventually did), I played it on the original Nintendo 64. I fell in love with the story, the characters, and the addictive exploration-based gameplay. I quickly began learning more about the world of Hyrule and begging my parents to get me a Gamecube so I could play Wind Waker. My parents were not big on video games at the time, so my siblings and I had to scrape pennies together to get it, and when we did, it was so worth it. I love Wind Waker, but at the time, I loved Twilight Princess even more. As a young teen, it was the best version of Zelda because it was the “realest.” It was gritty, dark, and had enough edge to cut you from the couch. As an adult, I have come to appreciate the more subtle elements of games like Ocarina of Time, as compared to (while still a great game) the over-the-top drama of Twilight Princess.
Breath of the Wild is a completely new experience. It’s nothing like the games of my childhood, and that’s ok. In fact, it’s better than ok. I’ve played the old games to death and Breath of the Wild is a breath of fresh air. As of this writing, I haven’t even come close to scratching the surface of the massive open world. I had just unlocked the paraglider when my alarm told me it was time to go to bed. However, with even this small taste (a few hours at most) of Breath of the Wild, I had rediscovered the world that made me excited about Zelda in the first place. Breath of the Wild makes everything larger than life in terms of scale, and it reminds me of the feeling I got when I first played Ocarina of Time. When I was a child, the open world of OoT felt impossibly expansive. Breath of Wild has recreated that feeling.
However, I digress. While Breath of Wild has its magnificent vistas and open world, it also has a surprisingly difficult combat system as compared to the previous Zelda titles. My roommate and I have commented that it resembles “Baby’s first Dark Souls.” Timing/animations and your knowledge thereof rules your success in battle. Combat skill is something that hasn’t truly been a part of the Zelda series, and I enjoy the focus they gave this particular element of the game.
While I explained this to my girlfriend she asked “Why does that matter?” And the answer is more complex than you might think. The combat in Breath of the Wild isn’t good just because it’s more difficult and has a higher skill-cap. It’s good because it’s a carefully designed experience that is fair. There are no difficulty settings with Darks Souls, or the Legend of Zelda. The game is designed to be the way it is because it has been carefully crafted to provide a balanced experience. Dark Souls harkened back to old-school design principles with its well-thought out yet punishing boss battles, a style which has been ditched for lazier technics and difficulty sliders that raise or lower the health and attack damage of your enemies. When approaching a game like Bioshock: Infinite, most gamers will tell you that the game was designed somewhere between the medium and hard difficulties. An easy mode is included because they want the game consumed by as many people as possible and first person shooters are notoriously difficult for non-gamers to grasp. However, nothing can truly be done about the Dark Souls’ or Breath of the Wild’s difficulty level without altering core gameplay elements. First person shooters will make your weapons more powerful, and give you more health, but Dark Souls can only give you so much health, and you’ll still die the exact same way every time until you figure out how to win.
Personally, I would never give someone a neutered version of Dark Souls or Breath of the Wild, as it would detract from their experience of that work. Similarly, you would not give a perfectly able student a copy of an abridged 5th grade version of Moby Dick and expect them to understand the depth and complexity of that classic novel. Dark Souls and even Breath of the Wild are both like novels, and to understand them you have to struggle and grapple with them like Ahab and the great white whale.
I bring this up because I’ve been hearing a lot of people mention that they would like an easy mode for Dark Souls, and Breath of the Wild reinvigorated my opinion about difficulty settings and the integrity of a single-player gaming experience. Maybe grappling with video games isn’t your past-time of choice. That’s ok, just don’t try to change the classics that already exist.
This isn’t an admonishment, as the statement comes from an addict. I don’t even play World of Warcraft and I realized the other day that I’m deeply entrenched in 3 different Blizzard games. Currently, I’ve been playing a lot of Hearthstone, Diablo 3, and Warcraft 3. All from different eras, all with different styles of gameplay, but all highly addictive. It’s like Blizzard has tapped into gamer psychology. Hearthstone appeals to the gambler in me, Diablo hits me with waves of dopamine every time I get a new legendary item that is better than the item before it, and Warcraft 3 is my favorite competitive game to date.
It’s impossible to deny the impact they’ve had from a gameplay perspective based merely on the amount of copycat games (all the MMO WoW clones) and the genres that they have spawned. Not only did they help pioneer the RTS genre, but they also created the MOBA genre. With DotA, League of Legends and all of its clones, its player base, etc, etc. Blizzard has created casual PC gaming. It is built into the very fabric of gaming. The largest populations in gaming have been created or inspired directly by Blizzard games. Whether you like World of Warcraft or not, it has made the MMO genre what it is today. I still remember when WoW was dethroned by League of Legends. It's ironic that a game famous for ripping off the DotA mod from Starcraft and Warcraft 3 became more popular than the flagship game of the company that created the genre, but that's life. Blizzard is at the heart of gaming from its early days, and they represent inovation and success at the highest level of their field.
Why haven't more companies tapped into the goldmine that Blizzard seems to be? What makes them stand out in a market saturated by knockoffs and competitors?
Firstly, their design. Blizzard games are well designed. They always have a memorable UI/UX, and they are typically exeptionally easy to navigate. Intuitive menu layout and fun designs go a long way in my book, but they aren’t even the most important factor. Compared to games like Halo and Call of Duty, where the menu feels like an afterthought, Blizzard menus are exciting and get you hyped for whatever epic quest or battle you’re about to engage in. Even the Blizzard packaging appeals to the 13-year-old in me.
I recently found a Warcraft 3 Battle Chest at a Target of all places, having never actually owned a physical copy of the game I bought it, and I was immediately drawn in to the packaging of Warcraft 3. I’m not surprised it sold so well back in the day (and continues to sell) because the mere packaging made me want to play it again, even though I’ve beat the campaign many times.
Secondly, the creature design and game world aesthetic. I love the feel of Blizzard games. From Starcraft to Hearthstone, each game has a unique design philosophy when it comes to the creatures, weapons, and world that the game takes place in. Starcraft is unique among sci-fi games because of the alien design and world building, and Hearthstone is unique among TCGs because of its inviting tone, and the meta-level idea that you're playing a game inside of a game universe.
They aren’t afraid to indulge the child within. A good portion of the Warcraft universe is very fae and cartoony. It almost doesn’t work sometimes when put up against the dramatic portions, but somehow they pull it off. In a way, the Warcraft universe is a reminder that you can still have fun in fantasy. It doesn't all have to have the weight and heaviness of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium. Fantasy video-games have forgotten what it’s like to have fun. Even for all the things that Skyrim gets right, they don’t grasp this one concept: You don’t have to take yourself so seriously. And that’s what Warcraft is. Warcraft is easy and accessible on the surface, with depth and complexity where it counts, and that’s what makes it so popular.
Diablo is definitely the most mature and dark of the Blizzard games, having an almost horror game atmosphere, full of gore and violence. The mature subject matters you encounter and endless demonic forces you battle are a constant reminder that this isn’t the world of Hearthstone. It’s a world of unforgiving death and destruction. Instead of opting for subtlety, Blizzard bumps it up to 11 and really wallows in the spectacle of what it does best: Fantasy. Not a single trick is missed when it comes to Diablo. From the look of the enemies, to the look of your character as you upgrade your gear. I realized that little boys and little girls aren’t so different, even in a hertonormative society/upbringing. I’m basically just picking out clothing for my barbarian warrior, and I’m (currently) a 22 year old male. And even with that in my mind, I love it. I can’t stop looking for the next piece of gear to boost my stats and change my look.
Thirdly and finally, the gameplay. Blizzard games excel when it comes to satisfying gameplay. They make you feel powerful and yet balance the difficulty in such a way that you never feel like you have it easy. Diablo 3 excels are difficulty levels and slowly ramping up the difficulty all the while giving you more and more tools to defeat your foes. However, in terms of pure gameplay, Starcraft and Warcraft 3 are their crowning achievements. When you think about the fact that Warcraft 3 shipped 4.5 million units, it's no wonder that they singlehandedly popularized and maintained some of the first early professional gaming scenes to ever exist. To this day, the first Starcraft game is insanely popular in South Korea, and remains one of the most popuar games to ever be released. This speaks to the creativity and power of Blizzard gameplay, when a game that has very little story and is outdated graphically can still be played and enjoyed almost 10 years later by a wide audience.
A friend of mine described leveling up in World of Warcraft as a drug, and that you need that next high. For some people, chasing that high can be a problem, and it’s important to keep in mind that video games (like anything) can be truly debilitating.
However, while I’m a functioning adult, I’ll indulge my vices, and currently, my vice of choice is Blizzard.
I had been growing bored with single-player video-games for a long time. A couple years ago I had landed on the League of Legends bandwagon, and then Hearthstone, and then Smash Bros. for the Wii U, etc, etc. Everything was multiplayer. There was no point in playing single-player titles. They didn’t give me that rush anymore. My opinion towards single player games had soured. I still liked older titles like Half-Life 2, Legend of the Zelda, Mass Effect (1 and 2) FTL, FEZ, Bioshock, etc, etc., but I hadn’t truly enjoyed a single player experience since Bioshock Infinite. Nothing since Infinite had come close in terms of capturing my imagination with its amazing design and complex story. I had been burned too many times by main-stream developers and I had also lost my appetite for the indie side-scrollers that were pushed as “games” by the indie community. Sure I enjoyed Don’t Starve, Bastion, and Limbo, but they were the exceptions.
Fast forward a couple of years. I’m playing Legend of Zelda (Twilight Princess HD), becoming slowly bored by the lack of variation in my gaming diet. Zelda is the only single player game I had been playing (besides a little bit of Pokemon and Super Mario) and the pure childish nostalgia (while enjoyable) was starting to overload me in terms of… sweetness. Like too much candy in one sitting, I was beginning to have an existential crisis. “Maybe I don’t like video-games anymore,” I thought to myself. “Maybe this is the end of childhood. Nothing has that magical touch anymore that gets me excited without it being a gambler’s rush or a competitive experience.” I refused to let these thoughts ruminate, and I immediately went to my local Gamestop and did what I had been meaning to do for a long time.
I had never owned a PS3. As a child I had played the Nintendo 64, GameCube, PS2, Xbox 360, and PC. I had never experienced the post-golden age of Sony’s gaming console, and I had resolved to try it out. I imagine the employees of Gamestop were surprised that I was looking for a PlayStation 3, being that the latest iteration of the PlayStation 4 had just been announced. With demand comes supply, and the higher the demand, the higher the price. The originally $600 console was now 1/6th of the price. I bought a PlayStation 3. It was just over $100 and the average game price varied from $2 to $11.
At the top of the used games pile was a copy of Dark Souls. I had heard rumors and rumblings as to its legendary reputation, and I threw it on my bargain stack of cheap games (including one of the early Ratchet and Clank titles for the PS3 and some other PS3 exclusives) and checked out around $160. “Not a bad haul” I thought to myself as I made my way to the car. “I’m experiencing an entire generation of a critically acclaimed console at less than 25% of the cost.”
When I got home I immediately began playing the first Dark Souls title. The initial reveal that my character was undead threw me for a loop, and like that I was on board. It didn’t take me long to delve into the lore (which is surprisingly deep yet paradoxically sparse and vague), and become completely immersed in the Dark Souls world. The gameplay is nothing less than amazing. While completely unforgiving, Dark Souls is fair. If you “git gud” and learn the enemy attack patterns, you will be rewarded with easy fights that are extremely satisfying. Hilariously, the fights are rewarding because I died probably 20 times against that particular enemy type before I understood how to beat them.
The feeling of oppressive dread that oozes out of every structure in the world of Dark Souls reminds me of the Adult Link Timeline in Ocarina of Time, mixed with a bit of H.P. Lovecraft, or Poe. I was surprised to learn that despite the western high-fantasy atmosphere, Dark Souls is a Japanese game. Once I realized this the parallels to Shadow of the Colossus (another single-player Japanese fantasy game) became solidified in my mind, and I fell in love even more. Similar to SotC, Dark Souls is a puzzle game. The combat is the puzzle, and figuring out how to defeat the seemingly insurmountable and unchallengeable gods, demi-gods, demons, and monsters of Dark Souls with just your sword and shield is a mental exercise, and your death is a failure to skillfully unlock the simple secret to an otherwise impossible boss fight.
My love for single-player gaming was rekindled like the bonfires spread across the land of Dark Souls, a game I had written off for years as being a simple Skyrim clone, now one of my favorite games of all time. At the time of this writing, I am resolved to finish the entire series and seek out other games with a similar level of quality and complexity.