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13 thoughts on “Discussion: The Worst Odds Are The Best Odds

  1. I largely agree with this, but I think you’re applying it too broadly. The feeling of “I survived a harrowing experience and go the t-shirt” is only part of the get-gud phenomenon. Sometimes it’s not just about a compelling story, but about developing a satisfying skill.

    I don’t love Dark Souls because it was a seemingly-impossible challenge that, against all odds, I bested. I love it because it forced me to learn satisfying skills that I wouldn’t have even suspected I’d be interested in learning if I’d been able to set the difficulty to Easy.

    (Actually I love Dark Souls because of the atmosphere and level design, but getting good—having a skill ceiling high enough that grinding was a pleasure more like practicing a musical instrument than tedious time-wasting—was a welcome surprise.)

  2. What do we talk about when we talk about Dark Souls?

    My suspicion is that it isn’t difficulty; that’s the thing we talk *around*. Sorry for mentioning the war, but I think what some Souls fans reflexively sense is that this is a proxy culture battle in the making: here is something they like, here is somebody criticising it, the somebody has come here to take the something away.

    The strength of response surely correlates to the intensity of experience, of meaning, that the game provided them. I feel like we have to acknowledge that this is something rare, increasingly rare in today’s cynical, risk-averse and over-monetised “AAA space”. Actually, it’s something rare in any space. We don’t often get to feel this way. It’s what drives people to create and consume, well, you-know-what. The short words that begins with an A.

    Yes, it is an emotional response. I suspect these people would, were it possible to separate them from this strength of feeling, likely see no reason to begrudge others the experience they cherished. Probably they might even want to share it! Nor would they reject adjustable difficulty in the abstract instance, as opposed to this applied one. I highly doubt even the Soulsiest gamer wants every game to be Soulsy.

    But suspicion drives people into cul-de-sacs. Is this critique on the level? Has it been made in good faith? Are they coming to take my games away? I know that phrase is used mockingly, but I have a degree sympathy for the concern that drives it. You don’t have to exactly look far to see cultural tugs of war these days, and sometimes the rope snaps, and both sides end up with nothing but a muddy arse.

    So, Souls fans look to reject the argument. And in doing, they end up making some pretty specious claims qua difficulty. And I mean, we’ve all been there, right? Haven’t you ever found yourself making a passionate argument that you later realised was the opposite of what you actually think, just because you wanted to win? You only have the sense of your position in relation to your opponent, not to the landscape. Where you end up standing is less important than that you avoid rolling off the roof of the Undead Parish. Er, I mean.

    Personally, though? I have to agree with Joel. Dark Souls is an RPG, the granularity of challenge literally goes right down to the numbers. It’s the genre that famously lets you set your *own* difficulty, and Dark Souls certainly lets you grind.

    So why not extend that? As you say, as much of the satisfaction comes from conquering the mountain as from the view at the top (insert Celestism here). But people of differing ability should be able to take routes of differing gradients. Don’t forget that difficulty can BE content – my all-time favourite example is Goldeneye’s extensible mission objectives.

    So, you don’t need to do it in a way that gives The Enemy a bloody head to hold aloft. No need for told-you-sos. I would expand the range of starting classes to give beginners something more survivable. Maybe one starts with a ring of taking half damage, and another with a sword of one-shotting stuff.

    Would that cause less chagrin to the gud? I don’t know. My point is that this stuff can be finessed, though. Even adding a harder difficulty at the same time as an easier one is a rhetorically robust approach.

  3. Urthman

    It is mucho true, I am simplifying a lot here. You’re right, there is indeed another aspect to this, which is developing specific skills for the gaming task at hand and becoming an athlete (this was a big part of my Hoplite story).

    And while the core of my Death Crown adventure was about conquering Domination, a good part of the joy was from feeling stronger.


    Interesting. “here is something they like, here is somebody criticising it, somebody has come here to take the something away”

    Okay so this is what the comments are for. I’d expected certain types of rebuttal – but this is not something I’d considered at all. That it’s less about people mucking around on your turf but more grounded in a protective instinct for a rare something that is loved. But in the end, as you imply, you end up in these faux arguments that are far from the actual meat of contention.

    Difficulty adjustment is more art than science and I’m under no illusion that creating alternate difficulty gradients is something you can just throw in. I do like difficulty implemented as content; I loved Thief’s difficulty levels but we don’t see much of this because it’s expensive to implement (and more expensive with every year).

    Lone indies have a huge problem making a game that’s too hard for someone that who hasn’t been developing and testing the game for five years. I don’t have any specific recommendations but I know a lot of people hated the last Elden Ring boss. And few people have love for the Capra Demon.

    But Inscryption is good at an adaptive difficulty in the way you suggest with Dark Souls. The more you work at that game, the more little gifts it offers you. There are secrets that provide bonuses. It’s a game that wants you to succeed, so bad, and you end up mostly finishing it on your own terms.

    Random aside: I still appreciate how The Witness subverts “reaching the peak”.

    I don’t know why but since Electron Dance moved to the new server I’ve had to approve all of your comments :S

  4. i didn’t read the article but the links. i shared ‘game design memetics’ article with my fav discord server, and it was controversial. i take the naive idealistic side of being tired of remasters and safe games and want innovation in AAA but, that’s very short sighted on my end, i guess. i mean, what medium doesn’t recycle its past? though i do find a difference between ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ and ‘let’s remake this 20 year old game’. maybe i’m unfairly applying my lessons of being in the present that i learned in therapy to a whole-ass industry.

    p.s. the book retromania! by simon reynolds is about music and touches upon this more fully and less straw man-y.

  5. Hey daniel. What I felt from Kyle is that the big dollar industry was slowly grinding to a halt, that it can only afford – from a risk angle – the smallest innovations. I tend to see indies being the real laboratory of ideas where the best ideas float upwards. Fortnite did not invent Battle Royale but they did build on it.

    But I think what perhaps should be worrying is that millions are being spent on minor iterations while real innovation has to scrape for cash. That the severe cost for every new big game has completely wiped out the ability to innovate and they are relying heavily on existing ideas and franchises. Pure broke capitalism: juggernauts hoovering up all the cash but barely progressive. This started at the twilight of the 1980s and has continued ever since. It was inevitable, of course. There isn’t some clever decision someone could have made along the way to avoid this.

    And this circle jerk of grindingly slow big money iteration has finally filtered through into big culture, because it has been with us for the equivalent of forever. I find it so hard to get interested in AAA games because I come away feeling more disappointed each time. I loved Prey’s exploration but there was still something missing at its core. Control was even worse, a story I didn’t gravitate to and had combat that stirred the heart for only a third of the game, revolving around micro-collectibles and painful upgrade trees.

    I’ll leave it there, others I’ll end up writing my whole book in a comment 🙂

  6. I think I love the term “MetroidBrainia” almost as much as I love MetroidBrainias.

  7. I believe there’s an important (crucial?) social aspect to the git gud argument. Especially nowadays, but probably always, you don’t just git gud, you talk about gittin’ gud. And I’m not just saying in the bragging sense, but in the community sense. There is a sort of “shared exclusivity” in the gittin’ gud, and I think it’s the key aspect that has allowed this rhetoric to grow to the size it has.

    This might also explain why it exploded with Dark Souls rather than, for example, masocore platformers. It’s a hard game, no doubt, but it’s also a game that wants you to succeed, and makes significant allowances for failure (e.g. suicide runs for items). But most of all, it’s a game that encourages player conversation, both in the game and outside. Souls games are figured out by the entire community, and I think this creates the right environment for sharing “git gud” stories.

    (I’m wondering if there’s something similar to this rhetoric among the people who read Joyce’s Ulysses, clearly the Dark Souls of literature)

    Addendum: probably not needed, but since the article on metroidbrainias doesn’t mention it, I feel I have to suggest Toki Tori 2, which is a great example of this sub-subgenre. You have just two abilities and never gain any other, but progressively discover new ways of using them to interact with the environment and solve puzzles. It can be maddening if you stumble upon an area which hasn’t been “tutorialised” yet, but it also encourages experimentation with a very limited toolset, so it’s never inscrutable.

  8. Hello Lorenzo.

    I did touch briefly on the concept of a “common social currency” although I linked that more to victory. But there are plenty of games where the conversation has not been hindered with the presence of difficulty modes; sometimes the community will coalesce around what it means to be a “true master” of the game. Thinking about Thief and it’s various levels. You haven’t “played Thief” unless you’ve done the expert playthrough, but I’m not upset by anyone who scraped through on the lowest rung of the difficulty ladder.

    I think there are few games outside of Dark Souls which can successfully make the argument for “one difficulty to rule them all”. I still think, though, it eliminates entire swathes of people who just don’t have great controller skills. Literally, one of the biggest problems I had playing Dark Souls, was I still felt I was button mashing all the way to the edge . I never intended to quit, but the fear of the buttons is what kept me away until too much time had passed.

    A better argument is that games can’t be for everyone. Do I have to make a Twine game with some action sections to “interest” those it isn’t for? No. Why do I need to make a game that is action-based accessible to people who are no good at action games? It was never made for them? *shrugs in Dark Souls*

    Of course, how could we forget Toki Tori 2+! The old review on Arcadian Rhythms makes references to Metroidvanias (I’ve got the first comment there!). I did play a little bit of it but never persisted :/ The only reference on Electron Dance is a small throwaway line on one of my Miasmata pieces. *sigh*

  9. Lorenzo! I have bought Toki Tori 2 and I find it… maddeningly inscrutable? It’s not so much the puzzle, mostly, but the maps don’t make sense to me at all–every so often I do something that causes the overworld map to show up but I don’t understand what it means or what I’m meant to do with the information I just received–and after reaching the crystal room or whatever I simply don’t understand what my goals are. These critters appear and I follow them through holes but once I’ve done that, what am I doing?

    One issue is that it has a no-words aesthetic a lot of the time, but every so often words do appear and I think they’re supposed to explain either the plot or my goals but they don’t seem to have been written by native English speakers. And none of the guides seem to have the slightest interest in this sort of high-level question. It makes me feel very out of touch, like there are things that are obvious to everyone else that make no sense to me at all!

    (I’ve also recently started running into puzzles with high costs of experimentation, like I’ll take literally fifteen minutes to set up a bubble in a certain place and the bubble won’t take me where I need to go, which is not something that’s possible to anticipate in advance. Or a lot of what I’m trying to do seems to rely on the position of things off screen.)

    When we’re talking about Metroidbrainia/metroidvania puzzles I wonder why we don’t talk about Monster’s Expedition more!
    –only a couple of mechanics repeatedly exploited in different ways
    –new techniques are about exploiting edge cases in the old mechanics, except for a couple things that are dramatically introduced and naturally discovered
    –puzzles are literally about opening the map up, which can be done many different ways
    –definitely places where you can return to an old place with a new technique and open up a new path, though I think these are all optional
    –extremely clear demarcation between bonus and non-bonus puzzles
    –indicators to get you back on critical path when necessary
    –doing whatever you can to explore will always make progress

  10. “Are they coming to take my games away?”

    This is suggested as the subtext to the concerns about changing the difficulty of Dark Souls, but I’ll claim it as text.

    There are very few games like Dark Souls that have successfully insisted that I ‘git good’ and made me like it. In most games so difficult that I’d have to replay the same bits over and over and over to continue, I’d either dial the difficulty down to Easy, find a way to cheat, or get bored and move on to something else. But Dark Souls didn’t give me any of the first few options and managed to make enjoyable both grinding for souls and repeatedly replaying sections (because there was usually room to improve rather than tedium until I reached the hard part).

    If Dark Souls had an Easy mode, it would have taken that experience away from me. Technically I would still have the option of playing on Regular or Hard or whatever they called it, but since there’s no way to know ahead of time that it would be worth the trouble, there’s almost no chance I would have chosen it.

    And it’s hard to believe the Hard mode of Dark Souls would have turned out exactly as it did in a world where the developers also had an Easy mode they were working on. It seems certain they would have balanced it differently if they were thinking “this is the Hard mode” rather than “this is the game.”

    There aren’t so many games that are difficult the way Dark Souls is. But there’s more good games with an Easy mode on Steam than you have time to play, so why the insistence that Dark Souls be made more like all the other games?

  11. I am late to the party but I wanted to share some of my thoughts so, here we go!

    The mimetics article was very interesting and it very accurately describes my relationship with Marvel movies and most of TV series currently produced – to my weirdly wired brain it’s all the same made with the same sets of blueprints and rarely any innovation or even improvement. It’s like the difference between Super Mario Bros and the Japanes Super Mario Bros 2 (aka. Lost Levels). I don’t expect everything to be Super Mario Bros 2 or 3, but just make it different.
    I want Metroidbania to become a real, popular genre.
    I feel like at this point I am possibly the only person on the earth saying this, but I still think Dark Souls would’ve been better if it had some way to adjust the difficulty and/or toned down on wasting players time. I enjoyed my time with DS1, 2 and somewhat 3, but very often the victories felt hollow and unearned for a lot of reasons. I do like its legacy, where there are lot more games where combat is precise, tactical and meaningful and you can’t tank stuff all the time, as well as more nuanced and mysterious storytelling.
    I don’t have much time for truly difficult games and finally, after years of this being a struggle for me, I learned to let go and not have to prove to myself that I can beat something. I know I can beat almost any game, given enough time, I’d just rather spend that time on something I actually enjoy rather than my brain is pushing me to do.

    And finally, to quote your article:

    “Yeah, you love your Elder Souls, but did you ever grind through the Ultima IV Stygian Abyss three times in a row because you kept getting the final riddle wrong? That’s the mark of a real player.”

    There’s been this retro computer festival every year that I’ve been going to for years, and I noticed something with the people there who grew up on those old computers and consoles – a lot of them seem prefer their games like that. Have limited lives, force you to restart the whole thing if you lose too many times, have parts of the levels that you need to memorize. And at the same time I am like “Hey, this game is quite good, but the controls are kinda wonky and it doesn’t explain any mechanics, so now I need to redo the first 3 levels for the fifth time, I am not really enjoying myself”.

    I always wondered how much of it is just missing the days of yore and how much it is them genuinely wanting new games to be like that.

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