My first experience with Dark Souls 2 was pretty forgettable as I made a character, attempted to understand dual-wielding and died continuously to wolves. The second experience was more sword-and-shield heavy, traversing through the world and trying not to die from Hollowing (where one’s max health was reduced with each death). The sheer difficulty of Dark Souls 2 stuck out but the satisfaction of the combat felt at odds with its addictive nature. My understanding of what drew people in to continuously replay these games was still inherently limited. That is, until I met the Pursuer.
There wasn’t much known about the Pursuer aside from his heavy greatsword and imposing presence that pummeled me into next week. Remember all those people who talked about “getting good” at Dark Souls? The Pursuer felt like the epitome of all those statements. He’s strong, chaining together highly damaging combos with ease. His speed isn’t insane but moments where one could rest and gather their wits, successfully healing after taking one too many hits, were few and far between. In a nutshell, the Pursuer punished mistakes but didn’t feel unfair especially as his patterns became more obvious. For as imposing as he was, the attacks had pretty obvious tells and knowing when to dodge and strike was important.
"The topic of challenging video games is a long-running one. From Dark Souls emerged a new genre called “Soulslike” which outlined certain gameplay aspects."
Beating the Pursuer didn’t introduce a sense of overwhelming euphoria or “high” but it felt significant (and yes, I discovered later that hitting him with the ballista dealt massive amounts of damage. It was tough, okay?). There was a feeling of satisfaction, of finally overcoming this imposing obstacle that took so many tries. Granted, the satisfaction was short-lived as I would fight the Pursuer again later and lose badly. Learning his newer attacks didn’t really entice me and coupled with what I felt was an overly punishing Hollowing mechanic, it wasn’t long before Dark Souls 2 was dropped. At the time though, I was also unaware of why I kept coming back to the Pursuer to eventually eke out a win. A certain mastery of dodging, properly getting hits in and avoiding damage, motivated me. The combat of the game was speaking to me and I wasn’t fully listening. The whispers were there though and they’d only get louder over time.
The topic of challenging video games is a long-running one. From Dark Souls emerged a new genre called “Soulslike” which outlined certain gameplay aspects. These usually included:
- Enemies must present tough challenges but with attack patterns that can be learnt. These attacks mustn’t arrive in predictable fashion but see mix-ups whenever possible. Smaller enemies can pose a threat but their overall limited move sets – and how predictable they could be – were at odd with larger enemies that dealt more damage but had deeper move sets. Then you had boss encounters.
- Boss battles were tough fights with numerous moves across two to three “phases” with escalating difficulty. This could be in the form of more damage, an unblockable “killing blow”-style move or something truly unexpected (Lothric in Dark Souls 3, Ludwig the Accursed becoming Ludwig the Holy Blade in Bloodborne: The Old Hunters, and so on).
- Combat wasn’t about mindless button mashing but stamina management, knowing the right time to strike and properly understanding the weapon being wielded. Dodging, blocking and parrying were as important as hacking and slashing – attacking an enemy with reckless abandon usually meant a quick death.
In this fashion, we saw several games like Lords of the Fallen, The Surge, Nioh, From Software’s own Bloodborne and more take centre stage. However, if you think about it, several of the above concepts weren’t exclusive to Dark Souls. Mega Man Zero has been about properly memorizing boss patterns and understanding where to move and when during battles for years. Its platforming aspects further diversified its challenge level, pushing players to be great at more than just combat. Cuphead, for all the comparisons it’s had to Dark Souls, embodies that same run-and-gun philosophy but with more bosses. Understanding boss patterns and avoiding damage was key but so was knowing how to properly move your character. Ninja Gaiden embodied many of these concepts but didn’t have stamina management or a huge interconnected world.
"These games engage the player, presenting unique challenges within the confines of their framework, and provide a stimulus that keeps one coming back. Therein lies the core concept of fun in mastery and why many of us seek tough games."
Looking back on games in general, the moniker “the Dark Souls of video games” has been applied to a number of different titles simply based on the prospect of difficulty and learning curve. Monster Hunter World is “Dark Souls meets Jurassic Park” (because dinosaurs and tough bosses, or something). LawBreakers was hyped up to be the “Dark Souls of Competitive First Person Shooters”. Cuphead is apparently a Dark Souls title and not the Dark Souls of anything (except perhaps the “Dark Souls of Fleischer-style run-and-gun platformers”). Heck, even Thumper was called the “Dark Souls of Rhythm Music Games”.
However, there is something deeper to these kinds of games other than their difficulty. Though I never really went back to Dark Souls 2, I absolutely fell for games like Nioh and Monster Hunter World. Even Bloodborne was incredibly fun while titles like Celeste and Dead Cells scratched two different itches – an emotional story with stellar presentation and addictive, rogue-like gameplay with loot elements, respectively – in compelling ways. I wouldn’t call any of these games distinctly “Dark Souls” despite their challenge. Rather, these games engage the player, presenting unique challenges within the confines of their framework, and provide a stimulus that keeps one coming back. Therein lies the core concept of fun in mastery and why many of us seek tough games.
Raph Koster in 2005 wrote a book called a “A Theory of Fun for Game Design”. In this, he stated that, “Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun. In other words, with games, learning is the drug.”
In a game like Celeste, this is blatantly obvious. It starts out relatively simple, introducing concepts like wall-climbing, wall-jumping, dashing and so on. The basic idea is that only one dash is viable in mid-air and it goes on cooldown when you land. From there, the game introduces dash orbs allowing for dash recharges without touching the ground, momentum-carrying platforms that propel the player forward when jumped off at the right moment, and player redirection (either via dashing into specific slabs, collecting feathers, etc.). Overtime, these various aspects are intermingled and exchanged – the real test is in solving a particular stage based on the obstacles presented. The B-Side and C-Side challenges properly encapsulate this. Platforming skill is required but knowing the right time to execute moves and which moves to go with is ultimately what will carry you through.
"When you’ve finished the game and learned or experienced everything it has taught you, what then? How does a game like Monster Hunter World or Diablo 3 or Path of Exile keep players coming back?"
Let’s take look at Monster Hunter World as a different example. In Monster Hunter World, you start off as a Low Rank Hunter, working your way through various monsters and taking upgrades whenever possible. The game presents monsters with easy enough tells and reinforces core mechanics like weapon sharpening, eating meals, slingers, learning and taking advantage of the environment, and dodging. In many ways, you’re forced into those mechanics because (a) the present equipment doesn’t allow for tons of damage and (b) your chances of survival dramatically increase. Choosing your weapon type is important, sure, but the steady curve of difficulty eases you into many core aspects at once (despite how overwhelming it can all seem at first).
Once you hit High Rank, grinding for gear sets, prioritizing certain weapons, learning how to tackle more powerful monsters (which honestly begins in Low Rank with Diablos and Rathalos), making proper use of the Palico, growing items like Honey and Flashbugs, equipping and upgrading Charms, using different Mantles, etc. becomes important. However, many of the fundamentals from Low Rank still carry over, which is evident in the same monsters that must also be fought in High Rank.
You’ve learned their patterns and fashioned gear and weapons to properly fight them in shorter amounts of time (or with multiple monsters gathered). The challenges will keep coming thanks to Tempered Monsters and Tempered Elder Dragons. But Monster Hunter World still allows for greater power gains thanks to certain pieces and skills hidden behind harder-to-grind pieces, some requiring specific monster gems; augmentation which removes the upgrade cap on gear and allows for further powering up weapons; and stronger decorations that are best farmed through Tempered Investigations.
Pursuing this challenge and experimenting with different weapon types and builds in the process is part of the fun for players. Figuring out how to make a Charge Blade-focused build work can feel rewarding because even its complexities pale in comparison to the Bow, the benefits garnered are exceptional. Don’t get me wrong – each weapon has its share of nuances that can be built on and make players that much more powerful. It’s more a question of play-style than anything else. Still, when you’ve finished the game and learned or experienced everything it has taught you, what then? How does a game like Monster Hunter World or Diablo 3 or Path of Exile keep players coming back? There is a grind involved but even if a player isn’t totally overpowered, will they really be motivated to learn more when the challenges have been overcome? If you know one solution, does it really matter if there are others when the puzzle has been solved?
"Sebastian Deterding, a user experience designer and researcher for gameful design, believes too much feedback without enough challenge can make things dull overtime."
That’s when I stumbled across an article by Dr. Zac Fitz-Walter, who does articles and keynote speeches discussing game design. Titled “Fun and Games”, Fitz-Walter says that Interesting Challenges – presented for the player to overcome by knowing the goals, learning the rules and then acting on that knowledge to succeed – should be present alongside Clear Feedback. Clear Feedback in this case is the gameplay itself and how the game responds in turn. This in turn leads to Meaningful Experiences.
When I fought Kulu-Ya-Ku at High Rank in Wildspire Waste, I wasn’t just beating down a bird raptor creature with higher damage in a new environment. Instead, it quickly turned into a comedic chase as every monster in the habitat picked a fight with it. Rathian descended on him with fire and poison; Bazelgeuse bombed the ever-loving soul out of him; and even Barroth exchanged a few funny looks before ramming him into next week. In the midst of all this was me, running around and trying to survive, attempting to battle Kulu-Ya-Ku and watching him take blow after blow before finally slaying him.
In the same way, fighting a Pink Rathian for the first time and dealing with her fire and poison was significantly different from a Tempered Rathian Investigation that had to be finished in 15 minutes. The latter involved carting once before a clutch dam destruction took her down. I may not have the experience of grinding out High Rank Odogaron for the right gear, melding Mega Armorskin and Mega Demondrug and using Thunder dual blades to beat Nergigante for the first time but there are numerous other meaningful experiences waiting.
Balancing interesting challenges with clear feedback is tough. Fitz-Walter cites Sebastian Deterding, a user experience designer and researcher for gameful design, who believes too much feedback without enough challenge can make things dull overtime. It’s one thing to argue this for long-term games that seek to keep players on their toes. However, this can also lead to a sub-par experience for those seeking a fun single-player story as well. Look at Destiny 2’s story missions – the satisfaction of popping heads and destroying mobs with Supers is offset by how thoroughly unchallenging it all is. To that end, many of Destiny 1’s truly meaningful experiences come from tougher missions like Nightfalls and Raids, though the challenge in those would often be surviving when teammates are down or compensating for their shortcomings.
"Presenting interesting challenges for players with good aim while also ensuring that those who don’t want to die in a few seconds or just want to heal their team without feeling overwhelmed have fun is incredibly difficult…"
A game like Overwatch is a rather unique example in this regard. As a competitive multiplayer experience that’s focused on teamwork, it offers interesting challenges in nearly every match. How do you counter the enemy team’s composition? What composition do you run on a certain map? Which role do you take to properly compensate for your team’s weaknesses while playing to their strengths? When is the right time to use an Ultimate and how do you properly coordinate Ultimates with your team? The resulting feedback is wonderful – no matter how many times that triple kill is nailed with a Dragonblade or successful Pulse Bomb sticks are made, they always feel great. There’s always that meaningful experience that comes from overcoming challenges.
Of course, Overwatch doesn’t consistently provide interesting challenges. That is to say that one’s definition of an “interesting” challenge can vary. How do you carry a Symmetra one-trick who insists on playing the hero through the attack phase? How do you deal with having multiple Support mains and no DPS-focused players due to the nature of Competitive matchmaking? Toxicity, shoddy comms, less than perfect teamwork and coordination, smurfing, unbalanced matchmaking and so on can muck up the goals and rules that define interesting challenges. When the goalposts are always shifting, frustration can build among players. How “clear” is the feedback from pelting enemies with rockets from afar when they never die because of the triple Support meta? How meaningful is an experience when you’ve been stomped by the opposing team simply because of one or many of the above grievances, especially if they’re completely out of your control?
Unfortunately, it’s not something as simple as “Don’t be salty” or “Git gud”. Many of these people will simply play something else that rewards their ingenuity, time and effort. Those that stay can become jaded, and often reminisce about the good old days. Of course, Overwatch also suffers from trying to be too many things for too many players. It’s not like Titanfall 2 where mastering wall-running, mid-air shooting and Titan handling will improve your experience. Presenting interesting challenges for players with good aim while also ensuring that those who don’t want to die in a few seconds or just want to heal their team without feeling overwhelmed have fun is incredibly difficult, especially when taking different skill tiers into account.
"With Monster Hunter World becoming the fastest selling title in Capcom history, there’s clearly a market for players seeking meaningful experiences that arise from interesting challenges and clear feedback."
At the end of the day, the popularity of tough games could be a by-product of the modern gaming industry. In lieu of games that spoon feed information and rewards to players, many tend to go further, looking for tougher challenges outside of their comfort zone. This can lead to players trying games like Bloodborne, Nioh and Dark Souls, only to be sworn off forever. Alternatively, it could lead to games like Celeste, Dead Cells or Monster Hunter World being acclaimed and highly recommended.
With Monster Hunter World becoming the fastest selling title in Capcom history, there’s clearly a market for players seeking meaningful experiences that arise from interesting challenges and clear feedback. The toughest games don’t have to be a benchmark for the industry to follow. I don’t need Life is Strange 2 to suddenly throw me into a battle with the Pursuer with only the memory of Chloe’s biting wit to help me. However, there is something to be said about challenging players and having the appropriate feedback in place to reward them, like with BattleTech and Frostpunk. How to keep players coming back, whether it’s with alternative choices, New Game Plus options, an end-game grind, more desirable loot, constant updates or seasonal events is purely up to the developer. Hopefully more studios, especially at a triple-A level, take note of this in the future.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to GamingBolt as an organization.