Two weeks ago, From Software released Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the latest entry in the awkwardly named Soulsborne genre that includes Demon’s Souls, all three Dark Souls games, Bloodborne, and now Sekiro. The games are all about exploring a bleak world and engaging in brutally unforgiving combat that tests the player’s timing, pattern recognition, and, most of all, patience.

Every time a new Soulsborne game is released, it reignites the protracted debate over difficulty level and “intended experience.” If you read a comment thread about the game, you’ll see the same arguments again and again. Some people advocate for an easy mode, more generous checkpoints, an option to save anywhere, or some other mechanism to make it easier to reach the end of the game. Other people argue that any of these changes would ruin the experience. Some people claim the game is too hard, as evidenced by all the salty posts from frustrated players. Others claim it isn’t that hard at all because you can beat it with a dance pad or even with your eyes closed.

A major problem with the argument is that people can mean lots of different things when they say “difficulty.” Games usually present difficulty on a linear scale that runs from Easy to Hard, but in practice it’s not nearly so straightforward.

To keep my argument from getting too complex, I’m going to limit this discussion to games focused on challenging the player’s aim, pattern recognition, muscle memory, and other reflex-oriented tasks. I’m not going to analyze games that involve solving puzzles, designing sprawling logistical complexes, or participating in complex social and financial systems. For now, we’re just talking about action games.

You can define difficulty in a lot of different ways, but there are four main aspects of difficulty that I want to talk about right now:

1. Skill Ceiling

This is the most obvious aspect of difficulty, and it’s usually the first thing everyone thinks of. A skill ceiling is a measure of how much depth there is in the mechanics of the game. You can think of this as the skill gap between a new player and a veteran one.

In Insomniac Games’ recent Spider-Man game, there’s a sequence where Spider-Man has to chase down a helicopter and stop it from damaging the city. The entire chase is heavy on cutscenes and quicktime events, and for the most part the player just needs to keep moving forward and hit the buttons when prompted. You could watch footage of someone playing through this scene and you’d have no way to tell if they were a first time player or a professional speedrunner because there’s no room for player expression or mastery. The skill ceiling is incredibly low.

At the other extreme is something like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2x, where you can instantly tell that a master is playing. The player can perform very poorly or very stylishly, and the game recognizes the difference. In this case, skill is recognized by how quickly the player clears objectives and how many points they score in the process. This is a game with a high skill ceiling.

2. Strictness

Players will inevitably make mistakes as they attempt to master a game’s systems. The strictness of a game is a measure of how many mistakes the player is allowed to make before the game punishes them.

Games like Hotline Miami and Super Meat Boy allow zero mistakes. The protagonist dies in a single hit, so the player must overcome a level flawlessly in order to proceed. In a cover shooter with regenerating health you can take several hits before your character dies and crouching behind cover will wipe away your mistakes.

Batman: Arkham City is a great illustration of the difference between a skill ceiling and strictness. A skilled player will get through a fight gracefully in a single unbroken combo without ever taking damage. A newbie will probably fight like an oaf and take a lot of punches to their Bat-face, but will survive the encounter anyway because Batman is so durable. The high skill ceiling means one player performs vastly better than the other, but the lack of strictness means both of them will survive.

3. Punishment

This is a measure of the severity of the setback the player is subjected to when they accumulate enough mistakes to fail. The worst case scenario is a roguelike game where death erases all progress and forces the player to start over at the beginning of the game. At the other extreme is Hotline Miami, where you never lose more than a few seconds of progress. There’s no lingering death screen, no load screen, and no cutscene to rewatch. The player just pushes a button and they’re instantly reset to the start of the challenge.

Punishment can be a bit subjective and difficult to measure. If there’s a loading screen, is that an intentional part of the punishment for death or just an unavoidable technological limitation? In Too Human, the developer punishes failure with an unskippable 20 second cutscene before you’re allowed to resume playing. 20 seconds isn’t that long, but during this interval you have no input and you’re watching a cutscene you’ve seen dozens of times. This means the punishment might feel much more severe than a game where you lose a couple of minutes of progress but you’re allowed to resume playing right away. Borderlands doesn’t punish you at all except to take away a little bit of your useless cash.

Some games deliberately set you back at a distance or place save points far apart to make death more punishing. Other games offer generous checkpoint saves. Some games take away experience points or money to make death more punishing.

4. Teaching Style

This has an immense impact on perceived difficulty for new players. Does the game prepare you so that you can reasonably be expected to overcome a challenge on the first try, or does it throw you into a new problem and let you drown until you learn to swim?

If you look at the design of Half-Life 2, you’ll see the game follows a very deliberate rhythm where the designer introduces a new gameplay concept in a safe environment. A little later, the player has to do the same thing again, except now there’s danger. The idea is then mixed with other gameplay concepts, and the player is finally presented with some sort of set piece battle or boss to test their mastery. The same design philosophy is used by Koichi Hayashida in Super Mario 3D World. A boss fight or other major challenge is intended to act as a final exam covering the concepts the game has been teaching.

Contrast this with Dark Souls, where the game doesn’t provide a safety net or gentle ramp to carry you up the rising challenge level. The first time the player encounters Dancer of the Boreal Valley in Dark Souls 3, they have no way to know how to beat her aside from “Try to hit her without getting hit.” They’ve never faced anything that could teach them to recognize her various attack patterns. They have no way to intuit her reach based on past experience. They’ve never encountered a foe that uses something like her devastating grab attack. This boss encounter isn’t testing something the player has already learned; it’s a new challenge for them to overcome. They’ll have to master the Dancer by dying to her repeatedly until they’ve learned her various patterns, rhythms, and tells.

The Argument

I’ve outlined four different types of difficulty, and Soulsborne games feature all of them in spades. It’s an incredibly strict genre with a high skill ceiling where you’re expected to learn through failure and endure punishments that are fairly severe by AAA gaming standards.

All of this makes it very difficult to have a rational discussion about the Soulsborne series. One person claims that the game is too punishing, and another one claims that the high skill ceiling is important to the design. They can’t understand each other because they’re both using the word “difficult” to describe different concepts.

Regardless of which aspect of difficulty we’re talking about, it’s obviously a double-edged sword for developers. A game that doesn’t ask the player to do anything particularly challenging can still offer cheap gratification. If the gameplay is empowering, the scenery is interesting, and the cutscenes are fun, then the player might stroll through the content for the low-effort sensory stimulation. The game will be a bit disposable and won’t have a lot of replay value, but that’s fine. Sometimes after a hard day in the real world, you just want a game that will lay down and let you enjoy a little power fantasy.

On the other hand, a game that demands more of the player can be more rewarding in the long term. It will take the player longer to master the game’s systems, but that mastery offers a sense of satisfaction that a shallow game can’t give you.

I wouldn’t want to see Soulsborne games changed, but this is not my favorite genre and I don’t really have a horse in this race. I don’t care if you want the game to be easier, harder, or stay the same forever. But I know that we’re going to have this argument anway, and I’d really appreciate it if we could be more clear in our discussion so we don’t end up talking in circles forever.

If it’s anything like Dark Souls, then Sekiro is bound to be pretty frustrating at times. But it’s probably not as frustrating as reading the same community-wide debate for the hundredth time.

Shamus Young
Shamus Young is a game developer, critic, and novelist. He's just published a new cyberpunk novel. Check it out!

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13 Comments

  1. Very useful analysis. I have only some small qualms about the “teaching style”. Some games have this “gentle ramp”, soulsborne has a quite steep ramp, but it is a ramp nonetheless; also in those games there is, on purpose, not that much to learn. You have 2 types of attack (the stronger one is purely optional, so is magic and archery), block and dodge, the games require mastery of only those. The rest is environment, which is very diverse for sure, but the simple list of responses makes learning simpler. It is curious that Shamus as an example chose Dancer of the Boreal Valley boss, because I beat her on the first try precisely because her attack patterns were sufficiently slow and familiar to me, and it’s not that I am overall a very skilled player. It probably shows that those things are quite subjective and it’s hard to provide any clear-cut example.

    It is also interesting how Sekiro differs from previous soulsborne in these aspects. The skill ceiling is even higher, if you have perfect responses you can end most boss fights under a minute. The strictness more severe, the player characters is now a glass cannon even compared to previous games. The resurrection mechanics does not change it much, but makes unlucky coincidences and experimenting less of a pain. For the same reason the punishment is lesser. When you get murdered by mobs you have chance to back off and regroup. For bosses there is mostly a plot-based punishment. You know when you meet them so you can bank exp and money before; the long distances between save points and bosses are gone, you can return to the fights very quickly. There is also a lot more of teaching tools. For example the immortal guy you can duel is crucial. Stealth option help learning too, you can start the game using primarily stealth, fight in situations when it feels safe and become more aggressive when your skills increase.

  2. Was Dark Souls III a basic retooling of Dark Souls? I can’t place it in my memory. I remember a DS game that was like Dark Souls HD? Or is that something else?

    I think how I personally feel about the Dark Souls series is, if this is the best video game series your generation has, then your generation has gotten a really raw deal, because it’s really not so great as video games go. (I’ve largely checked out of video games for at least 10yrs, so I wouldn’t actually know what the landscape is like in terms of quality. My overriding impression is their quality is very lackluster; as a general rule.)

    1. You think Dark Souls is somehow worse than the games that came in prior decades? How so? Deep lore, challenging gameplay, great art direction. What’s the problem? I’ve been playing games since the 80s and I don’t understand how you can think that Dark Souls being considered a high quality game is a raw deal. By what metric did you come to this decision?

  3. The thing about punishment is that it changes how you play when you’re seriously afraid of failure. You play more cautiously, take fewer chances, and learn that sometimes you need to cut your losses instead of charging ahead on your last hit point. I vividly remember creeping through New Londo Ruins, carefully checking each corner for ambushing ghosts, and it definitely would have been a different experience if I was able to charge into a room, get killed by an ambush, and then respawn outside that room and charge back in.

    I’m not really sure how to maintain this experience while making failure less punishing, because the reason I played so carefully was because I was afraid of getting punished.

  4. The “problem” is that this discussion only gets this kind of publicity when a popular company like From releases a game. No one complains that roguelikes are too hard, or that platform/bullet-hell games are too hard. Literally the only reason this “issue” is an issue at all is because its popular. So the real problem is that bullshit game journos need clickbait titles and decide target the new-hotness that is a memetically difficult FromSoft game.

    1. Firstly, even bullet hell games often have difficulty selection. Touhou has an easy modo.

      Secondly, the level progression in these games, if well designed, do teach you the mechanics. Typically they have good teaching styles.

      Thirdly, while they can be just as strict and punishing (restart from the start of the game), they often have an escape hatch in the form of being able to quickly restart from the start of the level, and each level plays fast enough that it isn’t really that punishing. Often there are boss rush / boss fight selections that make practicing against a specific boss easier as well.

  5. I’m partly disabled, but I still like to play games. I find that reviewers and commentators usually don’t include anything that will help me figure out whether a game is playable with my particular limitations. I’d love to see Shamus Young’s definitions of different kinds of difficulty used in the gaming press; I’d also like to see some discussion of how able a player needs to be, in terms of vision, reflexes, hearing, and so on. This doesn’t have to take up a lot of room in a game review, but something like

    Vision: The font is 10-pt type by default but is changeable to 12-pt or 14-pt.
    Hearing: Important information is given in dialogue, but optional subtitles allow players to read this.
    Reflexes: Excellent reflexes are needed for hard mode, but my father has serious arthritis in his hands, and he could play easy mode with no trouble.

    Thanks, Shamus, for the clarity that you continue to add to the gaming world!

  6. I’m not sure Dancer of the Boreal Valley works very well for your example. Yes, she’s one of the hardest bosses in Dark Souls 3, but unless you’re the kind of person who whacks unarmed old ladies you won’t face the Dancer until after you take down your third Lord of Cinder and you should know most of the game’s mechanics by then.

    I feel like a lot of the issues around the difficulty of Souls games could be dealt with if so much of the hype around it wasn’t focused on the “Git Gud or die” messaging. There are lots of mechanics to make these games easier, like specific items, character builds and, of course, jolly co-operation, but From Software never focuses on or explains them to newcomers.

    1. This. Before the Dancer, there were people with grabs, several in fact. And other bosses had second phases. In fact, the Dancer can be efficiently cheesed if you abuse the geometry of the arena.

  7. FYI – typo:

    “But I know that we’re going to have this argument anway…”

    (should be “anyway”)

  8. Punishment is one of the biggest determinants of whether I’ll stick with a game or give up out of frustration. I work full time, go to school part-time, have a family and have hobbies outside gaming. As a result, I want my video game time to have as little downtime as possible. This particularly includes spitefully time-intensive punishments (like Dark Souls and Too Human), but also includes egregiously long load times or even save points that are too far between.

  9. Souls games are not hard. They just make it annoying to learn the easy patterns with big windups that you do have to see to know what to do. These games go out of their way to make themself hard to learn, they are at the core an annoyance and sell that as difficulty. Modes with lower damage and higher player health numbers would expose the underlying gamedesign and show people that these games are not made to be hard on actual execution skills but just made to be annoying to learn by wasting time that is spend to get to the battle again.
    The annoyance is seeping throughout the worst of the fanbase and they long became the personificated annoyances themself.

    1. Making the numbers more favorable would mean that you need less execution skill, because it gives you more chances to screw up. Every Dark Souls boss fight is essentially asking “Can you do enough damage to the boss before you inevitably miss a step, take one hit too many, and die?”

      If I wanted to make bosses beatable in fewer deaths, while keeping the play experience as similar as possible, I’d change one thing – give more Estus flasks. That way, you can recover from your mistakes, but you have to back off each time. It doesn’t change the number of *consecutive* hits you can take or the amount of hits you need to land, so you still need to approach a boss cautiously and learn their patterns to do sustained damage.

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