The language of difficulty

03 January 2012

Chris Dahlen on Dark Souls and, in particular, how it uses “difficulty” not as “a club the designers bash you with, but the palette with which they paint the experience.“:

In music, film, and literature, difficult works provoke the same kind of response. We talk about them in terms of whether we can deal with them: War and Peace is too long, Ulysses is too opaque, Lars Von Trier’s films are too disturbing. Audiences may balk at a work because it’s unfamiliar, complicated, opaque, taboo, exhausting, unpleasant to the senses, and so on—but in every case, the audience has to think about that barrier and make sure they’re ready to cross it. We wonder, are we the problem? Or is the work failing us? Is it challenging because the challenge is key to the form, the message, and the experience—or is it challenging because the artist is a jerk? If the artist has a message to send us—well, to paraphrase Samuel Goldwyn, why couldn’t they just send us a telegram?

Games shed new light on this old debate, because here, challenge is understood from the get-go as being integral to the experience. All games test their players, and the players accept that they are taking a test and they will be graded. By comparison, if you read a great short story, your failure to respond to it happens in the privacy of your mind.

The primary language of Dark Souls is difficulty. The game paces and varies that difficulty with the same craft that goes into its character builds, sound effects, and environmental design, and with the same purpose: to explore distinct, exquisitely-realized variations on one unified experience. What starts as a dare is revealed to be the reward.

Too long a quote to go into Pinboard, so onto the blog it goes in full. And do read the whole article; it’s thoughtful and as with all Chris’ stuff, well-written.

  • "I only got to hang out with Rachael once: in San Francisco, for a week, during the Game Developers Conference…

    Here’s how we did it: She shared my eyes and ears, and she wrote her impressions through my laptop and my BlackBerry. When we touched down at SFO, she wrote the first tweet, and she eavesdropped on the game designers that I sat with riding into town on the BART. We were working press—except I was the one sweating the deadlines, and looking for good ideas, while she was just loving it…" Chris Dahlen on writing pixelvixen707

  • "But what if you make personalisation easier? Consider a game that brings your real world into your game world, all on its own. It could to grab data from the internet about the real world and the gamers that live in it, and weave it into the game experience, for an effect that is both surprising and personally meaningful. You would see yourself in a game without having to put yourself there. It’s not user-generated content: it’s user-generated, machine-mediated content – UGMMC, or as I like to say it, “Ugh-Meck.”" I am super-happy at how well Chris's writing for Edge Online is turning out.
  • "I've developed a habit of delivering a drum solo at the beginning of every Rock Band track — just a little wailing away while the song cues up. It's a way of making the songs mine. You can't do that in The Beatles. Hit a drum pad before the song starts, and nothing happens, because that sound isn't on the original recording… More important, it's the game's way of making sure that you don't dare mess with perfection! I'm not a huge fan of that attitude. Past — and, technically, current — Rock Band games are about engaging with the music on an equal level. This game, though, is a ball-washing of the highest order. Maybe the Beatles are more deserving of such treatment than any other band, but I don't think any band deserves that treatment. Not now that I've seen the alternatives." Mitch Krpata on his problems with Rock Band: The Beatles.
  • "The Beatles: Rock Band is the total opposite [of Rock Band 2]. The "characters" are untouchable, and the tracks don't even toss you a freestyle section. Your only choices are to get the song right, or not. Sure, it's a cliché that most videogames make you save the world, but at least in those games, you know you're needed. I've never felt less important in a game than this one." Chris Dahlen makes an excellent point in the midst of his excellent (and otherwise uniformly positive) review of The Beatles: Rock Band for Pitchfork.