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.