The Joy of Suffering

It’s the time of year when the conversation turns to annual Best Of tallies. I put my hashmarks into Unwinnable’s roundup. Technically, my favorite game of 2012 didn’t even come out in 2012, but my admiration for it spans such Gregorian constraints. I loved this game more than any other, because of its unrelenting instruction in the virtues of patience, humility and grit and most importantly, the joy to be found in suffering. My game of the year for 2012 was Dark Souls.

If the game had your life snuffed out instantly, it would leave no room for agony, no space to limp forward feebly, no chance to wonder if your friends will throw you under the bus as soon as they get the chance.

My feelings about Dark Souls, and the things it encourages me to consider, surpass mere game of the year conversation, though. I haven’t connected with a game the way I did with Dark Souls in a very long time. It taught me so much about design, having faith in the audience and why I enjoy the things I do. Specifically, it made me realize that I love games that provide profoundly negative experiences.

The suffering is really what’s essential here. Dark Souls’ difficulty is legendary and wholly embraced by its developer From Software, which gave it the promotional tagline “Prepare to die.” But the truth is, the rumors of your death may be greatly exaggerated. Do not mistake me – you will die. The thing is, every time you do, you will know why and you will learn something. Above all else, Dark Souls is a game about the folly of hubris. Your recklessness and vanity is your undoing. You suffer, but in suffering, you grow. Or at the very least, you survive.

I’ve come to realize over the last few years that I love these kinds of games. I crave suffering. It’s not the only thing I enjoy – I get plenty of satisfaction trading wheat for copper in Anno 2070 or wandering to a fjord in Skyrim – but the games that are closest to my ragged, battered heart are the ones that you’d find at a fight club in a filthy underground parking garage. Or maybe in a corporate boardroom, or the halls of Parliament, giving you a Cheshire grin while sharpening the dagger bound for your back.

There’s a vital component to these experiences, though: they must be fair. I will have no truck with bullshit. Holding the player’s progress hostage in the name of difficulty feels hollow. For example, say there is a sequence of challenges and you keep failing on the third. For some reason, the game’s designer decides you need to repeat the first and second challenges in order to be able to attempt the third again, despite the fact that you have already demonstrated your competency with the first two. It’s pretty easy to see that as arbitrary at best and, more aptly, just wasting the player’s time. Upon successfully completing some challenge, I guarantee that 99+% of players utilize the exact same approach if forced to repeat it. And therein lies the path to rote repetition and boredom.

Super Meat BoyNotoriously difficult games like Super Meat Boy work because even though perfect execution is demanded, it’s execution of a very small, specific challenge. Edmund McMillen, designer of SMB, went into great detail about his thinking in this regard. And on Mark of the Ninja, I tried to ensure the same. The game’s checkpoints are generally at the scope of one “encounter” and once the player has completed it, they’re never forced to repeat it should they fail on some future encounter.

Dark Souls is interesting because it avoids this problem in a different way – by always ensuring you’re learning something. Because Dark Souls is so precise and fair, even if there are some enemies between, say, a boss and your last checkpoint, I promise you’ll always be learning something as you make your way through them, even if all you’re learning is how to get past them without engaging them. And in Dark Souls, that’s no minor feat.

Now, having unpredictable elements is fine. You never know when your malaria might flare up in Far Cry 2, but you know that you’ll have a clear, fair means to react. Jim Rossignol over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun made this observation earlier in the year, saying Games are Best When Things Go Wrong. And what he identifies is that critical characteristic: that when things go wrong, the game asks, “What do you do now?” If the game had your life snuffed out instantly, it would leave no room for agony, no space to limp forward feebly, no chance to wonder if your friends are actually lying to you and will throw you under the bus as soon as they get the chance.

This extends past digital games as well. I play a lot of board and tabletop games and my favorites are all about feeling really, really terrible. The Battlestar Galactica board game overwhelms its players with paranoia, suspicion and mistrust. BSG has several important roles held by a single player that will sometimes involving making a critical decision. But the game asks, “Are you sure the Admiral isn’t a Cylon? Are you really sure?” The Game of Thrones board game is built so you can’t win without forming alliances with other players, but as only one can sit on the Iron Throne, it’s not a question of if you’ll be betrayed, but when.

Going even further, there is a tabletop horror RPG called Dread that uses a Jenga tower as a core mechanic to create ever-ratcheting tension, and damned if it doesn’t work. In brief, to accomplish anything meaningful in the game, the players must pull from the Jenga tower. They can stop at any time, but whatever they were attempting will not succeed. However, their character will be harmed, and always lethally, if the tower topples. As with Dark Souls, it’s always in the player’s hands.

ThroneIs the appeal of these games that I can suffer safely? It could be. I can feel these profoundly negative emotions without having to actually suffer the consequences of being deceived, betrayed, battered, etc. While calling these emotions fun seems inaccurate (I’m not going to open the whole “Games must be fun” can of worms now, but suffice it to say, that notion is totally bunk), they’re certainly … exciting? Engaging? Interesting? Whatever they are, they’re goddamned awesome in the right context.

There’s a notion of the “magic circle” that games exist within that makes them a special microreality that has its own rules. The notion was coined by Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga and it explains why we call two people battering each other into unconsciousness in a special area boxing rather than felony assault. So too might these negative emotions be experienced without serious consequence.

Does that trivialize real deception, suffering and betrayal? I have no idea. Maybe it’s good to allow your inner sociopath to run free for a bit.

I was playing another game recently, which I shan’t name but will say it may have featured George Washington and a guy in a sweet white hoodie. While there were a few things I enjoyed about the game, my most common feeling upon completing mission or task was, “Thank God I never have to do that again.” It was never a feeling of elation or accomplishment. It’s more the feeling one receives when successfully filling out some great ream of government paperwork – relief that it’s done. The game is bereft of challenge or consequence, beyond wasting your time. It’s awash in arbitrariness that doesn’t encourage players to adapt their approach or learn; they’re just straitjacketed into a diminished possibility space.

There’s this notion, especially in smaller games, that games must be accessible and inoffensive. That nothing truly bad or negative can ever really happen. The worst they’ll do is engineer frustration and annoyance and then hideously ask you to pay for the privilege to have said poor design removed. Bullshit, I say. We should be suffering more. Torment, misery, suspicion; these emotions imprint experiences on us. They make our experiences more valuable, more real and more memorable.

Dark Souls is demanding, but you get out tenfold what you pay in.  The catch is you have to pay in blood.

———

Nels Anderson is the lead designer for Mark of the Ninja. Follow him on Twitter @Nelsormensch.

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  • Rob Haines

    This was one of the best things about FTL; things could go wrong, and you'd still continue. Things could get worse, and worse, and worse, until you were literally hanging on by your fingertips, and as long as you survived it was often still possible to recover. And that gave you even more of a story to tell!

  • Mike Brown

    I've had some intense debates about the brilliance of Dark Souls. To be quite honest I was on the wrong side for a very long time, until I sat down and really dug in over the holidays. I haven't finished the game, but I nearly completed Anor Londo and am currently exploring the innards of a painting, but I do think I finally get it, and I do love this game.

    The risk-reward of the combat generally feels pretty great (though my personal feeling is that parrying is pointless if you have the poise to block hits) I love the tension/relief of finding a bonfire, and the feeling that despite dying your almost always making forward progress in some sense (learning, gaining souls, clearing areas you'll never need to revisit)

    My issues are two-fold, I think the game can be needlessly obtuse sometimes. An example being the weapon upgrade system, and also I do feel the game devolves into "rote repetition" occasionally (The Javelin snipers in Anor Londo being a prime example).

    What I long for in Dark Souls is a small degree of randomness (Hotline Miami does this well), where your best laid plans can go south from time to time. Enemies patrolling as opposed to having static position would help this. (Also I wish pulling and kiting weren't first order optimal strategies)

    • Hank Tian

      Parrying is pointless? Getting a free hit that does double or triple the damage, and knocks an enemy on the ground, giving you a free window of time to chug your Estus flask or cast a long spell, pointless? I'll have to disagree there.

      I do agree that repetition can be pretty apparent in Dark Souls because of the bonfire design, but what makes this repetition interesting (or incredibly frustrating) is that even the simplest of enemies can destroy you if you are not being careful – the dangers of hubris, as noted in the article, which is a little different from the repetition lamented about in the article.

      I try to play in human form whenever possible in my current runs of Dark Souls, for that degree of randomness you ask for. Getting invaded, summoning, all add that element of randomness and encounters with invading phantoms while you are already in a precarious situation can end up being quite dynamic and interesting. Combined with the risks of dying and/or losing your bloodstain, this can lead to some heart-pounding moments.

      I do agree that aggroing enemies and pulling them away is a little cheap, and that perhaps some patrols or otherwise changing enemy behavior might spice up the games a little.

      • http://twitter.com/mikegbrown @mikegbrown

        I really like the idea of playing in human form to induce the randomness. The only issue with that is burning resources, but I might give that a try.

        My point about the parrying was specifically when you have the poise to deflect an attack the risk-reward isn't quite worth it. I love the idea, and for certain character builds it might be necessary. But part of curbing your hubris is learning to not take unnecessary risks. When I can 100% block an attack and know for certain that this will create an opportunity for attack it's FAR safer. There are no time pressures, so slow and steady wins the race. Perhaps I should just take more risks because I'll simultaneously generate more opportunities for emergent moments, and break the repetition.

        Again, all of this should be taken with the fact that I am only 3/4 of the way through the game and I play a melee focused character.

        (Side note: I wish that after a successful parry (that kills) you could use the kick to knock them over. Parrying is one of the few moments in the game that you feel powerful and using that kick would be a wonderful bit of punctuation to that moment.)

  • http://twitter.com/johnpetergrant @johnpetergrant

    Well put, Nels. The one thing I keyed in on here was your point about learning. That goes back to Raph Koster's Theory of Fun, right? Especially in difficult games, learning from your mistakes can be one of the most rewarding aspects of play.

    That's why ensuring that the player has ample opportunity and means to learn is crucial. I enjoyed my time with Dark Souls, but ultimately gave up on it because 1) I was too busy with other assignments, but mostly 2) because I sensed that in order to adequately learn from my mistakes and feel rewarded for progression, I would have to invest more energy than I had at the time into understanding the game's often opaque systems. Dark Souls never felt unfair to me, just demanding. The feedback loop is there, but I'd argue that sussing out its full scope requires more effort on the player's behalf than most other games. That can be rewarding in and of itself, and I appreciate that about Dark Souls. I think I just didn't have enough room in my head for it when I played it.

    The thing I like best about Mark of the Ninja is the way you guys implemented feedback systems that are incredibly clear, but not prescriptive. In other words, you manage to give the player really solid information about the consequences of his actions without making him feel like his hand is being held. That focuses his attention back on overcoming the challenges of the game and not on sussing out how the mechanics work, or worse, on gaming them with easily repeatable tactics.

  • http://exhaustport.wordpress.com Jason Rice

    My wife used to always question why I kept playing games like Super Meat Boy or Dark Souls when all she'd hear from my direction is outlandish curses.

    I would tell her "Because when I destroy this thing, it will be wonderful."

    A great example of this on a smaller scale is Super Hexagon. Every death, no matter how seemingly arbitrary or rapid, is a potential learning experience, even if all you're learning is how to cope with failure. Achieving victory requires a journey through the development of skills, which is where the value in winning comes from. Beating the Hyper Hexagoner stage was one of my greatest gaming achievements of the year precisely because of the suffering I had experienced on that trek.