The Brilliance of the Souls-like (and Other Difficult Games) – Claiming Victory Over Self-Doubt

It’s no secret to my readers that I like challenging games. It seems like every other review I warn people about a game being on the difficult side (Dark Souls, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Elite Dangerous’ learning curve, etc.) There is something so satisfying about beating a challenging game, even more so when the game has notoriety. Of course, some games are too arduous to get proper momentum or want to make fun of the player. Today, I’m talking about the former; games with a specific design philosophy involving its difficulty. The primary examples I’ll be covering today are the From Software Souls-like games and a few others. (For the article, when referring to Souls-like, I’m referring to the Dark Souls series, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.)

Why do people play challenging games?

The reason people play challenging games in the first place differs from person to person. That, in it of itself, is a tricky topic. For myself, beating tough challenges, especially those that are slightly tougher than my comfort zone, gives me a deep sense of satisfaction (especially when people talk about how hard the game is. However, I also feel another layer of triumph when besting an infamously formidable boss.

The learning process.

I’ve seen numerous posts online that claim their poor design is what makes them challenging. There are certain cases where that argument holds water (like a puzzle being too obscure to solve without a guide), but these posts often refer to frustrating foes or even a boss that gives them grief. As someone who’s game time is limited, I understand… to an extent. It takes time to learn all of this stuff, time that some people don’t have to spend learning a particular section or boss. That said, the concept of learning is a life motto of mine. Every failure is an opportunity to learn, and every success is a journey completed. I love learning about the ins and outs of a formidable boss. The most memorable bosses, to me, are those that put up a fight. Bosses that I can best with little effort become as forgettable as regular enemies. The most memorable bosses are those that acted like a significant roadblock, which I like to refer to as a “wall.”

The “wall.”

A “wall” in this context, is a point in a game where the player cannot progress because a formidable foe or an obstacle prevents them from doing so. One example I remember of a wall is Lady Butterfly from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. She shoots glowing butterflies that chase the player around, has a phase where she summons illusions that hurt the player if they reach them, and was hard to read overall. I heard of Lady Butterfly when Sekiro first came out as an infamously difficult boss in forums and on social media. They weren’t kidding. After a week of failing to beat Lady Butterfly, something clicked. I ran past her shadows, kept the pressure on, and suddenly, she went down. That was the moment that made me understand why the Souls series, Bloodborne, and Sekiro were as revered as they were. The triumph over a “wall” is a unique feeling. It not only provides that sweet sense of satisfaction, but it also invokes confidence. It’s like being able to break through a brick wall. Suddenly, that vinyl wall isn’t looking as formidable.

The moment clarity was achieved.

The brilliance of the Souls-like.

I think it’s about time I talk about why I feel like the Souls-likes are brilliant (hence the name of the article.) The Dark Souls series, Bloodborne, and Sekiro are infamous for their difficulty, and rightfully so. That said, those games aren’t tricky just for the sake of it. Their world-building causes uneasiness to the player to make them feel as if the world itself is out to kill them (and it is.) The fact that regular enemies take a considerable amount of health when they hit the player, even when they are well above the level recommendation of the area, helps build the feeling that, at any moment, death lurks around the corner. Their bosses stand as the ultimate test of a player’s determination. Defeating the boss acts as a symbol of their triumph over a world that wants them dead. Victory over these hostile, fictional worlds can even give the player the sense that they can triumph over the real world’s hostilities.

I used to be upset at losing my souls. Now it seems so insignificant.

The parallel of games and real life.

This might sound crazy, but when I beat Sekiro, I acquired a newfound sense of confidence in not only games similar to it (referring to Souls-likes) but also with dealing with real-life challenges. Tasks, events, and consequences became less intimidating as a whole. That’s not to say that I go into a dangerous situation with a complete disregard for safety. I just felt more confident performing tasks, and the threat of failure felt less oppressive. It feels weird to credit a video game for helping me deal with my self-doubt, but that is the power of a brilliantly realized piece of media. 

The subtle message of Souls-likes.

Part of what I find so enthralling with Souls-likes is the subtle way of supporting the player. I’m aware that I described the worlds of Souls-likes as hostile earlier on, but I can explain. The challenges these games indeed throw at the player seem insurmountable at first, but if they were truly impossible, why would these be in the game? Sure, the Orwellian horror that is that one boss might kill the player repeatedly, but when that happens, the game doesn’t mock, patronize, or undermine the player in any way. The game tells the player “You Died,” and takes the player’s souls (or game equivalent.) The boss will still be waiting, the player’s souls will be there too (provided they don’t die on their way there) and, provided the player doesn’t give up, will accept their challenge until they are bested. If I could personify the Souls-likes, I would describe them as a seemingly harsh teacher. They put up challenging scenarios, not because they want to be mean, but because they know the student is capable of overcoming said challenges. I feel like the Souls-like does the same in its way. They are difficult games because they want to respect the player’s abilities, maybe even make them realize that the biggest obstacle is their self-doubt.

Stern, unyielding, yet impressed by how far you’ve come.

Celeste: the on-the-nose example of a challenging game wanting the player to succeed.

A more obvious example of my previous point is Celeste, a game I reviewed recently. In my review, I praised it for its gentle approach to its difficulty. The game is about climbing a mountain, a typically arduous task. At the beginning of the game, the game tells the player: “You can do this.” It might not seem like much, but that short message goes a long way to support the player in climbing the mountain. No matter how many times the player dies in Celeste, it will not give them extra power-ups, or do it for them, despite how difficult the challenge may be. The player comes back at the start of the section so that they can try again right away. Even the self-doubt metaphor is more evident in Celeste than the Souls-likes but carries the same amount of symbolic weight.

*This next paragraph contains spoilers for Celeste. To avoid being spoilers, please skip this section.* What makes the self-doubt metaphor more evident in Celeste is the inclusion of the dark reflection. The first thing the reflection says to the main character is, “Let’s give up. This is too hard.” It then proceeds to follow the player until the level ends. Persevering over the dark reflection will allow the player to continue their trek up the mountain. *End of spoiler section*

Who knew four words could be so powerful?

Journey’s end.

There is a lot to appreciate in a video game. It’s the culmination of visuals, programming, music, and design all rolled into one. The level of challenge of a video game is tricky to get right, as I feel it’s impossible to please everyone in this regard. When games get this right, it can offer an experience like no other. That is why I felt the need to give the Souls-like games (and Celeste) the much-needed credit it deserves for integrating its very challenge into its world-building.    

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