Published on March 30th, 2022 | by Jeff Thiessen0
White Flag: A Call for Peacetime (and Eldon Ring)
Jeff’s been playing Elden Ring. We’re a little worried about Jeff. He’s got colourful gaming thoughts as he gets to the end of his journey.
Hey everyone, we have a new From Software game on our hands! And of course with that, always arrives with so much delightful baggage within the gaming community, not to mention systematically decimating the lives of anybody stupid enough to actually subject themselves to this experience. Naturally the game I’m referring to is the month-old Elden Ring. We gamers are knee deep in all that From Software dialogue that perpetually follows one of their releases, as they’re the only developer that actually pushes gamers into authentically stupid circle jerks that elevate a videogame into some nerd version of Ayn Rand’s individualism cowplop. Souls games make people better human beings, or at least attract the strongest from our gene pools.
Many from adherents discuss these games and their trademarked mobius strip of agony as a gaming experience that transcends the limitations of the medium, often explained and employing terminology not dissimilar to how one might describe their experience conquering one of the seven summits. The implication of course being, the traits needed to accomplish these feats; patience, determination, specialized skill, are built upon and utilized so intensely, they become engrained within our very fabric, battle scars that prove our real inner strength or some shit.
But really the important takeaway from all this subtext is, those who defeat Souls games are better for it than those who did not.
I prefer to put it another way. People who hate the games, love themselves. People who love the games, hate themselves.
I should know, as I land squarely in the latter camp. As of this writing, I’m about eighty-five hours into Elden Ring, and while I’m nearing endgame, I am almost certain I still have a good 15-20 hours left. I’m tired. I know, eighty-five hours of a brutally hard game would leave even the most seasoned gamer mentally exhausted at the prospect of logging back on, but truthfully my fatigue is a cumulative effect of hundreds of hours these last few years, hours spent having my dick kicked in with a barrage of merciless games, many of which not actually From Software ones.
The hellish landscape Elden Ring inhabits is actually busting at the seams with other equally menacing games, and the population is growing. Ultimately Elden Ring’s greatest accomplishment may eventually be viewed in hindsight as providing the proper breaking point for gaming difficulty balance issues, dragging a murky problem to the surface, plain as day for all to see and confront. But considering it has already sold a bajillion copies, it won’t act as a catalyst for change anytime soon. The whole always darkest before dawn thing I guess. But to contextualize the darkness, we’ve gotta go back a bit to sunnier times.
In 2017 I bought Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus for PS4. FPS games are definitely not my speciality but I’m fine at them. I sometimes buy them, I play through them, die sometimes, then complete the game. Nothing to brag about, nothing to be ashamed of either. Something felt different with Wolfenstein though. I was dying in the first two hours of the game, like constantly. The enemies were dealing massive damage, and I would be dead before I even knew what the fuck was happening. To be clear, I was playing on default “normal” mode, and no I wasn’t missing some in-game mechanic that would’ve made the combat more manageable. No, it was just very demanding of the player and would kill without mercy. Since shooters are pretty low on my genre preference list, I wasn’t too keen on pushing through this meat grinder, so I dropped it down a difficulty.
More of the same, it went from like a 20 deaths to 1 checkpoint ratio to 15:1 or so.
So now I’m doing something incredibly unprecedented, and dropped down difficulty AGAIN. I’m have selected a mode that doesn’t even try and hide the devs revulsion towards the player for selecting, as the icon accompanying it has the protagonist’s face sucking on a pacifier. No real subext to interpret here. This proved to be the difficulty for me, as I ended up getting through the game on this uber-wimp difficulty setting like the big baby I am, and still found the entire experience fairly demanding. Beating Wolfenstein II felt weird. I’ve never played on a setting less than the default normal, why did I have to drop it down so significantly? Little did I know this was just the first game of many that squarely subscribes to a blame-the-victim toxicity about to pollute nearly every corner of the gaming world.
Chalking up Wolfenstein II as a one-off anomaly, the next major game I sunk my teeth into was 2018’s modern classic God of War. Learning absolutely nothing from my Wolfenstein experience, I amazingly went the other way and jacked up that game to the hard setting. High octane combat games have always been my jam so I got through this one, but it was so brutal I deprived myself of enjoying any part of the game’s brilliant story. So engrossed was I, with gritting my teeth and surviving whatever carnage the game was throwing at Kratos and son, I completely lost interest in the lovingly crafted narrative, in the process not allowing myself to enjoy one of the strongest aspects in an all-time game.
This represented a watershed moment in my gaming life. My stupid decision with God of War at least provided me with now being acutely aware just exacly how heightened difficulty can sometimes damage the satisfaction of a masterfully made game, not enhance it. No more hard settings for this guy, and I was actually really delighted with myself for having the self-awareness to make this quality-of-life pivot. But just as I was arriving at this realization, the gaming industry was going in the opposite direction.
Since God of War (which was supposedly pretty punishing on normal mode as well), more and more reviews of games began to trickle in warning gamers of a steep difficulty level. I didn’t really start to notice this as a continuing trend, until 2019’s Video Game Awards, which annointed From Software’s Sekiro as the game of the year. Holy fucking shit, the insurrection was complete. Sekiro is the hardest game I’ve ever played. I’ve beat all of From’s Souls games, got through Bloodborne, and had to throw in the towel with Sekiro. Simply put, it’s the least accessible game I’ve ever played and I’m not blaming From. That’s their thing, they were here first, and for the most part, they’re exceptionally good at it but when Sekiro won that award, it not only legitimized brutal difficulty on a mass scale, but signified yet another weird embrace of game design centered around a harsh form of exclusivity.
If I’m being honest, I firmly believe Sekiro winning that award started something truly problematic in the gaming world even if we didn’t catch it at the time, and it’s only grown over time, albeit largely under the radar. I’m fine with Hurt Locker beating out Avatar for movie of the year, but I wouldn’t have been fine with it if it meant an ongoing deluge of gritty war movies for the next several years at the expense of other genuinely fun, delightful movies we otherwise would’ve gotten. But that’s precisely what has been steadily happening in the halls and think tanks of game studios the last couple years. Let’s take a look at some notable examples since that surprising Sekiro win:
2020’s Doom Eternal: iD Studio: “Hey everyone great news! I found a way to totally disrupt the astounding lightning-in-a-bottle adrenaline rush of our last Doom game – let’s make ammo really scarce, and have every enemy require a different weapon to kill it. That way, the player will spend all their time cycling through the weapon wheel, like all great games! Also: clumsy platforming! And let’s just add a bunch of monsters to every room for some juicy artificial difficulty. WE ARE GOOD AT MAKING LOGICAL SEQUELS THAT REALLY REALLY HATE THE PLAYER!”
2021’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. I can’t think of a clearer example of a power fantasy than playing as a motherfucking Jedi, but I guess I’m the shmuck – Respawn decided to “draw inspiration from the Soulslike” genre and turned a perfect opportunity to give the gamer a fully powered Jedi experience to a constant battle of attrition, never feeling like your powers are quite strong enough to powerfully vanquish whatever Sith awaits. Out of all the goddamn genres to draw on as an influence, it’s beyond baffling why they decided to jack some of the more punishing combat aspects of a Souls game. It’s freakin Star Wars, Disney owns it. Respawn should’ve had their fucking heads examined for this decision.
2021’s Metroid Dread. Another truly mystifying decision made by Mercury Steam, making an intensely difficult Metroid game. I was so stoked for this thing, I absolutely loved the art design, soundtrack perfectly embodied the terrifying isolation of any Metroid game, and the gameplay input was maybe the best I’ve experienced in the last decade. But also, it seeks to wreck you. The last third of the game had many areas that offered no margin for error, and the final three-phase boss ranks among the most frustrating and relentless boss experiences I’ve ever encountered. Too many times in Dread, fun gets replaced by just stressful navigation until it happens so often, I found my brain entering that mode at the start screen. A more cinematic, less rough boss would’ve been a beautiful reprieve but Mercury basically went the opposite direction.
Relief will always be a part of a properly challenging boss fight, but it shouldn’t be the only emotion one feels, and now when I look back on my Dread experience, most of my memories are just painful ones. Ultimately it was my God of War experience all over again, only this time the difficulty was forced on me, not foolishly chosen. I hear a patch is coming to offer an “easy” option but ultimately, it’s fair to assume that 95% of people who wanted to play Dread have already, so just feels like a bit of an empty, pointless gesture to me. But seriously, it’s Metroid, and IT’S NINTENDO. A crushingly hard Metroid game on Nintendo Switch is such a bizarrely stupid concept, it’s actually mind-blowing Mercury Steam got the green light from the notoriously brand-conscious company. I wouldn’t say the difficulty was so pervasive that Dread is a bit of a black mark on the Nintendo machine, but it certainly was a startling development for a lot of players hoping for a more traditional Metroid experience.
2021’s Death’s Door: A charmingly fun indie romp, I loved this isometric action-rpg as a crow trying to do the right thing in the land beyond the living. But of course, it handed me my ass at a fairly constant rate from start to finish with no checkpoints, instead relying on a player to find shortcuts as they navigate this perilous nether realm. Hard as nails and honestly, didn’t have to be.
2021’s Kena: Bridge of Spirits: A charmingly fun indie ro – shit, and we’re right back in the same territory. A gorgeous and amazingly crafted adventure game punctuated by some shockingly hard boss fights. At least this one offered difficulty options but the default one is overly gnarly and again, IT DIDN’T HAVE TO BE.
2021’s Returnal: Much like Sekiro, it’s hard to imagine a more impeccably designed game, and also like Sekiro, that almost gives the game a feeling of deliberate malice. This roguelike was so unforgiving, you couldn’t even save your progress in the middle of one of its enormous two+ hour runs in which one death means back to start of game – until gamer protest grew so huge they finally gave in and allowed a player to save and quit. The fact they had to be bullied into that very obvious feature inclusion says a lot more about the current “take it or leave it” sadistic dev design than it does about Housemarque’s “noble” hesitation to finally compromise their artistic vision. Returnal was one of PS5’s first exclusives, and I can’t imagine the amount of people that bought it for that reason alone, only to permanently retire it mere hours into the game.
2022’s SIFU: Haven’t played it yet as it was released too close to Elden Ring, but by all accounts, this is another devastating roguelike (see above). At least the developer Sloclap listened to the feedback and is set to release a patch offering an easier mode (see Metroid Dread, above), but…why did it have to come to that? Difficulty modes have been around since the 16-bit era, doesn’t it make more sense to envision a less restrictive gaming future, as opposed to a binary, elitist one?
Jesus 2021 brought the pain didn’t it? But let’s broaden it out a bit here and include some honorable mentions in terms of games to avoid if you have temperament issues:
Hollow Knight (2017) – brutally challenging, albeit rewarding metroidvania.
Celeste (2018) – An adorable platformer that won’t hesitate to put you on your ass with the slightest misstep.
Cuphead (2017) – Another deceivingly cute indie offering that is as punishing as any game mentioned here.
The Nioh Franchise (2017-2020) – So much to take in here, both from a difficulty and understanding game mechanics vantage point but I guess the Team Ninja does get a pass as they also released the OG hard bastard of modern gen consoles with 2004’s Ninja Gaiden for Xbox. Still, completely unrealistic to think anyone but the most seasoned action-game veteran has a chance to roll credits on these things.
To be clear, I’m not cherry-picking examples to validate a growing fear that I’m just starting to suck at videogames. These were all extremely well known, heavily played games throughout these years, and the dialogue surrounding them always included a hefty dose of difficulty management. Truth be told I’m purposely leaving out a lot of well-known games that carry very earned reputations of bending over gamers because I feel like you’re getting the point by now. Today as I write this, the heavily hyped Zelda-like Tunic just dropped and guess what? Supposedly super fuckin hard! Of course! Why would I expect anything different? Good grief not even the Zelda blueprint is safe from this shit.
And that brings us back full circle to Elden Ring. I believe it currently holds the top OpenCritic aggregate rating at 96 or something insane, and to be fair, it should be rated extremely high. I do love the game, but some of the late game bosses represent some of the absolute worst examples of this bewildering gaming trend we’ve seen build in momentum since Sekiro won top honors. Offering unrelenting aggression, incredibly fast, and all boasting at least one attack that will one shot you, it’s hard to rationalize all those hours we spend levelling up our character, only to get completely shithoused as though you’re a clueless newbie who accidentally wandered into an overlevelled area. No, I’m a Souls veteran. I know how to play properly, I AM playing it properly. Some of these bosses just aren’t designed properly. Has the ‘git gud’ mentality poisoned the gaming community so thoroughly we can no longer tell the difference between a well designed battle and a demonized version of “Through the Fire and Flames” on expert mode?
Elden Ring is a towering achievement, an astoundingly ambitious and immersive game. It should move a lot of units.
But not this many. Fifteen million copies is a number that should be reserved for the Pokemon games of the world, or a new Grand Theft Auto installment.
And no I don’t think gamers are just getting better. I just think new players don’t understand just what they’re getting into, and I see proof of this every time I offer myself up for summon and the player runs at the boss like it’s goddamn Dynasty Warriors.
At this point I’m hearing Elden Ring is nearing fifteen million sales, and that’s in a month. At the risk of stating the obvious, those are incredibly enormous sales numbers. I wish it didn’t, as the notorious difficulty will surely be part of the assessment when other studios are using the success of Elden Ring as a blueprint for future AAA open world releases.
We don’t need more back-breakingly hard games, we need less. This isn’t an epidemic, but we are a nerve-wracking stone’s throw away from such classifications. I don’t want to have to worry if the next Zelda will be out to wreck poor Link, nor do I want to open God of War: Ragnarok and realize I’m in yet another fifteen-round fight against Ivan Drago.
I like hard games, you can clearly surmise from this entire piece that I play and complete a lot of them. But for the same reason I don’t want a healthy handful of brilliant directors attempting to ape the work of Lars Von Trier, I don’t love the idea of all these games being invaded with arduous gameplay loops that are otherwise designed for mass consumption. Let niche games be niche games. Souls games had a great little corner for the longest time, and there are always room for more there – but let’s keep em in that corner. They’re evidently contagious and it’s time to stop the spread.