While visiting Destructoid for the latest Rev Rant, I started reading the comments and something caught my attention. When people started comparing the difficulty of a game like Demon’s Souls with a game like Spelunky, something just clicked and… well, this post is the result. Both games continuously present the player with impossible challenge after impossible challenge, but they both approach the issue of difficulty in very different and interesting ways.
And the major mechanic that drives this difference between the two approaches is the randomizing of levels in Spelunky and the predictability of the enemies and environments in Demon’s Souls. To lay it out plain and simple,while Spelunky is a game of skill and chance, Demon’s Souls is a game of skill and memorization. Of course there’s more to them than that, but that’s the main difference between the two.
Alright, now that we have the big picture, let’s start picking these games apart. First, let’s go with Demon’s Souls shall we?
Like I already said, Demon’s Souls demands constant memorization from the player. Imagine, if you will, a giant never-ending wall. That’s the difficulty “curve”. Well, now imagine that you try to scale it, but the first part you grab falls off. You get back up, dust off your left shoulder and grab another piece of the wall… and it falls off. Repeat this process 5 to 50 times until you finally discovered some minuscule part of the wall that doesn’t actually fall off immediately when grabbed. Congratulations! You’ve learned how to take your first step through the game! Except that 3 hours later you discover that said part of the wall was a dead end and you now need to start off from square one. You see, that part you discovered was meant to be discovered by players with a character well above level 50… sorry.
But the thing is, the wall doesn’t have that many other places where you can try to scale again. Hell, even if only of them turns out to be the right way to go, it wouldn’t take that much time to figure out.
Basically, the game gradually got easier. It just took the player a really long time, but progress was achieved through trial and error. Or, to put it in other words: this game is possible to beat, it takes a hell of a lot of patience and time, but it’s possible.
Once the player finishes to scale the wall, it won’t look like a wall at all to him anymore. It will resemble something more aching to twisty road filled with pitfalls and hazards that can be avoided with the right knowledge.
On the other hand, we have Spelunky. Returning to that wall metaphor, let’s say that this time the wall isn’t nigh infinite but only appears to be so at first. In addition, it was built with differently colored bricks, each one representing a challenge or a reward. While climbing, the player won’t be able to see more than 10 bricks ahead or behind him.
Imagine it’s you climbing that wall. The red bricks are quite possibly harmful, so you probably shouldn’t touch those… but as an experiment you grab that red brick anyway. And it burns your hand. Yeah, that wasn’t very intelligent of you, but at least now you are sure you need to avoid those bricks. Lesson learned! Now off to the next brick. Mmmmhhh, let’s grab that gold one. Yep, that increases your treasure score. This all seems intuitive enough. Let’s try to grab the green one then! … okay that wasn’t a good idea: A giant spider is now chasing you. While trying to avoid it, you grab another red brick and then plummet to the floor.
A sign with the following text appears right next to the base of the wall: Best Score: 1 point. Oh well, as a first time experience it wasn’t that bad. In Demon’s Souls you had to spend hours upon hours to scale that much of the wall, you think to yourself with a distorted sense of pride clearly showing on your face. But as you look up, you realize that now the wall has changed. The bricks are now all organized in a very different way. In fact, now you can see other colored bricks that you didn’t see before.
And that’s just a taste of what’s to come. Whenever you fall, the wall rebuilds itself to provide you with a fresh new challenge. The first few hours are going to be the most fun you’ll have with the game, since you’ll be experimenting and deducing patterns all over the place. It’s fun, it’s addictive and incredibly hard. But then, when you’ve played it for far too many hours, you start to get bored of it. Sure, every single time the wall is constructed in a different way, but there’s no more experimentation to be done, you’ve already figured out everything and now it’s just a matter of skill and luck to get through this whole thing.
Why luck? Well, when you’ve played Spelunky enough times, you start to realize that when you fail, it may not actually be your fault entirely. Sure, you were the one that stepped into the tomb and woke up the giant scorpion, but you were already running from a caveman in the first place because the exit was placed in such a way that you didn’t have any option but to drop down, run from the caveman and get eaten by the scorpion. Nobody in their right mind would have ever designed a level in such an obviously broken but functional way. Nobody but a procedural algorithm that is (see image above).
Now, I recognize that this is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s just so much more to these games than the basic mechanics I’ve described throughout this post. For example, you do eventually achieve progress in Spelunky by way of shortcut tunnels, which immensely increased my enjoyment of that game, but at the end of the day, it didn’t change it’s fundamental nature. And as for Demon’s Souls, there’s a very distinct theme behind it: that of griefing and cooperation between players through indirect online interaction. It’s because of that theme that it acquired such a nasty and vengeful game design, since players are meant to leave notes to make the challenges easier for each other. Like a sort of collective intelligence. The problem is, not everybody wants other people to have it easier that themselves. If they had to suffer through this and that, then everybody else better suffer equally if they want to achieve the same goal**
I don’t know if Demon’s Souls could qualify as a social experiment, but if the goal was to eventually achieve a normal difficulty by letting the players leave notes to each other… then apparently it failed at that, though it still is an interesting game to analyze.
Second image serendipitously obtained from Ascii Dreams.
* Not really.
**You kids today have it easier! When I was your age I had to walk through 60 miles of snow and 50 of desert just to go to the bathroom! Get off my lawn!