Difficulty and Choice

I’m playing Demon’s Souls and I’m thinking about difficulty again. Why do so many people (me including) enjoy playing Demon’s Souls so much, even though it’s supposedly so difficult? It occurred to me that to some extent, Demon’s Souls is actually not really difficult. It’s a sheep in wolf’s clothes. Let me give you an example.


Is this is what happens to Jawas when the grow up?

I entered a level called Adjudicator Archstone. It’s pretty much a stack of arenas filled with increasingly difficult enemies from top to bottom. I started inching my way down. I soon realized that I was in over my head. The enemies I encountered were the same as in the previous levels, but they were much more powerful. A new enemy, The Reaper was causing me some exceptional troubles. He would cause a huge army of less dangerous but annoying enemies to re-spawn over and over again. The reaper himself had a couple of spells that would kill me outright. I managed to defeat him once and opened a short-cut. But as I made my way to the arenas underneath, I encountered even more powerful enemies. I started running past them. It worked for a while. But then I ran around the corner right into the arms of another Reaper. My heart almost leaped out of my chest. Instant death. Desperate realization that 40k souls have been lost. I wouldn’t be able to recover them. This is wasn’t working at all.

The genius of Demon’s Souls is that even though you are often back to “square one”, you are still given lots of choices to proceed at any point. In my case I had the following

  • I came to the conclusion that I just wasn’t doing any damage. Neither with my spells nor with my weapon. I looked at my stats and realized I leveled up my character too uniformly. I decided to grind the beginning of that level to increase my magic stats. My effectiveness increased steadily. So I reckoned that just in a few minutes, I would be able to proceed.

  • But in reality I was able to proceed much sooner. In just my second try, I accidentally realized that the Reaper that was giving me troubles was actually super-vulnerable to fire. So using a fire spell and slightly improved magic stats, I was able to deal with him with almost no trouble!

  • And if that wasn’t enough, I noticed that the Reaper was dropping so-called Darkmoonstones. They were EXACTLY the item I needed to upgrade my current weapon.

So the apparent dead-end turned out to have 3 solutions. The combined effect of them completely turned the tables. On my next excursion into the lower levels, I made it to the boss in my first try and was able to defeat him. And all the time, I still had the choice to simply let it be and try one of the 4 other levels.

Let’s contrast this with another game. I was recently also playing Sword and Sworcery. I got stuck on one of the bosses. In this game, if you die during a boss fight, you restart at the beginning of the fight with 1 health point and no way out. You are doomed to repeat the same fight over and over again until you get it right. There are healing items but they don’t get restored. So once you run out, it gets even harder because you need to defeat the boss without getting hit at all.

Sword and Sworcery Triangle Bullshit

Sword & Sworcery more difficult than Demon’s Souls?

In some regard, Demon’s Souls is actually less difficult. Both games let you run against difficult challenges. But while Sword & Sworcery leaves you stranded, Demon’s Souls actually gives you a lot of choices to work a way out. It’s a game where the difficulty is anticipated and supported by the game’s systems. That’s why the game stays engaging even when you fail so frequently.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

7 responses to “Difficulty and Choice”

  1. Brice Roy

    Interesting analysis, which lends to the idea difficulty is something that can be factorized by the number of ways offered to complete a challenge. In my opinion, there is a directed linked between the nature of a game’s difficulty and the nature of its system. The kind of difficulty sword and Sorcery has seems linked to its non-systemic nature. And if Demon’s Souls offered a large panel of approaches to survive, it is, in my opinion, cause of the pretty strong systemic nature. Things are even obvious with games such as Crayon Physics, Frozen Synapse or SimCity. Such games allow an incredibly various set of ways to deal with difficulty. And we could imagine for those games a much higher level of difficulty : it wouldn’t affect the number of possibilities available. Even more interesting : i like to believe the more systemic a game is, the more easy it is to put the difficulty, not in the obstacle, but in the tool the player has to master before.

  2. Colton Spross

    Interesting article. I have yet to play Dark Souls ore Demon Souls but I did play Sword and Sorcery. I was enjoying it until I got to the boss fight you mentioned. I probably tried 5 times before giving up. It was frustrating to me because the game didn’t start out as a game that I expected to be difficult. It seemed like a laid back, exploration based game. This did not train you at all for the pattern memorization based combat and the sudden spike in difficulty was frustrating. In other hard games that are difficult from the start you learn to expect this and feel challenged to overcome the obstacles. If Dark Souls is like slowly climbing your way up a mountain, S&S is like coasting down a hill on your bike and then hitting a brick wall.

  3. Nathan V

    quick note that is also in the megatome.. If you hold your shield on during combat, you regenerate health in Sworcery :)

    1. Krystian Majewski

      True. One on my co-workers suggested that when I mention it to her. Somehow, this completely went past me. :(

  4. Rik Newman (Remy77077)

    I became interested in Demon’s Souls because I’d heard it was so “difficult”, but I’ve yet to hear anyone really explain whether they mean it’s really challenging, or really punishing, or perhaps both? Where do you think it lies?

    Pixel Popper’s put forward the definition here:

    but I’ve clarified what I saw as the flaws in the argument here:

    From your description it doesn’t sound much like the kind of challenge I’d enjoy that much – it sounds more like it’s punishing unti you discover some knowledge-based advantage through seemingly only trial & error “oh that guy is weak to fire”.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      Before I answer – there seems to be something wrong with your blog. I get a warning from my Virus Scanner:

      URL: http://www.agoners.com/wp-includes/js/l1...
      Process: firefox.exe
      Infection: js:Iframe-DL [Trj]

      You might want to look into this…

      1. Rik Newman (Remy77077)

        Ah thanks :-) I’ve looked into it and everything I can find says it’s a false positive that certain virus scanners (Avast I think) throws up with certain wordpress admin tools.. :-/

        Unfortunately I’ve not been able to turn up more than that, but if you do know any more let me know. For what it’s worth, I don’t get that error myself (logged in or not), and I’ve tried deleting the possible file that Avast doesn’t like :)


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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