Postmortem: The Darks Souls of Game Reviews

Games jour­nal­ism is dead. I’m here to con­duct the postmortem.

Everything is Dark Souls. Dark Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls. According to GamesRadar even Crash Bandicoot is now Dark Souls. Even ca­su­al read­ers have recog­nised and be­gun to poke fun at the end­less pa­rade of “X is the Dark Souls of Y.” Its lazi­ness is as an­noy­ing as its ubiquity.

Forget NES hard, for­get Battletoads and Ninja Gaiden. Forget new­er fare like FTL or X‑Com. Forget every bul­let hell game or in­sane boss rush. The myr­i­ad dif­fer­ent flavours of dif­fi­cul­ty — from strate­gic scarce re­source man­age­ment and care­ful plan­ning, to light­ning fast re­ac­tion times and skill­ful in­put ex­e­cu­tion — have all been cast aside for a sin­gle by­word of “this game isn’t laugh­ably easy.”

We’ve lost a lot of use­ful de­scrip­tors for games, a lot of ways to quan­ti­fy and re­late to the read­er a game’s dif­fi­cul­ty and me­chan­ics. Recently the very con­cept of game play it­self has come un­der at­tack from sec­tions of the gam­ing press, prob­a­bly be­cause they’ve be­come so poor at de­scrib­ing it.

Most re­cent­ly Cuphead, the much-hyped run-and-gun plat­former with a Golden Age era car­toon aes­thet­ic, was de­scribed as “Somewhere be­tween Mario & Dark Souls” by now in­fa­mous games jour­nal­ist Dean Takahashi. Cuphead and its like have cre­at­ed un­ex­pect­ed con­tro­ver­sies about whether or not games jour­nal­ists should have ba­sic abil­i­ty when it comes to play­ing games. I’ve dis­cussed them at length pre­vi­ous­ly on two sep­a­rate oc­ca­sions on my se­ries with ShortFatOtaku, so I won’t be go­ing into the full sto­ry here, but the long and short of it is that Cuphead has be­come a jump­ing off point for a full-scale at­tack on “dif­fi­cult and ex­clu­sion­ary games” by the gam­ing press.

As the ar­gu­ment goes, games that are dif­fi­cult rob lesser-skilled play­ers of the chance to com­plete them, there­fore mak­ing them ex­clu­sion­ary. There has been a nar­ra­tive craft­ed that gamers who want to play dif­fi­cult games are ‘tox­ic’ and want to keep peo­ple out of the hob­by. This has been fold­ed into the long-standing nar­ra­tive of any crit­i­cism of games jour­nal­ists be­ing re-framed as ha­rass­ment; only it has been re-packaged as end­less think-pieces at­tack­ing dif­fi­cult games and gamers who en­joy them. The sheer num­ber of these ar­ti­cles cou­pled with their alarmist tone would have you be­lieve there is a wide­spread prob­lem with video game difficulty.

In re­al­i­ty there isn’t the epi­dem­ic of hard games these ar­ti­cles would seem to sug­gest; lit­tle Timmy isn’t cry­ing at the TV be­cause the lat­est Mario game has a manda­to­ry mid-level boss rush where you need to com­plete it in a sin­gle sit­ting with­out tak­ing a hit. As time has gone by, games have be­come eas­i­er and more ac­ces­si­ble — es­pe­cial­ly in the last decade. This has led to a niche au­di­ence for games that are more chal­leng­ing than your av­er­age main­stream fare.

This de­mand for hard games that al­low a play­er to take on a sce­nario in many dif­fer­ent ways has led to gen­res such as rogue­likes, which get around the is­sue of dif­fi­cul­ty caus­ing frus­tra­tion by mak­ing death and rep­e­ti­tion part of the game’s me­chan­ics. Less for­giv­ing sur­vival type games have seen a surge in re­cent years, with many even will­ing to brave the murky wa­ters of Steam ear­ly ac­cess to get them.

Gamers play dif­fi­cult games be­cause they find over­com­ing a chal­lenge re­ward­ing. Gaming is a se­ries of niche mar­kets, in which there is room for all types of games for all types of au­di­ences. Cuphead isn’t Dark Souls; it’s more akin to the boss rush­es from Contra. Repetition and learn­ing boss at­tack pat­terns are a core of run and gun plat­form­ers, and the game does fea­ture a “sim­ple” mode that al­lows you to see most of the con­tent, lock­ing some off as an in­cen­tive to get bet­ter at the game.

In my view that is the best so­lu­tion, as al­low­ing a play­er to put Cuphead in “game jour­nal­ist” mode wouldn’t in­cen­tive the play­er to im­prove. Some games are, by de­sign, more dif­fi­cult than oth­ers be­cause they cater to dif­fer­ent gam­ing nich­es. The ar­gu­ment that buy­ing a game makes you en­ti­tled to see all of its con­tent re­gard­less of skill lev­el is pre­pos­ter­ous by sim­ple virtue of how video games func­tion. Interactive fic­tion al­ready ex­ists, maybe that’s more games journalist’s speed.

The vast ma­jor­i­ty of games are aimed at the broad­est au­di­ences pos­si­ble, and their dif­fi­cul­ty re­flects this. The ar­gu­ment here wasn’t against a cul­ture of pun­ish­ing­ly hard games, it’s about the right of dif­fi­cult games to ex­ist at all. If you asked an av­er­age gamer to list their biggest gripes with mod­ern gam­ing, the is­sue of games be­ing too hard prob­a­bly wouldn’t even come up. As we’ve seen with the de­mand for sur­vival or rogue­like gen­res, games be­ing too easy or shal­low is more like­ly to come up.

Many of the games that sit un­fin­ished in my col­lec­tion are due to them be­ing drab, gener­ic, bug­gy, or just plain out­done by bet­ter ti­tles. There are only a se­lect few games I’ve strug­gled with due to their me­chan­i­cal skill ceil­ing. This isn’t some kind of boast about be­ing a mas­ter gamer; I’m fair­ly av­er­age. If you take the time to learn a competently-made game’s me­chan­ics, then you as Joe Shlub Gamer gen­er­al­ly have a fair chance to com­plete it.

Modern play test­ing cou­pled with mar­ket re­search has smoothed the edges of AAA ti­tles to a fault. I don’t think gam­ing crit­ics call out the gener­ic, loot-box and pay-to-win in­fest­ed land­scape of mod­ern gam­ing. When they do, they get rep­ri­mand­ed for it. It used to be all the rage to rag on AAA games for be­ing big, bor­ing cor­po­rate snooze-fests de­void of any cre­ative vi­sion. Now those same games are laud­ed over and above pre­vi­ous in­die dar­lings be­cause they con­tain modes that al­low you to forego game play en­tire­ly.

Contrast the re­ac­tion to some­thing like Super Meat Boy to the re­ac­tion to Cuphead and you’ll no­tice games jour­nal­ists’ pri­or­i­ties have shift­ed heav­i­ly in the last decade from cre­ative vi­sion to ease of com­ple­tion. But why is this?

I would ar­gue part of it is a sim­ple cost-time equa­tion; as the val­ue of each web­page click has re­duced, the time in­vest­ment games jour­nal­ists are will­ing to put into a game has re­duced. Quite sim­ply: spend­ing more than 3 – 4 hours on a re­view isn’t worth it for the mon­e­tary re­turn for many pub­li­ca­tions. It’s fi­nan­cial­ly more ad­van­ta­geous to crank out the quick­est pos­si­ble con­tent with the low­est pos­si­ble effort.

I touched on this very briefly in “A Chair is a Videogame”; this is why we pre­vi­ous­ly saw a push to­wards walk­ing sim­u­la­tors, short games and “nar­ra­tive vi­gnettes.” Games jour­nal­ists don’t want bet­ter games, they want games that make their jobs eas­i­er. The ar­gu­ment of “ex­clu­sion” isn’t about the wider au­di­ence, it’s about them. They feel ex­clud­ed from mak­ing quick and dirty con­tent and are in­stead forced to sit and get good at a high­ly an­tic­i­pat­ed game in or­der to re­view it. And they feel ag­griev­ed over that.

Thing is, Cuphead isn’t an im­pos­si­bly hard game. Notorious blun­der­ing YouTuber, Streamer and ac­ci­den­tal cam-whore Darksydephil man­aged to fin­ish the game in its week of re­lease. If some­one as no­to­ri­ous for fail­ing, get­ting mad at games and hav­ing to ask his chat for con­stant point­ers can fin­ish Cuphead — with the added pres­sure of be­ing on cam­era no less — then Average Joe Gamer shouldn’t have a prob­lem with a lit­tle perseverance.

My the­o­ry as to why so many games jour­nal­ists in­voke Dark Souls when talk­ing about any lev­el of dif­fi­cul­ty is this: Dark Souls re­al­ly is their only ref­er­ence point for dif­fi­cul­ty. So many games jour­nal­ists come from a lib­er­al arts back­ground and came into writ­ing about games as an easy av­enue to get into writ­ing, pe­ri­od. Many of these swept in with the smart­phone ex­plo­sion of dig­i­tal news, and as such have only been play­ing those games deemed news­wor­thy (or ‘art’ games made by their in­die friends) in or­der to write about them.

To put it sim­ply: so many games jour­nal­ists seem ig­no­rant of any­thing out­side their main­stream news cy­cle or in­die clique bub­ble, be­cause they are. They in­voke Dark Souls so much be­cause they re­al­ly haven’t played any games in the last 5 – 10 years that gave them any sort of se­ri­ous chal­lenge. Having a deep un­der­stand­ing of im­por­tant gam­ing ti­tles of the past is less com­mon than in their au­di­ence, hence the disconnect.

To put it even more blunt­ly: a good num­ber of games jour­nal­ists are cyn­i­cal hacks that stopped play­ing games as any­thing but a meal tick­et long ago and as such have a shal­low, stunt­ed out­look on the medium.

A re­lat­ed is­sue is that games writ­ers with­in cer­tain pub­li­ca­tions think of them­selves as above the act of writ­ing about video games. They see them­selves as artists in their own right. Their self-image is one of a tem­porar­i­ly in­con­ve­nienced nov­el­ist rather than a pro­fes­sion­al re­lay­ing ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion about a game to consumers.

This is best ex­em­pli­fied by the in­fa­mous “Politics in the Philippines” in­ci­dent, where­in Polygon writer Colin Campbell was in­vit­ed to a publisher-funded Rock Band 4 event, but in­stead used his work time to smell his own farts:

A few of my more ef­fer­ves­cent, more gre­gar­i­ous, more alive col­leagues in game jour­nal­ism are on stage “rock­ing out” to The Killers. We are on the rooftop of a pricey ho­tel in Santa Monica, at a press event or­ga­nized by Rock Band 4’s de­vel­op­er and pub­lish­er Harmonix.

I’m stand­ing at a safe dis­tance, drink­ing fizzy wa­ter, eat­ing puff pas­try canapes and chat­ting to an­oth­er col­league about pol­i­tics in the Philippines. I’m hav­ing an OK time.

I’m sup­posed to be fo­cus­ing my at­ten­tion on Rock Band 4, but there’s more chance of Ferdinand Marcos leap­ing onto that stage than there is of me mount­ing the boards, swing­ing a gui­tar strap around my neck and yelling “whooooooo.”

Rather than present the au­di­ence with a rel­e­vant idea of how an up­com­ing game was shap­ing up, he chose to de­scribe how above the whole “fun” thing he, as an oh-so-grown-up in­tel­lec­tu­al, is.

This at­ti­tude is car­ried over for too many pro­fes­sion­al games writ­ers who tend to run in the same cir­cles. They sim­ply have no in­ter­est in video games; they could be writ­ing about any­thing else, in­deed much of the time it feels as if they wish they were. As such, they have lit­tle in­cen­tive in get­ting me­chan­i­cal­ly good, or even com­pe­tent, at play­ing video games. They see it as com­plete­ly ancillary.

Too much oxy­gen has al­ready been ex­pend­ed on the Dean Takahashi Cuphead tu­to­r­i­al in­ci­dent, but it’s Patient Zero for this lat­est wave of ar­ti­cles ar­gu­ing that the ba­sic abil­i­ty to play a video game is ir­rel­e­vant to writ­ing about them.

Perhaps this at­ti­tude is why every­thing has be­come “Dark Souls.” In a world where ba­sic abil­i­ty is scoffed at, every game be­comes a hell­ish night­mare or­deal to the games jour­nal­ist, like try­ing to walk with mus­cles that have se­vere­ly at­ro­phied. Games jour­nal­ists have be­come lazy, too sloven­ly to ex­er­cise their thumbs, fin­gers and brains enough to bring them lev­el with the av­er­age gamer.

They write like they want games to lift them up out of their mo­bil­i­ty scoot­ers and give them a sponge bath.

It’s not a mat­ter of “Git Gud”; it is a mat­ter of “Git vague­ly com­pe­tent at your job.

Finally, I’d like to give spe­cial at­ten­tion to Holly Green’s ar­ti­cle in Paste Magazine, which at­tempt­ed to use dis­abled gamers as a shield for in­ept games jour­nal­ists by call­ing hard games “Ablelist” (yes re­al­ly.) This has pre­dictable re­sults, with a wave of dis­abled gamers say­ing there is no “phys­i­cal glass ceil­ing” and that its more an is­sue of mod­i­fied con­trollers than tra­di­tion­al ‘dif­fi­cul­ty.’

When phys­i­cal­ly dis­abled peo­ple -who can and do kick some se­ri­ous ass at video games- are telling you to “Git Gud,” per­haps its time to listen.


The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
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