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.
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