Over spring break, the PS4 received its perhaps first universally acclaimed exclusive in the form of Bloodborne. An offshoot of the Souls series (Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls 1-2), Bloodborne was praised by critics for, among other things, its relentlessly stiff difficulty. Yet like the Souls series before it, Bloodborne remains one of the relatively few modern video-games that prides itself on its challenging nature.
A lot of people don’t like to play something that frustrates them, and that’s understandable. But at the same time, any game will become mindless if you can mash buttons or do the same thing over and over again without any fear of dying or losing. There’s a long-running trend more towards making games extremely accessible (ala, Call of Duty), but that often comes at the cost of complexity and thus fun.
Players of the modern Call of Duty titles can attest to how stupid the A.I. enemies are: If you’re ever in trouble, you can use cheap strategies like going prone behind something and waiting until your health regenerates. Compare that to Killzone: Shadowfall, where enemies relentlessly move up on you if you’re not pinning them down with fire, which makes the decision to hide a more difficult choice. Is your health worth potentially getting your position overrun? Is there a path around the battlefield you could take that will give you cover while putting distance between you and your foes?
Sure, you will most likely die more often in Killzone than you would in Call of Duty, but combat is more tense and tactical because of this. Not every game has to adopt the brutality and obscurity of Bloodborne and the Souls series, but your victories taste sweeter when you have to work for them.
What the battle between complexity, accessibility, and difficulty also comes down to is whether it matches the audience and intent of a game. For instance, God of War lacks the mechanical complexity of some of its hack-and-slash brethren like Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden, but that’s not a bad thing. From its beginning, the series has been more about being visceral and easy to pick up and have a good time with rather than emphasizing pure technique.
On the other hand, the Devil May Cry series spent years priding itself on complex combat, fascinating enemies, and its challenging yet not unfair difficulty. That went out the window in the 2013 reboot DMC, which although still a solid entry, tried to appeal to both series fans and a wider audience by simplifying everything. The satisfaction in pushing the game’s style meter to its limit through endless technical combos and fighting challenging bosses disappeared in favor of a combat system that took little effort to succeed at.
The thing is that it’s very possible to have a complex game that doesn’t alienate people. For example, the 2006 Japanese role-playing game Persona 3 (and its sequel and pair of remakes) on paper doesn’t sound terribly accessible by modern role-playing game standards. It features Pokemon-styled monster collection, a complex “fusion” system to create more powerful allies, lengthy dungeon crawling sequences, extensive life simulation mechanics based on Japanese visual novels, and wraps it all up in a deep turn-based combat system that features its own unique terminology for everything. However, across the 80 or so hours you will spend with the game, you’re given more than enough time to explore and master every one of those mechanics until they become second nature. The difficulty gradually increases, but so does your understanding of how to manipulate all the game’s mechanics. It is complex, but the beauty of Persona 3 is that it never feels overwhelming.
Complexity for the sake of complexity is never a good thing, but accessibility should be tempered with what works best for an individual game. Making something that everyone can beat without any effort expands a game’s audience, but it also dilutes the experience for everyone. Games like Bloodborne are creating a mini-renaissance of difficult games, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing if a little more of their challenging nature rubbed off on more mainstream games.