I started this article with the intent of talking about my recent experience with Bloodborne’s Old Hunters DLC and more specifically my experience with fighting the final boss of said DLC. I’ve been a fan of From Software’s work since the 2010 EU release of Demon’s Souls and I wanted any excuse to talk about their games. I have in the past found great satisfaction in putting myself through incredibly tough games. Whether that meant ramping up the difficulty or imposing ridiculous gameplay restrictions upon myself I was typically compelled to do it. For me, it was about self-improvement and the strange sense of validation that I’d get from overcoming challenges that no one else knew or cared about.
Anyway, back to the Old Hunters. By the time I’d finished off the first few bosses I was aware that it was a step up in terms of difficulty from the main game in this new game plus mode, but nothing I couldn’t work my way past. That was until the final boss. The first few embarrassingly poor attempts felt like a warm up to a fight that never really got started. Fast forward to 3 am and I was still scratching my head and then it happened. Slowly, bit by bit I began to lose any and all satisfaction from playing the game because I simply wasn’t improving. Try after try I appeared to be getting worse and worse, inflicting less and less damage and taking more and more hits. My lack of improvement despite putting in the time to learn how the boss worked and what I could and couldn’t get away with went against everything I thought to be true about the difficulty of the Souls series.
And this got me thinking about The Witness.
You see even a game like Bloodborne grants periodic rewards in the form of levels and new items to keep you going. I could have gone away to grind for levels so I’d be better equipped to take on the boss however if I had done this my victory would have felt lesser as the attributes of my character would have been the deciding factor in my success and not my improved personal skill.
Don’t get me wrong the gameplay is still very much a reward in and of itself and most players will inevitably find themselves improving the more they play regardless of their increased stats. But to make a game where the sole reward for your hard work was your own self-improved skill no buffed stats, obnoxious hand-holding or arbitrary in-game achievements (PS trophies/Steam achievements notwithstanding) feels to me like the purest version of that Souls like experience that so many of us want.
Like any great teacher The Witness focuses its lessons. It tells you what you need to know then asks you where you want to go from there. The final outcome of your hard work will be the same as those around you but the path you’ve taken in advancing your knowledge to the point of success will feel different. I wanted to continue learning and improving and in time I did. The fact that it achieves this without plainly stating that you are improving made it all the more special for me. I knew that I was and that’s all I needed to continue.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are some games which rely on that next big reward to keep you playing. You may consider an online FPS like COD to be low hanging fruit but it’s a genre which I have invested a lot of time in and so I understand what everyone is getting out of it which is constant and unending gratification for your actions no matter how insignificant. Did you accidentally land one shot on a slow moving enemy teammate whilst mindlessly spraying your weapon? Well here’s some XP and a medal for your hard work. And whilst it’s nice that these games constantly tell you that you don’t suck or that your next prestige level was worth your time because hey, we just gave you a cool new emblem, it’s never nearly as satisfying for me as when I beat a boss on Bloodborne or finish a particularly demanding puzzle offered up by The Witness. But that’s just me.
The modern gamers assumed need for instant gratification is often scoffed at by many. And as I just said some games do make it their business to cater to those who just want that said gratification, but I wouldn’t agree that this is inherently bad. Consider for a moment that not everyone has the time or temperament to play through an extremely demanding 40+ hour RPG and those who don’t shouldn’t be belittled. After all everyone wants something different from the games they play.
I guess all I’m saying is that the popularity of games like Bloodborne and The Witness makes me very happy indeed. I love what they do and I can only hope that more developers become open to the idea of making games like them. And by that I don’t just mean that I want more hard games. Both of my examples feel like they’ve been built from the ground up to be an exercise in self-improvement and commitment and that is honestly what I believe people want when they ask a game to challenge them.