The Leaderboard: When "Hard" Games Aren't Actually Hard

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This piece was originally published in Paste’s digital edition in August 2012.

I beat Dark Souls. I beat Demon Souls as well. I have the trophies to prove it. Makes me a “hardcore” gamer, right? Not really. The Souls series consists of my two favorite games of the HD generation, and I dare you to find a critique of either game that doesn’t go into great detail about how difficult both games are. But I beat them. Both of them. I wear it as a badge of honor.

Like nearly any other gamer, I can get caught up in the hype machine. This has lead to numerous regrettable purchases, but my lovely girlfriend always gets me a game for Christmas, and while it’s anything but my kind of game, and because so many people I genuinely like raved about it, I asked for Saints Row: The Third. This was definitely not a lamentable decision. I enjoyed every minute of my time in Steelport, as not only was the game almost flawlessly executed, it brought unbridled fun back to open-world gaming, something a Grand Theft Auto series that has completely lost its sense of humor could learn from.

I beat Saint’s Row as well, but here’s my dirty little secret. Maybe four hours in, after dying too often, after too many failed missions, I dialed the difficulty down to easy. I did it without regret and wildly enjoyed my experience. This presents a fair question: What really is difficulty?

Let’s get back to Dark Souls. Just like everyone else who played the game, I died. I died a lot. The back of the box says, in the largest font available, “Prepare To Die.” Dying is not failure in Dark Souls. It’s part of the learning experience. More importantly, every time I died, and it was countless times, I knew exactly why. It wasn’t because I suck, it’s because I did something wrong. And every time I died, I knew exactly what that thing was, and I knew how I would approach the situation or enemy differently the next time. That’s the key to the game. Every death, while punishing, was also a lesson in how to play the game better.

When I died or failed a mission in Saint’s Row, or Half-Life 2, or countless other games I’ve beaten on easy, and without guilt, I died because I suck. I died because I’m 42 years old and my fast-twitch skills have deteriorated, or maybe never even developed properly. While my peers were sharpening their skills on games like Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament, I was still wrapped up in the latest Final Fantasy or whatever other RPGs (mostly Japanese) I could find. There is no reaction speed necessary to accomplish greatness in those games, no onus on synapse speed and small muscle memory.

Dark Souls and its predecessor have one thing in common that favors me, that actually makes them not difficult, but actually the opposite, at least for me. The games are never fast, and the action is rarely frenetic. Enemies are certainly tough, but the game requires you to play slowly, tactically and mistake-free. I can handle those requests of my ability just fine. Put me in a multi-player room of Modern Warfare 3 and I’ll end up the guy with one kill, likely by luck or accident, 20 deaths, and probably responsible for your team’s latest loss in deathmatch mode. Yes, it’s because I’m awful at the game. But you know why? Because the game is incredibly difficult to me. There is too much going on all around me, I have no idea where to focus my eyes and ultimately my weapon, and by the time I figure that out, I’m already dead. I’ve genuinely made attempts to play these games, enjoy them and improve my skills. It doesn’t happen. They’re too damn difficult.

I started Skyrim in early February after the PlayStation 3 version was finally all patched up. I have an uneven history with Bethesda games, having loved the Fallout series but loathed Oblivion. To my pleasant surprise, Skyrim has captured me in every way. It’s also gotten me thinking more about difficulty. I’m playing the game on “Adept”, the default difficulty. I’ve never wavered from that. I’ve had some early deaths, and still don’t think I have the combat system totally down, as while I’m good, once again, when the game is slow-sneaking and using the bow to get a leg up in encounters-I find myself spinning around, swinging wildly and often losing sight of my target once battles get up close. This isn’t Skyrim’s fault, as I’m just not very good at the game, but to their credit, they let me make up for it in other ways. With their smithing and enchanting systems, I’m more jacked up than any level 24 cat-dude should be. I have a kick-ass sword and bow (each named after one of my pets), and every piece of armor I wear is stacking additional bonuses onto the damage I am inflicting, or my ability to receive it. The game has given me many ways to make up for the failures of my hand-eye coordination, and that’s one of the game’s great achievements: It will allow you to become good at the game in many ways.

Difficulty is not a universal thing. Dark Souls isn’t even that hard. That’s not bragging, that’s just how it is for me. Bayonetta, on the other hand, with the speed of a Hong Kong action film and combos that required timing that just wasn’t in me, was completely impossible, often even when playing on the easiest of settings.

I love videogames, but I’ve come to realize that maybe I’m just not very good at them. But I have those Demon Souls and Dark Souls trophies. You know, the gold ones. And because of that, I can always fool people into thinking I’m part of the hardcore, because difficulty, just like all things in life, is relative.

Kevin Goldstein is the pro scouting coordinator for the Houston Astros and a former national writer on baseball scouting and player development for Baseball Prospectus and You can follow him on Twitter @Kevin_Goldstein.