As a young video game player, I died regularly while playing the original “Super Mario Bros.” A missed jump, a hammer from a Hammer Brother, a Goomba that moved just a tad faster than I anticipated — the cases were numerous. To say I grew frustrated would be an understatement. My gray Nintendo controllers rattled when you shook them, a result of me throwing them.
Few early game failures stung like Duck Hunt. Utilizing the Zapper gun, Duck Hunt was often a respite from the platforming challenges of Mario, particularly because I could cheat and press the Zapper to the screen to circumvent aiming. Inevitably, though, as round after round of ducks became faster and more varied in their flight patterns, I would lose. After a loss in Duck Hunt, the dog who was ostensibly flushing the ducks from the bushes would laugh. His tight-eyed grin and corresponding eight-bit giggle still rankle.
Video games grew in accessibility over the decades. Almost every modern game comes with an easy mode. Games on the “Normal” difficulty are rarely a challenge at all. At best, a less-than-moderate understanding of the game’s mechanics are necessary to complete the campaign.
For many modern gamers, the current equivalent of “Duck Hunt’s” antagonistic canine is the “YOU DIED” that greets players upon death in the “Dark Souls” series. This screen should come as no surprise, given the game’s tagline is “Prepare to Die.” Upon launch in 2011, the game, as well as other subsequent titles from developer FromSoftware, gained a reputation for difficulty and a loyal cult following. Though the game is more than a decade old, completing a “Souls” title is still considered a badge of honor among many gamers.
It should surprise no one that I, the young controller thrower, never took to the “Souls” games. I tried. I wanted to like them. The game’s austere atmosphere, largely musicless early environments and unforgiving combat led me to throw in the towel early.
In February, FromSoftware released its latest action fantasy RPG (that’s role-playing video game, for the nongamers), “Elden Ring.” It’s part of the “Souls” series, but a departure from the “Souls” formula of a relatively linear experience, “Elden Ring” is open world, allowing players to roam as they see fit. What didn’t change was the difficulty curve. Despite this, the game sold more than 12 million copies in its first month.
The anticipation for “Elden Ring’’ was beyond high. Reviewers gave the game perfect scores, and multiple seasoned games journalists repeatedly hailed it as “one of the best games I’ve ever played.” In a rare turn, I had multiple friends preorder a copy. I didn’t want to be left out, but I’d already ruled “Souls” games as “not for me.” Then the FOMO set in. I caved. I bought the game. I prepared to die. And die I did, but I accomplished more than that.
Herein lies the beauty of these games. They are intimidating. They are foreboding. And any small achievement in the game feels like a well-earned step forward.
Sure, death is an annoyance in these games. It is a setback, but it’s a chance to reflect and learn. While the game is scant in providing the player with information, it’s easy to use the in-game messages for hints and even to hop on YouTube for a short beginner tutorial. With a few basics under your belt, any player can begin to traverse the dread-inducing landscape and fell enemy after enemy, earning souls and leveling up, one small step at a time. In some ways, the game is less difficult than it is obtuse. An understanding of what it’s asking the player to do is more helpful than twitch reactions.
Like life, “Souls” games reward you for taking them on their own terms, not lamenting the difficulty, and sticking with it. The “YOU DIED” message really translates to “YOU CAN GET BETTER.”
The productive struggle is real. Trust me. None of my controllers are rattling.
Thompson enjoys putting somewhat carefully chosen words in relatively meaningful order. He has been to college. He lives in Lewiston and is on Instagram as @theswap_quadcities and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.