Once upon a time, video games and challenge were inseparable. During the days when quarter-munching arcade machines and tough-as-nails, literally byte-sized NES games ruled the roost, difficulty was a prerequisite of the medium, as it was directly tied to monetization. More deaths in Dig Dug or Donkey Kong meant more quarters pumped into the machine. Conversely, home console games had to be rigorously punishing lest the whole experience last less than the average length of a single episode of Thundercats.
As the medium evolved, the meta surrounding difficulty as it applies to game design began to shift as publishers and designers sought to reach a wider audience. The 90s saw a major shift in focus from gameplay to narrative, and the new millennium brought with it a slew of gentrified military shooters designed to do nothing more than catch the eye.
But 2009’s Demon Souls and it’s legendary spiritual successor Dark Souls would challenge that norm and reintroduce the concept of balanced, well-thought-out difficulty to the gaming market. FromSoftware’s formidable, gothic RPG was the first game of its kind to attract more than a niche audience, and its rewarding combat and evocative exploration mechanics made it every bit as addicting as it was frustrating.
It would go on to spawn an entire trilogy as well as another set of off-shoots like Bloodborne and the recent Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Yet, perhaps the most notable thing about Dark Souls is its impact on the industry as a whole. Years ago, no publisher would have dared to take a risk on something which demanded so much from the player. However, the eighth console generation saw a host of games attempting to emulate the bottled lightning that was FromSoftware’s 2011 release. Games like Lords of the Fallen, Nioh, and The Surge—which is getting a sequel this September—are clear disciples of the souls-like genre, but the same philosophy has also been applied to other games like Cuphead, Dead Cells, and Hollow Knight.
While few copycats have been able to match the original in terms of quality, Dark Souls undeniably ignited something in a gaming sphere which was far too complacent in its mediocrity. It made developers and publishers realize that, for the most part, gamers won’t shy away from a challenge so long as it’s well-designed. Games of this nature are inherently rewarding because they ask the player to develop and hone their own skills rather than arbitrarily plod through a campaign or grind to artificially raise a stat. Where other titles placate the player with easier modes or infuriate them with outrageous difficulty for the mere sake of it, the so-called 'soulsborne' series compels audiences with a sort of David and Goliath mechanic, evocative of the aforementioned 8-bit thumb bruisers from the bygone days of gaming.
And it’s made players ask more from their games. For the most part, these games have broken audiences from the Call of Duty disillusion which saw publishers pump out tons of samey, mindless dreck in years past. In a pre-Dark Souls world, titles like Cuphead simply wouldn’t have been possible, as the difficulty would have automatically relegated it to a niche audience. Today, however, the market is more accepting of games which aren’t willing to compromise and hold a player's hand, and it’s encouraging to see more members of the gaming community embrace these viewpoints.
Of course, this isn’t to say that games are necessarily more difficult than they used to be; titles like Red Dead Redemption 2 or Stardew Valley prove that not everyone’s up for teeth-grinding challenges all day long. Still, the fact remains that the Souls games broke the mold and told the powers that be that games don’t necessarily need to be all-inclusive or easily digestible. What’s more, from The Binding of Isaac to Breath of the Wild, newer releases no longer need to shy away from increased difficulty, and we have Dark Souls to thank for that.