Kit’s Controller Corner: FromSoftware is challenging video game elitism

A drawing of a giant robot from the video game armored core. The robot’s right arm is broken off. In the lower left corner, a popup message reads “Difficulty set: HARD? YES/NO.”
(Nora Wu • The Student Life)

FromSoftware is a Japanese video game developer and publisher that has gained notoriety for their impact on gaming culture. Games such as “Demon’s Souls,” “Dark Souls” trilogy, “Bloodborne” and “Elden Ring” (often referred to as the “Soulsborne” games) had a tremendous influence on gaming culture, particularly surrounding feelings of achievement, the confrontation of challenges and the cultivation of a fervent fanbase that follows the developer’s every new release. Recently, FromSoftware released the newest installment in their long-dormant “Armored Core” series to widespread acclaim. However, rousing the sleeping giant stirred discontent from their fanbase due to the lack of relative difficulty. Despite that, the newest “Armored Core” release tears down the walls erected by elitist culture, making the game more accessible to audiences and strengthening FromSoftware’s narrative effectiveness.

FromSoftware’s games are lauded for their rich lore and backstory. “Dark Souls” crafted a beautiful overarching narrative across its three installments that urged the player to become invested in the fading of the primordial flame. “Armored Core” caused one to feel simultaneously downtrodden by the brutal existence of an independent mercenary in a hyper-militarized world while also placing the player squarely in the middle of social change. Meanwhile, fantasy literature titan George R.R. Martin contributed to the narrative of “Elden Ring.” All this to say that FromSoftware’s games are filled with a deep background, endearing characters and unforgettable settings that make the worlds they take place in fleshed out, engaging and — despite the fantastical locales — incredibly real.

The “Soulsborne” games were characterized not only for their rich storytelling but for their mechanics — the implementation of Role Playing Game (RPG) genre conventions that were polished to a mirror sheen made gameplay fluid, engaging and intuitive. However, the characteristic that is most strongly associated with the “Soulsborne” games is their unforgiving difficulty. To any player of a “Soulsborne” game, the stark red “YOU DIED” on a black background haunts their nightmares and evokes feelings of panic or unadulterated rage.

But don’t be fooled: “Soulsborne” players love the pain. The achievement that’s felt after overcoming an overwhelming challenge through hard-won skill and patience — and the ability to resist putting your fist through your monitor — is the sweetest victory one could feel after beating a boss. The intense challenge only increases the relief and pride after winning, and this is what makes the “Soulsborne” games cult favorites. The frustration felt at every death and the anger at a cheap shot that the boss takes egg you on, urging you to get better until you’re finally able to surmount the obstacle in your way.

“Not everyone has the time, nor the desire, to spend hours learning inane knowledge about a video game, — regardless of how much nerd cred it may earn you, — and it’s perfectly fine to exploit “intentional” game design for the purposes of maximizing your enjoyment.”

It’s not all sunshine, rainbows and eldritch horrors, though — the “Soulsborne” community that arose from the fanbase has its own challenges you’ll have to brave if you want to be a fan. With a sense of achievement, there comes the urge to compare oneself to others. The “Soulsborne” fanbase is, unfortunately, plagued with a sense of elitism that arises from people wanting to demonstrate how their achievements are more notable than those of their peers. A hierarchy has arisen from self-imposed challenges and how “skilled” players are.

The extremely unhelpful but often parroted advice of “Git Gud” (a derivation of the phrase “get good”) plagues every discussion about “Soulsborne” games and their difficulty. The intense competition and sense of elitism pervading the community of fans make it difficult for newcomers to engage with the media due to how off-putting the fan-base can be. Coverage of this issue even extends to widely-read non-gaming publications such as Forbes, where an author was dogpiled by the community for suggesting that “Dark Souls 3” should be more accessible or have an easy mode. But the vitriol is starting to fade.

FromSoftware’s two newest releases, “Elden Ring” and “Armored Core 6,” have focused even more heavily on player customizability than ever before — players are able to specialize in a specific playstyle that matches their desired level of challenge and their skills going into the game. In lowering the skill floor, FromSoftware has made their games greatly more accessible, allowing people to enjoy games that would’ve been written off as too demanding. 

Some players complain that the introduction of such accessibility features cheapens the sense of achievement that arises from prevailing over a substantial challenge. But the miraculous thing about increasing player choice is that it enables the player to determine their level of difficulty. Not everyone has the time, nor the desire, to spend hours learning inane knowledge about a video game — regardless of how much nerd cred it may earn you — and it’s perfectly fine to exploit “intentional” game design for the purposes of maximizing your enjoyment.

If you have ever been intrigued by the promise of the rich storytelling and unique game mechanics of FromSoftware’s games but were put off by the intense difficulty of gameplay, I urge you to try FromSoftware’s newer, more accessible games. And though you may perish while fighting against the punishing bosses, remember that though you may be small, you will die a colossus.

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