Blasphemous Gives Us Another Way to Think About Difficulty in Games

After your first duel in Blasphemous, your character the Penitent One anoints themselves with the blood of the fallen monster, pouring it inside their helmet so as to entirely cover their head, gruesomely dripping into the neck and chest. This self-baptism kickstarts the trials of Blasphemous, the latest game by indie Spanish studio The Game Kitchen, in which the revelation of a supernatural entity referred to only as “The Miracle” has twisted the world of Cvstodia into divine shape, its blessings indistinguishable from maledictions. The core of the game’s aesthetic is (Spanish) Catholicism in all its contradictory, gory splendor, a fantastic collage of themes and images from across the history of a religion that became the highest reference of irrationalism and obscurantism in Europe during the course of early modernity.

By the end of the 18th century, the image of Catholicism was tainted, the source of Gothicism as well as the perfect reversal of the image of Enlightenment. Blasphemous runs with this image in a fictional setting, utilizing Christian concepts for the purposes of building a drama centered on guilt and suffering. The game’s plot is deliberately baroque and open-ended, deploying every element in poetic images and narrative insights that take the form of prayers and litanies, telling a tale of a rebel church whose blessed leader, touched by divinity in such a degree that only monstrosity and madness ensue, must be destroyed to restore the place of the true “Miracle.”

It would be appropriate to call the Penitent One’s journey a quest, but, given the game’s themes, I believe it would be better referred to as an ordeal. This might seem a trivial difference, but understanding the historical context of the term allows us to consider Blasphemous‘s difficulty — as well as that of many other games — in a novel way.

The Pain

The ordeal was a judicial mechanic adapted from pagan law by the Carolingian Empire in the 9th century, eventually spreading to various places across Europe until it was abolished by the Catholic Church in the 13th century. Also called “judgement of God”, it was a last resort in trials where no verdict could be reached by judges. It could take many forms, from duels to attempting to float in a well, but regardless of the specifics, the ordeal was a punishing test that would prove someone’s innocence or culpability. Whoever’s position was affirmed by success in the ordeal was agreed to be the truth, not out of respect for their strength or ability, but because to overcome was the ultimate show of God’s favor.

The pain that was needed to overcome an ordeal fit perfectly with a Catholic imaginary that saw it as the main element in the expression of suffering. Its central role in Christianity at large is obvious, but in the ordeal, pain and guilt were channelled into suffering in order to produce the catharsis of expiation (for the successful party) or of shame (for the failing one). Thus, succeeding at an ordeal proved one side right, whatever one’s ability or physical condition, whatever one’s standing with the community: God had intervened in one’s favor, or fortune had arranged circumstances in a way that expressed his will.

In Blasphemous, the Miracle’s divine transformation of the world is ambiguous, its majestic ruins a constant reminder that death is just as magnificent and monstrous as life. Suffering infuses every little aspect of this world as something as desirable as it is repugnant, which means there is no easy divide into ugly-looking “bad guys” and beautiful “good guys.” Everything is crossed by this fundamental ambivalence of pain, in which self-torture is as valid a path as any towards redemption. Its aesthetic continually suggests that this is no traditional story of “salvation,” in which success guarantees the restoration of (beautiful) order – the praise and the longing for suffering that the “good guys” express comes to affirm its permanence.

This is why the Penitent One’s journey is not a quest with a moral message about corruption and purity that ultimately turns them into a hero, but an ordeal in which they, just one more character in search of painful redemption, are ultimately proven right by the will of the Miracle and the curse that is its granting of fortune.

The difficulty of the task at hand, then, is not a subject of overcoming suffering and pain, but of actualizing it in every step towards success, of making it ring true in the path of repentance and reconciliation with the divine. It is not meant to reflect capability or skill, but the amount of suffering you’re willing to gift to the game for the Miracle’s favor.

In other words, difficulty is integrated with the game’s themes, it is part of an aesthetic, by which I mean the perception and experience of the whole. This integration presents us with a potentially different conception of what difficulty is or what it can do, because instead of centering upon the game’s mechanics, instead of seeing it as a series of moving parts that can be adjusted to give players their own forms of self-punishment, it could center upon the player’s perception, upon each player’s unique relationship to said whole.

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The Penitence

Difficulty is usually considered under a mechanical lens, and in its current form reflects contextual values in which “merit” plays a key role. The mechanical approach — rational, quantifiable — prizes being “good,” being the “hero” that after a myriad tribulations will inevitably win. In keeping with deviated Catholic themes, it is about becoming a saint, and as philosopher Emil Cioran put it in Tears and Saints, “saintliness is a special kind of madness.” He adds that, “While the madness of mortals exhausts itself in useless and fantastic actions, holy madness is a conscious effort towards winning everything.”

What if, instead of saintliness, instead of trying to prove oneself worthy, instead of attaching unjust concepts like “merit” to the mechanical approach to a game’s difficulty, we privileged the mortality of which Cioran spoke? What if we made of difficulty an aesthetic decision like Blasphemous does, except anchored upon “useless and fantastic actions?”

Anyway, the concept of “challenge” does not really stand up to any serious analysis, because it can signify something as simple as a “combine paper and pencil” puzzle, a time limit on a task’s completion, or the mechanical inflation of game statistics. What the mechanical approach allows, through the vague idea of “challenge”, is a fixation on the concept of merit, on being — getting — good, on mastery of its rules without regard for how players actually experience the game. The difficulty of Blasphemous is not meant to close off the game from those who would not be saints and masters, but to welcome them with the experience of suffering, of trying, again and again, not with the intent to “dominate” the game and prove their self-worth to a competitive community, but to share their penitence, to fulfill their ordeal and prove themselves right before the Miracle.

The aesthetic approach to difficulty can do away with the idea of “challenge” and attempt, in the spirit of Blasphemous, to account for as many fortunes as possible, not through prescriptive, mechanical measures, but through inquiry: in what ways can this game be experienced? How can the game’s trials direct and respond to players’ “useless and fantastic actions”, instead of their desire to win and become saints? While “difficulty is not synonymous with accessibility”, as demonstrated by Dia Lacina, there might be a way to mesh both, with aesthetics as a bridge. Narratives could use ordeals instead of quests; the idea would be to reframe difficulty to reject the individualist lenses of self-worth and merit, of overcoming and proving oneself, returning to a more welcoming and open form of play uninterested in being used to reproduce social hierarchies. 

This approach potentially redraws the meaning of “difficulty sliders” and would complement existing ones well: certain combinations of items in Blasphemous make certain areas much easier to navigate. Given the game’s baroque, obscurantist hints, it is hard to work that out, but with the help of some clarifying guidelines many games could use that style of play adjustment. No need for mastery – here’s some items with which you can play differently and which will encourage to play to your own fortune, regardless of the fortunes of others.

As creators of worlds, developers are more than able to show favor to as wide a diversity of players as they can imagine, welcoming as many experiences of their work as they can, instead of challenging them to master it (and with it, themselves). Difficulty, in other words, can be a way to form community, instead of a way to stratify it. 

The Penitent One in Blasphemous is part of a brotherhood whose members are mostly dead – it is a trail of would-be saints. But when the Penitent One succeeds at the ordeal, they become a relic, an object of worship around which the denizens of Cvstodia rally around, and joyfully enjoin their collective suffering. The circle of baptism is complete: the blood of the Penitent inaugurates the ordeal of creating a society anew in all its monstrous glory.