the artistry and psychology of gaming


Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition

The Good:
+ Weighty, methodical combat is immensely satisfying
+ RPG mechanics are deep and extremely well-balanced
+ Atmosphere and aesthetics are impressively brooding
+ Unconventional narrative delivery suits the game well

The Bad:
– Bloated, trap-filled level design is a chore to traverse
– Maddening difficulty due to limited checkpoints and tutorials
– Controls and interface are rather unpolished
– Unconventional narrative delivery isn’t particularly engaging

Dark Souls is a gamer’s game. If that sounds exclusionary, that’s because…well, it is. Dark Souls is designed to be as exclusionary as possible, for better or for worse. But whatever its faults, it (along with its predecessor Demon’s Souls) has gained a rabid cult following, because it’s full of things that gamers often clamour for: it’s a deep, primarily single-player RPG, it’s designed entirely around its punishing difficulty level, and it absolutely cannot be played with a casual mindset. And of course, as the title implies, it’s dark. Because what’s a gamer’s game without “maturity”, right?

Well, actually, Dark Souls is a little different from other games that proudly sport their M rating. It’s a rare, gratifying example of a dark fantasy game that actually adheres to the definition of “dark fantasy” as a literary genre (i.e. the combination of fantasy and horror), rather than the likes of Dragon Age or The Witcher, whose tone is essentially that of a grindhouse film that happens to be set in Middle Earth.

The game begins with a summary of the setting: a thousand years after some abstract cataclysm, humans are being randomly branded with the Darksign, making them immortal but Undead, and thus susceptible to the physical and mental decay known as Hollowing. The Undead (including the player) are quarantined in an asylum in the abandoned country of Lordran…and it just gets darker from there.

Whether it was done to reinforce the game’s theme of helplessness in the face of greater powers, or just to avoid the awkwardness of translating a Japanese game’s plot, the nebulous and largely irrelevant nature of Dark Souls‘ story compliments the game surprisingly well. Characters all have hyperbolic fantasy names like Dark Sun Gwyndolin and Kingseeker Frampt, the few NPCs you interact with have dialogue that always seems one step removed from the reality you’re seeing, and despite the mythic proportions of the game’s world, civilization is only alluded to, never witnessed. The effect is akin to playing around in the aftermath of a Lovecraftian horror story, where all the eldritch abominations have already risen and corrupted everything millennia ago, and the only people left are either depressingly indifferent or violently insane.

Compared to the rest of the game, this area is designed with restraint and subtlety.

It also allows for a lot of gameplay-story integration for things that would otherwise make no sense, especially the game’s online component. Characters can say things like, “the flow of time is distorted in Lordran” without breaking suspension of disbelief, because it’s in the same setting where a magical fire’s prolonged burning is creating some kind of hypothetical golden age…or…something. The extensive use of item flavour text to expand the setting is also appreciated.

All that said, flavour text and gameplay integration are largely background noise when they’re not linked to a coherent plot, and Dark Souls doesn’t really seem to want you to care about what’s going on. Your ultimate goal is either to continue the “Age of Fire”, or begin the “Age of Dark”, with no indication of what either will actually accomplish – the ending cutscene may as well say “A winner is you”. Hell, I only know half the boss characters’ backstories and why I was even fighting them because I spent a lot of time on the game’s wiki and TV Tropes pages.

And trust me, you’re going to want to play Dark Souls with a wiki page open, because the game doesn’t tell you shit. There are some brief control tutorials, and that’s it. The character creation screen lists about 10 stats without explaining a single one, leaving you to just guess what “Attunement” is. Here’s a sampler of some of the other things the game forgets to explain: the difference between spell types, or even how to use spells for that matter, how weapon stat scaling works, the fact that both strength and dexterity determine if a weapon can be used, and my personal favourite, how the nearly-impenetrable upgrade system works. Some people will defend this lack of handholding as encouraging the player to discover things on their own, but when different blacksmiths provide different upgrade paths that are mostly hidden from the player (and can be expensive and time-consuming, as well), it just reeks of padding and artificial difficulty.

Speaking of artificial difficulty, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Dark Souls‘ infamous challenge level. It’s true that the game is viciously difficult, but exactly why it’s difficult, and whether or not it’s a good thing is…complicated. Over the course of my 50-60-hour campaign, I finally came to a conclusion as to why the difficulty is so hard to critique: From Software has no idea what they’re doing. Their entire design process consists of creating things that look and feel cool, without a single thought given as to how it will affect the game or the player. This should’ve already been obvious, considering their most notable pre-Demon’s Souls work was the Armored Core series, a 14-game monument to self-indulgent developer excess.

But it’s most evident here, because Dark Souls has as many terrific, calculated ideas as it has horrible, clearly-untested ones, and they permeate every aspect of its design, from combat, to level design, to the bloody status effects. It all conjures the image of a developer throwing darts at a wall lined with game mechanics, and just running with whatever they hit. Case in point: the same game that skillfully breaks down and re-balances the standard RPG class system also includes a “curse” status effect that cuts your life in half…and keeps it that way after you die…and stacks with additional curses (pre-patch, at least, but the fact that no one thought that would be a bad idea from the start kind of proves my point).

It’s the gaming equivalent of progressive rock: mind-blowing and eye-rolling at the same time.

So let’s start with the positives, at least. Specifically, the balanced RPG mechanics I mentioned. With the exception of your character’s initial stats, Dark Souls eschews class-based design in favour of a flexible skill-point system. Normally, the only RPGs to do this are “open” ones like Fallout or Knights of the Old Republic, where half your skills have to be dumped into non-combat abilities like lockpicking and speech. These systems are usually pretty lopsided, because there’s no way the developer can keep contriving ways to let all possible play styles reach a working conclusion.

But stats in Dark Souls are focused entirely on combat, allowing for dozens of play styles that feel drastically different, while really just being alternative means to the same end: killing things. Dark Souls is the first RPG I’ve played in a long time where alternative character builds felt so interesting and viable that I actually wanted to play through it again to get a fresh perspective. I didn’t, of course, because the damn thing took 50-60 hours and I’ve got 30 other games to play, but the thought was there.

Focusing the RPG mechanics on combat was a smart decision, because the game’s core combat is solid. And I mean that by both definitions of the word; there’s a masterfully-executed feeling of weight and gravity to the combat. Between the methodical pace, the emphasis on examining enemy movements and blocking attacks, the bulky animations, and the overall lethality, nothing is inconsequential in Dark Souls. You will feel every thud of metal on metal, you will wince every time your character is slashed across the chest due to carelessness, and you will sigh and cheer at every inch of progress. Most straight horror games wish they could be this gripping. Even just walking through the game’s world becomes a tense, patient exercise, because the environments are so imposing and the enemies and traps can and will spring on you from nowhere. But that last part’s not nearly as much of a good thing.

You will be terrified of dying in Dark Souls. The immediate reason for this is that you drop all your “souls” (which function as both currency and experience) and “humanity” (which does a host of ancillary things) upon death, and if you don’t reach the spot of your death next time, they’re lost forever. In practice, though, you won’t want to die because dying makes the game horrifically boring.

The game uses magical bonfires for pretty much everything important: saving, levelling up, upgrading, healing, replenishing items, and warping across the game world. Problem is, there’s way too few of them, so they’re often 5-10 minutes apart…and that’s if you’re sprinting past everything in between. So if you happen to die far away from the most recent bonfire, then you have to re-engage every enemy and re-avoid every trap on the way to the spot of your death. And since the game is so intentionally and ungodly hard, you will die far away from the most recent bonfire, and you will have to redo everything with no hint of progress…over and over and over again.

I was almost willing to forgive this kind of design because the core gameplay was so strong, until I realized that the game pulls the exact same shit with boss battles. There is absolutely no reason why a bonfire couldn’t be added to a room adjacent to each boss battle. Instead we have to sit through a 10-minute commute every time we want to attempt a rematch. This is not challenging; this is annoying.

Yeah, I figured that out, Dark Souls. Thanks.

Again, I can hear the defenders yell, “Too many bonfires would be too easy!” Um…maybe don’t make the bonfires so overwhelmingly useful, then? The fact that professional game designers apparently looked at this and said, “This is the best we can do,” tells me one of two things: either the gameplay was completely untested, or From collectively threw up their hands and screamed, “We don’t know what we’re doing! We’re just going to drop bonfires and boss battles wherever the hell we feel like!”

I wish I could say this was the only problem afflicting the level design, but the game’s world is just confused and cruel on the whole. The very first post-tutorial area, for example, contained three or four exits. The one I was expected to take was the least obvious, and was, in fact, behind me the whole time. You know, Dark Souls, if you’re just going to punish me for exploring your branching, exploration-ready world, I’d prefer the hub world setup of Demon’s Souls.

But my favourite example came later, after I walked through a hallway lined with harmless statues. In a game that knew what it was doing, this would’ve silently told me that the statues were just that – statues. In Dark Souls, however, the very next one I encountered impaled me with spikes the second I walked past it. This is the opposite of good level design. This goes beyond bad level design, and into a bizarre territory where good level design techniques are perverted and used to create entirely unfair situations that no one, no matter how skilled or cautious, could overcome without some kind of precognition.

The levels all look gorgeous, of course. The overly complex nature of them all fits perfectly with the mythical scope of the game’s story, and there’s an impressive variety of environments to explore, considering all of them somehow have to tie back to the game’s bleak, morbid themes. Enemy designs are also a sight to behold, partially because of their superb animations, partially because some of them are just bloody massive, and again, partially because of their sheer variety. The music is also a darkly beautiful wonder, although I wish there was more of it – ambient noise gets repetitive after a while. And finally, the sound effects and voice acting are excellent throughout, with the exception of the player character, whose sighs of pain sound more like a really bored sexual partner. These aesthetics combine with the gameplay to create a thick, oppressive atmosphere with a thoroughness that’s hard to come by outside of the game’s own predecessor, Demon’s Souls.

The game actually shares quite a bit with Demon’s Souls, if you strip away the unrelated story and open-in-name-only world. The most obvious holdover is the aforementioned online component. While Dark Souls is primarily single-player, players in other games can leave messages throughout the world, tipping you off about secrets and warning you about traps. At least, that’s the idea. They can also leave false information that has you searching for secrets that aren’t there or using the wrong kind of weapon against an enemy.

More directly, other players can be summoned into your game for assistance with especially difficult sections, or they can periodically invade your game and kill you when you’re most vulnerable. Additionally, there are a handful of other, smaller features that help reinforce the feeling of being one of a thousand insignificant players, and a “covenant” system that offers some marginal benefits and alterations to the online experience. Overall, it’s a neat little inclusion that has the potential to alleviate some of the terrible level design, but it also has the potential to work as a form of legitimized griefing, so if you’re the kind of person who recoils in horror at the term “legitimized griefing”, it probably won’t be so appreciated.

The game’s menu interfaces are of a similarly iffy quality. They all have kind of a dirty, crowded look, and they dedicate whole sections to irrelevant things like Thrust Defence, while making it rather difficult to compare two pieces of equipment. The controls fare better; like everything else, they have a necessary sense of weight to them that meant my strong attacks felt like strong attacks, and my desperate dodges felt like desperate dodges. However, the more advanced attacks (kicks, parries, backstabs, and jump attacks) are irritatingly fickle, and the level design that’s only concerned about appearance makes it hard to find your footing occasionally.

Finally, the game is dragged down by yet another handful of hard-for-the-sake-hard mechanics: once you acquire the means to fast travel, you can only warp to specific bonfires; sidequests progress at arbitrary times with no indication of where the next step will be; and most damning of all, there’s no fucking pause button. I’m not sure if From is so egotistical that they believe their game should demand all of our attention at all times, or if they’re just idiots (most likely the latter), but not being able to pause is just stupid, lazy design.

So if I have so many problems with Dark Souls, why did I play it all the way to end? Well, two reasons. One, it’s exceptionally well-paced when it comes to introducing game mechanics, and two, it’s kind of addicting. It makes the smart, subtle move of flashing descriptions of future items during load screens, so that even when you’re toiling away in the first area, you want to keep playing just to find all those interesting things the game keeps telling you exist. The expansive item flavour text I mentioned is actually used to this effect too, because 90% of what you can read about actually exists and has a demonstrable effect in-game.

Those towers in the background aren’t for show; you’re going to visit them, along with pretty much everything else you can see and read about.

The game is also bursting with content. And not in terms of sheer number of weapons or areas; Dark Souls is bursting with unique content with drastic effects on the play experience. Every weapon type (of which there are over 20) has a completely different moveset, with new animations to match. And where a lesser game would start using enemy palette swaps after the halfway mark, Dark Souls just doesn’t stop introducing new, completely different enemies. Rest assured, if you become bored with Dark Souls, it will be through its previously discussed poor design, and not through repetition.

If you can stomach the hours of frustration, I can recommend Dark Souls. It would be a fantastic game if its good qualities weren’t buried under a layer of bullshit, and it offers a lot of things that I and others like me constantly ask for. I was sorely tempted to play through the game a second time, but keep in mind that I have way more patience for these things than most people. If the legitimized griefing, tedious respawn commutes, and general user-unfriendly nature of the game sound like turn-offs, you’re well within your rights to ignore it completely. And if anyone tries to tell you you’re not a true gamer for doing so, feel free to laugh in their elitist, masochist faces before going off to do something less painful than playing Dark Souls.

Score: 6/10

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