All The Right Elements: Dark Souls
September 18, 2012 Leave a comment
Prepare To Waste Your Time Edition
Dark Souls, or the Souls-Games in general, resonate with a lot of people and the last thing I want to do with this article is to deny someone his or her enjoyment of the title. However Dark Souls has problems, problems that often are overlooked in favor of its “uncompromising” and “hard core” gameplay.
Somehow Dark Souls never clicked with me and for the longest time I couldn’t really put my finger on the reason, well now that I had around a year to mull things over, I think I know.
Dark Souls isn’t hardcore enough.
The Battle For Knowledge
There is no hand-holding and there is withholding information from the player, Dark Souls notoriously uses the latter to artificially increase the difficulty.
Dark Souls often gets compared to older roguelike games or uncompromising RPG titles of old like the Gold Box games, however those games never withheld information from you. These games came with extensive manuals and maps, boxes chock-full of content.
On my shelf is a boxed copy of an obscure 1994 adventure-RPG called Dragon Lore, it contains a 40 page manual with detailed descriptions of actions, creatures and lore, and the game isn’t even very good (or complex).
My Dark Souls Limited Edition contains an art-book and a manual that contains 11 pages of which 5 are dedicated to explaining the controller-layout, safety-warnings and online-features.
I’m not asking for a strategy-guide here, but trying to figure out stability (one of the most important stats for shields) through trial and error ingame isn’t exactly good game-design. Why isn’t this in my manual? It’s important information if I plan on adopting a certain playstyle. For all the freedom this game gives you to approach combat, it tells you nothing about its mechanics. It shows you rows of numbers but fails to explain what most of them actually mean. What exactly is “Param Bonus” with the value “B” on dexterity? How will upgrading my weapon affect the scalability?
Like, what does all this stuff even mean.
Dark Souls constantly tries to hand-wave away the questions that are piling on and act like it doesn’t matter. “Just try, it’s not important” it says while I’m getting my skull bashed in because my block breaks. If it’s not important, why do we have rows of numbers representing “better” or “worse” for those things?
Dark Souls isn’t a mechanically simple game by any stretch of the imagination, in fact it’s one of the most complex stat-systems I’ve ever seen, at least in a video-game. At some point I just started reading the Wiki extensively before I decided on any equipment, upgrades or items because the game was not explaining itself to me. How can I make any informed decision without the information?
This problem also extends partially to enemy encounters.
Yes I understand that Dark Souls is mostly about memorization and execution. Learning by doing, trial and error. The Capra Demon becomes trivial once you know what to expect when you step through the fog-gate, you just need to be prepared. The game is a bit schizophrenic in that way, it expects you to be prepared, but rarely tells you for what (“anything” is an infinitely broad term in the case of Dark Souls).
I Like To Die, I Don’t Like Wasting My Time
I’m a great fan of roguelikes, dying in a game can be part of the fun and often something that enriches the experience.
I just recently purchased FTL: Faster Than Light, played it almost 20 hours over the weekend. Finally, yesterday at 3 am I beat the boss on easy for the first time, great little game. Now my goal is to beat the boss on normal and on the Stealth Cruiser that doesn’t have any shields, thats going to be fun.
My body is ready.
FTL has great replayability because it doesn’t waste my time, it doesn’t make me go through the motions, it serves me with something new every time I start a new session. Sometimes it puts me against almost unsurmountable odds, sometimes it lifts me up to crush me on my next encounter because I face an enemy that plays to my weaknesses, but it never wastes my time.
But this isn’t an analysis of FTL, I merely want to contrast my experience with almost every roguelike in existence to Dark Souls. Dark Souls presents me with nothing new after I die, my death in the game has no consequence beyond wasting my time.
Aw shit another half hour wasted.
This is a problem with the game being actually extremely linear in its progression. Roguelikes often tend to have randomly generated sessions for a reason. It’s what keeps the game flowing and gives the player a sense of fairness as his actions are not pre-determined but neither are the game’s.
There is using player-death as a high risk, high reward situation and there is Dark Souls where I dread dying not because it’s a failure-condition, but because it means I will have to force my way through the same part of the game over, and over, and over, and over again, de-powered no less.
Mechanically this isn’t even a new concept. Diablo 2 already had the mechanic of recovering your body and loot from the place you died. Diablo 2 also had waypoints (bonfires) that signaled safety. However Diablo was fast-paced and death wasn’t typical or as common as in Dark Souls. Deaths were fast, recovery usually was even quicker.
I’ve seen people compare Dark Souls to I Wanna Be The Guy, for its similar approach to memorization, “fuck you” traps and execution, but no, no, no – no. IWBTG works its death into the gameplay, its designed around it (yeah I never thought I would be praising IWBTG for anything). There is no game that has faster respawns, faster movement and dynamics around death that IWBTG. Yes, IWBTG will make you run the same screen over and over again, maybe hundreds of times, but it will do it in the most unobtrusive way possible. A screen takes maybe 10 seconds to complete on perfect execution, even if you try and repeat it a hundred times, its not your life being drained away. On a sidenote, most death-intensive games do this.
Compared to Dark Souls, where playtimes between bonfire-locations can go into 30-40 minutes and where resting at bonfires resets all enemies except bosses, the game is just padding its playtime.
Making death meaningful isn’t achieved by making me dread the wasted time I will have to pump into your game, it’s achieved by giving the failure-state a permanent ingame consequence.
For me, if you are going this way Dark Souls, its Permadeath or nothing.
It’s just a very unfortunate mash-up of mechanics, either you want to present a roguelike experience where death is part of the experience, the world is trying to kill you, and random shit happens, OR you are taking your cue from hardcore platformers and you are more interested in memorization, execution and muscle-memory.
Somewhere in Dark Souls are the cores of at least three different design philosophies that don’t necessarily mesh well together.
You ruin the core of a good roguelike by making encounters, maps, static and removing perma-death, you ruin the core of a HnS/core platformer by sucking the dynamics out of it, and you ruin the RPG aspect by withholding mechanical information. There is no problem beating the game after researching every section beforehand and finally understanding the mechanics behind the equipment. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t find that I can call that difficult or “hardcore”. So in essence you even ruin your execution part.
It might be that I simply react badly to trial and error mechanics in general, but I don’t find a game that is reduced to triviality just because you know whats coming to be particularly engaging.
Don’t Kill Me
Dark Souls isn’t a bad game by any stretch, but it’s not as good as many make it out to be.
I have a lot of praise for From Games, especially both their art- and sound-direction on the title which I find to be positively stellar. I also appreciate that things like lore and story are scattered in fragments around the world to be discovered, it creates a truly unique narrative experience when discovering the truth about the land (you will know what I mean when you play it).
Dark Souls had all the right elements, in the end however it failed to make them work for me.