The time has come for me to talk about Dark Souls. It has been on the market for consoles for months, but the PC version only just dropped. Also, it became my new favorite game ever after several hours of play-time back in late April. Dark Souls is an action role-playing game developed by From Software as the spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls, 2009 Game of the Year. I believe Dark Souls is, more than just another great game, a significant and special game which all gaming fans should appreciate even if they don’t play it. It is aptly described as a massively multiplayer, online, single-player game. It is so challenging that its website is preparetodie.com, yet many fans impose progressively more constricting restrictions on themselves to make it harder. Although its Wikipedia page calls the plot minimalistic, Dark Souls features a highly complex and deeply developed plot which continues to generate spirited discussion. It’s a dark fantasy RPG that often feels like survival horror, yet it’s not trendy (maybe that one won’t make sense to anybody else, but I’m so sick of the topical dark fantasy and crappy survival horror that’s been everywhere recently). Because it is easy to describe it in such contradictory and complicated ways, what may be most surprising about Dark Souls is how simple and approachable it really is.
I won’t lie – Dark Souls is a very challenging game. Game director Hidetaka Miyazaki (no relation to Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli) led development under the objective of challenging players so as to foster feelings of accomplishment and reward when those challenges are met. At the same time, however, the team developed the game under the assumption that anyone should be able to overcome Dark Souls’ challenges through observation, strategy, and choice. I think that’s pretty awesome, but the important thing is that they pulled it off.
Here’s how that works in practice. In most action RPGs, difficulty scales with your character’s level.This means that your level one, good-for-nothing character blossoms into a badass level 60 over the course of the game, and you are lucky enough to be along for the ride. A lot of times we return to that first dungeon after we’ve gotten through a third of the game, and marvel at how fragile our characters were to have once been afraid of the oversized ants we now thoughtlessly cut down. The better games, like Skyrim, try to keep the challenge alive and dispel the illusion that we are now arbitrarily much more powerful than all of those previous foes by scaling enemy’s levels up with our own.
It doesn’t work quite that way in Dark Souls; in fact, there is no scaling. You could start the game power-leveled to 40 and still get your ass repeatedly handed to you before you can reach the first checkpoint after the tutorial. Typically, you’ll enter a new area and die. Then you’ll be more careful, and die again. Soon, you are learning how to block each enemy’s attacks and strike them when they are vulnerable. A handful of deaths later, and you fight your way, one by one, past dozens of enemies to hit the checkpoint. After a few more deaths, you no longer fear those first enemies. Sure, if you stop paying attention to them they still easily kill you, but when you set your mind to taking them on, they don’t stand a chance.
And that is exactly the point. Progression through the game is not a reflection of your character’s transformation into a badass, but of your own. You have personally accomplished something. This is one of the most amazing things about Dark Souls, and the satisfaction of meeting and overcoming each challenge you face never diminishes. I should also mention that successful progression in this manner rewards you with better equipment which eventually affords you more freedom in how you deal with both lesser and higher foes.
While often extremely difficult, Dark Souls almost always remains fair. Rather than each death feeling like the result of gratuitous difficulty, you begin to understand that you died because you made a mistake. You learn a lesson, and you do better the next time. This leads to a level of identification as your character which I have not seen in any other game. The combination of challenge and fairness encroaches upon a new level of experience in games. One of the game mechanics which enables such a high level of immersion is the ability to parry and then riposte your enemies. Unless you have at some point taken up the sport of fencing, I don’t expect you to know what that means. To parry means to deflect an enemy’s attack so as to leave them exposed; to riposte is to attack during the parried enemy’s moment of weakness. The parry/riposte mechanic in particular leads to a sense of genuine, medieval style of combat which is easily lost in hack-and-slash style games.
There is a high degree of freedom and depth to enjoy as a player. You can choose to specialize in strength or dexterity weapons, sorcery or holy magic, or any combination of those skills or no skill in particular. However you choose to play, there is a way for you to utilize your play-style to conquer every obstacle. From Soft was very tedious in executing their design in the game to allow for this. They designed each weapon and piece of equipment to be viable, so each player can pick what they want and be successful.
All of this close attention to detail really shows, even in the level design. It amazes me that each area requires a beginner to fully experience it, fighting each enemy carefully, with running straight through being suicide. But, a master who has paid enough deaths for knowledge is fully able to speed through areas at their will. With such carefully constructed, deep gameplay, Dark Souls perfectly exemplifies why From Soft does not believe in designing games based on market data and instead competes by making the best game that they can. It pays off. I wish more studios were able to create in this way.
Dark Souls blends the single-player and online experiences so seamlessly you often don’t even think about it. First, you can see messages written on the ground by other players with hints about what to do. Discerning whether or not a message is true is up to you. Messages can be voted up by players to increase how many players they are exposed to over time, or voted down to strike them from the world faster than normal.
After reaching the first in-game merchant and purchasing the appropriate item, you can write messages, too. You can’t say whatever you want, though; instead, you may pick from a variety of pre-formatted phrases and select the appropriate noun. It’s somewhat restrictive, but since these messages are on the internet that is a definite plus. Another hidden benefit: since messages are constructed in this way, when you write “Be wary of trap,” Japanese and Spanish speaking players see the Japanese and Spanish equivalent.
Other players can appear in your world in a variety of ways. Often, you’ll see ghostly characters running around the game world. These ghosts are other players in real time. Sometimes you’ll see them go into a room you didn’t know was there, other times you’ll see them get killed by a hidden trap or enemy, but most of the time you’ll see a few seconds of them running, fighting, and healing, just like you. It goes a long way toward making a solitary game feel communal. You know you’re not alone, not the only one struggling with this part or that enemy. You can interact with bloodstains other players leave on the ground to watch their last 10 or so seconds before death, which ranges from informative to humorous to cathartic.
The real multiplayer comes in the form of phantoms. Do you need help? Well, you can find other players offering to help, and summon them straight into your world to fight alongside you.
Putting yourself into a state where you can receive help, however, also means opening yourself up to players who will literally invade your world and attempt to murder you for their own benefit. If you don’t like the sound of that, you can instead offer to help others, or invade some innocent player’s world for yourself. What I’m describing here are the cooperative and player-versus-player elements of the game, and transitioning between playing solo and playing with others is entirely fluid. It’s just a part of how the game works. Even if you play offline, there are still light and dark phantom non-player characters you will come across.
The online community of players, though of course complete with some real jerks, is actually the best online gaming community I have ever experienced. It is largely self-policing, with mutually agreed upon rules for honorable pvp and self-imposed level caps. Most experienced players can easily spot newer players and will drop them some nice items and send them an encouraging message. I’ve never had an online experience that resulted in my meeting so many people, which is particularly surprising since there is no in-game chat – AT ALL. If you want to actually talk to someone you are playing with, you’ll have to private chat or team speak with them. And although there is no in-game chat, there is an abundance of communication between players. This communication comes in the form of gestures. Whether it is people bowing to each other, pointing to places or things, or falling to their knees in prostration, you do see a lot of it.
Surprisingly, the gesture system makes it much easier to play with people from around the world. I’ve found myself playing and communicating with people quite seamlessly for large blocks of time, having a blast with each other, only to receive a message from or send a message to them and find out they only speak Japanese or Russian. Maybe it’s how invested in the game we are due to the difficulty, maybe it’s got something to do with seeing physical acts of communication, or maybe it’s something else altogether, but something about Dark Souls makes it very easy to connect personally with other players online.
So playing through the game is itself satisfying, and playing with a new friend in Japan is less intrusive than texting a parent, but is there anything else to the experience? It depends on whether or not you want there to be. Dark Souls was designed from the ground up with a story in mind, and there is certainly a story present. But, if you really don’t care about that, Dark Souls doesn’t push it on you. The opening cut-scene is only a few short minutes long, and that short cut-scene is likely longer than all of the rest of them combined. And yes, I am saying this about a Japanese RPG. If you are interested in the dynamic and complex narrative that Dark Souls has to offer, however, you will not be disappointed. There have been a good number of players claiming Dark Souls doesn’t have a story. It has a story, and it’s a pretty good one, too. Instead of watching it, though, you’ll just have to play it. The game-world is filled with details that inform you subtle things about the narrative. You can engage in dialogue with characters to learn things, or read item descriptions to pick up the lore associated with them.
Because the narrative is never really forcing itself on you, it really ends up feeling like this is a rich and independent world which you’ve been plopped into. You’ll run into people like Havel and Ricard, and you’ll have no idea who they are or why they’re there. If you’re interested, you’ll find subtle clues as to who they are and what they might be doing where you found them, but the game never actually tells you. With narrative in games being so explicit, the subtlety and mystery of Dark Souls can be a dream come true if you’re a fan of both games and literature.This is not to say, and please read this carefully, that the narrative is either light or detached. Every item and detail is generally there for a reason, nearly every event and character is actually quite emotionally charged. If you pay attention, you find out that most bosses are independent appeals to pathos. There are two bosses who I at times am close to tears when I fight them. But that’s me with my own silly reasons for identifying so much with those characters, and other players hate those bosses with a fiery passion. As a whole, Dark Souls does characters very well, so long as you take it for what it is – a tragedy epic. Every character is tragic. Naturally, the common gender tropes for these roles crop up. The embittered man (asshole), the cowardly man (asshole), the innocent woman who believes she is worthless (damsel in distress), the woman on a noble quest… which she fails at and you then save (damsel in distress… why?!), but these tropes are largely understandable to me since these are pretty universal ways to communicate tragedy to much of the world. I do comment Dark Souls for some of the more unique women, such as Alvina and the Fair Lady. I wish I could say there was a redeeming male character (now that I think of it, Knight Kirk maybe?).
This has gone on for longer than I hoped, but I still have so much more to say. I love this game. It’s an important game. Unlike a lot of the fluff we see in games today, like loud noises and bright colors, and meaningless appeals to get gimmicky achievements and trophies, this game is a renewal of the idea that games should be inherently rewarding. It’s not that good contemporary games don’t achieve this, but it is something that is a part of the entire design philosophy of Dark Souls. I think the industry could stand taking design for rewarding experiences a little more seriously. I think that people who like to role play should pay particular attention, as Dark Souls is so deeply enthralling on such a personal level as to put it on an entirely different level than any Atlas, Bethesda, Bioware, or Square-Enix game I have ever played.
From only a perspective of gameplay, Dark Souls is changing how we have to think of single-player and multiplayer experiences. Do you hate the gratuitous cut-scenes and quick time events becoming the standard narrative delivery devices in games? Then support Dark Souls, which is not only offering an alternative, but a smart alternative that actually works in practice. From Software and Hidetaka Miyazaki showed the world with Demon’s Souls that a good game could be financially successful despite having no marketing support whatsoever, to date the first and last time that has actually happened, and they’ve improved upon many of their game concepts with Dark Souls. If you have the time to check it out in any way, please do so. It deserves your attention.