Dark Souls 2: the inviting unknown

Tuesday, 11 December 2012 13:32 GMT By Dave Cook

Dark Souls 2 is to be more “understandable”, according to developer FROM Software. VG247’s Dave Cook explains why the studio needs to be cautious in its approach.

Fearing the unknown is a perfectly natural thing. For example, we have no knowledge of what – if anything – lies beyond death, and it’s the kind of troubling thought that keeps people awake at night, as do concerns over World War III, the rise of environmental cataclysms and other unforeseeable events.

We’re inquisitive creatures, constantly trying to explain the unexplainable, furthering our own knowledge through education or the arts, and breaking down the many myths surrounding our planet and beyond, into the great void of space. We live to learn, and that learning helps us live in kind.

This curiosity-baiting ambiguity and thirst for knowledge is where the beauty of FROM Software’s cult hits Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls lies. Both games offer little in the way of lore or tutorials, and instead rely predominantly on cause and effect deduction. There are no need for words here, just simple, raw experimentation.

If you try something and it fails, then you know not to do it again. If you try something else and it works, then that’s the game’s way of telling you that you’re doing the right thing. It is the most basic form of aesthetic feedback in gaming, yet FROM Software’s titles remain a masterclass of the art.

For example, when you shoot someone in an FPS you’d expect some kind of aesthetic feedback to know your shot landed on target. Such mechanics are a given these days, but so many games still fall of short of conveying those messages clearly without resorting to intrusive text panels.

The ‘Souls’ franchise manages to deliver this information through visual and aural means – albeit subtely – without the immersion-breaking nuisance of HUD pop-ups, arrows or voice chatter. Dark Souls gets players curious, gets them talking, and has spawned vast word-of-mouth theorising and collaboration.

It’s still incredible to think that when Demon’s Souls: Black Phantom Edition launched in the UK, its bundled ‘official’ strategy guide was actually the Demon’s Souls Wiki pages editorialised into a digestible format, underlining just how much the game had got people talking.

The game didn’t explicitly reveal these secrets to players as it was largely ambiguous. Instead they had to earn and pool that collective knowledge by trying things in-game, as well as discussing unearthed secrets on the Wiki page and on forums.

Baffling mechanics such as World Tendecy and the way it affected the game world, or the best places to farm souls suddenly became readily-available knowledge, all without the developer explaining a thing.

That is truly a phenomenon, even if it feels insignificant. To get people talking that much, and to see them collaborating to master the game on a grand scale was inspiring, and the same rang true with its successor Dark Souls, which also boasts a massive Wiki community.

Dark Souls 2 was announced at the VGA awards over the weekend, and with it a dark and ominous trailer that fell in line with the series’ dark, harrowing tone. Typically, sequel announcements are met with one of two reactions – excitement or cynicism. Some fear the money-grabbing intent of fast-buck sequels, while others are happy to see franchises return.

Either way, the Dark Souls 2 announcement has largely been met with celebration, and theories have already begun about the game’s new world, the existence of bonfires and other areas. It’s a brand people feel is worth discussing and combing through to dredge as much insight as possible. It’s a powerful thing indeed.

However, as part of a Dark Souls 2 feature, Edge spoke with co-directors Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura, who discussed the game’s difficulty and accessibility. Shibuya stated that the game would be more “understandable” than its predecessor.

He specifically said, “I personally am the sort of person who likes to be more direct than subtle. [Dark Souls 2] will be more straightforward and more understandable.”

This has got some gamers worried, as to many of the Dark Souls faithful the word ‘understandable’ translates to ‘easier’, but I’m not so sure that’s the case here. Namco Bandai’s promotional push on Dark Souls was rather massive.

I remember walking the public halls of gamescom 2011 and seeing huge, intimidating banners and posters everywhere telling advising everyone to “Prepare to Die.” E3 was no different. Yet for all of Namco’s pushing, the game entered the UK charts on October 8th at 6th place, then steadily dropped from there – according to scorekeeper Chart Track.

That’s just in the UK of course, but I remember seeing a lot of gamers and friends saying that they were either avoiding Dark Souls because of its difficulty, or that they had traded it back in after finding it utterly impenetrable. I personally adore Dark Souls, but I can absolutely see where they’re coming from.

Trial and error runs through Dark Soul’s veins. It’s all about figuring out attack patterns, earning the discipline to defend at attack at the right time, and having the patience to grit your teeth after each death, take a massive breath and enter the fray once more.

It’s a lot like fumbling around in the dark for a light switch. You get closer to pinpointing it each time you reach out, but for some – especially those who are time-poor – the demands of Dark Souls are too great.

Making the game more understandable might be something as simple as offering an easy mode – as desired by Dark Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki – who said, “I personally want my games to be described as satisfying rather than difficult.

“As a matter of fact, I am aiming at giving players sense of accomplishment in the use of difficulty. Having said that, however, it is true that Dark Souls is rather difficult and a number of people may hesitate to play.”

Namco Bandai quickly debunked the quote as a mistranslation, and stated that no easy more was being developed, but I feel that Miyazaki was simply speaking out loud here, and I absolutely agree with him. If hardcore fans hate the idea of an easy mode, then they could chose to not play it. It’s simple.

The unknown can be intimidating, and the long proccess of learning the intricacies and harsh penalties of FROM Software’s world results in a significant time sink. Dark Souls 2 may not be getting any easier, but explaining how status inflictions change your character, or the way swearing allegiance to certain NPCs impact the game later on would go some way to purifying the muddied water.

That said I do enjoy Dark Souls’ ambiguity and crushing difficulty. In fact, I’d even hazard to say – as mad as it may sound – that it’s not that difficult at all on a mechanical level, and that you, personally are the biggest foe in the game.

If you know what you’re doing and act cautiously without haste or confusion, then you will have greater odds, but if you charge on without care or respect for your enemies, then you will die a foolish death. Restraint and intelligence are needed over raw twitch skill. It’s a lesson in patience, rather than feats of control.

Dark Souls is one of very few games where the hazardous, unbeaten path is more inviting than the safe road. There are secrets to be found everywhere if you look hard enough and brave the unknown. The thrill that comes with stepping through walls of light – uncertain of what horrors lie on the other side – is immeasurable for one.

To strip away the mystery and make Dark Souls 2 more understandable in that sense could be disastrous, but I seriously doubt that FROM Software were saying that to Edge at all. I think it just means the game will spell out more of its rules in plain English.

Will Dark Souls 2 be easier for it however? Well, I’ve met the Dark Souls team several times before and let me tell you, they’re a gleefully sadistic bunch of brilliant sods.

They’re very lovely people, but make no mistake; they want you to die, die and die again – not just for their own amusement – but to give you a sense of gratification and pure elation every time you overcome the unknown and notch up another fleeting victory.

Without that feeling, Dark Souls 2 would be nothing, so I think we’ve got very little to be worried about.

What’s your view? Let us know below.