Dark Souls 2 Unplugged: the invisible effects of good sound design

By Brenna Hillier, Monday, 12 May 2014 08:03 GMT

The more excited you get, the worse you play. Brenna turns the sound off and has an easier time of it in Dark Souls 2, but somehow it feels like cheating.

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Recently I’ve been playing Dark Souls 2. I know, I know; I’m a bit behind the times, but now that I’ve started it’s eating my life. I loved Demon’s Souls and played it to bits, but while I liked Dark Souls a lot it didn’t quite resonate with me in the same way; somehow the sequel is pushing my buttons, though, and I quite resent being away from it for even a few hours to earn my salary (you’re welcome, by the way).

Because Dark Souls 2 is quite an intense game, I’m playing it in my bedroom, where my housemate’s sudden return from work or passage in front of the TV won’t cause me to drop 200,000 souls and scream so hard my lungs liquify and spray the opposite wall. Unfortunately, my monitor is on the blink, and refusing to output sound.

So I’m playing Dark Souls 2 in silence.

The sound in Dark Souls 2 (and its precursors) is pretty good, recycled sound effects aside. Like most good sound design, you don’t really notice it until it’s gone. I’m not just talking about the orchestral soundtrack, which is great (although maybe not as good as Demon’s Souls, which I regularly cue up on iTunes), or about the way a good pair of stereo headphones can help enormously when you go in cold in a new environment and rely on every possible clue to warn you of threats. I’m talking about the feel of it; the sound and music in Dark Souls 2 uses common cinematic tactics to ratchet up the tension and get your pulse racing, so every encounter feels meaningful and consequential – which, when you’ve got all your souls, your humanity and a section of your life bar riding on survival, it is.

Playing in silence makes the game genuinely easier for me, because I stay calm and detached. Instead of getting more and more tense in boss fights, flinching and jumping with every near miss, I may as well be smoking a bubble pipe. I’m not very far into the game and I’m sure I’ve not met many really tough foes yet, but I did beat the Pursuer on my first try, just calmly controlling the fight. That surprised me, because I don’t think of myself as terribly good at games.

It’s nice to feel like I’m steamrolling through a game widely considered to be really difficult. But you know what? I think I’m probably gonna get my monitor repaired.

This fucking game, ugh, I swear to god.

The first game ever to drive me to rage quit was Quackshot, a Mega Drive platformer beyond my eight year old hand eye co-ordination. I died once passing an obstacle due to a silly error, and on subsequent attempts I failed over and over again because now I was nervous, angry and frustrated. I remember bursting into tears and being advised by an adult to sit and calm down before trying again.

This was a valuable lesson; it’s much easier to do anything if you’re calm. Whenever I find myself struggling to pass a boss battle, a tricky race or a nasty firefight, I walk away, take a break, and come back when my emotions are under control.

That I get so het up about games is something of a weakness, I guess; I’m not as good at games as I would be if I were always detached and calm. Playing in silence helps me tap into the vein of collected, tactical, thoughtful gamer inside me, who can overcome whatever challenges an action game throws at me. After all, it’s just button pressing, right? Just mashing keys in the right order.

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“Help mummy help, it’s the nasty Pursuer!” *yawns* *swats*

Do I really want to tap that vein? That’s a tricky question. Of course I want to be good at games. I take a lot of pride in overcoming challenges, and derive a lot of self worth from displaying skill. Plus, I really like exploring games, seeing new environments and finding out what happens in the story – and if you’re stuck on a boss fight, you never get to see any of that content.

On the other hand, it feels a little like cheating, and I’ve never seen the point in cheating. What’s the point of playing games if I’m sure to win? If I’m not risking something (my precious time, maybe)? And most importantly, if I’m not engaging with them emotionally? There’s an attitude of cynicism in gaming that I’ve never really understood, where you have to be all cool and disdainful of whatever you’re doing. It’s as if not feeling a thrill, not getting excited is somehow cooler than authentically enjoying an experience.

I have similar feelings about horror. I love horror movies, and games – and I get really, really scared. I don’t really know why you’d want to experience a horror game or movie if you don’t ever find them creepy. It can’t be for the acting, or the plotlines, or the startlingly original cinematic tricks, because like any genre horror is tied up in tropes. If you don’t get scared, what are you even doing there? “Jolly good, the lady has been stabbed. I feel nothing because I am an emotionless robot. I’m so glad I pay my Netflix subscription to experience these things that produce no reaction in me at all, because I am too cool.”

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Artist’s approximation of what Brenna calls “the face”.

Whenever someone calls me a wuss for squeaking or curling my legs up while watching something scary, I give them a face. Sorry for actually enjoying the media, man. Didn’t realise we were here to sneer and show off how little we engage with shit because we’re too cool for school. Nice fake vintage moustache wax t-shirt, by the way.

When I play an action game, I don’t want it to be boring. I want to get excited about it, to enjoy the experience for more than the low-level pleasure of performing a skilled action (or feeding my psychological dependence on incremental rewards, ala social game design). I want to shout and swear, and to get invested in my character surviving an encounter. I want my pulse to race and to come away reeling with stories of my adventures.

Next time I fire up Dark Souls 2, I’ll plug my Sennies in; I’ll probably die half a hundred times, but I know I’ll come away feeling far more satisfied than if I’d walked through the game yawning and slaughtering my foes without effort.

What are your hot tips for getting through tough boss fights or quests?

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