Dark Souls 2 and its predecessors have changed the way many of us view gaming, and in the case of VG247’s Dave Cook, he can’t stop comparing it to other new games.
Every so often a title will come along that forces players to think differently about gaming. It’s possible this has happened to you already.
Maybe you felt that the story-telling in The Last of Us was so emotional and profound that other narratives suddenly seemed limp by comparison? Perhaps the entirety of Half-Life 2’s Ravenholm section made subsequent tutorials feel clunky and intrusive?
All it takes is for one expertly-crafted piece of gaming to force our expectations to shift dramatically, and for this gamer, that was From Software’s original Dark Souls.
The game was by no means perfect, I admit that, but there was something wickedly old-school about its design that it spoke to the retro gamer within, and has since informed the way I view and appraise new games. Other releases often feel weak by comparison.
I feel the first game is better than Dark Souls 2, but I still had a bloody great time with it, which is more than can be said for a few new-gen titles already. Some of these new games just feel pandering, easy, restricted and almost – dare I say it – passive.
Dark Souls is largely ambiguous
Can you tell me what the story of Dark Souls 2 is about, from start to finish? I guarantee very few people actually can, and that’s because From Software wants you to seek out what little plot there is and fill the gaps using your own imagination, something that I fear has become a little too much like hard work these days. Developers seem content to spell out every single piece of lore and detail explicitly so that you don’t miss anything. They’re telling you what the story is almost word-for-word with no room for deviation.
“Developers seem content to spell out every single piece of lore explicitly so that you don’t miss anything. They’re telling you what the story is almost word-for-word with no room for deviation.”
That’s horrendously dull. I liked the original Mass Effect 3 ending because it was largely open-ended, so that whatever I thought happened after the credits rolled was correct. That ownership over a story is personal, emotional and well, very special indeed. It’s like the classic case of Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman, a mute hero who we never see, and who never speaks. We project ourselves onto him. His thoughts and feelings are ours, and vice-versa.
Ambiguity can be powerful when there’s ample context. Dark Souls 1 & 2 both have that context buried deep in NPC dialogue, item descriptions and clues around their worlds. YouTuber VaatiVidya has made a stunning playlist of Dark Souls lore videos that threads the strings together to reveal remarkable things about both stories. I like to guess and to seek out mysterious elements of a games plot, not have everything explained to me in long, boring detail. Games that waffle too much now feel weak compared to the Souls series.
Dark Souls doesn’t tell you where to go
Entering the worlds of Lordran and Drangleic for the first time is incredibly daunting, because neither Dark Souls or its sequel tells you where to go. You get a simple task – ring two bells, seek the king – and wherever you go next is up to you. There are no HUD markers or crumb-trail mechanics. There isn’t even a radar or map. You have to memorise where everything is, and bore it into your skull so whenever you need to back-track you can find your way.
“Aimless meandering in Dark Souls can lead to the discovery of brilliant secrets and loot drops that are massively beneficial, so it pays to wander.”
Does this mean you’ll get lost? Undoubtedly, and I understand why some gamers find this frustrating. What frustrates me more since playing these games is having to dutifully follow big, intrusive arrows telling me where my next mission is. This is worse when said game offers little deviation from the one true path. I like to explore in games, to seek out secrets and go it at my own pace. From Software lets me scratch that itch well.
This exploration isn’t possible in corridor shooters and other narrowed experiences, as it probably wouldn’t sit well in terms of pacing, but where possible, I’d love to just turn off the HUD, remove all my mission markers and just do whatever the hell I want. Aimless meandering in Dark Souls can lead to the discovery of brilliant secrets and loot drops that are massively beneficial, so it pays to wander, but I just feel stunted or intruded-upon in some new games.
Dark Souls doesn’t treat you like a child
I remember playing inFamous: Second Son for review and wrestling with the game’s final boss. It was a simple encounter with predictable attack patterns and a checkpoint at the half-way point should you die near the end. This weak-sauce battle offered very little in the way of gratification after the dust settled because I didn’t feel like I had actually overcome a challenge. I felt coddled, as if Sucker Punch was patting its players on the head and calling all of them winners.
“I felt coddled in inFamous: Second Son, as if Sucker Punch was patting its players on the head and calling all of them winners.”
The original Dark Souls features some of the most gruelling boss encounters I’ve ever suffered through since maybe Mega Man 2 or Contra: Shattered Soldier. To win against the likes of Ornstein and Smough (pictured above) you need to spend time honing your character’s skill and gear, while taking time to memorise their various attack patterns. If you don’t know how to dodge around their moves, when to block, when to heal and various other variables, you will lose. Repeatedly.
That sounds like a ball-ache, but again, I’m getting tired of instant gratification in games. It’s as if developers feel that unless you’re getting huge explosions and set-pieces every time you press a button, then gamers will get disinterested and switch off. Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4 were both bad for that to the point that the gunfire and collapsing buildings provoked no reaction at all. I sat there bored by the mayhem because I didn’t earn the pay-off. In Dark Souls, I earned it through perseverance and skill.
Dark Souls makes other games feel easy
We’ve all heard this claim before, and it’s usually countered with, ‘It’s not fair, it’s full of cheap, unfair moments.’ I absolutely disagree. If you die because something feels cheap in Dark Souls, it’s probably just because you were caught of guard. Chances are you won’t be caught out next time. That’s not cheap, that’s a learning curve. In both Souls games you learn by doing, and through each death your own understanding of the rules grows.
“If you die because something feels cheap in Dark Souls, it’s probably just because you were caught of guard. Chances are you won’t be caught out next time.”
The lack of checkpoints is also called unfair and the result of poor game design. Let me ask you this then, do you feel as emotionally invested and engaged in a game when you know that if you die, you can simply respawn a few steps back without any further penalty? Maybe some people do, but when I know I’ve got upwards of 50,000 souls at risk and I have a long way to go before the next safe area, you can bet I’ll be giving that run 100% of my attention.
If I die in something like Uncharted 3 for example, I know I’ll respawn just a few minutes or seconds earlier. It almost becomes conveyor belt thinking, where you just keep on repeating the same section over and over until you make it through. By comparison, Donkey Kong Country Returns on 3DS requires real, old-school levels of skill and perseverance to make it through many of its brutal stages. Broad checkpoints aren’t always bad design, it’s because we’ve been coddled for too long that we feel hard done by.
I’ll stress again that the Dark Souls series is far from perfect, but it has made me think differently about new games coming out of the industry. We all have games like that; experiences that speak to us on a whole new level. Maybe shooters never felt the same after you played Halo 3, or maybe Skyrim has left other RPGs feeling hollow?
Has your perception of games been altered by a title that really resonated with you? Let us know below.