Approaching Dark Souls

I won’t try to claim that Dark Souls is an easy game to get into. While I am sure there are of course people who get there on their first go, I have heard many stories of people like myself who needed several attempts to get into it.

It was three attempts for me. First time was shortly after the PC release. I went at it for a few days, got to the Bell Gargoyles, and stopped there. Didn’t go back to it for nearly a year, but gave it another bash last Autumn. Beat those Gargoyles, and the Titanite Demon below Andre the Blacksmith, and ventured into Darkroot Basin where I went up against the Black Knight on the path down before leaving it again.

My third attempt was this Spring, just a month or two ago. I don’t remember exactly. Tried picking up my old character to begin with, but I had started talking to Josh at this time, and combined with my own discoveries I decided it was time to make a new character. Still went with a Pyromancer, but I had a much clearer idea of how to build her this time. So with a shield and spear in hand, and a bow on my back, I set forth and am currently banging my head against the Four Kings. (Unfortunately I have kinda lost the right frame of mind for Dark Souls, so I might need an extended break again. We’ll see.)

Now one of the things I like to do is to analyse stuff. While games is one of my favourite topics to consider, I do also ponder just about anything else in my life, but I won’t go out on that tangent right now. Dark Souls‘s approach to gameplay and how you are taught is different, and definitely interesting. The series of videos Extra Credits have been doing lately on learning, education and videogames have helped my thoughts along somewhat.

Dark Souls is often lauded and held up as being hard. And it is, I won’t dispute that, but that’s not really the whole story. I’ve also seen it said that Dark Souls is “old-school”, but I don’t see that. Old-school hard was often an artefact of the arcade days of gaming where short games had to be made artificially hard and unfair to milk more money out of you and extend their life. Dark Souls is hard, but fair. There are rules, and the same ones apply to you as well as to the enemies. You can reasonably expect any humanoid enemy you encounter to have to obey the same rules as you do regarding attacks, staggering and movement. Their stats and abilities might be different, but they operate on the same framework.

If there is one big failure the game has, it is the lack of explanation. You kinda need to understand the basics of the stats and how different gear affects them, and vice versa. While the information is there, you are kinda lacking the legend needed to read it. A lot of the stuff I had to understand before I could really enjoy the game came from friends and the Wiki, and without those resources to rely on, I am not sure I could have overcome that hurdle. So I can’t really blame people who get stuck there.

I view Dark Souls almost like a puzzle game. Each enemy will have a move-set that you can learn and adapt to, and figure out how to counter. The better you get to know your opponents, the more effective you will be in dispatching them. Like you, they are locked into their attack animations, so a well-timed dodge, parry or block can often be the difference between victory and defeat.

But what I feel Dark Souls does better than practically any other game is encouraging you to try again. This might sound crazy to those who abhor the thought of having to go through the entire area between the bonfire and the boss again, or whatever other challenge they’re attempting, but Dark Souls does encourage trying again quite well. Maybe not right now, maybe you need a break, but you can come back and you can do this. Look, any souls and humanity you were carrying are waiting for you. You want those back, don’t you? Just take care you don’t get struck down again on the way, or they’re gone.

Approach with caution. That seems to be another lesson they want to impart on you. Be sure to check the corners. Don’t trust anything. It didn’t take me long to end up going everywhere with my shield up, and often taking a quick jump backwards when coming out from a narrow corridor into a larger room or an intersection. A new enemy would always be approached with shield up while I try to figure out what this one does. Can I get around behind it? What sort of attacks does it use? Is it safe to get close? (The answer to that one is usually no, but you never know.) Why is that one just standing there and looking at me? Are its mates waiting in ambush? Is there a trap waiting to be triggered? Might it be prudent to put an arrow in its head to get it to come out here? Where is the closest nice, open area I can move back to to engage on safer footing?

Dark Souls will present you with a challenge, and then sit back and let you figure out on your own how to overcome it. And I’ve found that I kinda like that. I am typically not a gamer concerned with challenge. I rarely feel any qualms about turning a game down to easy, and will most likely not feel it’s worth it to try to master whatever combat the game wants me to take on. Yet Dark Souls has proven to be different. And I suspect it’s its more puzzle-like approach to combat. Instead of just forcing me to work on my reflexes and twitch skills, it lets me take my time to analyse what I’m up against and figure out the right response. And if I fail, I just have to get back and try again when I’m ready. And at least for me, the getting back is simply another part of the puzzle solution, one there is at least a certain satisfaction in executing.

When I die in Dark Souls, I pretty much always understand why and how it happened, and that brings me one step closer to figuring out how to overcome that. Even if sometimes the solution is “I need to take a break now and try again later”, because I’ve gotten good at telling when my mind isn’t in the game. When I’m too impatient, too annoyed, too reckless. I can’t really think of any clear instance where it felt like I died just because the game was cheap and unfair, and not because I screwed up in some way. (While certain other games feel entirely cheap and unfair when I die *cough*boundbyflame*cough*)

Also, I like how everything else also respawns with you. There are of course certain enemies that don’t come back, like all the bosses, but the vast majority of things you encounter will be back after you die, or after you stop at a bonfire. It helps sell the world to me. Everyone is undead, and respawn the same as you do, pretty much. (Okay, it doesn’t always make that much sense with all of them, but for the most part it does.)

Dark Souls is not a game that can be approached like most other third-person action RPGs. There is very little hack & slash to be found here. It requires a much more calculated approach. And I’m certain that’s part of what trips up a lot of people. We’re just not used to it. I’ve actually heard it said that people who are less familiar with videogames have an easier time getting into Dark Souls, because they don’t carry with them the same expectations as long-time gamers into the game.

What I am trying to get at here, is that I feel Dark Souls does a good job of letting you build on your failures. It doesn’t let you off easy, but it gives you the tools and opportunities to improve. Maybe you can overcome this now. Maybe it is better to go somewhere else for now and come back later with a few more levels and some better gear. It weaves death into the experience in such a way that while you of course would prefer not to die, it’s not the end of the world if you do. You just have to learn from it and move on.  Just be cautious, patient, and above all: smart.

Dark Souls wants and expects you to think, and maybe that is the supreme reason why it somehow endeared itself to me in spite of seeming to go against most of what I look for in games.

~Wulf

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Posted on May 19, 2014, in Games, Thoughts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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