Death and Conflict
For clarity, I played Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition, not the Remaster.
Dark Souls. What a troubled game. Remember when I talked about that toxic culture in the article Why I Love: Celeste? Well, I’m not going to talk about that here. We get it.
Dark Souls is an action RPG with paced combat. The absolutely fantastic artistic direction makes this fantasy game very beautiful and interesting. It is brutally difficult and challenging. Wait, did I say brutally difficult? I meant, it’s brutally different.
I played through so much frustration thinking to myself, “I just need to get good. I just need to practice. Everyone says this game is so hard so I just gotta train myself to be more skilled.”
After a series of frustrating boss fights, I told a friend, who is really into Dark Souls, “This game is just stressful and frustrating. There is a limit to certain design elements that just make it seem lazy.”
And he replied by saying, “ No, it’s just eccentric.”
I continued my argument of game design, but I also continued to give his side more thought. And then after more frustrating failures against the enemies of Dark Souls, it finally dawned on me. Earlier in the game my friend said that I just wasn’t good enough. Which was not very nice of him to say, but now he said something different that was the solution to everything. The game isn’t hard. It’s just different.
And then everything clicked. The game isn’t difficult. It’s just different. Here I was floundering about for hours without end because all I was trying to do was get better, when in reality I was supposed to just learn how to play differently. Dark Souls went from “the thing I’m trying to enjoy” to “the thing I am enjoying a lot.”
I think the whole idea of this game being super insanely difficult really dug into my mind and misguided me. Dark Souls is hard, yes, but I think one of the things that could be more important against certain aspects of the game is that sometimes it’s more about how you go about doing things, rather than how good you play. It’s more about thinking of different ways, than being more skilled. I rooted out the idea of not being good enough, and replaced it with, when, what, and how should I do anything. Or…if I should anything at all. If I should just watch and think. I think the problem is that I was so used to just getting better and better at doing the main thing in a game, like jumping, aiming and shooting, using combos and elements, or building in better patterns. So while skill is important in Dark Souls I think there is a process of interpretation that is just as important.
Dark Souls’ main game mechanic is that when you die you leave behind your souls, which acts as both experience and currency. If you don’t spend your souls on stat points or items in stores, you are prone to dropping them upon death. After you respawn, you must go and grab your souls. However, all the enemies respawn, and should you die again, that old pile of souls despawn to make way for your new corpse’s souls.
I played through the game with a broken controller, and which button was the broken one? Ah yes… the block button. So I was extremely frustrated playing as a melee character. The block button only worked some of the time, and “sometimes” is not a good way to go about blocking.
I struggled a lot in the beginning. I didn’t know my block button was broken yet. I thought it was me being terrible, but once I realized that I found out how to rely on the times when the button did work. I did this by holding down the block button when it worked so I don’t have to risk pressing it again only to not raise up my shield. And if my shield was down, staying out of combat until the time when pressing it did work. A bit dreadful.
And the second thing is time. I hate wasting time. I don’t like sleeping. I don’t like taking breaks. And I especially do not like my souls going down the drain after killing a boss. See, in games like rogue-lites and other RPGs your exp and new unlocks/equipment are always a little step forward after you die. Even if you die, the time spent is usually accounted for by loot or some exp leftover after an exp loss. Or maybe you unlocked a new item. But in Dark Souls…they dump your time into the abyss. And that makes me really upset.
Until. Until I realized that is exactly what Super Mario Bros did to me as a wee child. Because in old Super Mario Bros and in Dark Souls, sometimes the only thing you have after your death is the skill you gained in playing and nothing else. Personally, I think this was the biggest thing to overcome for me in my entire playthrough. It was understanding how to not be frustrated with myself. This is something that I have trouble with all the time in real life. If I am not showing progress, I get really upset and sad (or angry). But Dark Souls is like any other game concerning how it handles your time. And if you’re not looking at the right way to go about things, whether it’s getting more skilled, being patient with yourself or the game, or learning how to interpret the game, I think it can be pretty frustrating.
Someone else questioned me about why I was trying to play a game that made me so angry in the first half when I was not enjoying it. And honestly, the thing that kept me going, were the boss designs. Wow. Most, if not all, of the boss designs are just so good. From an art standpoint, they’re designed so well. It gives me goosebumps. They’re innovative, yet clear. They’re themed and emotional. So, that’s what pushed me. I just really wanted to see these things and fight them. In the half of the game where I learned to enjoy it, it became a joyful experience to have a new enemy to learn to understand.
I guess this can feel like an enormously large and vague explanation of why I love Dark Souls, but it all ends well I believe. I think the whole game is an unconventional way of allowing the player to interpret how to approach enemies without having systemic game design like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Dishonored. And I honestly really like it. The semi-open world feel fits well too. I think it takes the idea of “every enemy is different” from games like The Legend of Zelda series far enough to make you have to work hard for it. To die for it in many cases.
And so that kind of leads to my last points. I’d like to make a statement about “souls-likes”. I hate when people develop a game just for it’s difficulty, because it creates a very toxic environment. There have been a plethora of souls-like games that try to copy the formula and many of them do not do it well. I think they put too much focus on the game being hard or having slow and/or paced combat. I really don’t think those are the things that make a souls-like game. I think the souls system makes a souls-like. I don’t think any of the previously mentioned aspects are without purpose in Dark Souls. The game is difficult, but in a way of design and approach. The game is slow and paced, but in a way of allowing you to observe, think, and react. And the souls system backs up the paced combat, forcing you to do those aforementioned things because your experience is on the line.
And…. maybe that’s just it. It doesn’t do things “just because.” It’s different for the sake of game design, and not just for being different. Dark Souls is so great because it is so deliberate. And the way it’s designed makes it so we have to be deliberate in everything that we do in the game. That kind of design is what makes some of the hardest games I’ve played challenging, and not frustrating. And Dark Souls has managed that in possibly one of the best ways I’ve ever seen.
Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition is #82 on the Ultimate Loosely Thought Ranked Analysis, or the ULTRA, which is basically my top games list. I guess at this point is getting less and less loosely thought.
Thanks for reading, and I hope that Dark Souls doesn’t turn out to be a toxic or super frustrating experience for you if you play it. As much as I am not wont to say it, take breaks if you need to.
Blast that broken block button though.