Games are ruined.
Playing, finishing and replaying Dark Souls has given me nothing more than a pervading sense of ennui around the majority of action games, with action RPGs being particularly affected by the fallout of recovery from throwing myself so completely into the world and mechanics of this wonderful gift of a game from the sadomasochists at From Software. Aside from the external ennui, I can’t help but feel a great deal of compassion for the poor quality assurance folk who would have had to try to break a game that punishes errant behaviour. Their pain has translated into a wonderfully cohesive world difficult to subvert through glitches and the like: a nigh-perfect collection of rules that the game only strays from to subvert expectations in interesting ways.
I really don’t want to be another prick saying all of this: God knows that there are enough people saying the same things; enough people saying that those who don’t play through Dark Souls are lacking in experiencing a valuable entry in the video game canon; enough people seemingly basing some element of their worth as people upon the fact that they have completed a video game. That last point probably bears a little scrutiny: the logic from these particularly strange folks is that, given the reputation for difficulty that the game has, and the time investment necessary to complete the game if one comes from a position of near-absolute ignorance as to the game’s content, there is some sort of moral worth, some sort of genuine sense of achievement to be attained from finally killing Gwyn and making the credits roll. I’m conscious of the fact that I’m, once again, going to reiterate something that the blogosophere video game wankery collective has oft been seen to say about Dark Souls, but here it goes: these people are fundamentally misguided. Dark Souls is not a hard game: it just punishes inattentiveness. These pedants, however, are in the right.
I mentioned before that the game does break its own rules at times: the two key times at which this occurs sit with the introduction of the curse status ailment and the invisible platforms that constitute the method of progression through the Crystal Caves. In the first instance, the game’s thus-far established forewarning of how enemies should be handled, in terms of introduction of how their fight and what their attacks mean to the player in terms of viable actions to deal with them in an efficient manner, is completely and utterly shattered. The basilisks that are found in the lower Depths are introduced simply as a non-humanoid enemy, and if one is to (fallaciously) apply the principles of induction here, one would expect that they aren’t to offer much more of a challenge than the rats introduced early in the game. Such an assertion, however, is quickly demonstrated to be more than foolish. On a first playthrough, it may well be that one doesn’t notice the speed with which the curse status ailment bar increases as one approaches the basilisks. It may well be that one is cursed before one even knows what is happening. The second, and far more egregious, instance of rule-breaking associated with curse is that it persists post-death: poison, toxic and bleed status ailments are reset when one revives at a bonfire. Curse sticks with the player and has a far worse effect than any of those other status effects: it halves one’s effective health until the curse is lifted, either by a healer in a distant area or with an expensive item.
It is, with no doubt, a dick move on the part of the developers, but in breaking the established rules of the game, it serves to reinforce them: this area follows what is widely considered to be the most difficult boss battle in the game and a certain level of overconfidence may have come over the player. The Depths having such a huge penalty for hubris serves to reinforces the “travel carefully and carry a fuck-off massive sword” mantra that defines the style of the Souls games. The sort of tension that the knowledge that anything could lead to player death is somewhat abated with the spectre of a large success hanging over one: the swift and brutal punishment for hanging around the basilisks is a stubborn reminder one perfect run is not simply not enough for mastery of the game.
The invisible platform rule break is a cruel one in so much as the presence of a completely avoidable miniboss on visible platforms is yet another ploy that will trip up the inexperienced player. It appears that this is the only way to go, and the game is hardly shy about putting troublesome enemies directly in the player’s way. The true way forward, however, is found through the traversal of invisible platforms that will only be apparent to those with the greatest eye for detail. Snowflakes falling in the area will persist for a short period of time on these platforms, and appear to be floating. It is not at all an intuitive leap to think that this is by design rather than by errant snowflake descent physics (every g is unique), but the breaking of established convention here is valuable once again in making the player more cagey about what they are actually expected to do in advance of a boss fight that is made trivial by reckless behaviour. Dark Souls is just instance after instance of developers playing with their audience, and it is a wonderful piece of frivolity that more developers should take up.
This is the Real Dark Souls: the systems that create, break and reinstate atmosphere. The fear of failure; the anticipation of the next large foe whose strikes could do serious injury to the player; the increase in heart rate as one moves further from the nearest bonfire: these are the elements that sit on top of a solid set of rules that vary only to further the atmosphere, narrative and perception of how full the player’s agency truly is throughout the game. As a method of environmental storytelling as well, the few deviations from the established rules of the game fit well with the idea that time is somewhat non-linear in this game’s world and that the player is required to piece together what is contemporary and what is past. Dark Souls remains somewhat unique in its ability to remain consistent in the face of apparent inconsistency.