Dark Souls: The Perfect Anti-Game
Yesterday morning I managed to see the credits roll on Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin. As of writing, I’m still feeling the adrenaline rush of making that final blow against Nashandra and watching her fall. It was a beautiful but exhausting ‘finale’ to one of the most expertly designed games I’ve ever played. From end to end it’s one long roller coaster of emotion – from one end of the spectrum to the other. Boiling frustration turns into sheer jubilation at the slightest inching of progress. Today, I picked up my copy of Dark Souls 3 as it just came out in Australia (which Stephen expertly reviewed right here.) Thanks also to Xbox One backwards compatibility, I now also have a copy of the original Dark Souls. The series has me hooked.
But it wasn’t always like that.
Before my achievement this morning, I had never beaten a Dark Souls game before, and that was after 2 previous attempts: 20 hours of both the original Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2. I bounced off them harder than a bullet off Superman, and it wasn’t for a lack of trying either. I wanted to play them. I wanted to finish them. I just couldn’t, and at the time I simply resigned myself to the idea that they whilst they were brilliant games, they were simply too hard for me.
Matt, our illustrious editor, feels very much the same way as I did then, as highlighted by his piece on when difficulty turns into frustration. In his piece, he talks about his respect for the series and largely acknowledges the deep admiration the series holds within the hearts of fans. He also talks about his frustrations with the game and laments that these frustrations are the main reason he can’t penetrate the series. These are all completely fair opinions, but I can’t say they are ones I share.
Dark Souls games have always had a reputation for being ‘too difficult’, which is a description that frustrates me for a few reasons. It misguidedly skips over the nuance with which From Software handles this at a core level. It’s also a blanket statement that stops short of describing what aspect of the game is actually too difficult and ignores why that might be. As a result, anyone who dismisses the Souls games as being merely difficult for difficulties sake is quite mistaken.
Dark Souls games seek to subvert player expectations at literally every turn; especially if you’re new to the series. I mean, how many other games present you with doors to open that lead directly off a cliff? How many other games have treasure chests that are actually living beasts that will gladly eat you if you touch them? Opening doors to access new areas and finding hidden treasure chests containing player rewards is obviously nothing new. They are very simple techniques of providing the player with a sense of progression – the player takes comfort in these facts because that is how they have been established: as facts of the gaming world. Hard and fast rules that just ‘are’ because that’s how it’s always been.
If I were to ask what red barrels are for in video games, I think most of you would be able to answer before I finished asking the question. Dark Souls seeks to break these rules in very deliberate ways in order to force you to rethink your approach. It will show you a door and ask you to walk through it, but then punish you for doing so. Some immediately see this as frustration, but Dark Souls sees this as a lesson in how you need to move forward. It might not tell you explicitly what you need to do, but you’ll know what not to do, and in a Souls game this is invaluable.
Another opinion I hear regularly is that the combat is too impenetrable, and to be fair it is by far the hardest thing to come to grips with in the series. In saying that it’s also the most common mechanic used in the game and if you can’t manage to learn what works and what doesn’t after a few hours of trying, then I’ve got bad news for you: you probably need to think a little harder about what you’re doing.
This is probably the most common complaint about Dark Souls, and on one hand its pretty easy to see why this is. Most of the enemies in Souls games are able to kill you with relative ease, sometimes in one hit. This breaks the common trend of games allowing the player to absorb, and dish out, more damage than the enemy normally can. It’s far less a case of hack and slash as much as you like till bodies lie strewn in your wake than it is maintaining your patience, watching your enemy and learning how they move and attack. You have to take your time in combat, or risk being punished you for even thinking about trying to rush through a section.
Learning to read the intricacies of how an opponent begins an attack, and learning to react to it, is essential. Can you effectively block without taking damage? Or, do you need to dodge roll out of the way? If you do two heavy strikes against this opponent, will you have enough stamina to roll out of the way of their imminent counter-attack? You need to be able to identify, ask, then answer these questions in quick succession if you want to see any meaningful progress.
Something that a lot of new players miss is that many enemies in Dark Souls have a specific weakness that can be exploited – it’s just a matter of finding it. Some enemies can’t hit you when you’re rolling, whilst others can only attack very slowly, giving you plenty of time to move. Of course, this changes over time, but that’s the beauty of combat is Souls games. It isn’t the kind of game you put on for a bit of mindless fun, but it will reward consistency and lateral thinking in leaps and bounds.
So what do I mean, then, when I call Dark Souls the perfect ‘anti-game’? Let me tell you about a type of music called ‘antifolk’. Antifolk music is, perhaps as you can tell from the name, the polar opposite of what folk music is, and focuses mainly on subverting the common traits of popular folk music of the time. So instead of playing softly on their acoustic guitars and singing earnestly about political and cultural issues of the day, they’d sing about meaningless drivel whilst smashing and bashing away at their instruments.
It’s through this lens that I look at the Dark Souls games and begin to understand their appeal. It’s not really about being masochistic and trying to punish yourself, though for some I imagine that will be a thing – like for this insane person who finished Dark Souls 2 without dying. For me, and I imagine most others, it’s about wanting something else than the norm. It’s about the incredible scenery and world design that intertwines with a narrative that pulls you from pillar to post, then spits you out like a fight cloud in a Looney Tunes cartoon. It’s about wanting something to bite back when you bite – something that doesn’t lack the conviction to demand things of the player, whether the player really wants that or not.
Dark Souls is about letting go of what you know, and failing to do that will see you fall before it, like so many have before.
James Swinbanks is a Games Critic currently writing for GameSpot, although you’ll still occasionally see him popping up on Player 2, because frankly, he loves the smell of the place.