Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dark Souls

Although Roguelikes, FIFA, and MLB the Show, fill the bulk of my scant video gaming time there is one console RPG I had on my list this holiday season.  Nope not Skyrim (the wife is playing that), my pick was broodingly entitled Dark Souls.

This is supposedly the ultimate "gamer cred" game as it unflinchingly hands you your ass for simply  rushing around and not thinking through things.  Wide open sandbox format, no spoon fed niceties, just a man and his will to survive.

In concept it reminds me of my experiences in RPG's and why I still play and design them.  The wide open, go exploring, try anything and cross your fingers it works out nature of RPG's is something that no other game format can equal.  In a console game, there are always going to be limits, in an RPG-it really should be wide open.  While many modern (non-OSR) games seek to codify and limit the experience (becoming more like Video games in that aspect) the OSR trend seeks to pare back the restrictions and its why I still play them.

Think back to when you first started playing RPG's, my first character was a dwarf.  I walked down some stairs, tripped a trap fell onto spikes 20 feet down and died--the end.  I was shocked, surprised, upset, and ready to play again.  I learned to look for traps after that death lesson!  From what I read, Dark Souls is much like that experience with the same philosophy of learning through trial and deadly error.  That's a staple in earning your RPG gamer stripes, and its amazing that this is somehow an earth shattering experience in video games.

If you are interested, the manual that comes with the game is spartan-in the extreme (worthless).  Fortunately the beautiful Dark Souls guide (hardcover, 380pg full color, $25 MSRP) was an additional on holiday gift and will certainly see use.

Below are snippets of an interview with the designer and review of the game that both sparked my interest. Maybe they will interest you too.

Interview with Hidetaka Miyazaki
Dark Souls' genius – the hook at the heart of its gameplay philosophy – is the concept of death as education rather than punishment. Death can teach you something in other games too, but here it's an intentional learning device. It's a wonderfully elegant piece of game design, and one that I hadn't seen anywhere before Demon's Souls. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Miyazaki can't cite any other game as an inspiration. "Strictly, there are no other specific games that inspired this unique design," he says.

 "But the main concept behind the death system is trial and error. The difficulty is high, but always achievable. Everyone can achieve without all that much technique – all you need to do is learn, from your deaths, how to overcome the difficulties. Overcoming challenges by learning something in a game is a very rewarding feeling, and that's what I wanted to prioritise in Dark Souls and Demon's Souls. And because of the online, you can even learn something from somebody else's death. I'd say that was the main concept behind the online, too."

Death, as a concept, is the constant that runs through every element of Dark Souls (and Demon's Souls before it) – not just the gameplay, not just the level and enemy design, but its artwork and internal mythology as well. These games' worlds are places of suspended animation: places where everything has died, save a few lost and wandering souls. They have a strange, unsettling sense of the eternal about them. Wandering the Boletarian Palace or the Undead Burg, you feel like the grime-blackened medieval structures around you might have been there for ever – once full of the living and breathing, perhaps, but long, long since given over to death and decay.

"We spent a long time discussing the base concept of the art design," explains Miyazaki, asked how the team of artists and designers that he manages constructed Dark Souls' visual design. "The game focuses a lot on death, but what is death? What does it look like? What does death mean in this world? What does it mean to live and to die? That is something we discussed very closely. The story is about a fire in the world, a symbol of both living and death. The fire is what brought death to Dark Souls' world, but also the only hope for life. Demons, chaos, dragons, all of them are different incarnations and representations of our idea of death in Dark Souls.

"Dragons, for instance, emerged as a concept somewhere between a living and a dead thing – neither one nor the other. At the same time, though, I wanted to create something beautiful, with this idea of death at heart. But again, people have a lot of different definitions of what beautiful means. We had deep discussion about what beautiful should mean for Dark Souls."

Descending a granite staircase early in Dark Souls, you find a Black Knight obstructing the corridor below. He stands with his back turned, oblivious to your approach. A white loot orb glows cheekily at the far end of the passage. Lesser games might telegraph this enemy’s difficulty by showing it rear its head back and screech, flecking the camera lens with spittle. Such condescension would be superfluous in From Software’s action-RPG template. The mere outline of the knight’s horned helmet – instantly recognisable from the game’s box art – sets your pulse galloping.

You know he’ll be an ornery bastard, relentless and overpowering. He will carve you into slices finer than a deli ham. But the option here of whether or not to engage is a calculated farce. You know that, after wiping your palms off on your trouser legs and taking a deep breath, you’ll provoke the Black Knight. Because glowing loot is to the RPG enthusiast as fire is to the moth. Put simply, ‘compulsion’ is too weak a word.
In order to keep a reassuring distance, you hurl a throwing knife before switching hastily back to your primary weapon. The Black Knight hardly flinches as he pivots around to face you, still terrifyingly mute. Then he charges. Just like the moth, your flailing, flapping demise is both grim and comically Chaplin-esque.
You died, says the game, just in case you’d mistaken your hero’s slumping to the ground for a sudden fit of narcolepsy. You died. This curt declaration appears on your screen with such dispiriting frequency over the course of your time with Dark Souls, the words practically burn into your TV screen. You died.
Just like its 2009 predecessor Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls mirrors the Black Knight’s posture. The game stands with its back to gamers who feel entitled to the coddling of selectable difficulty tiers, enemies with neon-signposted weakspots, and checkpoints as tightly spaced as a trail of Pac-Man dots. Anyone who expects to button-mash their way to victory should avoid playing Dark Souls entirely and simply watch walkthrough videos with a bucket of popcorn in their lap.

Dark Souls has all the trappings of a rote fantasy RPG. You’ll select from the usual bundle of character classes – warrior, hunter, pyromancer, cleric, et al. You’ll chop down undead and skeletons and plague-infested sewer rats – and if you persevere long enough, proud dragons. But don’t be fooled. Embracing a slew of the RPG genre’s hallmarks enables the game’s designers to subvert player expectations with sadistic glee.

For a genre so handicapped by its thrall to almighty Lore – an endless reshuffling of fridge-magnet poetry using words plucked from Tolkien’s Silmarillion – Dark Souls’ most revolutionary design choice involves giving the world just enough history to feel concrete and then dive-rolling out of the player’s way.
Dark Souls’ most seismic achievement – the thing that parlays the grandeur of Demon’s Souls into something improbably greater – is its persistent open world. If you could feasibly conquer Dark Souls without dying, you’d stumble across the occasional momentary framerate freefall, but not a single loading screen. The Nexus hub world and level-based structure of Demon’s Souls tacitly marked your progress through its adventure, but Dark Souls splinters that measuring stick over its knee and dares you to approximate the dimensions of its universe.

As you butt up against what you naively assume to be the outer rim of its world, a defeated boss drops a key that opens a door leading into subterranean sewers. Beat another boss at the bottom of the sewers and the world peels back further, sending you down into a massive cylindrical hole leading to a foetid shantytown. You delve farther down, expecting to hit bedrock. There can’t be another layer. Can there? You shrug off your claustrophobia and spelunk deeper still. Yet another sprawling domain opens up. You get dizzy with the scale, unsettled and insecure about the progress you’ve made, like the explorers in Danielewski’s House Of Leaves descending the book’s infernal, ever-expanding spiral staircase. After all, this is just one of many paths you can explore in the world of Dark Souls. You could’ve explored the Catacombs instead. Or the Darkroot Basin lake, shimmering in moonlight, with its projectile-spewing Hydra. Welcome to the most memorable game world since… wait a second, did we just consider deleting the word ‘since’?

Most contemporary games are unctuous, clingy suitors, welcoming players with fawning deference and open arms. Conversely, Dark Souls beckons the masochistic with its chilly indifference. If you steel your nerves and persevere, the loot you'll uncover is an adventure so exquisitely morose and far-ranging that it will tug at your mind insistently during the hours you spend apart. After more than 60 hours into our journey, an NPC clucks: "How do these martyrs keep chugging along? I'd peter out in an instant." We do so, quite simply, because other games feel comparatively bland, facile and unsatisfying. Few will complete Dark Souls, but that fact won't nullify the adventures they've had straining toward its elusive summit


Joshua said...

Never heard of it, but your descriptions intrigue me.

Fenway5 said...

@Joshua-While having only 4 hrs in, I can confirm it is both excellent and deadly. Enjoy!

Rusty said...

Hey, I love Dark- and Demon-Souls. Have you finished it yet? I'm on PSN and XBL (NinetyEightMPH).

Fenway5 said...

Hey Rusty-Nope have not beat it! But I too really enjoy Dark/Demon Souls--although I like Dark Souls better of the 2.

matthewART said...

Very well written sir. Dark Souls is in my top ten life experiences. Im still carefully fighting my way threw it. Sword in hand, my heart racing, nothing gonna stop me from one ending or the other. I love this game, thanks for writing a review that really seemed to nail how I feel about dark souls.