Dark Souls: A Game for the Masochist in Us All

I’ve spent hours trying to figure out what makes Dark Souls such an engrossing game, trying to find out what new feature utilized by the people of From Software that created a game so difficult, yet so inherently rewarding that its garnered a cult fanbase devoted to subjecting themselves to the murderous rampage of this game playthrough after playthrough after playthrough. Strange thing was, every aspect I explored was met with examples that already existed in other games. Simple controls, flexible battle system, cooperative gameplay, an immersive world to explore, and the incredible difficultly that has become an internet fad with games like Super Meat Boy, I Wanna Be the Guy, and Splosionman.

Dark Souls wasn’t a game that did anything drastically new. So why have I become convinced of its superiority to other games that are grander in scale or more evoking in story? I think it’s because asking what Dark Souls does different is the wrong question. Rather, it is what has become commonplace in other games that Dark Souls hasn’t done that makes it stand out so proudly.

A skeleton comes to mind when I think of Dark Souls, and not just the bastards you find in the game’s crypt. The game itself is a bare bones assembly of a couple old gaming principles given such polish and forethought that it’s hard to realize these were once commonplace ideas in the industry.

1. Eat their quarters.

There was a ratio in the days of the arcade that was an approximation of how many quarters a person would need to use in order to beat a game. The higher this number, the more profitable the game would be to the cabinet owner, and the more desirable the game was to potential buyers. A game however would have to be rewarding enough to warrant a 16-or-something-year-old to spend the rest of his roll of quarters just to get to that final boss. So games were incentivised to be hard, but still had to be fun and beatable… given enough practice.

Taurus Demon, the first of many heartpounding bosses.

Likewise, the first console games had to be hard in order to prolong the experience. It's hard to justify the $80 paid for some of those first cartridge games if the game was beatable within the first few hours.

If Dark Souls had a god-mode, I argue that it would be beatable in under 20 hours. As it stands, I’m currently over 100 and just at the threshold of the final boss for my first playthrough. Dark Souls, though large, has nothing on other games of its shared genre. There’s little else to do outside of the pursuit of the main quest, and you could probably count the total number of NPCs on all of your fingers and toes, but damn the game is hard. It took me over four hours to get from firelink shrine to the bridge of the church at the start of the game. During that time my character made almost no progress in terms of weapons or levels gained. The only thing I was able to retain upon each death was my knowledge of how I screwed up the previous time.

This was the first time I wanted to rage quit, but the game kept pulling me back in because each time I was thinking, “okay, so I won’t do that next time…” waiting for the moment when everything just clicked. Finally, I made it to the stairs under the bridge, unlocked the ladder leading to the same bonfire I’d been returned to a dozen times before, and finally felt like I’d made some progress in the game.

Unlike many games today which extend their playtime through fetch quests and meaningless drivel, Dark Souls simply makes progress painfully hard. Yet the sensation of victory in the game is rewarding enough to keep the player engaged and press on through their frustration.

2. Tutorial not required.

Aside from the obligatory start and select, the controller for the original Nintendo had 2 buttons and a D-pad. Today’s controller for the PS3 and 360 has between 8 and 12 (depending on what you count), two analog sticks, and a D-pad. With more buttons came more control, but at the cost of a lack of simplicity. In Super Mario there was “run,” and “jump,” these two actions along with what they enabled (killing goombas and breaking open blocks) were discovered within the first 15 seconds of playing. I never saw the booklet for Super Mario when I was a kid, and I never needed to in order to play (beyond the initial concept of holding the controller, which I thank my sisters for teaching me). Nowadays, you hold your breath while waiting for the tutor, computer, teacher, boss, whatever to chime in with instructions on how to use whatever new ability or weapon you’ve come across. They do this while at the same time trying not to break the fourth wall and admit the reality that you’re actually just playing a game. It’s jarring and annoying to hear someone say, “walk up to the vines and press “B”, then use the D-pad to climb up the wall,” but we take it as necessary in order to get to the heart of the game we’re playing. It’s awkward, but seems unavoidable because of the complexity of our modern day controllers.

But then here’s Dark Souls. It’s not vacant of instruction, but it sure as hell is kept to a minimum. The primary button scheme for Dark Souls is simple: The left triggers control your left hand (Block and Parry), the right triggers control your right hand (Normal and Strong attacks), and Circle is run/jump/roll. Essentially this is all you need to know in order to engage in combat (though some would say that’s the understatement of the year). All layers of control beyond these buttons are dependent on your strategy, from alternating weapons, to magic and item use, but none of it is essential. You might not get far without employing some of these extra techniques, healing for example would be a good investment, but they’re not essential to combat. Dark Souls follows the creed of “easy to learn, difficult to master,” very well.

Even now as I stand at the edge of the final boss battle, I’m not ready to finish the game and move on. The saving grace is knowing I’ll get the chance to redo everything at an even harder difficulty. It really is a game that makes failure feel delightfully fair. I highly recommend this game to anyone who thinks games have become too cookie-cutter in their attempts to guide the player through. Give it a shot, I think now that I’ve finally gotten this piece up and published, it’s about time to cross that threshold, kill the king, and embark on an even more torturous journey.

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Posted on April 29, 2012, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. It’s not the failing that’s the problem.
    It’s not the dying that’s the problem.
    It’s being forced to go back for the 150th time to the bonfire which is 3 miles away from where you died that’s the problem. I honestly wouldn’t mind dying 150 times if I could at least reincarnate in the same place…
    We don’t buy cars so that they’ll go backwards, we don’t worship difficulty so much that we sew heavy weights into our clothes so that walking around becomes a real chore, and we don’t go on a date tonight with the girl who kicked us in the gonads last night.
    If the difficulty is the only thing which makes Dark Souls special, then the makers have clearly taken a stunningly ordinary scenario and sewn heavy weights into it so that playing it becomes a pointless chore.
    This game’s premise is basically a miscalculation, and the people who are crowing about their sense of ultimate achievement are either lying because they’re shareholders in the developers’ comany, or they’re making excuses for wasting their lives. A comparable sense of achievement is just as easily obtained by putting your hand on a hotplate and taking it off after five minutes when there’s no flesh left on it. No flesh, no pain. Great sense of achievement…

    • The Gaming Hipster

      You make a great point, though I would say Dark Souls isn’t all that different from games like Mega Man or early Castlevania in terms of difficulty (and Demons Souls is both harder and a closer imitator of Mega Man than Dark Souls is). Games from the SEGA and NES era were even more punishing to the player for their failures, because a game over often meant restarting the game from level 1. This was out of necessity, because no one wanted to finish a $70 game in 3 hours and be done with it. Difficulty was a crux relied on to prolong a game’s lifespan. What’s special about Dark Souls is that it takes that same mentality and brings it into the modern era. You play, die, and figure out how to win through perseverance. You can play Skyrim for five hours doing a horde of fetch quests which make little impact on the game, but arguably that’s a greater waste of time for some people than trying to figure out the best way to approach a difficult boss.

    • Well then, maybe you should stop sucking at the game and properly strategize.

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