I’m a semi-recent convert to the world of Dark Souls. I owned the PC version of the Dark Souls for a good year before I had the gumption to get far enough into it that I realized how great it actually was. Dark Souls II on the other hand, I purchased the first day it was available on Steam and have barely been able to put it down since. The Souls series is absolutely fantastic, but it’s not for everyone. It’s difficult, convoluted, and not always easy to understand. For reasons I’m about to explain though, that’s what makes the series worthy of your respect, and why more games should draw inspiration from it’s design.
The games are difficult but fair.
Back in the 80’s gamers cut their teeth in the arcades where brutally difficult games were the norm. Back then, if a game was too easy, you wouldn’t have to pump as many quarters in. As gamers moved away from the arcade and into the living room though, the overall gaming experience began to change. Slowly, over the course of over twenty years, games feel as though they’ve become neutered. Games are usually given a difficulty settings menu, with the “Easy” setting usually being equivalent to a content tourist.
The Souls series doesn’t have an “Easy” setting, and it doesn’t really care if you don’t like it. There is no option to play the games in any way that trivializes their difficulty. What’s more important than that though, is that the difficulty that the Souls series presents almost always feels fair. Virtually every time I die in a Souls game, I feel like I screwed up, not that the game intentionally screwed me over. The thing is, this is a lot more difficult to accomplish than it seems. Making a game difficult is easy, making a game difficult and completely fair is not. The enemies you encounter in a Souls game react the exact same way every time you face them. If you keep dying in the same spot, it’s because you’re refusing to understand their mechanic, not because their cheating.
The series doesn’t hold your hand.
I’ve proclaimed my unabashed love for World of Warcraft many a time on this blog, but if there is a bigger culprit in the world of video game hand-holding, I can’t think of it. These days if you log into WoW, you’ll find that the world has become filled with game mechanics and NPCs who exist simply to streamline and simplify your experience. The most egregious of these hand-holding mechanics is the quest tracker. In WoW, every single quest in the game has a location and an objective, and upon picking up a quest, those locations and objectives are instantly marked on your map for you. While this is extremely helpful when you’re trying to level up your character fast, it takes away all the mystery and exploration from a world that Blizzard took years to create. There is little reason to explore in WoW anymore, it’s simply easier to let the quest tracker guide you to your next objective.
The Souls series takes the opposite approach (almost to a fault, almost). Very little is ever explained to you as the player. You’re expected to think and to explore on your own, and you’re expected to use your own intuition to guide you. As an example, there is almost always an area in a Souls game that you shouldn’t go to because you’re not high enough level yet. The way you know this isn’t through a big sign that says “MUST BE LEVEL 50 TO ENTER”, or a warning message flashing on your screen. You have to find this out for yourself. You enter the new area, attempt to kill the first baddie, and almost instantly find out whether or not you’re ready. If you get killed in two hits, intuitively you know that you’re not ready for this area yet. The thing is, the Souls games let you choose when you are ready. There is no sign telling you where to go next, you get to decide that.
The series demands your best.
My first two points come together in a ‘more than the sum of their parts’ kind of way. Between the fair but difficult challenge, and the lack of hand-holding, the game demands that you play it in a way that brings out the best in you as the player. When you beat a particularly difficult enemy or boss, you feel like you’ve conquered the world. When you stray from the beaten path and find a rare item socked away in some dark corner of an otherwise useless cave, you feel this incredibly satisfying sense of reward for your exploration.
When things come together for you in a Souls game it’s because you made that happen, not because the game handed you a victory. The Souls games are hard, and sometimes they can be a slog, but they come with a sense of reward found too rarely in gaming these days.
Why this is all so important.
The Souls series should really be respected for what it’s doing in gaming right now. You may not like the games, and I can understand that, but the way that they execute on what they’re trying to do is pretty incredible. Furthermore, in a world where a lot of games feel like their cut from the same cloth, the Souls series is a refreshing reminder that games can be something altogether different. I believe it’s important to respect and support this series if only to encourage developers to think outside of the box in the same way that From Software has. Spreading this kind of ingenuity around the industry seems like it could only be a good thing.