NEW: Also subscribe to my new series, Programming Feedback for Advanced Beginners.
“Last week we were talking about your relationship with your brother. Have you managed to get in touch with him?”
“I haven’t. I think it’s going to take a while. But this week I’d like to talk about something different, if that’s OK?”
“This is your time Dianne. What would you like to talk about?”
“Well, yesterday I completed Dark Souls 2, and it stirred up a lot of complex emotions.”
I completed Dark Souls 2 - that’s the number ‘two’. It’s a video game; in many ways your standard action-RPG affair. You run around stabbing things or setting them on fire. You level up, you find bigger swords and more madcap flames, and eventually you win.
The story of the game is…actually I’m not sure what the story is, apart from you keep stabbing things until the game says that you have stabbed enough and can put down your sword. The world is saved somehow, and it’s time to get back to the real world and those quarterly reports you promised your mum. The cliche of good story writing is to “show, not tell”. Dark Souls’s approach is more like “not show, not tell, go fuck yourself”. I’m told that there’s a huge amount of lore lurking in the background if you take the time to decipher or read it on Wikipedia, but I’m still not even halfway through the Voynich Manuscript so I’m not going to do that.
I would have expected this lack of narrative to bother me, but it was actually a breath of fresh air. Video game writing is on average not great, and no story is better than a bad story. Dark Souls doesn’t bother trying to explain itself or justify why its world works the way it does. There are bonfires (what Dark Souls calls checkpoints) every couple of battles because that’s an appropriate distance apart for them to be. You lose your souls (XP) if you die, but can recover them if you can get back to the spot where you died without dying again, because that makes for some terrifying, high-octane gameplay moments. Any other stupid questions?
“So Dark Souls is a game about nothing where you kill things for no reason?”
“Does that remind you of-“
“OK. Carry on.”
Dark Souls is a very difficult game. It’s so difficult and you die so often that it turns dying into a first-class mechanic. In most games, death is just a mulligan. You accidentally press kick instead of block; a gang of nogoodniks shaves off your last few few hairs of HP; you die; the death screen tells you how shitty and dead you are; and you watch as your mangled corpse gets eaten by zombies or terrorists. Time is rewound, and you are resurrected at your last checkpoint or quicksave, exactly as you were. You have lost nothing and gained nothing, except for some knowledge about what is lurking behind that door, and how skilled it is at removing your jugular if you press kick instead of block.
But in Dark Souls there are no mulligans, and time keeps flowing ever forward. When you die you are still resurrected at your last checkpoint (bonfire), but everything that happened before you died stays happened. You keep any items that you picked up, and you don’t get back any that you used. You drop all of your unspent souls (XP), but can recover them if you can make it back to the place where you died without dying for a second time. This is because…actually I don’t know why, and I think that’s for the best. It’s a very good mechanic, and some things are better left unexplained in case the explanation is too forced and retroactive.
In the second Dark Souls game, not only do you lose all of your XP when you die, but your maximum health bar shrinks as well. When most games notice that you’re having a tough time they give you some hints or turn the difficulty down a notch or two. Dark Souls just keeps stamping. You can regrow you health bar by consuming a Hollow Human item, but these aren’t common and I felt like I needed to guard my stockpile of them jealously. I don’t know what happens if you run out of Hollow Humans, but I suspect that you just stay stuck at 50% of your maximum health forever and have to figure out how to restructure your life around this condition.
Fighting a pack of zombies on a thin ledge with no Estus Shards (healing potions) and 40,000 souls stranded in the room behind them is extremely stressful. That’s two additional levels and two extra points of dexterity, and that’s 5 extra damage with each and every hit. Nonetheless, dying for that second time and losing all that XP and pressure forever can feel like a release. This is probably only because you still have a third, fourth, fifth chance to come back to life and collect those souls again. I don’t think I’d get the same release from falling into a wood chipper. Dying in Dark Souls has real consequences, but I wouldn’t say that it forces you to confront your real world mortality. You are still immortal, after all. But I did find myself wondering why I sometimes felt so sad and nervous whilst playing the game, and why I sometimes felt happier once I had failed a few times. It’s no fun being immortal in a hostile world.
Dark Souls made me see how speed-running might be fun. Usually I don’t play the same section of a game often enough to get anywhere near optimizing it, because I don’t die that many times. I’m not a particularly talented video gamer, but I am a thirty-year old woman playing games that were designed to be accessible to a wide audience, and I’m playing them on “Normal” difficulty mode. But if a section of a game is hard enough and you replay it enough times, you eventually get into a sturdy groove. One two three, STAB five six; dodge dodge three, four five STAB; STAB STAB STAB, STAB STAB STAB STAB sorry where was I?
“This all sounds very similar to your relationship with your-“
“I think you’re right, but I don’t want to get into that right now.”
“I understand. Carry on.”
Dark Souls is hard by default, and there’s something important about this. You can choose to play The Last of Us or Shadows of the Colossus on hard-mode, but that’s not the same. That’s like double-daring yourself to cook breakfast using only your left hand. Sure it’s hard, but you made it hard on your own when no one had asked you to, and you have only yourself to blame when you drop the brie on the floor. You still end up with the same grilled cheese sandwich as everyone else, and no one cares if yours embodies a moving story of valor and redemption.
But a game can’t just give all its normal-mode enemies too much health, make all its weapons rubbish, and call itself hardcore. Well-designed difficulty is baked into the fundamentals of a game. It’s in the placement of the checkpoints, the weapons upgrade system, and what happens when you die. Dark Souls makes you feel like you might be ruined at any second, and then it really does ruin you just to make sure that you know it’s not screwing around. But you still feel like you’re making progress, even if all you’re doing is dying over and over and over again.
I just want to be given a set menu and have “normal” be the right choice. It’s kind of like how I don’t really want to have to pay my taxes. But I’m a good liberal and I know that I have to, and more to the point so long as setting up a shell corporation in the Cayman Islands isn’t a “normal” part of a middle-class tax strategy, I’m not going to do it. However, if everyone else was setting up shell corporations in the Cayman Islands then maybe I’d be able to persuade myself that it was a fine thing to do, and maybe I’d feel like a chump if I didn’t. It’s not just experience and consequences that I care about; how my experience is viewed by society and video game publishers matters to me too.
“Have you talked about this with your brother?”
“No - I don’t think he’s into video games. Or at least, five years ago he wasn’t.”
“OK. Just keep that in mind.”
Dark Souls is a single-player game with multi-player elements. These are two things that don’t usually go well together, like white and off-white or pickles and happiness. If I wanted a social, collective experience then I’d play WoW or go to my mum’s birthday party. It’s hard to feel like the chosen one when you’re sharing the spotlight with twenty other chosen ones, all tasked with saving the same world that you’re already in the process of saving.
But even in offline mode I never felt like the chosen one in Dark Souls, even though I think that I actually might have been. No one else in Lordran ever made much of a big deal out of it, and it felt like it would have been a bit déclassé for me to strum my own lute. Because of this, I quite liked how Dark Souls does multi-player. It’s a subtle garnish on top of an already delicious single-player meal, and the meal still works and tastes delightful even if you disable garnish mode.
In online mode other players can invade your game to try to kick down your sandcastles and stab you in the face. They can volunteer to help you with tough fights. They can write messages on the floor, some of which are helpful (“Watch out for enemies at your rear!”), and some of which are as puerile as is possible within the game’s limited vocabulary (“Watch out for enemies at your rear!”). These messages are quiet and unobtrusive, but serve as reminders that we are all part of the same big, interconnected world in which everyone is just trying to make a better life for themselves and their families and murder anyone standing between them and a better sword. I felt quite alone when my internet went down and I had to play in offline mode for a while.
That’s not to say that online mode never felt a bit dismal. All of us Dark Souls players were going through life in our own little worlds that only occasionally and partially overlapped, communicating with each other through a small set of acceptable channels and lexemes that had been predefined for us. Whenever I’m at parties I feel like I’m trapped behind my own face, longing to communicate with other people but without the tools to do so. Whenever I’m at parties I wish I was playing Dark Souls.
It’s hard to blame people who invade your game - they’re just trying to make a better life for themselves and their family. They-
“Don’t you think that some people are just bastards and are trying to make a worse life for you because they enjoy it?”
“I suppose - like the current president, am I right? High five.”
[The high five is declined]
“Thank you, but I vote Republican.”
“I might look like a quintessential metropolitan liberal elite, but behind the pile of old New Yorkers in my waiting room I’m a rural Republican. I grew up in a conservative, evangelical part of Kansas; my parents were deeply involved in Operation Rescue. That’s not the kind of thing you cast off lightly. Between us my partner and I make a little over two million dollars a year, and we’d prefer to give as little of that to the government as possible. I’m a core, moderate Republicans who wants a conservative Supreme Court, and whilst I don’t like him it’s going to take more than Donald Trump to change that. Anyway, you were talking about video games?”
“No, I think I was done actually.”
“Oh look, we’re out of time.”
NEW: Also subscribe to my new series, Programming Feedback for Advanced Beginners.