I haven’t had too much time for gaming recently, but what I have been playing with what time I have is Dark Souls II.
This game builds upon the previous Dark Souls and Demon Souls games– I’m a big fan of the series. But this game isn’t really for everyone, because like it’s predecessors, it is at times ridiculously difficult.
Some things that one quickly notices about this game is that no tutorials are provided. The game doesn’t force you to look up and down and figure out how you like your Y-axis looking. It doesn’t force you to learn to jump or parry or attack. These things are there, in the form of optional messages you can read from signs– but the game doesn’t force you to learn them. And, well, if you’re unfortunate enough to miss any of these early signs, you simply might not learn a basic technique. You might go through the entire game not knowing how to jump over a hole, or how to parry a sword (both of which are events that can instantly kill you).
What I love about Dark Souls II is that, yes, it’s difficult. But it’s difficult in a way that challenges the player to be a gamer. I’ll speak more of this distinction in a bit. Generally though, one of the main enjoyments I get out of the game goes beyond the game world itself– it comes from the smugness I get at being good, and getting better, at a game that most people simply don’t play because it’s too hard. Despite the extreme challenge of continuing to play this game, its fans persist because the game rewards you with a true sensation of l33tness. Not many people make it to the end of the game, however.
The tendency as we get older is to make generalisations about how the past was better than the present. Thus, for me, “when I was a kid,”:
- There was less light pollution in the world, and I could see stars at night
- Music (from the 90s) meant something
- Kids learned to code in school, and learned “logic” generally
- People spent more time face to face than they did sending emails and messaging
- Technology was more about awesome functionality than it was about design and branding
Any one of those is a debatable topic in itself, but the one I want to get at right now is that videogames, back in the 90s, didn’t spoonfeed you. Things were more difficult back then, and this forced you not just to play the game– it forced you to become a gamer.
A gamer to me is someone who converts a scenario into math– it’s about coming to a clear understanding of the rules of the system, and then finding and developing a muscle memory in hidden efficiencies to more effectively resolve problem scenarios. It’s about creating tools, either in game or in your head, and applying them in a way that gets the job done.
The difference between generations is that an increasing amount of gamer processing is being outsourced– the gamer doesn’t have to think about as much as it did before, because the games are making it easy for the gamer to do things.
To give you an extreme example– gameplay in the 80s featured instant death in most games. Pac-Man only needed you to touch a Ghost– and this wasn’t something that you did by accident, since the Ghosts were actively chasing you. Mario Bros games feature pits that can kill you instantly– and this was in an age before power-up items gave you the ability to fly or float.
First person shooter games? Games such as Wolfenstien 3d, Rise of the Triad, Doom, etc– you had a limited amount of health, and that was it– unlike the industry standard for FPS and TPS now, which is to have health regenerate if “rest” without taking damage for a few moments.
Times are changing. Track, for instance, the evolution of the Prince of Persia concepts. Slip up on the 80s version? You got diced, impaled, or fell to your death, and that was it. Fast forward to the late 90s and early 2000s versions, and we see an increasing introduction of the concept of using the “Sands of Time” to rewind to a moment before death– to the point where the latest Prince Of Persia game has you simply never falling to your death, ever– if you do, you’re automatically rescued.
Don’t get me wrong– I loved the last PoP game that I played. While time has rendered games easier, improvements in sound, graphics, and technology generally enables us to tell a much more comprehensive story. The original game had a story that could be summed up in essentially one sentence: Save the Princess. The gameplay was the game– and by that, I mean, the mechanics of running, fighting, climbing ledges, etc. The new PoP has a full world that, even at it’s time, was visually stunning; had a great orchestral score; and some excellent dialogue and voice acting. Not to mention the move away from a misogynist portrayal of a useless princess waiting to be rescued with a strong woman-sidekick. (Well, even the “princess” in the new PoP raises some gender issues, but it is a step in the right direction). Anyway– I’m not here to talk about PoP today.
There are other examples of how games have gotten easier, most notably within a franchise– look at the progression of Resident Evil / Biohazard games for an easy example.
Perhaps this reflects that with better technology, gamers expect more eye (and ear) candy– and perhaps this means that the gamer’s experience is akin to a move away from the mechanics of gameplay being in itself a development of skill; and moving instead towards gaming as a more spectated artform (albeit an interactive one, compared to movies for instance). It could also have something to do at the age-groups that games are being marketed at.
Dark Souls II reverses some of these trends. There is a storyline– but it’s not so much of a character development driven plot as it is a gameplay driven one, with the world’s and characters’ histories there for you to pay attention to if you want. The game punishes your for lacking skill. Button mashing in this game will get you killed. And if you have no understanding of RPG stats and levelling up, your efforts will be rewarded with a lopsided and unplayable mess of a character– and the game will not warn you that you’re doing this.
Auto-save means that you can’t go back to a better save game. And an interesting feature, like in the previous games of the same studio, is that non-player characters meant to help the player can be killed (purposely and accidentally). If you accidentally kill a key merchant in the game, or the character who you have to go to to trade currency for upgrades, you might as well just restart the game from scratch. This means that handing the controller to your 10 year old cousin and giving him the 3 seconds necessary to kill (or anger) a key NPC means that those 3 seconds will cost you your hundred hours of gameplay so far– you will have “broken” your game beyond salvage.
Another interesting feature is the “currency” of the game, which is souls. Basically, kill an enemy, and you will get souls. There are no experience points in this game. Kill an enemy, you get souls– but once you die, you drop all your souls on the ground. You have one chance to get your souls back– find the place of your death. But if you die again before you do that? You permanently lose those souls. Which wouldn’t be so bad, because you could always earn them back. But the problem is that the game has a matchmaking algorithm that counts the total amount of souls you have earned in the game, whether or not you spent it on something– meaning, if you earn a million souls and die, and lose them permanently, the game still considers you a million soul individual for the purposes of matchmaking allies to you. This means that it becomes harder and harder to find co-op partners to help you, the more you lose or waste souls unnecessarily.
Further, every time you die, your total HP takes a hit– when you are “reborn”, you start with 10% less life. Meaning that, if you keep dying, you keep starting with less and less life.
Some aspects of the game seem unecessarily punishing at first, but there is a really good feeling that comes with it once you figure out how to deal with it. For instsance, there is a foggy forest where you literally cannot see more than a few meters in front of you– and to top it off, there are enemies that are almost completely invisible that will come to kill you in this forest. At first, I was getting mauled– it took me something like 5 deaths before I started getting over the horrible inequity of the situation, mastered my emotions, and thought to myself: “Okay. So what do I have to do different, so that I can get a different outcome?”
I tried equipping a polearm that I could swing in a full circle, hoping to be able counter an enemy that came over to nick me– but this strategy didn’t work, as some of the enemies were using projectiles, and the numerous trees were blocking the free movement of my weapon.
In the end, my strategy was to to move with my back to cliffs, trees or walls, and to hold a tower shield in front of me– and wait. I aligned the screen so that I could see the shilouttes of trees, upon which my near-invisible enemies would faintly appear as shadows when they moved. I tried to stand among bushes, so I could hear the footsteps of my enemies. If I heard the sound of a bow or crossbow “twang,” I’d dive to the side. If I heard a “ping” and recoiled a step backwards, it meant that my attacker was hitting me on the shield directly in front of me. If I bled and staggered slightly, I’d know it was an attack from one of my two sides. I’d roll away to dodge the second strike, turn, and lunge forward with a short but heavy compact swing of a mace. Once I had worked out my strategy, I felt a grin on my face, as did Zakari Kenpacchi from Bleach when he was trapped in a shadow sphere that blocked all his senses– despite being blind, I had mastered the fear of damage to me by knowing that, although they might get the first hit in, I would get the last hit in.
The attitudal profile life lesson that comes from this? You have to be willing. In some instances, the proper approach is to say “You may take my arm, but I will take your life.”
And this is the satisfaction of a game like this– taking it back to gameplay that provides a system with the tools to get the job done, but leaving the application of those tools back to the gamer’s brain and personality. I don’t mean that this is always fun way of playing a game– I wouldn’t want to play an entire game completely blind like this– but it has it’s place in the greater narrative. While there is no development of your character’s character, there is development of you, as a gamer.
Specifics aside, my getting through that stage wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t mentally disciplined myself for the otherwise absurd tactic of going into a swordfight without my eyes. But if a game had not engineered this scenario for me– then how many situations in real life would I ever be faced with where I could get practice at disciplining myself for such a strategy?
I worry sometimes that the oversimplification of videogames means that the usefulness of a videogame as a parable for real life lessons gets dulled.