It's been a very Dark Souls-ey week for me! Not only has my brother picked up Prepare to Die Edition for the PC, so he can FINALLY see the new content and understand what I've been raving about for the past 4 months, but we've seen a number of blogs and comments about Dark Souls around the community.
While my heart flutters whenever Dark Souls is brought to the fore, I have to admit to a dark cloud hanging over my usual zeal for all things Souls. As much fun as I'm having digging into Lordran again, at the back of my mind is the nagging thought that Dark Souls 2 isn't going to be very good. Or at least, it is going to be so different that I won't recognize what I love about the series in it.
I try my best to avoid typical internet doom-crying and whining. I certainly hate to come off as another elitist neck-beard demanding to be left alone to my own insular and uninviting little corner of the gaming world. But it is hard to look at the released promotional material for Dark Souls 2 and not feel a bit concerned.
In all the interviews and articles going around, the new director replacing the venerable Miazaki of the original games keeps bringing up "accessibility." Accessibility to the gameplay, accessibility to the covenants, accessibility to upgrades, stats, and so on. Everything is going to be "more accessible" in this new Dark Souls. It seems to me to be a great deal of verbal tap dancing around the words "making it easier" but with all the same meaning. It makes me uncomfortable. I don't want to see an easier Dark Souls experience.
- You can't have triumph without adversity
This isn't because I want to keep Dark Souls just for the hardcore. I don't get off on bragging about beating Dark Souls or feeling smug that others can't. I feel bad that some people found the game too hard to enjoy, or at least let their frustration get the better of them before they could figure it out. I feel like they missed out on a very cool experience and one of the most important games of this generation. But all the same, I wouldn't have wanted to see that experienced lessened or cheapened for the sake of being inclusive to them either.
Difficulty lies at the core of Dark Souls. It's what makes it different. In an industry flooded with fantasy games, RPGs, action-RPGs, MOBAs, strategy games, dungeon crawlers, ect, Dark Souls stands out as unique. Unlike most other games where adversity can be surmounted with improved numbers, more grinding, higher levels, better equipment – Dark Souls demands that the player improves. The big trick to Dark Souls, which a lot of players either discovered and embraced or refused to learn and quit, is that your level doesn't mean as much as it does in other games. Stacking on strength of vitality can only take you so far. Levelling up is useful for sure. Gaining access to an increased cache of spells or the ability to wield a weapon with a high base requirement, upgrading your gear – all good stuff that makes your character stronger. But not dramatically. Progressing in the game is more about learning. Learning the area, the dangers, the shortcuts. Learning the enemies, their attacks, their weaknesses. Learning your character, what you can do, what play style and weapons work best for you, how to adapt to different situations.
It demands a careful and thoughtful accounting of what you are doing. A theme that is reflected in how Dark Souls unveils its story and lore.
There is very little spoken exposition in Dark Souls. Outside of a massive dialogue dump about half-way through the game (that you can skip), the player is left on their own to piece together exactly what is going on and what they are ultimately doing. The clues are in the world. The location of enemies, corpses, where you encounter noble spirits and bosses; each tell a story. Item descriptions are precious pieces to the puzzle, everything from keys to helmets share tiny tid-bits and hints that make up the greater whole. It is a very slow, and very bold, way to tell a story. Something that could only be accomplished in the uniquely interactive medium of video games.
And you'd never notice any of it if you were just straight ripping through the game. If it was easy and you never had to slow down to really pay attention to the enemy, to explore for a shortcut, or examine a suspicious path, you'd never notice the little vignettes that litter the game. If you weren't so desperate for an edge to examine every item, or if items had immediately clear and stated purposes, many gamers would probably gloss over the description text as meaningless fluff. They would never see the beautifully designed layers of storytelling at play.
I loved the way the story unfolded around the player in Dark Souls. When the new director talks about opening up the gameplay for "all players" or making the "story more direct", I cringe inside. Not only is he chipping away at the slow subtle storytelling the difficulty of the first game imposed, but he's directly tossing it out? One of the things that made Dark Souls great was that it had a genuine air of mystery and discovery to it. There are hundreds of fantasy games out there just waiting to tell a story through a long-winded cut scene or text-dump. I don't want them. I want Dark Souls.
- Dark Souls is full of small sad moments you can totally miss if you're not paying attention.
I do recognize that different players operate at different skill levels, with different tolerances and limits. One person's easy might be tough to another, and it seems harsh to demand that everyone rises to a certain level in order to join in. And I do understand that making games is a business, and From Software naturally wants to make their game appealing to as wide an audience as possible. If they really think making the game easier will sell more copies (and by all accounts that is the current directors line of thought) they'll do just that.
But in my naivete, I'd like to think there is a little something more to Dark Souls. While it is a commercial product, it also has an artistic message. Dark Souls is trying to say something about the nature of things, about people. It presents an incredibly hostile world - one where players can choose to face down all the adversity on their own, or open themselves to the outside world to beg for help. They can play the saint, join the Sunbros and help others, or become a spirit of vengeance tracking down sinners. Or they can become the monster and make others their prey, embracing the thrill of taking something away from another – after suffering an invasion or two, there is a dark temptation to be on the other end of the blade.
It isn't a particularly nice message, but experiencing it felt different, special. Something I've never seen in another game. And it only worked because that world was so foreboding and dire. If facing down that adversity on your own didn't seem daunting and rewarding, if nobody needed help from a saint, if there wasn't that hard nasty lure of leaving the sheep behind and joining the wolves, then it loses something. It becomes hollow. The difficulty of Dark Souls didn't just make it a bragging rights game, it fundamentally shaped the tone and interaction with the game, with other players. I think it would be a real shame to lose that.
I suppose part of what is shaping my opinion is that I don't think the original Dark Souls is AS hard as people like to make it out to be.
Make no mistake, Dark Souls is a VERY hard and unforgiving game. I'm not being a try-hard or keyboard champion here, I've died thousands of times in Dark Souls. But it is also a very fair game. Enemies don't suddenly change their behaviour, new traps don't spring up in the environment, the game stays very consistent to its own logic and rules. Exploring a new area or facing a boss for the first time can be a woeful affair of sudden and unexpected death – maybe even the first twenty times. But as long as you actually look at what is going on and think about it, you can use that knowledge to improve and prevail. The game will never hoodwink you.
When people talk about player adjustable difficulty, I think that Dark Souls already has it – just in some more subtle and satisfying ways. The helpful spirits of Brolaire, Lautrec, Beatrice, Mildred, and Tarkus are all willing and able to tag-team with you against nearly half of the bosses in the game, most of the hard ones anyway. Other troublesome bosses like the Centipede and Fire Demons can be skipped outright if the player desires. While the knowledge on how to do so might not be known by new players, there are whole communities and guides ready to help.
Don't want to deal with invaders and PvP? Simple, don't travel around in human form, or play in offline mode. Need to go human to summon some help for a boss? Well then you're trading that advantage against the boss for the risk of being invaded. Even if the worst happens and you do get invaded while questing to the boss with a buddy or two, at least you'll outnumber him.
Again, it feels so elitist to say it, but I feel like a lot of the complaints about Dark Souls being too difficult rest in a refusal to adapt to the game.
But I recognize reality. If they really want to add in an easy mode, hopefully something where everything is left pretty much the same but with small numerical adjustments – like enemies do 30% less damage, or dying only takes half your souls, or what have you - I'll be disappointed but I'll deal. I maintain that it would cheat the players that use it out of a potentially rewarding experience, but that's their loss.
Whatever approach FromSoftware chooses to take, I hope they use a gentle touch and stay true to what made Dark Souls such a singular experience.