(Or How I Learned To Love The Graveyard)
Playing Dark Souls for the past two weeks has spurred some of the hardest challenges in time gaming. For those of you that haven’t played the game, I won’t do much of a story introduction for it. That’s because, you, the player, don’t get your hand held through anything – especially the story. Aside from a two minute introduction that teaches you bare-bone essentials, this game leaves much of the story to be discovered by the player through conversations with the few NPC’s in the world. This minimalist approach does it’s job with the great voice acting which conveys the plot.
Obviously, a lot of what Dark Souls does is strays from the norm. This game does not hold your hand whatsoever – that’s why it’s so great. Most games really underestimate the player, and literally point their way through the world and have the plot spelt out in giant red letters. Perhaps this is needed nowadays, I can’t speak for all gamers. Dark Souls submits a different take on the game/player relationship. Dark Souls drops you in their world, and tells you, “Two bells, up and down. Ring em. Figure it out.”.
Naturally, I spent the first two days in a graveyard of skeletons, dying over and over again, not knowing of an alternate option besides the immortal ghosts which tore me to pieces. Thinking this was my only option, I stayed and tried to learn the combat system. Fighting and dying over and over again, until I could make it to the bottom lair. Instead of hope of victory, the skeletons I killed now came back to life in a matter of seconds.
I was really intrigued that I sucked so bad at a game like this. I really couldn’t get to the first checkpoint? Over and over again, I stood up, rant to the skellies, fought a few, and then was mercilessly cut down. How could I suck so bad? I wanted to figure it out. (The answer, by the way, was to go a different path and fight things actually close to your own level, and not be a dumbass.)
This brought me to think about what it is that I’m doing with a character when I play it. Gamers learning to control a new character undergo a certain process – we have to become comfortable in the player-character’s skin. Like in the series Evangelion, a show where a boy pilots a giant robot to fight giant evil monsters, the first step is just stepping into the cockpit – You don’t know what you’re doing, what anything does, and you know you’re going to get hurt.. Your first fights – suck. You die. Sometimes, like in Dark Souls, you die a lot no matter how good you are in the pit.
You learn to use your character’s body as an extension of you own. The more you learn, the better integrated you are with character. Tough bosses, challenges, and the like test this acuity. Assassin’s Creed has a side-mission where you have to parkour around a city to catch flags before a time limit runs out. The mission requires the player to not only know the combat mechanics of the game, but also develop skill in having the character move seamlessly through a variety of different obstacles.
All of this is investing the player’s mental energy and time, which can do one of two things: One, the player can choose to not learn the system, put it down, and walk away. Or two, it can make the player care more about the character, about their world, and the story they take part in. The character becomes an extension of you, and you care about what the character cares about. If this weren’t the case, emotional investment would be minimal regardless of the game quality – and we know that’s not the case. People really care about their characters and what happens in games. Players put their time into a long interactive movie they star in and help create. Game mechanics make a great game happen, and make players want to play.