I'm growing older all the time. It's getting to the point where it's embarrassing.
I think Dark Souls is a work of art that belongs in a museum. The Royal Ontario Museum disagrees, but I think I'm starting to wear them down.
When I was in grade 5 I went to school as Robin for Halloween. The costume was basically a pair of green lady tights and a tunic that had to be Velcroed at the crotch like a baby's onesie. My self esteem never fully recovered.
I believe Alan Wake was criminally under-appreciated. It's unclear if this notion stems from a legitimate love of the game, or my loyalty to any piece of media that is going to include tracks from Nick Cave, Poe, and Depeche Mode.
Some of my stuff has been front-paged. I'm super proud!
Its been a long time since I've gotten into a game like I have with Dark Souls.
I've spent the past three weeks stumbling around in a constant fog of Dark Souls. When I'm not actually playing it, I'm thinking about it. "How do I beat this boss?" "Is it a good idea to upgrade my armour at the expense of my weapon?" "Is there any way out of the Catacombs?" my car aimlessly drifting into the oncoming lane, passengers screaming at the top of their lungs.
Needless to say, I've been a bit "invested" in it. Not only have I racked up an embarrassing number of hours in the game proper, I've also spent a down right indecent amount of time lurking around Dark Souls forums, weaselling out all the information I can. Or carrying on in long conversations about it with my brother and friends. Its just captivating.
Dark Souls is s a very different and unique game, there is almost nothing else like it on the market right now. Its certainly nothing like any other game I've played in the past few years. In a market trending ever towards accessibility and main-stream appeal, Dark Souls brazenly revels in its own inscrutability.
Oddly enough though, despite sticking out like a sore thumb when stacked up against any other title released this year, I couldn't shake the feeling that there was something familiar about it. I never got a chance to play its precursor, Demon Souls, since it was a PS3 exclusive, so it wasn't that. It was reminding me of something else, something older.
The idea hit me after only a few days with the game, but Tycho from Penny Arcade put it better than I could -
"Dark Souls reminds me of nothing so much as Zork.† Thatís where all this sense memory stuff is coming from: I went down a staircase in Dark Souls, and by the time I got to the bottom I was eight years old, going down another staircase in The Great Underground Empire.† The air was the same wet-cold it was then, and I didnít want to be there..."
I felt the exact same way. But only I was thinking of Zelda 2, and the caverns of Death Mountain.
My brother said it reminded him most of Castlevania 2 mixed with a dash of Symphony of the Night.
I've seen others online compare it closely to Zelda 1, Metroid, Ghost & Goblins, Wonderboy, and other older games I've never even heard of.
Dark Souls taps into something old and maybe even forgotten about games. Make no mistake, behind the lush 3D graphics, the eccentric take on online play, and the massive scale of the game's open-world structure, this is a retro-game at its core. A throw back to another era.
To me, its a link back to what made me fall in love with games to begin with.
Just like old times
Zelda 2 was a game that occupied an undue amount of my childhood consciousness. A cat scan of my brain would would reveal a largely inert black mass of tissue made up of trivia about Hyrule where early cursive writing and basic multiplication should be. Back when I was a kid, Zelda 2 was my jam,
despite being the black sheep of the Zelda franchise.
In the popular consciousness, Zelda 2 is either forgotten entirely, or remembered as a weird, frustrating, and confusing diversion for the series. Eschewing the ĺ view of the first game, Zelda 2 divided play between a top-down over-world used to navigate and explore the land, and side-scrolling action sequences for random encounters and dungeons. Players were set out on a quest to place six magic crystals into various well guarded temples, leading up to a final dungeon where the Tri-Force could be reclaimed.
That all sounds well and good, but it completely glazes over how unbelievably brutal the game was! Zelda 1 was not an easy game by any stretch of the imagination, but Zelda 2 made it look like a cakewalk. Much like Dark Souls, Zelda 2 featured a difficulty level that put every nearby controller and arm rest in jeopardy. Relentless enemies, gaping chasms, and a complete dearth of restoring items were only some of the challenges you had to navigate through in Zelda 2, and they all come roaring back again in Dark Souls.
But that is a pretty shallow comparison. Of course there are a lot of difficult NES games you could compare Dark Souls to if you are just talking about sheer frustration factor. But at least to me, the connection between Zelda 2 and Dark Souls runs much deeper than just their infamous difficulty.
A much bigger part of it is the sense of exploration. After a brief tutorial jaunt, Dark Souls plops the player down on the edge of a mountain side with only a few vague goals to guide them. The game doesn't bother to even point a finger in the direction you should go. You're free to go almost anywhere you want off the start, provided you can survive the enemies blocking your path.
So begins the player's first painful lessons. Try to head past the tombstones to the crypts, and you will meet fearsome and blood-thirsty skeletons who refuse to stay dead. Go below the shrine and intangible ghosts will chew you up and spit you out. Up above, the Undead Burg is home to slightly less lethal zombies. Through trial and error the player is guided through the path of "least" resistance. The game never tells you where to go, its something you can only figure out by sticking your foot into the dark and taking a deep breath. Generally, if you don't meet enemies that kill you instantly or some insurmountable obstacle, you are on the right path.
Zelda 2 did the same thing. You start in a shrine next to sleeping princess Zelda and go from there. You can choose to follow the road to the various towns accessible from the start, but sooner or later you have to step into the thick forests or darkened caves and tango with the monsters you will find there. The player is set loose to find the seven temples all on their own. Gated behind either impassibly tough enemies, or obstacles that you need a certain tool like a hammer or a high jump spell to surmount, the temples are arranged in a rough order that players will stumble upon given enough exploration and guess work. Pretty much, if you hit a brick wall, its time to turn around and find out where you went wrong.
It may sound like a frustrating way to play through a game, and to a certain extent it is, but it is also deeply engaging. It creates a real sense of the unknown as you proceed. "Am I going the right way?" "have I missed something?" "Did I find a secret route, or is this really the only way into the area?" Not only does this create a beautiful tension, but it generates a real sense of excitement when you find a secret treasure chest or a hidden NPC, or even just the relief of making it to the next bonfire. Because you had to work so hard to get there, these accomplishments feel like real discoveries, rather than standard rewards for following the developers bread crumbs.
Dark Souls expects you to blaze your own trail. Its the difference between feeling like an adventurer exploring a perilous ancient ruin, and feeling like your guiding your character through a series of set pieces. I know "immersion" is an overused buzz word in the gaming industry, but its really quite apt here. Exploring the world of Lordran has made me feel tense, nervous, and excited like few games have from this generation.
Secrets and mysteries play a big role in Dark Souls. Bringing old saws like illusory walls, transparent bridges, and obscure item-dependent pathing ("wear this ring in this place and stand still..") out of retirement, Dark Souls demands that you pay absolute attention as you explore. A second play through is all but guaranteed if you want to see it all. But the mysteries are not just limited to the terrain, even the way you interact with NPCs is shrouded in mystery. Some characters pop in and out of your life in the damnedest places, following their own stories and desires. You may run afoul of a trusted ally suddenly turned rabid in a squalid dungeon. Oh, did you still need to buy spells off of him? Too bad now. With my first character, I have either accidentally alienated or somehow missed about half of the covenants (ritualistic factions you can join up with) available in the game. The residents of the Firelink Shrine have been dropping like flies, and I have no idea how I messed up or what I could have done to avert their deaths. I'm told there are ways to save or rescue some of the people I've lost, but the means and requirements are still uncertain and based on rumour.
It reminds me so much of the old days. Before the days of game guides that came packaged along with the purchase of a new game, or GameFAQs, or helpful tool-tips and arrows. Back when if you were stuck in a game you either had to wait and see if you were lucky enough that one of the big monthly print magazines put out a hint in next months issue, or ask around among your equally clueless friends. Complete with all the inaccuracies and urban legends that accompany rampant speculation and word of mouth.
I've already fallen prey to some of the rumours going around. I danced around a limping Great Grey Wolf Sif for about twenty minutes hoping to somehow spare her life before I finally gave up and finished the job. I took the pendant as my starting gift, but I'm at the very last boss and it still hasn't come up in the story. Kinda wishing I had the handy dandy Master Key rather than some trinket that just takes up space in my inventory menu.
Its like some mash-up of NES action-adventure games like Zelda and Castlevania 2 along with Sierra adventure-puzzle games. Secret trap doors and unintentional consequences abound, and nobody really knows all the answers. Its exactly as frustrating and awesome as that sounds.
The narrative is very sparse in Dark Souls. You meet characters, but they are either uttering nonsensical prophecies, descending into madness, aggressively hostile, or a mixture of all three. Aside from a few brief cut scenes with no dialogue, there is very little story to speak of in the game. Even after seeing the ending I still have a lot of questions about the Kingdom of Lordran, how my character fit into the prophecy, and about Gwyn and the nature of the rest of the Old Lords.
But I think that's one of the things that makes the game compelling to me, the story IS the game. Its very easy to write the bare bones plot off as laziness or "typical JRPG gibberish" but I think that diminishes exactly what the developers have done here.
Like I said, I've been talking about this game a lot, sharing stories with other players. I tell them about how I cut the tail off the Bell Gargoyle purely by chance, or my first terrifying plunge into the Basilisk infested sewers, the curse they crippled me with and my struggle to find a cure. I heard about how my brother's fight with the Gaping Demon was complicated by a Necromancer that gave the Demon some fire support mid-way through the fight Ė a Necromancer I had killed earlier in my travels and didn't even know was related to that fight! Or how another friend managed to fend off an Invader with the timely assistance of Soliare of Astoria. On the forums and twitters I've read countless tales of bravery and woe that have enthralled me for the past weeks.
These were not things that happened in cut-scenes or pre-scripted events. They were events that occurred organically, spontaneously. The result of a hundred different monkey gamers banging away at a hundred different controllers, each creating their own version of the story.
Many games these days segregate the narrative from the actual play. The story is something that happens in between levels or after defeating a boss. When you breach the encampment's defence ring and your commander breaks in over the radio with a 12 minute long monologue about the villains motivations. That's not how Dark Souls does it. The game and your struggle through it is what is important. The lack of clear direction, the wealth of hidden secrets and unknown mysteries, and the high degree of random chance and individual choice combine together to make every players journey a little bit different, a little bit special and unique. To see that done so well in a largely single player game is a wondrous thing to me.
Again, its also another link back to Zelda 2. at least in my mind. That game wove a tale largely spelled out in the instructional manual, a brief paragraph of intro text (if you waited on the title screen to even see it) and a very quick ending sequence where Link gathers the Tri-force and, natrually, kisses the Princess.
I'm sure Link feels your pain buddy.
Its not exactly the most original or engrossing tale, but it didn't have to be. The story wasn't the focus, but the game and the world it took place in. The exploration, the mystery, the danger. The hidden temples and the vicious guardians therein. The secrets of war and magic Link could learn if he sought out the right mentors.
I know that it seems exceptionally odd to praise a game for what would be considered glaring flaws in other titles. Unrelenting difficulty, zero direction, inexplicable items and game mechanics, and a void where a narrative should be. Any of those things would be damming in another game, but Dark Souls manages to use them to its advantage. Its the difference between accident and design. By a very deliberate application of those old-school trappings and nuances, From Software has created a dangerous world to explore filled with mysteries to unravel through risky experimentation and hearsay word of mouth gossip -- rather than a frustrating mess like you might think it would be just by the description.
What does it say about the industry when the game I've enjoyed the most this year is a game that essentially threw out 20 years of industry evolution? What does it say about me as a gamer? Has the industry moved too far away from what made games great to begin with? Or am I just a grumpy curmudgeon who can't get over the games he played when he was eight years old?
No, I don't think games in general would be better if they were all as challenging and, frankly, inaccessible as Dark Souls. I love a lot of other games. I like cinematic games like Metal Gear and Alan Wake that feature long movie-like cut-scenes and great honking slabs of dialogue that you passively sit through as the story unfolds. I like sitting down with a new game and having the basic mechanics and ideas laid out in a nice introductory level or two and a smooth difficulty curve through the experience.
But Dark Souls is like a breath of fresh air. A break from the way the industry is now and a reminder of why I fell in love with games in the first place.
I don't expect newer gamers to really get it. I'm not trying to be pretensions or cleave to some kind of old-school cred. But what I got from Dark Souls is that it is speaking to the older crowd. A love letter to gamers who cut their teeth on the NES, or maybe even earlier. It is referencing a gamer genealogy, a past that has led up to this point. To me, it brought back memories of Hyrule and guiding Link through the swamps and haunted graveyards of that land to save his princess. To Tycho it tapped into the text adventures of prehistoric gaming roots. A time when heroes nervously explored twisting underground labyrinths and around every darkened corner lurked the distinct possibility of being eaten by a Grue.