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Dark Souls and the "Style Over Substance" Mindset

It's no news to any of my friends that I'm severely addicted to Dark Souls at this point. I never could have predicted the way I became utterly gripped by it. Eventually, this largely became a matter of being integrated into a community of players, primarily on twitch.tv, once I started live-streaming. I have friends there now, so I see myself stuck in that world for a while.

This post isn't about that, though. It's about the player-vs-player (PvP) system in Dark Souls, and some of the contention around it. I started off watching various streams a long time ago while waiting for co-op, which began my exposure to PvP--one of the major end-game activities. I was young and impressionable, as it were, so when I saw someone who was just racking up kills with no sign of slowing down, I was kind of in awe. "MAN," I said to myself, "this guy must be amazing!"

It wasn't until much later, when I'd watched much more, started playing PvP myself, and was exposed to many play styles that I started to view kill count as far too simplistic a measure.

A measure of what, you ask? Your effectiveness at killing your opponent is not necessarily an indication of your skill.

When I see statements like these, I think of games like Mario Party, which has a large element of luck involved in winning. I don't think of more competitive games like shooters or fighting games. I certainly don't think of Dark Souls. Well, I didn't used to.

What it comes down to is the fact that, despite the huge breadth of play-style choices in Dark Souls there is a straight path to success--where "success" means how often you get the kill. You strap on heavy armor, pump up your vitality, wear the crit damage ring, and backstab your way to glory. It's a recipe for that kind of success, and huge numbers of players do it. It's absolutely a failing in the game, both in its net code and its balance, but it exists, so people exploit it.

Before I go on much more, I need to make a critical distinction. I'm not condemning people for doing these things. They're legitimate game mechanics, not glitches (that's a whole 'nother story), and so there's nothing wrong, per se, with using them. What I am saying, to reiterate an earlier statement, is that doing certain things lowers the skill needed to earn a kill.

Let me get specific and dump a list of things you can do that lessen the skills you need to win in PvP. I'm not saying any one of these things guarantees wins, but they sure help, sometimes to an absurd degree.

- Spawn camping with two of your buddies
- Heck, engaging in any kind of 2v1 and 3v1 situation, especially if you endlessly heal your friends
- Abusing the atrocious netcode to backstab people (a.k.a. "lagstabbing", or "backstab fishing")
- See above about backstabs, but especially coupled with the Hornet Ring
- Wearing a full set of Giant's Armor while still maintaining a fast movement speed
- Cranking crazy amounts of vitality and using Mask of the Mother to further boost it
- Stacking huge amounts of poise so you can tank the heaviest weapons without flinching
- Healing yourself with Divine Blessings (more on this later)
- Using glitches to create powerful, low level characters for the purpose of invading inexperienced players

Let me be clear: none of those things necessarily marks you as a bad player or means that you're "playing the game wrong"; these are displays of low skill. If you want to be a better player as opposed to just a successful one, challenge yourself and step outside these tactics.

Now I'll be prescriptive for a moment, and offer a shorter list of displays of high skill. For the record, I only attempt a few of these, usually unsuccessfully. That's because, heh, I'm not a very skillful player. But I can dream, right?

- Parrying, especially on the first swing
- Using low or no poise - makes you prey for stunlocks
- Using fast-roll without the Dark Wood Grain Ring
- Forgoing stunlock opportunities
- Using less common weapons - halberds, straight swords, regular hammers, whips, fist weapons, and plenty more choices
- Not healing during fights, even if the opponent does
- Succeeding in 2v1 and 3v1 fights
- Manually aiming hits without lock-on
- Manually aiming projectiles (including pyromancies) without lock-on

There are so many choices in this game. That's part of the breadth that I like to talk about. And that's why it pains me a bit to see people narrowly focus in on the few seriously overpowered paths. On the flip side, I love seeing stuff like Poise-Free PvP, which puts a list of agreed-upon restrictions for duels, with the goal of actually making you better at the game.

So what do I do about it? Do I complain? Eh, a little; call it "venting" instead. But more importantly, I play the game like I want to see it played. I watched a Youtube video recently where the uploader said something like, "as usual, PvP boils down to who can backstab whom more." My comment was: that's probably true right now, but if more people challenge that assumption, maybe we can elevate the state of the game overall.

So I play without backstabs, for the most part. I do a lot of dodging and rolling, attempt parries, and have characters with moderate vitality. I eschew the tryhard gear and pick armor that is both functional and appeals to my eye (though nobody else's, it would seem. sheesh). I do all these things because I know that if everyone did, we'd have much more interesting fights in general. I know this, because most of the duels I've had with the great people from that aforementioned community are a far cry more fun than those I have with lagstabbing randoms.

I'll even go as far as to avoid backstabs in 2v1 and 3v1 encounters, where the odds are staggering. This is because I feel winning is secondary to showing these players that it's possible to win without techniques like that. It's making a statement, albeit a painful one, since I'm rarely successful.

This is the "style over substance" camp: we play for reasons other than winning, sometimes at the cost of our quantifiable, measured success. But things are way more interesting in here.

Sidebar on Divine Blessings

I need to take a minute to state my view on Divine Blessings. This is an item that heals you fully and removes all status effects within a fraction of a second. In a normal playthrough, I think there is a maximum of about 10 you can get a hold of. You can't really farm them from anything (forest hunters can, but the drop rate is pretty rare).

The problem is that the advent of modding tools has given rise to the availability of basically infinite divine blessings. An item that was intended to be extremely rare is now commonplace. This is fine for PvE and PvP in "peacetime", but in the middle of a PvP fight I find it problematic, for these specific reasons:

- They take effect significantly faster than any other type of healing (heal spells, humanity, and Estus), allowing you to both use one and escape a retaliatory attack with ease.
- They are not subject to the preventative influence of Lloyd's Talisman.
- They can be used by invading red phantoms, who are denied the second fastest healing option, Estus.

And so I consider using Divine Blessings in PvP as outright cheating. If you want to heal, that's fine, but use one of the other mechanisms. Of course, none of this applies if you're using your legitimately earned DBs, but the sad truth is that the other player will assume you got yours through glitches or mods.
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About knutafone of us since 6:45 PM on 03.01.2010

I'm a dad in my thirties.
I work for MS on the Xbox, making features and fixing bugs.
I have a cat and two dogs.
I sometimes make Twitter bots: 1, 2, 3

Groundhog Day: Wave After Wave, This Is My Ocean
Obscurity: Nobody has ever heard of Lemmings

Currently playing
Stephen's Sausage Roll

Dark Souls
Geometry Wars 2
Burnout Paradise
Rayman (original, Origins, Legends)
Tetris Attack
Metroid Prime series
Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3
Descent 1-3
English Country Tune
The Witness

Other places you might find me:
Twitch.tv livestream (PC indie games and Dark Souls)
knutaf on YouTube
@_knutaf on Twitter
Occasionally, I am part of a podcast
I watch a fair bit of anime.
I sometimes listen to music.
Xbox LIVE:knutaf
PSN ID:knutaf
Steam ID:knutaf


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