I like to have at least one “challenge” playthrough of a game under way at any one time. That is to say, a run through a game in which the player willingly stacks the deck against themselves somehow, forcing them to reappraise how they play and really to engage with a game’s systems to try and eke out every little advantage they can. This doesn't have to be anything outlandish- just playing a difficult game on its highest settings and denying oneself access to certain mechanisms would qualify. My current endeavour is simply to solo every quest in Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate (which is rendered especially challenging by my crippling lack of skill at the game). There’s also plenty of scope for more esoteric trials- pacifist runs, nuzlockes, attempting to best an FPS with melee alone, etc. etc. The possibilities are multitudinous.
Aside from being enjoyable and rewarding, playing a game under conditions different to those that were part of the original design is often quite an illuminating experience. As the GDQ events so handily demonstrate year on year, the sum of a game’s parts often contains rather more than was envisaged during the process of their composition. In engaging with a game in such a way as to force the player from the beaten track, we can often stumble upon some fresh insights into the core “intended” experience, and into the art of game design as a whole.
As the title of the post suggests, today I’d like to discuss some of these insights that arose from playing through Dark Souls 2 without ever levelling up the player character. I don’t claim to be a particularly skilful individual, nor one with any great tolerance for achieving victory by rote repetition. In more positive phraseology, I’d rather work smarter than harder. What this means with regards to something as unforgiving as a Level 1 run of a difficult game like DS2 is that:
A: I was ready and willing to use every dirty trick I could to make progress.
and B: I died an awful lot.
Here are some of things I found interesting in between seemingly endless battles against large men in amour. (DS2's roster of enemies does lack a little spice in comparison to the other games).
1: The game’s economy becomes meaningless.
In the Souls games, the same currency is used for levelling up as for all other transactions, be it purchasing items, forging weapons, upgrading equipment, or anything else. In normal play, this creates an interesting tension, forcing the player to divide their resources across multiple competing options. Since I wasn’t allowed to level up, I was absurdly wealthy at almost all points in time. This meant that my character was a complete weakling, but one with a very well-stocked inventory. I was carrying around maximal quantities of items that I hadn’t even touched when playing normally, most notably the various expendable throwing weapons found in game. Interestingly, these proved to be an extremely potent tool in some encounters. By limiting my options, I had forced myself into a strategy that was actually somewhat easier to execute than those towards which the game directs the player under normal circumstances.
The extreme devaluation of the game’s currency also meant that one of the franchise’s signature mechanics, the ‘bloodstains’ that hold on to a player’s souls when they are killed, also lost their significance. In theory, the game creates tension by giving the player just one chance to recover their lost wealth. In this case, the foundation underpinning that mechanic’s efficacy was removed, taking it out in turn.
2: The threat of instant death changes things dramatically.
It goes without saying that there is a tremendous difference between an attack that removes 99% of the player’s health and one that removes all of it. In a game where death is only ever a few hits away, differences in attack damage are incremental until they change they change the number of attacks that can be received, at which point they become quantum. Despite their reputation for nastiness, the Souls games contain very few attacks which can instantly kill the player- that level of power is generally reserved for environmental hazards. This is doubtless a conscious decision on the part of the kind souls at From Software, who have wisely decided that merely leaving the player on the brink of death after a particularly costly error makes for much better encounter pacing.
When capped to Soul Level 1, there are quite a few unintended instant-kill attacks being thrown about. This changes the dynamics of encounters in which they are present significantly. The basic rhythm of combat in Dark Souls 2 consists of evading attacks until an opening is recognized, then exploiting that opening as much as you feel safe in doing, before resuming the defensive. The moments that the player seizes on as openings for attack and the extent to which they commit to these attacks create a risk-reward dynamic that keeps things interesting.
With instant death in the mix, there is never a situation in which the player cannot be killed after one failed iteration of this loop. Ordinarily, the amount of risk that the player assumes with each action is in constant flux as they heal and receive damage. Whilst this remains the case to some extent at level one, the system is thrown severely off balance by the removal of a completely safe state, and then again by the fact that there are also far more attacks that can kill the player if they have taken only a very small amount of damage.
In other words, the dynamic that is established by a game’s combat system can be quite a delicate thing, prone to disruption even if its fundamentals remain unchanged.
3: A.I. struggles when the player doesn’t behave as intended.
Dark Souls 2, as with many other games, does not have a particularly sophisticated A.I. system. Its enemies are intelligent enough to create immersive combat encounters, but if the player is willing to exploit the gaps in their behaviours, this illusion can be shattered quite easily. As I mentioned earlier, I did not approach this challenge with any delusions of pride as to my methods. Whenever I could find a cheap, exploitative way to get around an enemy, I took it. This resulted in a lot of engineered lethal falls, attacks from unintentionally unassailable positions, and enemies killed by pinging them to death one crossbow bolt at a time whilst they milled about, unable to strike back.
Whilst the Souls games are excellent at drawing players into their (glorious) dark fantasy environments, nothing screams “This is a game!” louder or more comically than an A.I. failure, and never is this more evident than when the player is actively engendering them.
4: Pacing assumes progression… and ignorance.
It should be pointed out that none of the Souls games have particularly consistent difficulty curves, and that even then Dark Souls 2 is easily the most erratic. Once the earliest areas are done with, the difficulty of encounters is distributed fairly imprecisely, with a general rising trend being offset by uniquely lethal instances of the mundane and strangely pathetic marquee battles (the original version of the game’s final boss comes to mind). An already shaky sense of escalation is thrown completely out the window if the player character reaches the peak of their strength decidedly earlier than anticipated.
Access to equipment in Dark Souls 2 is gated by minimum stat requirements- stats that I was unable to increase. This means that my defensive capabilities peaked as soon as I could fully upgrade a suit of armour light enough to keep me mobile, and my offensive capabilities peaked as soon as I could fully upgrade one of the few weapons available to me. In combination with the fact that this was not my first playthrough (that would have been rather bold), any sense of escalation was removed from the latter half of the game. Rather, the game’s structure became punctuated by its sticking points, those areas or bosses that kept killing me enough to occupy orders of magnitude more time than their peers, with the rest moving by quite briskly. Since I already knew what was going to be coming up ahead, and I already knew that I was as prepared for it in material terms as I was ever going to be, progress was either very swift or very slow, and not at all in accordance to the blueprint set out by an ordinary playthrough. Velstadt, for example, was relatively straightforward with an appropriately developed character, but proved to be disproportionately problematic this time around.
5: The Shrine of Amana remains a unique, monstrous contribution to the field of human suffering.
How do you fine people go about challenging yourselves with your games, and have you had any particularly striking experiences come out of the crucible? What do you make of the divide between being playing ‘as intended’ and going off rails? I’m sure I’d be interested to hear what you have to say.
Thanks for reading, and have a day that is more enjoyable than attempting to navigate The Gutter at SL1.