I had a conversation with a fellow commenter a little while back where he found the lack of a proper pause screen in both Dark Souls games unforgivable in this day and age. I understood his position, and I've definitely been upset by similar design choices in the past. Oddly enough, it not only doesn't bother me in Dark Souls... I fully embrace it.
Before I explain, let me quickly describe the game to the uninformed. Dark Souls is a game all about atmosphere,"fair" difficulty, and consequences for your actions. It draws you in by creating a large world rife with threats around every corner. If you die, you drop all of your souls (currency) and are sent back to the last checkpoint. If you fail to make it back to your dropped souls and die again, they're gone for good. It's potentially very frustrating, but each death is meant to be a learning experience. Once you know how to get past a trap or encounter, it's usually not too hard to get through it again relatively unscathed. Quick reflexes and keen observation can help you last longer, but even further than that, every action you take can potentially keep you alive or send you towards your next nigh-inevitable death.
Every action matters. It may not be as great a tagline as "Prepare to Die", but it really should be the mantra of this series. If you choose the wrong time to attack a foe, he may hit you first, dodge it, parry it, or simply counterattack quickly. If you want to dodge an attack instead of blocking it, you leave yourself open to taking full damage should your timing be off. If you try to run past him, you need to expend your stamina to do so which will leave you unable to block to the best of your abilities should trouble come 'round. If you want to power up a bonfire (checkpoint), you need to reverse your hollowing first which will make you open to sudden invasions from other players or even some NPCs. Hell, even going to new areas is something that you should never do unless you're fully committed, because there's no way of knowing if that fog gate will lead you to a new area or trap you in a boss fight. Lastly, and what this article is all about, if you decide to press Start, you better be sure you're safe because you're a sitting duck until you're done.
Seems like a good time to check my inventory.
The biggest argument is to keep the real-time menus but also have a way to pause the game. Keep in mind, Dark Souls II is the third game in this series and the third game to have the same method of pausing. Dark Souls II is also the one that has tried the hardest to go for a larger audience with Bandai Namco giving it a larger marketing push. Yet it still refuses to let you pause the game even when playing offline. This tells me that it must be an intentional feature rather than a simple oversight. My theory is that it is in there to not just accentuate the whole "every action has consequences" theme, but also to force the player to stay alert at all times. When the entire game is out to get you, a simple pause break may have you drop your defenses just enough to lead to death. Maybe it's just me and my non-exciting life, but in this digital age, I find myself staring at some form of screen and bouncing from activity to activity most of the day. Unfortunately this has taken its toll on my attention span (which wasn't great to begin with) and I find myself tending to forget more and more. A simple pause break can be enough to disrupt my focus... except in Dark Souls, because there's no such thing. So I'm thankful that the game won't give me that opportunity to sabotage myself.
Now I bet it's pretty obvious that I love Dark Souls. It's entirely possible that I'm giving it a pass that it doesn't deserve because I'm so blinded by my love. After all, there are other games out there that also try to go for atmosphere but still let you pause the game. Silent Hill for example attempts to draw you in to its frightening and gruesome world so it can then scare the crap out of you. Whether it actually succeeds in doing so is a whole different conversation. I think what it all comes down to is the design philosophy and target audience. Silent Hill is trying to tell you a scary story and treats death as failure. It ultimately wants you to see everything it has to offer, so if you need to take a break then by all means go for it. Dark Souls is trying to make you feel like another part of its living world so it's not going to stop doing what it does just because you need a second. Just like the real world doesn't stop moving just because you want to check your e-mail. There's a common Japanese phrase I see a lot in anime and manga that goes "X is X, and Y is Y." Dark Souls is Dark Souls, and everything else is everything else. You can't really compare it to anything else because it's not trying to be like anything else. It's doing its own thing.
Again, this is all just my opinion and why I don't mind not being able to pause. I have a lot of free time so it's not such a big deal to have to really commit to a game like Dark Souls. For those out there with more going on in their lives, there are things you can do. First off, once you've dealt with any immediate threat at hand, rarely will you find yourself in any danger should you decide to stand around for a brief moment. If you don't feel like that's safe enough, you can always use a Homeward Bone or Darksign to warp back to a bonfire. Worst case scenario, when there's an emergency you absolutely have to deal with, be it an important phone call, or that Taco Bell you ate taking the fast track through your intestines... "Quit Game" is only a few button presses away. Thanks to the constant auto-saving, you'll be right around where you left off once you're finally ready to continue. It may not be ideal, but at least it's something.
I'm sure I haven't managed to sway anyone to my side, but I felt the need to give it my best shot at explaining why it doesn't bother me. Dark Souls is a different type of game where every action has consequences. The pause mechanic is not just an extension of that belief, but also helps keep you in the game and ready to rock once you're done dicking around in menus. I urge you to try to embrace its methods. You may not learn to love it like me but I hope you'll at least get a better understanding of why the developers made the decision not to let you pause.
Well that concludes my first blog here on Destructoid. Please be kind (of douchey).