Soul Train

If there's any game that can be seen as a teacher of skills, it is Dark Souls. Built on the foundations of its predecessor, Demon's Souls, the game's central mechanic is death — specifically, the death of your avatar. And, more specifically, the death of your avatar every five minutes.

The key to deciphering Dark Souls' use of death is in what that death does and doesn't reset. The changes you make to the environment, such as unlocking a door, and the boss encounters, are fixed, one-time events. The only thing that resets each time are minions, and you. Yes, you. Right back to one of very few checkpoints you go.

This isn't because the game is designed to upset you, the paying customer. It's not because the game is too complex for those unused to "learning" levels to the degree a speed-runner knows the environs of Black Mesa. It's because the game wants you to generate a "perfect" narrative, an imagined contiguous chain of precise encounters broken up only by the inconvenience of becoming deceased. But this isn't for the hero's benefit — the hero, in Dark Souls is a shell. Here, you are the hero. You are the one who struggles towards the attainment of the perfect encounter.

"Look, C.Y.," you might say. "I have this avatar, and they have a custom face, and I use them to kill monsters in a world with no backstory. That's it. It's an arcade experience."

That may be true for some people, but what you are also doing is one or both of the following: generating gaming campfire stories of respawn marathons for your controller-happy compatriots, and engaging in a Groundhog Day-esque grind towards a single playthrough that tells a balletic, action-packed story without any flow-breaking mistake-making.

In the context of a game, resetting some parts but not others feels a little wrong. If you're going to make a game hard, make it hard even if resetting a boss would be unfair. We're used to a certain pattern in videogames: mobs, boss, mobs, boss, mobs, elite mobs, final boss. It's gone this way for years, and we're okay with it. It's comfortable.

Dark Souls challenges this paradigm by streamlining your experience as you progress. By preventing bosses from respawning, you will eventually have an experience that feels extremely different to the one you had at the beginning. The boss lairs lie empty, and all that remains between you and public enemy number one is a horde of minions — minions that you will learn to predict, counter and dispatch. In a matter of hours, the game shifts from James Bond (defeat the henchmen marching amongst the fodder, progress to the villain) to 300 (tackle varied waves with practiced skill and no hesitation, then face the evil king). But what's the reasoning behind this approach to the perfect story?

Arguably, it's primarily because the boss fights are infinitely harder, and making you run those fights every single time would be a little too cruel. The mechanic also prevents players from repeatedly looting powerful items from easier bosses. In terms of the story you're telling with your controller, it's incredibly important, because you're ironing out the creases in what will eventually resemble a bloody, bladed ballet performance — no foot out of step, all pain perfectly endured.

Making progress in Dark Souls is akin to writing the story for a theatrical production. You don't want all your action beats spread out over the course of three acts. Act one is explorative, act two reactive, and act three decisive. The first act is your chance, in a game with no tutorial past basic controls and mechanics, to explore the world and learn how it all works. Act two is your opportunity to stop dying and start fighting back, as your stats improve along with your knowledge of enemy abilities and attack patterns. It's during this phase the sub-bosses begin to fall.

It's the last act, once the pieces of the puzzle are in place and you're ready to kick arse and chew fantasy-correct bubblegum, that has to move at a pace that demonstrates true mastery of combat. That's why we enjoy watching Aragorn or Leonidas fight; they're not fumbling around for keys, or dying to weaker minions. They encounter, they plan, and they win. Dark Souls is traditional epic cinema, but with an interactive element.

If you want an accurate representation of Dark Souls within a cinematic context, Rocky is probably a viable example, or any film that contains the fabled "training montage." Music pounding, the camera cycles through scenes of the protagonist's quest for self-improvement, every pan and cut a step closer to becoming the perfect gamer-warrior.

In a sense, the camera's not just pointed at the player-avatar, but at the player themself. Although the protagonist is living through a cycle of life, death and undeath, you yourself are in the process of a long-haul trial by fire. I think this appeals to those of us who remember a time when games generated player motivation by being unforgiving, offering intense streams of overpowered enemies and difficult but finely-tuned mechanics. Our training montage experiences from older titles find their home, once more, in Dark Souls.

Recently, I developed an approach to Dark Souls I discovered on Twitter; playing the game to Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger." That montage feel matches the nature of the game perfectly: I train, I grow stronger, and eventually, I walk into the ring and out again, victorious, celebratory, perfect. This isn't my avatar's story. It's mine.

Comments

I'm starting to come around on the idea that the Souls series tells stories better than the Elder Scrolls series.

But I'm also waiting to hear from folks who've beaten New Game+.

Excellent article. The Souls games are about exploration, learning, and personal mastery - not common themes, at least not with this magnitude, in modern games.

Great article.

Dark Souls uses active voice story telling - it conveys its story through the actions that you, the player, take. It does not tell you a story. You are creating the story that a lesser game will someday tell. The best parts of the game happen because you made them happen. They don't happen to you, they happen because of you.

It is a far more mature (as in seasoned) and nuanced way to create a story than something like the Elder Scrolls games; games like this tell their stories through long-winded exposition (perhaps that is a bit too harsh).

A great literary example is to look at The Hobbit versus The Silmarillion. In this example, The Hobbit is Dark Souls and The Silmarillion is an Elder Scrolls game. For the most part, The Hobbit does its world building through the context of the plot, the adventure, while The Silmarillion is nothing but INFODUMP, and piles on the exposition non-stop.

Another great general example is to examine the differences between heroic/S&S fantasy (Conan, et al.) and Epic fantasy (ASOIAF, et al.). S&S fantasy often creates its worlds and stories in small chunks, focusing on the adventures of a single character through which the reader discovers the world. Epic fantasy, on the other hand, often takes a more encyclopedic approach in creating its world.

Here is another great article looking at the differences between Dark Soul's and Skyrim's story-telling methods:

http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/...

it conveys its story through the actions that you, the player, take. It does not tell you a story. You are creating the story that a lesser game will someday tell.

Funny enough, the people who defend TES' story telling (I'm one of them) would say the same thing about TES games compared to many other RPGs. I think the story telling mechanic of both games is pretty similar, Dark Souls is just more extreme with it.

I think one thing that exemplifies how the two games differ is the first few opening moments. In DS the game starts and you are playing right away. In this sense, it's all about the game-play and the mechanics. In Skyrim the game starts and you're left sitting around while people talk at you. It's more about being immersed in the story that Bethesda wants you to experience.

While I prefer DS's method, I'd be lying to say that I wasn't also caught up in Skyrim's feelings of epicness.

I think TES games are good at creating individual scenarios in such manner, and you're right that DS takes it to the extreme. DS is threadbare minimalism at its finest. It's The Road Warrior of action-RPGs, where as TES is the Avatar of RPGs, or something.

Honestly, the personal experiences I create myself in TES games are far more interesting than the story the developers want to tell.

I don't want to claim that one is objectively better than the other, although I definitely prefer DS's approach more.

This even extends into the fiction I read; I greatly prefer Heroic/S&S fantasy over Epic fantasy, because I like smaller, more tightly focused experiences told with brevity.

Some people prefer the other, and that's cool.

As far as the spectrum goes, I think it's kind of like this:

Final Fantasy..............................TES..........................Dark/Demon's Souls
(a bloated mess of exposition).....(a little of both).........(extreme minimalism)

(Sorry, maybe "a bloated mess of exposition" is too harsh, but that's how I see it)

wordsmythe wrote:

I'm also waiting to hear from folks who've beaten New Game+.

1000/1000, baby.

To the point, though - Dark Souls is truly a gamer's game. Many of the best stories can't be put into words very well at all - they would just sound stupid in written or spoken form. I know this because I've just written a few down:

Spoiler:

One of the things I felt strongly about was leading a skeleton from the graveyard to kill Petrus in NG+, before he could murder Rhea like he did my first go-'round. I could have just stabbed him, but it felt like the greater revenge (and by this I mean revenge for destined crime) to enviro-kill him, and not have to pay off the 'sin'.

Another was when I spent 30 humanity and killed those nine chaos bugs almost ten times trying to keep Solaire from his fate, then accidentally stabbed him while doing so again. Then I spent around an hour farming souls (the only time I did so) to convince him to forgive me - but never saw him again anyhow. I'm still not sure if his sign appeared in the Kiln, I was so busy helping others finish the game that I forgot all about him when I did it myself.

Then there was the time when the Sunlight Maggot failed to drop in the first game, denying me the Old Witch's Ring I'd come to covet. After finally speaking to 'Our Fair Lady' in the second game, I was very pleased upon learning I was correct in my guess that Quelana does not wish you to kill her. Rather, the sister she wishes you to kill is the NPC enemy witch you meet near the Bed of Chaos, and the mother is the Bed creature itself.

Honestly, though, the most exciting 'stories' of Dark Souls have nothing to do with the characters or the world. Like when you made it to the bottom of the Tomb of Giants without using any bonfires, so that you could warp all the way back out with one spell after you completed your objective. Or when that jerk invaded you and you waited behind that pillar for like ten minutes before he finally sprang your trap and you destroyed him in moments.

.......I had almost forgotten about the multiplayer... anyone else got some good war stories, PVP or co-op?

Also, DS does so much with so little. Sun Bro has like, what, 8 lines of dialog in the whole game? You see him for maybe 30 minutes of playtime? And yet when I was unable to save him I really felt bad - far worse than I have in any other game when an NPC died.

MojoBox wrote:
it conveys its story through the actions that you, the player, take. It does not tell you a story. You are creating the story that a lesser game will someday tell.

Funny enough, the people who defend TES' story telling (I'm one of them) would say the same thing about TES games compared to many other RPGs. I think the story telling mechanic of both games is pretty similar, Dark Souls is just more extreme with it.

I would actually agree with this. The Conference Call before last combined with the Tom Bissell article have had me thinking about this a lot. I think the reason we're "picking" on Skyrim is because it's uber-popular right now and some of us don't understand why someone would want to be lectured to as Bissell puts it.

You're right, though, that because you have the freedom to play TES however you wish you end up often creating a story that's uniquely your own. I actually came to the conclusion that I might give Skyrim another chance, but that if I do so I will avoid the story. I'll go out of my way to focus on just playing the game as I choose, treating it kind of like Dark Souls, and just seeing what happens.

I think there are degrees to which a game is heavy-handed about explicit story.

Also the Brainy Gamer did a similar article to this on Dark Souls.

His article is actually the one that convinced me to even give Dark Souls a try.

Truly. I think it's because NPCs actually MATTER in Dark Souls. They barely matter at all to the 'narrative', such as it is, but they matter a LOT to you. You're lucky if you find a second trainer of a given magic school in the game; and Solaire actually fights beside you - he can easily be the difference between a nigh-impossible slugfest you'll repeat ten times and a triumphant victory on the first attempt. If you kill that Fire Keeper, well, guess what - you won't be resting at that nicely buffed and oh-so-central bonfire any more.

I have said it before. I would buy a console for Demon Souls/Dark Souls. Come to PC dammit.

D_Davis wrote:

Also, DS does so much with so little. Sun Bro has like, what, 8 lines of dialog in the whole game? You see him for maybe 30 minutes of playtime? And yet when I was unable to save him I really felt bad - far worse than I have in any other game when an NPC died.

Dude, I love SunBro. Apparently you can get some nice equip by killing him... but I don't have the heart. I save him on every game and NG I can.

Strangeblades wrote:

I have said it before. I would buy a console for Demon Souls/Dark Souls. Come to PC dammit.

Those two statements contradict. You should have a console now, then, right?

I bought Dark Souls, got to ringing the first bell then encountered the zombie assassins accompanied by dogs. That was the point at which I'd had enough (and yes people have told me after that is when it starts to get good).

I'm all for challenging games (I loved Super Meat Boy) but Dark Souls just makes me feel like I'm being trolled by the developers.

Glad you enjoyed it! I have a gift for you, in the form of the full Rocky Balboa character creation image. Enjoy.

IMAGE(http://www.cyreid.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/rocky-dark-souls.jpeg)

Concave wrote:

I bought Dark Souls, got to ringing the first bell then encountered the zombie assassins accompanied by dogs. That was the point at which I'd had enough (and yes people have told me after that is when it starts to get good).

I'm all for challenging games (I loved Super Meat Boy) but Dark Souls just makes me feel like I'm being trolled by the developers.

I fail to see how those particular enemies could cause a rage quit.... especially if you took the time to learn how to kill the gargoyles. Can you elaborate? I died a lot there, but no more than any other new area/enemy.

Fantastic article. Thanks for writing it.

I am currently having an extra marital affair with this game. I absolutely love it.

Finished NG+ and currently doing run #3 at around 90 hours played.

Strangeblades wrote:

I have said it before. I would buy a console for Demon Souls/Dark Souls. Come to PC dammit.

I bought a PS3 last night just for Demon's Souls.

D_Davis wrote:
Strangeblades wrote:

I have said it before. I would buy a console for Demon Souls/Dark Souls. Come to PC dammit.

I bought a PS3 last night just for Demon's Souls.

It was one of the first games I bought when I finally got around to purchasing a PS3 this year. I'm not normally fond of super hard games, but recently I went all crazy-super-meat-boy and bought that and Demon's Souls.

Dark Souls simply feels like the natural evolution, although I do miss having access to a stack of healing items. Certainly does introduce a more tactical element to health regeneration a la Bastion, though.

Again, you're most welcome for the article!

AndrewA wrote:
Concave wrote:

I bought Dark Souls, got to ringing the first bell then encountered the zombie assassins accompanied by dogs. That was the point at which I'd had enough (and yes people have told me after that is when it starts to get good).

I'm all for challenging games (I loved Super Meat Boy) but Dark Souls just makes me feel like I'm being trolled by the developers.

I fail to see how those particular enemies could cause a rage quit.... especially if you took the time to learn how to kill the gargoyles. Can you elaborate? I died a lot there, but no more than any other new area/enemy.

It wasn't so much a rage quit as the game had basically worn me down to that point, and actually defeating the gargoyles hadn't given me much satisfaction.

Thank you, GWJ community, for introducing me to this game. It was great. I played it just before Skyrim... and now Skyrim is looking pretty pale in comparison.

Interestingly, I didn't think it was the boss fights that were so bad: it was the mobs that I found scary. The hardest part of the entire game for me was learning how to get from the Burg bonfire to the first boss on the ramparts. Part of this was learning to master the control scheme (it took me forever to figure out how to target spells effectively) but most of it was learning how to methodically take out enemies one at a time without getting clobbered.

The analogy with Nethack I think is the best one: you don't level up your character so much as you level up your own knowledge of how to beat the game.

I loved it. I stopped playing NG+ because I found it wasn't as much fun: I didn't have to learn anything. On the other hand, I don't understand ANYTHING from notomtolose spoiler, so maybe I missed some stuff the first time around......

This article officially brings back CY, who used to go by Sententia around these parts.

Welcome back, Christos!

This article at Eurogamer seems particularly relevant to this article and the discussion above.

Dyni wrote:

This article at Eurogamer seems particularly relevant to this article and the discussion above.

Thanks for the link. That was a good read. It's funny how much this is being discussed. I don't think this is coincidental. I think there has been a distinct break (think old school GTA to modern GTA IV) over how to best tell a story and I think we're seeing a rebuke of the heavy-handed approach. I'm glad for it, honestly.

Word.

I fully agree that the way Dark Souls tells a story is preferable to the exposition that seems to dominate the genre these days.

Two points though:

1. Demon's Souls did a much better job at pulling you into its mythology than Dark Souls. Killing Astraea was heartbreaking every time. Having to kill a limping dog is emotional manipulation at its cheapest.

2. The Metroid series and especially Metroid Prime use a very similar vehicle to tell their story. And have been around a wee bit longer.

p.s. to the guy upstairs who stopped NG+ because no more learning. Keep going and you will find yourself learning again soon enough

I believe it was Kirk Hamilton who pointed this out to me yesterday: Elder Scrolls games shouldn't bother to include main quests.

richnorfamous wrote:

p.s. to the guy upstairs who stopped NG+ because no more learning. Keep going and you will find yourself learning again soon enough :)

I knew it!

Best gaming "training montage": Angry Video Game Nerd learns Ninja Gaiden

AndrewA wrote:

I fail to see how those particular enemies could cause a rage quit.... especially if you took the time to learn how to kill the gargoyles. Can you elaborate? I died a lot there, but no more than any other new area/enemy.

He's talking about the Capra Demon, not the Tower Gargoyles. He said he got past the Gargoyles but couldn't get through the area with the dogs, which is the Lower Undead Burg. The Capra Demon is Lower Undead Burg's boss, the tall thin guy with two very long swords and who you fight in a tiny room with two dogs. ....if you're fighting the Capra demon with your first character, be at least level 25 and/or summon other players to help, because he's a real, real bitch.

Keithustus wrote:
AndrewA wrote:

I fail to see how those particular enemies could cause a rage quit.... especially if you took the time to learn how to kill the gargoyles. Can you elaborate? I died a lot there, but no more than any other new area/enemy.

He's talking about the Capra Demon, not the Tower Gargoyles. He said he got past the Gargoyles but couldn't get through the area with the dogs, which is the Lower Undead Burg. The Capra Demon is Lower Undead Burg's boss, the tall thin guy with two very long swords and who you fight in a tiny room with two dogs. ....if you're fighting the Capra demon with your first character, be at least level 25 and/or summon other players to help, because he's a real, real bitch.

I don't know if he's talking about Capra or not. It didn't sound like it. Levels aren't important in killing any boss in the game, really. They help a little bit - but practice and skill make more of a difference. I think I got past the Capra Demon around level 18 or so.