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

You people have a lot to answer for. I was doing fine, playing CoD:MW3 occasionally, and remembering minecraft days with nostalgia. Now you remind me of this sequel, which I now have to buy and bludgeon myself with.