Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dark Souls

Dark Souls is built from the ground up for the "hardcore gamer": the kind of person who is always telling you they value gameplay over graphics and they don't make video games like they used to in the good old days, even if they personally were 4 years old during the good old days. The kind of person who treats gaming as a hobby, a thing you spend lots of time and money on in order to have really high-quality fun. For this audience, it surpasses expectations. If you already know what major games are coming out this year and how you feel about each of them, Dark Souls is right up your alley, and well worth your time.

Almost to a man, reviewers gush with praise over many aspects of the game. The art and sound design is fantastic, perfectly executing on the core premise of a dark fantasy world that is rich and varied yet creepy, twisted and ruined. This is good, because the music is almost nonexistent, appearing only at key moments or during boss fights where you will not be paying attention anyway. The mood is laid on thick, with heavy use of color and sound filters to convey the emotional tone in a largely isolated world. (In one enormous banquet hall, even the menu sounds boom and echo.) In a particularly oldschool turn, the story is not in the player's face whatsoever; key plot points are hidden away inside the item descriptions submenu, accessible by pressing Start, A, D-Pad right, D-Pad down ten times, X, X. The world is chock-full of secrets, hidden passageways and unique encounters, to the point where the player can be genuinely surprised after upwards of 50 hours of playing time - a rare feat for any media, not just games.

All this moodiness and inaccessibility is balanced out by a very "realistic" core gameplay system and a well-defined, voluminous set of animations to match. "Realistic" is one of those words that gamers say when they don't know how to describe an experience that is weighty, that has the ring of truth about it even if it does not match the real world in any way, that responds consistently and well to the player's desires. What they really mean about the medieval combat that is the core of Dark Souls is that it is sufficiently awkward, violent, difficult, and deep that the player has a glimpse of what it actually means to charge an enemy knight with your shield and spear. A big part of this feeling is the player's fragility: the same enemies you can dispatch with one well-timed parry and riposte can do the same to you, except that you are required to take on a half-dozen of them, each armed with a different weapon and fighting style. Even the lowliest zombie, barely clutching the broken hilt of a sword, can pose a serious threat to a reckless player who charges in headlong.

As I write, the online system is incredible in concept but broken in practice, thanks to the kind of trivial design decision that is easily overlooked in the rush to polish a voluminous work. Theoretically, other players leave you helpful messages or lie to you; you see their ghostly forms as they die, learning from their grisly demise which kind of terror awaits you in the next room; you can summon them to assist you or see them invade you in search of your hard-earned money. You can join elaborate covenants with specific goals, like "steal ten Dragon Scales from players who have killed dragons", or "enact vengeance upon the previous group," or "set traps for unwary players at the risk of being ganged up on by three irate victims". All of these provide a great sense of community, of variety, and of human interaction in a forbidding and austere world. Unfortunately, the population is inexplicably split among several servers, so the world feels extremely empty, and many of the multiplayer options require players to be fairly close together in terms of game progress and to use rare items to play, further decreasing the potential helpers. This could easily be fixed by increasing the tolerance for the game to contact other players, and hopefully developer From Software will pay attention.

Because Dark Souls is so captivating, engaging, and frankly such a long game - 50+ hours even for skilled players - it is held to a very high standard. As a result, what would normally be niggles and nitpicks are magnified to the status of full-fledged design flaws. Here are the ones I found:
  • Human form (the core resource of online play) is lost when the host dies, instead of being recoverable after death like the game's other resources; this is the single largest contributor to the small pool of online players
  • Enemies are too difficult to stagger or interrupt, meaning defensively-oriented weapons like spears and rapiers have an advantage over offensively-oriented weapons like clubs, arrows, swords, axes, halberds, katanas, scythes, magic wands, etc.
  • It is too easy to be effective with techniques and equipment requiring no long-term commitment or specialization from your character, such as lightning or pyromancy, compared to those which require a dedicated plan to use, such as heavy armor or magic spells or longbows or chaos.
  • The level designers use players' ability to leave messages as a crutch, hiding extremely important game elements in places no sane person would look, and giving the player several opportunities to accidentally miss out on content.
  • The engine programming is, frankly, bad. The framerate is a mess, especially in Blighttown and the Painted World, where it feels like the artists ran over their texture budget and the game has to cycle things to and from disk all the time. This shouldn't happen, and frankly the places where it does are not the game's prettiest or most fun parts anyway.
  • Several reviews note that the game sometimes drops inputs or pauses before executing inputs. I've noticed that this happens when the player is interrupted; instead of clearing the input buffer at this point, sometimes the game will just keep the buffer around while the animation plays (which could take two seconds or longer) and immediately execute afterward. This is completely wrong and very frustrating when it happens, because the game is otherwise so consistent and so demanding that the player do all their inputs correctly.
  • The enemy AI is incredibly stupid, and the game is crafted around this. For example, a half-dozen bull demons will be sitting around on a flat plain looking vaguely in your direction, and when you shoot one in the eye with an arrow, only one of his fellows or maybe none at all will notice you even exist. This never breaks the game, as you are sure to die if all half-dozen see you, but it breaks the verisimilitude that the rest of the team worked so hard to create.
  • Snuggly the Crow uses the same awful, tedious barter mechanic that wasted over an hour of my life looking at the loading screen in Demon's Souls. The user should never be required to quit and restart the game to progress, especially when the desired action could easily be accomplished without it.
  • The late game wastes a lot of the player's time, and clearly was not as well-tested as the early game. Early merchants will move to the central hub once found; early areas unlock shortcuts from the central hub allowing you to bypass most enemies; early bosses have interesting strategies and create tense moments. Late merchants stay several minutes of running away from one another; late areas are heavily linear and very far away from each other; late bosses are either incredibly easy using techniques the previous boss just tested, or so high-level that unimaginative brute force techniques are required to succeed.
Please keep in mind that these gripes are the result of a product being subjected to intense, withering scrutiny over the course of 100 hours (see previous entry). It's like reading Lord of the Rings for the third time and realizing that Tolkien's writing style is turgid and dense, or watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and pointing out the plot holes. There are legitimate criticisms to be made, but they are simply not the reason that people enjoy it or seek it out in the first place. Similarly, Dark Souls is a remarkable achievement and creates a deep sense of fascination and satisfaction that few other things in life can match, even as it will enrage you and make you roll your eyes. It's like that one relationship you had in college, really.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Dark Souls (not a review)

I have spent an awful lot of time playing Dark Souls in the last three weeks, resulting in the following breakdown:
  1. First time playing the game, largely alone and offline: 50 hours
  2. Second time playing the game, after reading the wiki: 25 hours
  3. Achievement hunting and grinding: Additional 5 hours each playthrough
  4. Abortive third playthrough: 6 hours
  5. Talking to others about Dark Souls: 6 hours, from dates to birthday parties to water cooler chatter
  6. Reading the wiki, online reviews and other helpful guides: 10 hours
I think I am done for now with the game after finishing the second playthrough; I want to leave some content fallow (strength, intelligence, PvP, Black Phantoms) for a later go-round once my initial memories have had a chance to fade, rather than strip-mine it for all its fun right this instant. But it is difficult to tear myself away. So let's explore why the game is so compelling.

It is difficult to be objective about something which has its hooks so deep in me. Dark Souls is The Wire or the T.S. Eliot of video games: highbrow, moody, exacting, tedious, and meticulously crafted to appeal to the connoisseur, not least by instilling a sense of elitist satisfaction. "This game isn't hard!" you will tell yourself, after you are finished, in the same way that Richard Feynman used to call engineering problems "trivial" if they could be solved with applications of existing theory. If you play games for mastery and exploration, rather than for socialization or escapism, you will probably love this one. (If you are a fan of socialization and escapism, I hear this year's FIFA is pretty good, and doesn't require you to win 5-0 against Barcelona to unlock them.)

To a reviewer, Dark Souls is a never-ending parade of misery, practical jokes upon the player, and brief shining moments of victory and elation that makes your imminent crushing defeat to the next challenge even crueler. To a designer, the game world is carefully crafted to give paranoid, observant and informed players a leg up on the competition. Will you be crushed by a giant rolling ball from Indiana Jones while walking up an innocuous stairway? Yes. Could you have predicted this by looking at a big spherical dent in the opposite wall? Always. Are there objects of incredible power that are accessible only through arcane and finicky means? Yes. Are there game systems in place to inform the player anyway? Yes. Does the game waste untold amounts of time making you walk back and forth through a sprawling open world? Often. Do strategically placed shortcuts open up at particularly difficult areas? Usually, although there are a couple notable exceptions. In this way, exploration feeds into mastery, providing tangible reminders of your progress. The game is even more aggressively focused on gear than its predecessor Demon's Souls, so a deficiency in mastery can even be made up for with exploration, and vice versa. The game is careful not to crush your spirit, except during boss fights, with many systems that reward you for making a small amount of progress and then dying.

The final piece of the addictive puzzle is the death mechanic, the primary driver of tension and compulsive behavior in the game. Essentially, you are not given a bank account, and you drop your wallet when you die. (You will die often, especially when exploring a new area.) You only have one spare wallet, so you must venture forth immediately to the site of your demise or forfeit everything. To gamers used to a steady diet of affirmation and steady difficulty curves, having to walk away from up to an hour's worth of progress or run away with your tail between your legs is gut-wrenching. This mechanic has the qualities of greatness: easy to learn, hard to master, encouraging behavior (giving the tough spot another try) that helps push the players on to completing the game.

A proper review is forthcoming, which you can expect to follow my usual pattern of offering suggestions for improvement.