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.

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