They don’t make games like they used to. Echo this controversial statement and some righteous douchebag will quickly rebute nostalgia has muddled your memory of the past. But it’s true. In a landscape set to the traditional beats of a movie, where checkpoints save every second of player made progress; we don’t beat games anymore, we finish them. Just like in life, the level of satisfaction felt from achieving something is directly influenced by the amount of effort put in. The Buddha taught a similar lesson; there is no joy without suffering, for you could not know one without the other. As such, water the difficulty down in a video game and you’ve diluted its potential enjoyment. In this respect Dark Souls stands proud as a joy-dealing executioner of exemplary design – a game that constantly challenges and rewards, but is never unfair.
To only speak of difficulty in explaining Dark Souls however, is selling the title short, because it’s just one brushstroke in a video gaming masterpiece. Central to this masterpiece is the canvas itself, a beautiful, abandoned world that has lost all hope – Lordran. From the misty depths of The Great Hollow, to the legendary city of Anor Londo, there is no wasted space in its game world. Every crack, corner and hidden pathway entices you to explore this dreamlike place like your eight-year-old self has slipped out the wardrobe entrance to Narnia. It’s a feeling that escapes most modern games, where hand-holding has replaced the ‘joy of discovery’.
Dark Souls does not.
There is no GPS tracker, or translucent path marker indicating where to go. You work it out for yourself by the strength of your adversaries or an NPC hint. Indeed, almost right from the start, you have the choice of branching paths to take, a feature that flows through to the end of the game. Every time you fight your way into a new area, it’s magical. Every time you stumble across one of the game’s hidden secrets, it’s bliss. Did you know Sen’s Fortress has a hidden bonfire just before the Iron Giant bossfight? Or that the game has a secret enemy called vagrants, avoiding most players even on multiple playthroughs? The new sights, enemies and architecture that litter each step of progress make you truly feel like you’re on an adventure in a mystical place that has all but perished.
Mystical is an apt description here because the story of Dark Souls’ world is filled with ambiguity. It’s curious for a medium so obsessed with interaction that it’s so regularly objected to linear narratives. You only have to stare at a five-year-old to know that the best toy they have is their imagination. So Dark Souls, rather than throwing a pre-set trail of plot points down the players throat, tells its illusory tale in disjointed snippets, allowing the dedicated gamer to piece together their own interpretation of an ever-shifting puzzle. What is the relationship between Smough and Ornstein? Is Solaire Lord Gwyn’s firstborn son? Who created the curse of the undead? It’s this subtle, indirect approach to narrative that allows the world to create a playground for your imagination.
And yet amongst all this fine work, the most impressive feat Dark Souls achieves is in its combat. Most contemporary RPGs have fallen victim to the grind, where power is no more than a numerical value placed on your inventory, or a collection of random player stats. In these games difficulty can be overcome by leveling up, and by journey’s end no enemy can offer a satisfying challenge. Dark Souls discourages this exercise because stat upgrading only slightly improves your abilities. Even then it’s usually only useful for the sword it allows you to wield, or the heavy shield it enables you to equip, and rarely for the raw values those numbers represent. The real experience points you gain in Dark Souls is your knowledge of the attacking beasts. Does it have an elemental weakness? What set of armor should you wear? Which of its attack patterns leaves the largest window of vulnerability.
Dark Souls is pure game, in every sense of the word, and is enjoyed by only the most determined players – a fresh change when you consider most games are made to appeal to the largest possible audience, or the lowest common denominator. They’re designed to please soft-core gamers and people who don’t usually game as much as the 33 year old who’s been obsessively funding this industry his whole life. Rarely do they capitalize on the complex potential gaming offers because they’re constantly worried about being accessible. Accessible video games are like accessible novels; they’re easy to pick up, use common language and consider subtlety a negative trait – but they can hardly be called the height of the medium in the same way Dan Brown’s work can be called the height of books.
But the prime reason Dark Souls earns the title of Game of the Generation is its gameplay centres on the core of video game design – interaction; that is ‘to act in such a way as to have an effect on each other’. Every action you take can have far-reaching consequences, a feature further solidified by the game’s tendency to auto-save everything you do. It’s a far cry from more mainstream games making player failure practically impossible, funneling characters down linear and stagnate pathways that predetermine their outcome and minimize the potential room for player effect.