Dark Souls is forged on the idea that the experience of a game is one marked by punishing difficulty, frequent death, and even more importantly, consequential death. And this is why its fans like it. And why you will too.
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Title: Dark Souls
Format: Xbox 360 (reviewed), Playstation 3, PC
ESRB Rating: Mature
Developer: From Software
Release Date: 2011-10-04
It might seem that the phrase “Prepare to Die” might not be the best marketing move. Advertising an expectation of failure, of a fatalistic approach to play, again, not the best move for a game?
Nevertheless, that is exactly what Dark Souls promises the player in its advertising and on the back of the box. It's the selling point, and there it is.
Dark Souls is, of course, the follow up to From Software's 2009 game Demon's Souls (a game that this reviewer has embarrassingly not played, hence my inability to make cogent comparisons between this newest game and its predecessor -- however, I can definitely speak as a player fresh to this kind of experience and what coming to the sequel is like, so those thinking about jumping in at this point will likely be best served by my thoughts on the game). Like Dark Souls's aggressively fatalistic marketing, Demon's Souls's reputation also hinges on the idea that the experience of the game was one of punishing difficulty, frequent death, but even more importantly, consequential death. And this was why its fans liked it.
Now, death, of course, is no alien topic for video games. It has largely come to distinguish between fail states and win states in games. Death usually represents when progress has ceased in a game, though in the era of console gaming with its continues and save systems, it usually serves as only a temporary cessation of play, a mild penalty, and is hardly too consequential in most instances.
The arcade era differed a bit in its presentation of consequential fail states and, thus, consequential death. While Pac-Man had three lives (or essentially three tries at success), nevertheless, the loss of them all meant the game was indeed over. Of course, given that the cost of trying again was a fairly minimal one (just $0.25), it was still a fairly meager consequence.
What both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls bring to the table is death that features not mere cessation of play, but significant loss. As an action role-playing game, Dark Souls is a game about doing battle with monsters of various stripes, gaining experience (in this instance, experience points are called “souls,” which also serve as a currency in the world of Lodran), and through that experience, leveling up to become more powerful.
Unlike most RPGs (barring the notoriously “hardcore” subgenre of the roguelike, a subgenre that some suggest that the two Souls games at least are influenced by), Dark Souls allows death to intrude in a very significant way in this process. When you die, your souls “drop” with your body. In other words, all experience accrued up to the point of death is left as a bloodstain wherever your character has fallen, forcing you to respawn with equipment intact but none of the points that are going to get you that next level. Now, there is a “second chance” in the game. If you can return to the bloodstain without dying again, you can recover the lost souls. But if you die again before you do, well, that's it.
And that is it. This simple mechanic (reminiscent to me of playing the first Diablo in which your precious equipment dropped in a dungeon when you were killed by monsters, forcing an often dangerous, often “naked” -- and thus difficult -- body recovery or the risk of a loss of everything) is really what the whole experience of Dark Souls hinges on.
This simple leverage against the player very simply changes the way that one approaches this game as opposed to countless others. Combats matter, tactics matter, engaging a new creature is always tense, making decisions about which enemies to engage when and where matters very much, and thinking about where the best place to die is of central importance in a game where you could lose it all.
Strangely, this is an amazing experience. As a commenter on one of my previous articles about the game so aptly (I believe) put it: as a result, it is a profoundly meditative experience.
The other elements of the game, its storyline, its music, even its graphics, which are admittedly pretty, are all very stripped down, minimalist, quiet. An opening cinematic tells a bit about the history of the world, but the plot that unfolds tends towards scattered and brief dialogues with the few NPCs one encounters in a rather barren world. The player takes on the role of a character cursed by becoming undead, who is seemingly looking for a way to remove this curse. Who that person is, where they came from is sketchy at best. Instead, NPCs provide simple, vague goals to seemingly get you on your way: two bells need to be rung to proceed on your quest, several specific souls need to be collected to open a path to a new place.
Music is spare, frequently fading out entirely, leaving only the sound of chainmail clattering as you move or the sounds of combat when you engage enemies.
All of this leaves the focus on encounters with your monstrous opposition. Nothing is easy to kill, and combat requires a careful balance of defense and offense, even with the most minor of foes. Thus, most of what the player's mind remains occupied with is tactics, tactics, tactics because those other larger ideas always looms over the proceedings: death, failure, loss.
Essentially, this is a game that is a lesson in taking nothing for granted because there is a thin line between success and “starting over.” As a result, even minor victories feel sweet, major victories with the numerous bosses that, like other games of this sort, loom intimidatingly large when encountered feel even sweeter. This is because unlike other games of this sort, intimidation and “largeness” are not merely evoked by the developer's decision to represent a monster as really, really big. Because you know that failure in a fight with one is potentially extremely costly, their size and difficulty are not illusory at all. These are creatures that can make you pay.
I think that there may be some consensus that a game like Dark Souls is not for everyone. It is for a niche audience of masochistic, hardcore gamers that want to be challenged by sadistic rule sets. However, I kind of think that Dark Souls might just be for everyone. If it sounds daunting to approach, a little terrifying to encounter, it is. But as much as it teaches pain (you will lose it all at some point and that will make you want to throw a controller or invoke your favorite swear words), it teaches an appreciation of challenge, of stakes. Challenge is rewarding here, not so much because the game pays off with amazing cinematics, a compelling story, or innovative mechanics, but because what you do and when you succeed will make you feel accomplished. Beating the first boss in a game isn't usually a big deal. Here, it is. You will know that you didn't lose because, well, you hung on to everything, you didn't suffer loss.
Dark Souls will make you suffer. But you will be the one to end your suffering and survive. It is a good feeling that other games merely allow you to pretend to have. This one makes the stakes much more palpable and your response to winning much more real.