Dark Souls (***)

Three stars.

Pulp Fiction may have been the defining movie of my generation.

I saw it in the theater in 1994, which seems like yesterday but it was actually literally a lifetime ago; there are people on the streets right now who are legally able to vote who were not born when I saw Pulp Fiction for the first time. Maybe to those people, it seems like a quaint artifact of a bygone era, the way Taxi Driver seems to me. To me, Pulp Fiction seems as timeless and perfectly-executed a movie experience as the first time I saw it. I think it’s the best movie Tarantino and Avary have ever written (Jackie Brown’s a better movie, but it was written by Elmore Leonard so that’s really not surprising).

Pulp Fiction didn’t win the Best Picture award that year. This wouldn’t be surprising if its competitor, Shawshank Redemption, had won instead; I think SR is a bit maudlin but I love the story on which it’s based so I’d have cheered for it to win. Instead, the flaccid Baby Boomer nostalgia circle-jerk Forrest Gump won, which is all the evidence you’ll ever need that the Academy Awards are a useless relic of a necrotic studio system.

I think Pulp Fiction is a different movie each time you watch it. It grows from your first exposure. The first time you see Pulp Fiction, you’re probably confused. You react to the violence and the language in the way that you do (in my case, with a thrill, but perhaps you don’t like violence and a script comprised of alternating ‘fuck’s and ‘nigger’s for an hour and a half). If you enjoyed it, you probably find yourself quoting Jules at some point.

The second time you see Pulp Fiction, you’re watching for the ways the narrative actually fits together. You’re constructing a linear story out of a non-linear narrative, figuring out when things happened, who lives and who dies, how it all fits together. You’re noticing little details like the band-aid on the back of Marsellus Wallace’s neck, the way Fabienne is still brushing her teeth the next morning, the encounter between Jules, Vincent and Butch in the cocktail lounge. Its cleverness unfolds fractally; you find new things in every scene, things you can afford to notice now that you’re not in (eager or otherwise) anticipation of the next gunshot. The movie insinuates itself into pop culture as though it was born there, referencing so adroitly that it supplants the reference; how many people (perhaps those same people born after 1994 I mentioned above) believe that Travolta’s notoriety as a dancer came from Pulp Fiction?

The third time you see Pulp Fiction (or, at least, the third time I saw it; perhaps you’re smarter than me), you realize that it’s not just pop-culture-chic, and it’s not just violent and crass, it’s also a really compelling story about the evolving relationship between two men, Butch and Marsellus. If you’re a fan of Jules, it’s also a compelling story about what it takes to uproot a man from the track of his life and place him on another track. Does Vincent ultimately die because he can’t follow Jules? Does Marsellus banish Butch because of the shame of being tricked, or the shame of being rescued? It’s a complex story about genuinely interesting people with depth and emotional content.

Of course, ultimately the shell around Pulp Fiction is not going to yield to everyone. Plenty of critics (and more than a few people I know personally, including one I’m married to) found the violence and gore impenetrable, and others found the language and casual disregard for polite social norms (including bondage-rape, lovingly-depicted heroin and cocaine use, and racism) distasteful enough to keep them from ever making it beyond a surface approximation of the film’s depths. That’s a shame, but I don’t believe those parts of the movie could be left out; they define a level of honesty about the space in which the story takes place, and it would feel like a flimsy lie without them.

All of which is leading up (perhaps obviously) to the claim:

Dark Souls is the Pulp Fiction of gaming.

Some of this discussion is in the form of a mea culpa so let me get that started right away with the following quote, courtesy of some asshole who couldn’t have been more wrong if it was his job to be wrong about things:

Battletoads at least had the excuse of being early in the development of the art form of game design. Dark Souls has no excuse. They could have made a 10 minute long demo and shipped that, because that’s as much of the game as I have any interest in seeing.

Watch as this wrong person backpedals:

Getting further in the game has reinforced my initial belief that the game sacrifices competent user-onboarding for the sake of being ‘hardcore’. Because after reaching somewhere around level 25 or 30, I started a new game and… it was actually fun. 

And then just gives up:

tonight i think i pushed past some kind of wall that was leaving me with lingering ill-will towards dark souls. i still think it’s shitty design to do what they did in the first hour of the game, but…

it’s really easy to become enthusiastic about a game that includes the gaping dragon.

(The wrong person is me, in case that wasn’t clear.)

What’s happening in that series of quotes (and some long-winded rambling theory about how to build tutorials) is the initial reaction of a prude to Pulp Fiction, who then slowly realizes there’s more to it than guns and swearing. In this metaphor, ‘guns’ stands for ‘getting killed repeatedly’, so it’s not that far off.

So let’s start with the game’s legendary difficulty. It’s so hard; no other game has ever been as difficult as Dark Souls. It will kill you and then use your corpse as a hand-puppet to mock your lack of skills. It hates you, your family, and everyone you’ve ever loved. If you dare to play it, it will come to your house and punch you in the face.

This is the prevailing opinion in comment threads everywhere, and it’s total bullshit.

Here’s a game that’s harder than Dark Souls: Super Mario. I recently remembered that I had Super Mario World on the Wii Virtual Console so I played it some. Dark Souls is kindergarten compared to Super Mario World.

What Dark Souls is, is unforgiving. If you make mistakes, you may die. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you will die. If there’s something that looks dangerous, and you go and poke it, it kills you. Dark Souls does not do half-measures. It doesn’t take a little bit of your life bar and call it good.

That’s not difficulty, though. The dirty secret behind the never-ending series of sudden deaths in Dark Souls: death, too, is progress.

I’m going to talk about death penalties for a bit, here. I used to play a game called Island of Kesmai. It was one of the first generation of online games, along with MUD1, and it launched in 1985, before Ultima Online was a gleam in Lord British’s eye. I played it on and off as a kid — mostly off, because CompuServe charged $6/hr and Kesmai was a full-service MMO, with hours upon hours of required grinding to accomplish anything. Still, I played it enough that there are still guides to playing one of the game’s character types floating around the ancient crevices of the internet with my name on them.

Later, when everyone else was doing it, Kesmai became a monthly subscription game. This was like God descending from Heaven to personally bless me with eternal gaming happiness. To this day I’m baffled by people who complain about monthly subscription fees of ten whole dollars, and insist that all online multiplayer games should be free. I’m like, ten dollars and you can play all you want. One week of WoW, at Kesmai’s old rates, would have meant not paying the rent. Ten bucks is dirt cheap.

Anyway, with the monthly fee I could completely lose myself in the game, so I did. Through a nasty breakup, a lost job, a cross-country move, and a new dead-end job doing mindless drone work, Kesmai was my constant friend. I became well-known on the game’s forums, I wrote guides for quests, I helped new players, I lived and breathed Kesmai. At some point, I’ll probably write a review of it (it’s a two-star game) but for now let’s just focus on one specific element of it: what happened when your character died.

Death was easy to come by in Kesmai. One wrong step and you could plummet off a cliff, wander into a dragon’s lair, or trip into a wall and get stunned and murdered by a roving pack of monsters. When you died, your body fell to the ground and you became a ghost. If there was nobody else around to stop them, the monsters that killed you would then loot your corpse and take all your stuff. They’d wander off, your powerful armor and weapons equipped, to kill more unsuspecting adventurers. If you were quick, and they didn’t get away, and you could fight them without your gear, you might be able to run back and kill them and get your stuff back. But other times you wouldn’t make it in time, or someone else would kill and loot them and take your items, or the items would get left on the ground and disposed of by the game’s cleanup subroutine, gone forever. Some of the items could be things you worked for weeks to get your hands on. Gone.

Then there were your stats. Dying and being resurrected — whether by another player or by the game — would lower your stats. The only way to reverse this loss was to store all your stuff in your locker, strip naked, and perform a death ritual that would send you to the underworld, where you faced an hour or two of long, brutal quests, naked and unarmed, to recover your soul from the Egyptian-themed guardians before ascending back to the world of the living. You had to do this every time you died.

And some monsters wouldn’t give you an option. ‘Eaters’, generally boss monsters, would eat you if they killed you. If you were eaten, you went directly to the underworld, with no option to recover your items. You could tell a friend and maybe they could get to the boss lair to get your items back while you did the underworld quests, but it wasn’t likely.

So with one wrong move you could go from hero to zero, your carefully accumulated loot gone, your stats lowered, your prospects dim. When Everquest was released, I was astonished to hear people complaining about the death penalty. In EQ, if you died, your stuff was totally secure; all you had to do was run back to your corpse and loot your items off it. As long as you didn’t fuck around for hours, you were pretty much guaranteed to get all your items back. It was like the kiddie-pool for me after the fathomless depths of Kesmai.

Dark Souls is more forgiving than Everquest. It’s more forgiving than World of Warcraft. It’s about as forgiving as the Lego games — the ones for kids, the ones where dying is just a visual effect and some lost money? It’s about like that.

When you die in Dark Souls, you drop the ‘souls’ you were carrying, which are just currency. You also lose your accumulated ‘humanity’ which is another type of currency used mostly to enable multiplayer and PvP, and nearly useless otherwise. And you’re sent physically back to the last campfire at which you rested. Things you don’t lose: items in your inventory, your character progress, any bosses you’ve managed to kill. If you’ve spent all your money recently, you can jump off a cliff or let a monster murder you as a form of fast travel.

Minecraft is harsher about death than Dark Souls.

It’s a strange paradigm around which to wrap your brain. It feels like you’re returning to a previous save, but you’re not. It feels like you’ve lost progress, but you haven’t. There’s a sense of failure that is totally unwarranted. You gave that mini-boss a try, and he killed you, and you feel like you’ve hit a brick wall, but it’s not a wall; it’s a speed bump. Slow down, the game is telling you. Go out and practice. Improve your equipment. Maybe level up your stats.

The sudden-death nature of most challenges creates an interesting play challenge: it is necessarily true that every boss can be beaten without being hit, without taking any damage. There’s no ‘tanking’ in Dark Souls. You can cower behind a shield but sooner or later the enemies are going to pull your shield aside and kill you. You are not meant to get hit. There’s at least one mini-boss where the only way I’ve ever been able to kill him is to get stark naked to maximize my mobility, circle him, and stab him repeatedly in the back. One hit from him is death, so armor is useless against him.

This means that every boss is a finite set of skills you have to learn, and once you’ve learned them, you will win easily and without being injured. Boss fights that terrified me on my first try are little more than a cinematic interlude on my fifth or sixth victory.

You can practice the game to become good at it. You can learn its patterns, and exploit them. And then, like this guy, you can run through the whole game in under 30 minutes, mostly naked. This is not something that’s limited to weird video game savants, either. I couldn’t do a 30 minute run but I bet I could do it in a couple of hours, just using what I know of each boss fight’s patterns and each monster’s limitations. Anyone could. The game is training you, and when you learn what it’s teaching, it is happy to let you exert your dominance over its challenges.

Dark Souls’ difficulty is, in my long-ago Pulp Fiction comparison, the surface layer of violence and offensiveness that disappointed the guardians of polite society and high art. Let’s move past it; it’s illusionary and the game has more to offer than difficulty.

The combat mechanics and controls are carefully designed works of art. The first time you play it, it feels slow — if you’re a veteran of other third person action games, it will feel like your character has two broken legs and his armor is made of lead. You stagger into every step and swing, you seem as though you’re about to fall down, you roll to one side and laboriously clamber back to your feet.

What you’re seeing isn’t slowness, it’s methodical care and caution. Every input you give the game has consequences. Every one. You don’t swing your giant polearm without a target; you’ll just overbalance and struggle to get it back to the ready position. You don’t become so strong that you swing a greatsword around like it was made of fairy dust and aerogel; you will always heft that fucker like it has real weight and momentum.

When you run, you lean into the run, you commit to it. When you shoulder-roll, you’re throwing yourself at the ground in metal armor while carrying a large weapon. Every one of these actions is meaningful, is your half of a conversation you’re holding with the game world. Roll too slow, get hit in the head. Fail to get your shield up, get shot by an archer. Get greedy with your swings, leave yourself open for a counterattack. You don’t button mash in Dark Souls; it’s waiting for you to hit the wrong button at the wrong time, and there is no enemy in the game that can’t kill you if you make a mistake. I’ve been killed by things from the game’s earliest areas, while traveling to the game’s final challenges.

But for all that, the game is scrupulously fair. Your inputs matter in the negative sense of being punished for mistakes, but they also matter in the positive sense of being as effective as they ought to be. The first time you shield-bash a skeleton to knock his shield out of the way and then follow it with a quick one-two slash that kills him outright, it’s like you’ve unlocked a cheat code. The tenth time you do it, it’s just… how the game works. The first time you kill a Black Knight, the bane of the early game, by stabbing him in the back, you feel like you’ve climbed a mountain. By the midpoint of the game, you’re slaughtering Silver Knights in droves with the same trick.

You dodge, and your enemies miss you. You attack, and they defend if they’re able, or die if they’re not. You block, and they recoil backwards from your shield. And it’s all so satisfyingly crunchy, tactile, like you’re popping bubble wrap. Every swing and every hit is invested with import, with the power of a little miniature pass/fail challenge. Did you hit? Did you do damage? Crunch.

In the Pulp Fiction analogy, this is Jules’ Ezekiel speech, or Vincent’s dance with Mia, or the ecstatically amazing storytelling of Christopher Walken, explaining the provenance of the watch. This is the moment-to-moment experience that makes the rest of the game hold together. It’s real-time puzzle solving, like each enemy is a Rubik’s Cube and you’re turning the faces with a sword or an axe, and every turn of every face is accompanied by a meaty thud and a reeling stagger. You impale the enemy on your sword, brace your foot against him, and kick him loose, and on to the next puzzle.

Beyond that, however, there’s another level on which Dark Souls operates, and it’s a level that’s easy to miss among the speed runs and tactical boss fights and pleasing sound and visual design. Just as underneath its synthesis of pop culture, Pulp Fiction is a movie about a pair of men and their changing relationship, underneath its crunch and flash, Dark Souls is a somber story about the role of myth and magic in a world of humans.

It’s easy to miss the story. This isn’t a traditional JRPG where the first ten minutes are spent in an unskippable cutscene and the next twenty are spent in a cookie-cutter town filled with dull villagers who have only one snippet of dialogue to offer you before they’re murdered in the inevitable cataclysm demanded by the rote plot. It isn’t a Bioware game where after a brief introduction to the game mechanics you’re presented with endless walls of dialogue, all punctuated by that harbinger of dread, ‘I’d like to ask about something else.’ Instead, there’s a man looking down at you through the hole in the ceiling of an oubliette. Who is he? Some kind of soldier? That’s it. The game begins. Pick up that key, leave your cell, and start fighting for your life.

And yet, the story is omnipresent. Every item of any significance, and some of no significance, has a story to tell. Their descriptive text illuminates their origins but also places each item in the larger context of the world. Every character comes from somewhere, has a story to tell, and has aspirations that they’re not likely to share with you, a complete stranger — but those aspirations inform their behavior, and when you finally see the whole arc of their lives, from introduction to (almost always tragic) end, you can see who they were and what they wanted. Every place has a purpose, more than just ruins through which a video game hero wanders looking for fights. ‘This was a town,’ you say, and it feels like a town. ‘This was a church,’ and it’s clearly a church, built for worship, now ruined.

The world is tiny, comparatively; this is not Skyrim with endless vistas, or even Dragon Age’s hotlinked map image. You start very near to where you’ll ultimately finish, a tiny outpost of safety on the edge of a ruined and abandoned city. But every part of the world is connected to every other part. The world is a continuous place; from early in the game, you can look down and see places you’ll reach much later in the game. A dragon menaces you, and later when you meet him again, it will be right by where you encountered him before, only on an upper parapet. In the bowels of the city, in the stinking hellhole called Blighttown, you’ll look up and see where you came from, the clean walls of the city towering above you beyond the dark hole you’re in.

The world is telling a story, and the world is also a story you’re being told. It unfolds as you search for it, and only as you search for it. When you emerge from the destruction and ruin of the fortress atop which you fought the ancient automatons that guard the place, you’re taken to a gleaming, perfect city of the gods, still and silent, empty except for the few divinities left behind to guard it against intruders. You wonder who they are, the divine guardians, and why they were left here, and there are answers to be found, hidden in bits of flavor text, images and statuary, conversations with reluctant informers. The game isn’t going to force you to learn about Gwyn, lord of the gods, and his children; it isn’t going to force you to learn about the war with the dragons and the First Flame. But it’s all there, tucked away and waiting to be found. It’s depth-on-demand, it’s a narrative that unfolds when you want it to, if you want it to.

In some ways it echoes the storytelling I liked so much in Gone Home (**), where each discovery unlocks more of the story and forces a re-evaluation of what you believed you knew. It’s not a mystery story, though; there’s no sudden ‘aha’ moment to be found. Instead it’s a texture, a context for the action, a frame around the main attraction of battle and gameplay. To the degree that games must be storytelling, Dark Souls perfectly captures that requirement. You’re never left in a kind of game-stasis while someone monologues at you, but (unlike Monster Hunter 3) the story really is there, and it’s really complex and elaborate, in a way that makes the limp pre-chewed Tolkien pastiche of Dragon Age seem like an episode of the Teletubbies.

The world of Dark Souls is, as the title makes obvious, really fucking dark. It’s grimdark fantasy in the mold of the Warhammer universe — but drawing on a wholly new and original myth cycle, an original metaphysics, and a fresh take on the Hero’s Journey arc of storytelling. When you’re fighting the endless armies of the undead, you inevitably find yourself wondering what makes them the enemies, and you the hero. You’re also undead, you’re also on the verge of madness and mindless rage, you’re the same kind of victim of the world’s decay as they are. Hell, you started the game in a prison because you’re just like them. A menace to the world. Undead and doomed to become a Hollow, with no will other than an eagerness to destroy the living and eat their humanity. (Which, by the way, you can and probably will do throughout the game’s events.)

And where your story intersects the world and the people in that world, death and chaos follow. You’re overturning the order of things, and you get to see the effects of that firsthand. There are no simplistic ‘dark side’ and ‘light side’ choices in Dark Souls. The faux morality of Bioware’s RPGs and (the worst ever) the Fable series are nowhere to be found. You make decisions and they have real impact on the people around you. For good or for bad; you can’t know, really, because you can’t know in the real world. Did the thing you told him push him over the edge? Should you have stopped her from doing that, or at least not encouraged her? Did he die because you weren’t good enough to save him, or because you were too good and made him feel worthless?

Yes, I’m not kidding about those last few. You do things and don’t think about them, because it’s a video game, but the world reacts in ways you could not have predicted, and then later you get to see the consequences of your actions. Maybe you’ll even recognize them as such.

There’s a depth to Dark Souls that’s difficult to capture in words, though I’ve spent four thousand of them trying to do so. My three star rating is described as, and meant as, a call to action: this is a game you should play. You may not think it’s the kind of game you’d like, but it’s worth trying anyway, and it’s possible that you, like me, will learn that you are wrong: it is  the kind of game you’d like.

After playing Dark Souls, my entire approach to game play and game design has shifted in a small but very important way, and it’s given me a vocabulary for talking about challenge, storytelling, and system design that I didn’t have before. That alone is enough to earn this game my highest possible rating; every other amazing thing about it is just added icing on this particular cake.

2 Comments

Filed under Game, Review

2 Responses to Dark Souls (***)

  1. I haven’t gotten very far into Dark Souls yet. I played a bit on a 360 at a friend’s place, and got the Steam version. Part of the problem is I want to set aside some actual time to play because I’ve heard others say the same thing: this is a thing to be savored, not something to be button-mashed through. One quirk I have is I generally like to play the heavily armored, heavy weapon type of character in single-character games, but it sounds like a bad idea in this game.

    Interesting parallel with Pulp Fiction. I kinda like that parallel.

    I look forward to your Islands/Legends of Kesmai review. I never got into those games, although I’ve read a fair amount about them in my interest in learning MMO history. I’d love to hear more from someone who spent a significant amount of time in the game.

    • thratchen

      You really don’t have a choice about savoring Dark Souls. It will not let you button-mash. There are a handful of ‘come to Jesus moment’ bosses that you simply cannot pass without investing some time in learning the mechanics of the combat system.

      As for armored fighters: Dark Souls supports almost any approach to gameplay. The only question is which will suit your response to the tools it offers you best. I thought I’d replicate my Skyrim character, dude with big sword, but it turned out that the magic system worked far better for my cautious playstyle.

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