Wednesday, March 12, 2014

In which I explain why Dark Souls is very special.


First of all, welcome back Mogs - you've been missed.  Second, last week Chamberlain sent me an email with the title "Mission Impossible."
CHAMBERLAIN : Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to convince me to play Dark Souls 2, knowing full well that I hated Demons’ Souls and intentionally skipped Dark Souls. 
And that From Software and I have very different ideas on what constitutes ‘fun’.
Now, naturally, if someone doesn't like what Souls is sellin', that's the end of it.  Not everyone will pull a Yahtzee and give these games the hours of time they need to wrap themselves around your imagination, and if you don't commit to them you'll get nothing but heartache for your trouble.

Still, I'm not one to pass up an opportunity to expound on the virtues of Souls - and (two days later, last Sunday, 'cause I was mad busy) here's what I had to say...


I'm not sure this is a winnable scenario. People either love what the Souls games are layin' down or they don't, and Dark Souls is a direct spiritual sequel to Demon's Souls - if you didn't like that, I doubt you'll like this.  That said, I can explain why folks (myself included) love the games so much. 

It is not about fun.  Not by a long shot.  But it is about pleasure.  There was a trailer forDSII not too long ago that - in contrast to any other media you'll find for a Souls game - was almost uplifting, because it tried to get the message across of what makes the games so appealing to those who love them, but I'd suggest it comes down to two facets: 

A true fantasy world.

Much of the fantasy worlds video games offer are deeply formulaic and downright predictable, built as they are so firmly on the bedrock of Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons. Your Dragon Ages, your Elder Scrolls, your Kingdoms of Amalur - there's something so damned familiar about those games and their world.  You can predict the disposition of dwarves and elves (why are Dwarves always Scottish?).  You can see the organic curves of an Elvish blade, clear as crystal, in your mind without a game's artist showing it to you and when I suggest a dwarven city your imagination immediately fills in the blanks with soaring, heavy architecture of buildings and walkways carved directly into the rock of a hollowed-out mountain and great, stout statues of strong, vertical lines, often holding hammers.  


How tedious, how mundane.  We've been there a thousand times before, and - beyond the benefit of new-gen polish and presentation - witnessing the enchanted forest cities of the elves no longer moves us as it did when we were children, reading about or hearing about or seeing them for the first time.  

Souls, in contrast, doesn't lean on the details of what's been done before, but instead concerns itself with realizing why such fantasies were effective in the first place.  I don't think I've ever explained it better than I did in the Dark Souls-wins-best-art-direction piece from 2011, so I'll quote myself: 

"Here, the artists were free to let their imaginations roam to a dark world that echoes the fantasy landscapes we only ever saw in our dreams as children, while our parents read us stories of brave knights, evil monsters, ancient ruins and insane cities. As whippersnappers, we lived in those worlds, curled up on couches or safe in bed, regularly drifting from rapt attention to that ethereal, barely-conscious place that loomed before the sandman took us away - so we could continue exploring in our dreams. 

The fantasy worlds we wandered in our larval forms were never crystal-clear - they were swirling miasmas of details we were sure of, and an eerie fog obscuring the minutiae beyond - breeding a feeling of joyous discovery and uneasy trepidation of what unimaginable things lay in wait, just past the doors of our understanding. 

That is what Dark Souls feels like."-Best of 2011 - Art Direction- 

Its fantasy is so successful because it consciously ignores the expectations of popular culture. Nothing here is familiar or tedious. There is a real sense of soaring romance, mystery and discovery in what Dark Souls offers, outdoing almost every other game in the fantasy space. 


It's not about failure. 

Any ad or review or word-of-mouth infodrop about Souls will advise you, quite correctly, that these games are intensely challenging, to put it mildly.  They kill the player an infinite number of times, regularly in ways one never could have predicted on their first playthrough - traps that knock you off ledges to your death, boulders that come crashing down stairwells to crush you, dragons that strafe ramparts with their hellbreath without the slightest hint or preview. 

In any other action game, it would be a hideous design choice - like a quicktime event that pops up in a boss fight, requiring you to instantly press X or fuck you, you're fighting this entire boss battle again. 

In Souls, perhaps thanks to its rich, dark fantasy aesthetic, it instead becomes an effective part of the player-written, internal narrative one experiences in the playing.  Few great fantasy tales are the story of a brave, strong-willed warrior who begins their adventure as awesome and capable as they are when it ends. The most endearing and thrilling are those that see a hero start from humble, terrified beginnings and become something far more powerful than they could have imagined - so it is, in Souls, and the games' sky-high challenge is a necessary component of that grim ascent. 


While your character is endlessly-customizable, that growth in Souls is never, merely, one of character stats and gear - its most-potent realization is in the player themselves. 

Taking one's first, nervous steps out of our cell in Dark Souls' Undead Asylum, the first enemy we meet can slaughter us.  Without the chance for any character customization or power-ups, we are immediately thrust against our first boss encounter - every. Single. Thing in this game is bent to the task of our doom, and it will kill us, over and over again, as we slowly evolve from our humble, terrified beginnings and become living encyclopedias of Souls
"Eventually a hissing, cobra-headed, four-armed, blade-wielding serpent sorcerer will come for you, and you won't panic. You won't attack, but you won't back down. You'll stand your ground with your shield up, keeping him from entering the room you're in and you'll wait. You'll just wait for the boulder that will come tumbling down the path outside to crush his reptilian bones... 

Because, while everything in this world kills, once you've learned its secrets, nothing in it kills better than you."-REVIEW - Dark Souls-



Like Ellen Ripley, the player begins their time in Souls terrified by everything, because everything can and will kill you with zero tutorials to explain why your ass has just been handed to you in a tastefully-wrapped package. Like Ellen Ripley, by halfway through their adventure, they stalk darkened halls, coiled like a viper in readiness, endorphins gushing along with pure adrenaline, gripped equally by a grim, hard-earned confidence and wise respect for what may yet linger in the unknown.  Like Ellen Ripley, at the end, they are the most dangerous thing in a universe of unbelievably dangerous things - and it's not the player's thousand failures that define their time with Souls, then - it's the victories. 

"Every time you walk ten feet deeper into the world of Dark Souls, the next thing you see will seem impossible. 

You will not be able to imagine how you can survive it. More than that, you may even convince yourself that it's not possible to survive it - and that, my friend, is the first step towards the exceptional gift this game offers. Believe it can't be done - because Dark Souls will, a thousand and one times, give you the sublime sensation of overcoming the the impossible."-REVIEW - Dark Souls-

The intense pleasure of its victories would barely exist, were they easily-won. 


There's more, of course.  There's the games' fantastically-physical combat, the way each weapon has its own feel, its own weight, its own (simple, perfect) move set to master.  To this day, I love the way you can swing your huge greatsword in a Souls game and have it clang off a stone wall, leaving you open to a killing blow - because unlike any other action game in the world, your blade can't clip through walls, here.  

There's the games' subdued, mysterious narratives - like the world itself, clear in the broad strokes but obscured in the details, unless the player is prepared to pay very close attention to what the world's sad denizens have to say, and item descriptions.  

But, as I said, if you hated Demon's Souls, you'll hate Dark Souls - it's just that simple.Souls is far less about fun than it is about pleasure - the rush of adrenaline and endorphins that come after defeating a particularly vicious boss - and if you felt no pleasure after defeating Phalanx in the first level of Demon's Souls, the answer is simple : Dark Souls II isn't for you. 

I, on the other hand, am very pleased I put The Stick of Truth to bed yesterday, becauseohmyGod DSII comes out in 2 days eee!

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