The Guiding Hand of Dark Souls

Dark Souls is widely regarded as an outstanding game for a variety of reasons, such as the “hard but fair” ethos in which its only demand is that you prove your growth as a player at each step.  The world is similarly praised for its clever interconnectedness.  I want to illustrate the level of thought that went into the level design, using a series of highlights progressing through the game.  This is somewhat inspired by this analysis of Super Metroid, a game which itself is clearly an element of the Dark Souls pedigree.  Many of the concepts described in that article apply to this game as well, but Souls has to maintain a special focus on one particular element: quietly helping the player endure the intense difficulty that the game itself created.

One of my goals is to refine the image that both fans and non-fans have of Dark Souls, as being defined solely by difficulty.  Perhaps its best-hidden secret is that it does not actually leave the player lost in the wilderness with no direction and death awaiting at every turn, but rather guides and supports them in subtle ways.  The game fulfills two roles at once: presenting a seemingly crushing challenge, but also, behind the scenes, doing what it can to make it more likely that each player finds a way through.  The defining emotion of Dark Souls is the thrill of both facing the challenge and then eventually surpassing it, and the game succeeds because it does everything it can to provide both of those experiences.

This post will take us through ringing the Bells of Awakening.  Many of the themes of the level design are shown most strongly in this first segment, when it’s critical to give a player an understanding of how this game works, and most importantly, to give them the tools to succeed in what comes after it.

Undead Asylum

The game opens with one of the very few moments that I’m going to question.  Before its threadbare tutorial is even complete, it throws the player into a boss fight, the Asylum Demon, where the solution is not to fight, but to escape through an open door elsewhere in the room.  I’m not sure what this is intended to teach, since nowhere else in the game is there a boss fight that you can run away from; you’re always sealed in (there are occasional large non-boss enemies you can run from, such as the Bridge Hellkite or the Hydra, but they’re in open outdoor spaces that make it obvious anyway).  These opening minutes are precious for hooking the player and starting to teach them, and adding a potential sticking point with no teaching utility is not parsimonious.  Arguably, one hint is that the boss fight is completely unfair (you don’t have a real weapon yet, so no non-expert player has a chance), but it’s too early to rely on the player’s trust that Dark Souls is never unfair.  Building that trust is a key goal of the early levels.

The escape door is behind the pillars on the left.

The escape door is behind the pillars on the left.

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Dark Souls: Spoiler-Free Beginner Guide and FAQ

Dark Souls can be pretty intimidating for new players, and I’ve seen various lists of tips for people just starting out. I wanted to try writing one which was thorough, but with a balance of clarifying things that unnecessarily confusing while leaving it up to players to explore and play how they want. Now seemed like a good time, as I’ve seen friends say they were trying this game after all my recent raving about it, and also the recent Steam sales and people playing it in advance of the sequel.

The goal isn’t just “before you get started” tips, but also to have a place to get descriptions of mechanics/systems that people are likely to ask about before they know the game well. This post should tell people how some things work without telling the player which options to pick. Figuring out what to do the first time is one of the great parts of the game, but my opinion is that works a little better when people can understand what their options are and what their significance might be.

In short, it’s the guide I would have wanted to have handy when I started playing.

Technical

A controller is recommended. I could see learning the game with keyboard/mouse if you’re really nimble with a keyboard/mouse, but it probably adds more to the learning curve in a game where that’s not required at all. The biggest obstacle is that the in-game UI references only controller buttons so you’ll have to memorize the various mappings on your own.

DSFix is a crucial mod that fixes some basic issues like resolution and framerate caps. It also adds frequent auto-save backups, which can be handy in the event that any bugs or encounters with hackers in multiplayer cause problems with your save file.

If you can’t get the game to start when you first try it, it’s probably an issue with Games For Windows Live. There’s no one exact solution, but googling around for solutions that have worked for people (usually involving reinstalling GFWL Marketplace) should get you going without too much trouble.

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What I Like About Dark Souls

I know I’m late to the party on this game, but I’d always wanted to play it so I grabbed it from a recent Steam sale. There are a lot of things about this game I like; in fact one of my main points here is that I’d probably have rushed to play it much more quickly if I’d known much about it beyond “it’s really hard.” If anything, the fact that Dark Souls‘s reputation centers so singly on its difficulty undersells everything else that’s so good about this game.

In case you know nothing about the game, it’s an action RPG. So real-time combat, with constant Zelda-like attacking, blocking, and dodging between you and the various enemies, but also a fairly extensive stats/items system that’s more reminiscent of something like Diablo. The setting is medieval horror, so lots of zombies and skeletons and the like, against a variety of fantasy backdrops. It has an understated story that you experience mostly through item descriptions and NPC dialogue to the extent that you take the time to do so.

Combat

Lest I fall into a dry exposition of Dark Souls‘s unique combat systems, I’ll pick out a few aspects that should illustrate what’s special about them.

As expected, there are is a wide variety of weapons, each with a list of stats that’s a bit intimidating to a newcomer. What I’ve come to realize about halfway through my first playthrough is that the weapons don’t exist in a hierarchy like in most games, where you periodically give up your sword for the next better sword. Instead, all are (by and large) viable at all parts of the game due to an upgrade system that you use to grow your favorite weapons alongside your actual character. The neat thing is that what primarily sets all the different (for example) swords apart from each other is their animations. And I don’t mean cosmetically–while I don’t know the technical details, the game has some pretty precise hit detection, because each different swing animation damages enemies in the appropriate spatial area around your character.

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