The Demands of Dark Souls

Dark Souls is a reaction to modern game design and modernity in general. It’s difficult in an era where games are designed to be finished by anyone. It requires total concentration in a world where we usually have our eyes set on multiple screens at any one time. Dark Souls hardly makes sense as a modern video-game and that’s what makes it so great.

 Much of the difficulty in Dark Souls is born out of the repetition that the game requires. An enemy will kill you numerous times but in doing so you learn the attack patterns and the strategies to eventually defeat it. From each death there is a sense of improvement, as you become better acquainted with the enemies’ move-set and starting doing more damage to their seemingly endless health bar. This stops it from feeling banal and tedious. However, each attempt at a boss fight requires the player to traverse an area over which they have already triumphed.   The urge to get back there quickly will often lead to running past enemies on the path and rushing, which can lead to more deaths. This leads to the player wanting to rush more and so being more likely to die.

 Dark Souls is not hard just from being repetitive, it’s also difficult as it is unflinchingly punishing. A single mistimed roll or a missed attack will almost always result in a large chunk of health being taken from you. Yet, this never feels unfair. Partially, because it is typically due to your own mistakes, but also because, when at full health, the vast majority of attacks are survivable. There are a few exceptions to this, but mostly making a mistake is something that can be recovered from with a swig from an estus flask. Doing so is a tough task as there is the added tension of knowing that a single error will lead to the dreaded ‘You Died’ screen. The timing of when to use the estus flask is then crucial as there is a desire to use it immediately in order to have the comfort of a fuller health bar, but this often leaves the player vulnerable to another attack. Again, this is Dark Souls trying to stop the player from rushing and to slow down.

Furthermore, Dark Souls requires constant attention. The game cannot be paused in the middle of action. There are areas that are designated (the bonfires) as being safe, these are infrequent though. Every corner poses a threat and so the player must constantly be on guard and prepared. It is not only enemies that are a danger as there are numerous environmental dangers, ranging from precarious ledges to the cacophony of pressure plates and swinging axes that inhabit Sen’s Fortress. Giving Dark Souls anything less than your full attention will invariably result in death. Glancing at a phone screen may mean an enemy can get one devastating attack living the player on the precipice of death. The pressure ratchets up, the tension rises and a simply fight has immediately transformed into a near death experience. This absolute, undivided attention that Dark Souls constantly demands is hugely opposed to half-attention that most media requires.

You have to give your all to Dark Souls to even stand a chance. 

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Player Choice

Player choice, as I view it, is the instances in games that allow the player to directly shape the narrative. This has recently been popularised by games such as ‘The Walking Dead and the ‘Mass Effect’ series. The majority of these choices are minor and come in the form of selecting which line of dialogue the player wishes the character to act out. These can shape relationships with other characters or even the story itself. There are often instances where a choice is integrated into the actual gameplay rather than the simple button prompts that controls dialogue options. For example, in the first episode of The Walking Dead the player must act to either save Shawn or Duck. The only outcome to this choice is Shawn’s death regardless of your choice, but the choice does play an important role by informing your relationship with Kenny, Duck’s father. The choice that they player had was then not ‘true’ as the outcome was already set. This is one issue with choices in games; that they are restricted to what the game says is possible and not what the player thinks may be possible or even what should be possible. These restrictions are clearly in place due to the limitations of most games for complete interactivity and in order to allow the writers more control over the game’s story. The purpose of player choice is to allow the player to have agency in the story through direct interaction with the story itself. The story then does not simply float from a set beginning to end but changes course due to the actions that a player takes.

The issue that player choice creates is that the character through which these choices are made is relegated to a vessel for the player to make these choices and not much more. These characters often have their own background and personality, but these traits are overwritten by the player whenever a choice is made. This eliminates the individuality of said character. They no longer appear as a believable person as the distinguishing feature of humans, the ability to make to make one’s own choices, is removed. Of course, characters never truly have free will as their decisions have already been chosen by a writer. This is not surfaced in stories where the player has no control over the characters as directly as when there are big button prompts telling the player to make a decision on a characters behalf.

By giving the player a choice over certain actions the morals that a character possesses are entirely replaced by those of the player’s. A part of the character is then lost in order to allow the player to interact with the game world in this way. There is no longer a full sense of the character, but a hybridity of player and character. Separation between the two is important in order to allow a clear divide between the game world and reality. They interact and interface with each but there must be obvious boundaries. If the game world is considered reality then there is not a point when that world ends. There is then never a time for reflection on that world, the story contained, and how it can be applied beyond the game to everyday life. The credits rolling at the end are the return to reality and relinquishing the hold on fantasy. Essentially, in order to have an impact on everyday life the game’s world must not be a part of everyday life. 

‘The Witcher’ series does not have the issue of the main character being incomplete whilst allowing player choice as Geralt of Rivia has his own moral code. Each moral choice is not then met with the question of ‘what should I do?’, but ‘what would Geralt do?’ In this way ‘The Witcher’ series is then role-playing as Geralt. You are acting as Geralt rather than Geralt acting like you.

This is not to say that player choice is a bad thing, ‘The Walking Dead’ would be a vastly inferior without it, but there are issues that come with it which are rarely dealt with. The damage that player choice inflicts on the player character is not catastrophic to the game, but does lead to an incompleteness of one character that can only stick out in comparison to the other characters in the game who are entirely themselves. You shouldn’t care for a character because you are that character, you should care because you care for that character.