By MarkWahlberg 13 Comments
I beat Dark Souls.
I can’t help but be conflicted in my feelings towards the game, and I think what it comes down to is that the game’s greatest strength – a sense of mystery, something few games can accomplish – is also what kept me from fully enjoying it. I know everyone made a big deal when it came out about how the game doesn’t fucking explain anything, and is too deliberately hard, etc etc. And while that was part of the fun, for me, I think the lack of communication to the player undercuts the result, especially in the endgame.
If you want to figure something out in Dark Souls, chances are you’ll end up online looking for tips and player guides. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and isn't required for playing, what it eventually means is that the games’ creators risk losing control of the dialogue they have with the player. This becomes detrimental in regards to both the narrative and the gameplay. For example: After beating Quelaag, you can enter a covenant with her sister. Of course, the game doesn’t tell you what this will do, so I looked it up online. Descriptions of the Chaos Servant covenant discuss what is necessary to save Solaire later in the game- because that appears to be the only reason to join – and because I don’t want Jolly Sunbro to die I continued to read. After doing all that I realized that in all likelihood, Solaire is ‘supposed’ to die your first playthough. I’d relied on the Internet telling me what the right way to play was, instead of letting the game play the story out the way it meant to.
This happened in a few other instances, but you get the idea. Arguably I did not have to look any of this up, and I accept that, but if the game had been willing to provide me with the bare minimum of what I needed to know in just a few key instances, it wouldn’t have created the impression that outside sources were a necessary part of playing the game. This might just be a particular hang-up of mine, but for a game based so much on exploration and discovery, pushing players to get their information from other sources means they won’t necessarily be getting it on the developers terms. Not knowing when I'm just being a dumbass and when the game is being deliberately obtuse can become very frustrating.
Like I said above, this doesn’t just apply to the story beats. Dark Souls suffers from some serious balancing issues, and again I think that at least partially comes down to communication problems. In the first half of the game or so, most of the bosses seem to require you to get other players in to help. Which is fine, usually. But after I got the Lordvessel, the only bosses that were in any way difficult were Seath, and the Bed of Chaos – the latter of which doesn’t count because it basically requires several tries to finish. Everyone else I could beat singlehandedly, usually my first try. It’s possible that I over-leveled at some point, but the fact that that’s even possible seems like bad design. Lord Fucking Gwyn was possibly the easiest fight for me in the entire game, and for that to be the note the game ends on was hugely disappointing. I don’t expect the game to say ‘you need to be this level to beat this boss’, but it seemed like I was swinging back and forth between ‘I am not ready for this fight’ and ‘I destroy all in my path ’. That wouldn’t be as big a problem in any other game, but in Dark Souls that undercuts a lot of the games’ tension. Strange as it is to say, I’d much rather prefer this had been just as difficult at the end as it had been at the beginning, learning curve be damned.
Despite all that, Dark Souls is still one of the best games I’ve ever played. I still have lots of questions*, and for me to finish a game and know that I’m going to play it again is one of the rarest and truest signs that it was a success. It's just so impressive to see what happens when a game is fully confident in its own design, and when it all works the way it's supposed to it's better than any other game out there.
* Questions such as: Why is Lost Izalith just a room full of lava and giant mummified dinosaur hindquarters? Why call it the Four Kings if they all look the same and fight you one at a time? Why did they make an XP farm using a swarm of unending baby skeletons? Where the fuck is the big toothy monster that was in all the trailers? And where the fuck is the pigmy guy from the opening cinematic? (wait, no , don't answer that. I want to find that myself).