Player Agency Gone Wild, Or, Why You Should Play Dark Souls (And Why You Probably Shouldn't?)

Given Vinny's recent and (depending on time of viewing this blog) ongoing quasi-Endurance Run-esque Load Our Last Souls series of vids wherein he picks up where he left off from playing Dark Souls, which can basically be summarized with this bombcast extract...

...I feel as though it's time I should explain to any of you reading why Dark Souls is - at least for me - one of the best games I've ever played. To do so I will be primarily focusing on the user-generated content coming from the community From Software spawned. By that I mostly mean posting a bunch of YouTube videos with a few hundred words thrown in to appease the mods.

But... but... why write any of this? Because, well, Dark Souls is one of those rare titles that has somehow extended beyond a singular experience. The world that was crafted, which you can read about in great detail from the horse's mouth, courtesy of GB user @7force who went to a good deal of effort to translate from Japanese the Dark Souls Design Works Translation (which you can absolutely start reading here on the site!) - a frank group interview with several of the creative leads wherein they go into extensive detail about the characters/environment/mechanics and reveal a lot of stuff you might not necessarily see or hear from "bigger" titles (by that I mean the Call of Duties and Grand Theft Autos of this world).

What From Software had generated was something genuinely engaging, and the knock-on effect of this has resulted in an entire sub-culture emerging, populated by weird and wonderful individuals devoted to - at one end of the spectrum - either unraveling the mystery of Lordran and its medieval Valhalla setting...

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...or - at the other - breaking the fourth wall and fucking with other players.

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Before reading any further, I highly suggest playing Dark Souls! Even though the Internet hammered away at it, resulting in 99.9% of the secrets being discovered and every element analyzed to several undeaths, there's still satisfaction to be had from the game. On face value, Dark Souls is ostensibly an adventure game with Dungeons & Dragons leanings. You are the Chosen Undead, whose task is to save the world. There are swords to swing, and demons and dragons to be slain in fantastical settings, but there is so much more. You've heard that it's a punishing game, and it is -

Poor Vinny :(
Poor Vinny :(

- but you learn from your mistakes and genuine satisfaction is derived from overcoming the various obstacles the game literally throws at you. In its latest incarnation on the PC, it can be bolstered (via DSFix and other mods) to look and play absolutely brilliantly in comparison to its console cousins.

Secondly, it might not be clear to some reading what's meant by the title of "Player Agency Gone Wild". What I mean by "player agency" is essentially the level of influence (or "agency") someone playing a game has on the game itself, and to an extent whether the game (or any other player involved) reacts accordingly. I fully realize that's a vague definition, and agency manifests itself in all sorts of ways, not to mention the fact that it varies from game to game. Some might describe it in other terms as "player choice" - no, that doesn't mean Mass Effect dialog option wheels - in the sense that a game with good agency will allow the player to approach and overcome certain scenarios in a variety of ways. Bear in mind not every game needs huge levels of agency either, it's more that the greater point surrounding it is whether or not a game has its foot firmly on the player's throat, limiting their every action and bottlenecking you down a critical path.

It's an extremely tricky balance, because shattering the illusion of agency is all too easy to do, and there are plenty of other staffers out there far more capable of debating the topic. To me, Dark Souls provides the player with what I would describe as the "right amount" of agency. At an extremely simple level, there is more than one way to get through the game, and the tools for doing so are almost always within reach - the rest is up to the skill of the player to find those tools and use them accordingly. For instance, you might feel slighted by the game for being brutally kicked off into a dark abyss by a giant skeleton like Vinny did, but you later realize that he's only got himself to blame for thinking he could simply waltz through.

Thirdly, it should be noted that, yes, some of this might verge into spoiler territory, but the things I've chosen hopefully won't ruin the entire experience. The list is by no means exhaustive either. Take it, perhaps, as an alternative introduction to those beginner threads. I'm not telling you how to play the game (no, you don't need the drake sword, seriously), I'm telling you why others have and continue to, and why you should (and perhaps probably shouldn't?). Dark Souls stands up as a glorious shining example that - holy crap - the real "worth" of video games doesn't lie in bullshit reactionary remarks to criticism like "Oh, it increases the brain's learning capacity" or nonsense about hand-eye coordination. Noooo... Dark Souls has been a font of inspiration for many to come together, to dig deeper, to create, and - in more than one case - to act like a gigantic douche. And I'm here to present you with proof.

Introduction: In Depth Interpretation

Before we delve into complete nonsense, it might be worth noting that VaatiVidya only started his channel after the PC version was released and in less than a year he's already hit more than 100k subs. Of course, he's not the only user involved with "lore" videos (there are others such as EpicNameBro heavily involved in generating content concerning the story of Dark Souls), but I rather enjoy Vaati's take on the fiction - scant as it is - more than the others. Maybe it's the level of production; maybe I just like the sound of his voice. One thing he delves into is the cut content of Dark Souls and through crafty use of mods allowing him control of camera angles and what not, weaves short machinimas out of things that never even made it into the final version.

And yes, if that's not enough for you, of course there are others who have simply posted videos trawling through the game files scraggling for every bit of content possible. Obviously.

Part 1: "Playing" The Game...

Somehow, Dark Souls has turned out to be a surprisingly popular game to stream via Twitch. The video above, part of Lobos Jr.'s "S&M Challenge" run (no, really, the rules are leather armor and whips only), shows off in the space of about 20 seconds what happens to probably every single person who's ever played this game at some point. Lobos has played this game so many ways. He has even played the game blindfolded

Pinwheel can't catch a break, ever, it seems.

Part 2: ...Then Breaking What You Thought Were The Rules

After a while of playing Dark Souls, you might get to a point where to you start to see time-saving short cuts here and there. And then you come across someone like Xskulled, who figures out the true limits of what can and can't be done in this game, then puts on a set of dumb equipment and starts leaping all over the place.

Or on a less showy note, vageta311 went to the trouble of perfectly demonstrating how to sequence-break your way through several points in the game.

So far these are just examples of players investigating the game's environment, we haven't even factored in other human beings yet.

Part 3: Fuck Environment, Let's PvP

One of the best features of Dark Souls is its multiplayer. Player vs Player comes in two basic forms. At one end you can be summoned and help a player defeat a boss. At the other end is invading someone else's world to prevent them from doing so, such as RedRosie invading Sen's Fortress with an obscenely large weapon and getting the jump on people in an already trying environment. It's cruel, really.

And pretty much anything in between goes. For example, players will intentionally act as fight club "hosts" and let invading red "phantoms" duel one another for everyone's amusement.

And yes, there are countless character builds that go way beyond simply wearing the same armor as one of the NPCs like Solaire. Honestly, what did you think would happen if you gave people like GrimDisaster the opportunity to play dress up as Greek Spartans? Pfft.

Then there are those rare few builds that have spawned a host of memes - the most famous of which is probably OnlyAfro's "GiantDad", which has become infamous as a sort of cookie-cutter PvP griefer build that regularly appears in other videos:

Again, all of what you've seen so far is the sort of basic thing that happens when you give filthy players the ability to do so, and we're not even at the best/worst part yet.

Part 4: Fuck PvP, Let's Use The Environment

So you want to PvP, sort of, but don't want to fight directly? Maybe it's time to put that Undead Rapport pyromancy spell to good use for once and turn the tide against invading phantoms who thought they had the upper hand?

Or maybe you're like Hugh G. Reaction and want to mod the PC version to make your character look like Sonic the Hedgehog and use the actual environment itself?

Forget dark magic; beware the elevators of Oolacile.

Part 5: Fuck It, Let's Do Both And Pretend To Actually Be The Game?

So perhaps you've sank hundreds of hours into the game, exhausted everything you get out of being summoned and dueling other players, what else is there for you to do? It seems pretty obvious that you should just become part of the game itself and pretend to either be an NPC in your own world...

...or invade other player's world's dressed up as certain NPCs and roleplay as them.

It's trolling, essentially, but it's a form of trolling that I can get behind. Or maybe you want to reenact a boss fight, except you don't have the equipment to do so? How's about a ganker's bootleg version of Ornstein & Smough in the forest instead?

Part 6: No Fuck AllThat, Let's Play Our Own Game Within A Game

Wait, you've really exhausted everything there is to do. Right? But you still want to play the game. So you think, fuck it, let's make up your own rules altogether. Enter PvP bingo, spearheaded by streaming players such as OroboroTheNinja.

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This is typical of what you might sometimes hear as "artificial difficulty" in regards to Dark Souls. Basically it means that players have gone through the game so much that - as you can see from the bingo sheet - they will actively create their own arbitrary challenges and/or limit themselves because, well, Dark Souls, I guess? Surely we've ran out of ways to play the game, right?

Parte Siete: ¡Has Muerto!

Nope.

Conclusion: "Why Are You Doing This?"

And then you embrace the darkest soul of all. Now before watching the final video, I want you to know that it is flat-out my favorite clip of all, because it symbolizes everything right about Dark Souls. I'm not sure I can fully parse into words what I mean by "right", but this last vid is, like, some sort of singularity. Behold the true power Dark Souls has on players.

What we think of initially as just another basic low-level invasion of the Undead Parish in a matter of seconds becomes something altogether different. We see the invader abusing what happens to the character animation when you hold two bows without arrows and alternating between R2/RT and L2/LT. We see hosts and white phantoms flailing against a naked bald invader who poses absolutely no threat, yet is somehow more annoying than anything else the game could ever throw at them. "Why are you doing this?" messages one player to the invader feebly. Is it even worth answering?

The invading Darkwraith phantom stalks one of his prey, already weary of his behavior, throughout the level, continuing the mocking dance and impeding their attempts to open up the portcullis. And then we see the greatest moment of all - the truest moment of agency this game affords the player on the host's part. What the final host chooses to do is no longer be party to any of this and willingly throws himself off a ledge. He no longer wishes to play according to the invader's rules, and crystallizes this by taking his own life, ending the Darkwraith's ability to terrorize his game. All to the tune of some obnoxious European electro-house music.

In all my years playing games, it's rare to come across such moments. Thanks for reading.

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