Thursday, 23 February 2012

Much Ado About Nothing - Why Dark Souls is Easy

Dark Souls pt. 4
1. a movement toward a goal or to a further or higher stage
2. advancement in general

What I’m about to tell you flies in the face of everything you have heard (and, indeed, everything I have told you thus far) about Dark Souls.
Are you sitting down?
(Whisper it.) The game isn’t actually that difficult.
Stopped spinning yet?  Good, because no matter how much you protest, how indignant you are, it is true – you’ve just got to adjust the way you think about things. 
The trick here is what do we mean by “difficulty”?  What makes a game “difficult”?  Well, in gaming, “difficult” is often shorthand for dying a lot.  It can mean going over the same bit of the game again and again or having trouble getting past a certain point.  It can mean a lack of progress, or being unable to finish the game.  All of these apply to Dark Souls except, crucially, the last one. 
You WILL die a lot in Dark Souls.  There is no getting away from that.  In another game this would mean that you are not progressing, that you are stuck.  This is not the case here.  In Dark Souls dying is all part of the process, and this is down to the function dying performs within the game.  Normally, when you die in a game, you are returned to the last save, or checkpoint or whatever and your progress since that last checkpoint is reset.  In Dark Souls you are returned to the last checkpoint but, crucially, all your progress is not reset.  You still have any items that you may have picked up.  The traps that you triggered remain triggered and won’t get you again.  Any bosses or sub bosses you killed remain dead.  Most importantly, the knowledge you gained of where enemies are and what lies ahead is still there, in your brain.  The only things you have lost are the actual physical headway that you made into an area, and any souls or humanity that you may have earned (and you can get all of those back.)  Souls are readily available.  Enemies are constantly respawning, their souls are infinite.  All it takes is time and, well I’m not even going to say effort because it’s so enjoyable, to get more.  Losing souls is a smokescreen to make you feel that you have lost something by dying.  You haven’t, it’s just an illusion.  Dying doesn’t matter, that’s the truth!  It’s difficult to accept, because it goes against everything that you have learned over years of playing video games, but there it is.  Death is meaningless, it’s irrelevant.  Embrace this fact!  Set yourself free!
Similarly, you will also often find yourself going over the same areas again and again, or having trouble beating certain bosses.  This can make you feel that the game is “difficult”,  but the important thing is that you are constantly improving both yourself and your on-screen character.  Let’s take the bosses as an example.  The first few times you encounter a boss it is likely that the encounter will last less than 30 seconds, and end with you smeared all over the environment.  However, the next time you fight them you might last a little longer (but still die.)  A couple more times and you’ll notice the little signs that tell you which attack is coming up and, eventually, you’ll work out the best way of beating them.  Once you’ve played the game for a bit start again and go back and fight Asylum Demon.  You will be astonished at how easy he is.  Your character is the same starting character you fought him with the first time but you, yourself, have changed.  You know what you’re doing now.  You know what he’s going to do.  How on earth did he ever beat you?  And this is the same right across the game.  Something that took you 20 hours to achieve the first time round can now be done in 5.  Nothing about the character on screen is more powerful, but you are.  You’re trained, you know exactly what’s coming, where you need to go.  You, yourself, your actual physical, real self has progressed.
One of the game’s greatest strengths is that you aren’t told where to go or what to do.  You get some vague pointers from people but nothing that makes much sense.  There certainly aren’t any flashing green arrows above people’s heads, no signs on a map - in fact there isn’t even a sodding map.  You are left to work out where to go and what to do and it can feel overwhelming.  But, once again, you are constantly learning, constantly progressing.  You can’t avoid it.  It’s inevitable.  This isn’t “difficulty”, this is exploring!  This is fun, isn’t it?  Try one direction.  If it doesn’t work out then try another.  Nothing bad is going to happen.  You’ll die if you pick the wrong one but the game will stick you back where you started and we’ve already worked out that death is meaningless, haven’t we?  You’ve still progressed, you know not to go that way again.
If you think of everything in terms of progress then suddenly the game becomes easy.  Anything can be progress, and this is as true of you as it is of your on-screen character.  If Death itself, the great leveller, can be progress then what can't?  Learning the way an enemy attacks is progress.  Triggering a trap is progress.  Fighting, and being killed by, a boss is progress.  Improving a weapon is progress.  Getting a new shield is progress.  Going the wrong way is progress.  You just need to learn how to value every little thing that you learn.  You are always steadily advancing towards your goal of finishing the game.
So there you go.  Stop thinking in normal video game terms.  The greatest achievement of Dark Souls is that it subverts the standard conventions.  Death is a slight inconvenience, not the end.  There’s no “game over”.   If you keep plugging away then you will find the way forward, and all along, in the background, there is progress.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Have at you Sir! - Being Bad in Dark Souls

Dark Souls pt. 3

So, are we all feeling nice and warm inside?  People are lovely aren’t they?  Giving up their time and their skills just for the satisfaction of helping strangers confront insurmountable odds.  The internet is truly a wondrous place, flowing with the milk of human kindness.  The birds are singing in the trees, the sun is shining, you’re probably whistling a happy tune.
Until some bastard comes along and ruins it all.
There you are, manfully (or womanfully) hacking your way through a horde of enemies, when you get the message that somebody has invaded your world.  Up pops a (usually red) figure, who then proceeds to introduce you to the pointy end of their sword.  There is often little you can do about this.  Welcome to the world of player vs. player in Dark Souls.
This is an area of the game that is fundamentally flawed, but can also provide some of its greatest moments – because you’re suddenly dealing with another, unpredictable, human being. 
So much of Dark Souls is spent learning attack patterns, where enemies are, where traps are that you get into an unconscious rhythm.  The normal enemies you face are predictable.  The hollow at the top of the stairs from Firelink Shrine will always try to throw a firebomb at you, and his mate with the axe will always attack as you get to the top.  A large proportion of your time is spent learning patterns like this, and a lot of your skill is being able to respond to them and overcome them.  The game trains you to perform the specific series of actions needed to progress and you become conditioned to that, because you do it over and over again.
So when there’s suddenly some red dude in strange armour, with a weapon you don’t recognise and who is definitely not following any attack pattern it can be um... alarming.  Especially as most of the time, in a straight fight, the red guy will win because, if you’re going to go around invading other player’s worlds, you want to stack the odds as much as you can in your favour (and more on this later.)  It can be properly scary to be invaded.  You have a new enemy to fight, and they don’t fit in with your carefully rehearsed little dance.  They provide you with a genuine test of skill and a different type of challenge to the normal single-player game.
There are lots of ways to enter into a player vs player fight.  You can put down a symbol, similar to a summon symbol, that other players can see and use if they fancy a fight, you can use specific items to invade or you can join a covenant – a number of which use fighting other players as a means of progress.  This can vary from the Blademoons (who invade the worlds of people who have sinned) to the Darkwraiths (who just invade anybody.)  The Forest Hunters covenant attack humans near the Tomb of Artorias, while followers of the Way of the Dragon duel others for more dragon scales.  They are all there, essentially, as ways of initiating PvP combat.
And, unfortunately, this leads us to our first flaw in the system.  There are some areas in the game which are set up for fighting.  If you go into the Dark Forest past the gate, and you are in human form (i.e. not hollowed) then you can expect to be attacked by some hunters pretty quickly.  Similarly, if you have a dark Anor Londo then you can expect constant attacks from Blademoons.  However, this predictability means that you can set ambushes.  You can avoid triggering the invasions (just don’t be human in the forest) if you don’t want them, and you can ensure that the environment is as hostile as possible if you do.  Summon some friends, make sure you’re high level and wearing the best equipment – and then any invaders are going to have a hard time fighting one against three fully decked out supermen.  This has made it an exercise in futility to be a Forest Hunter or a Blademoon unless you are very high level, fancy a challenging fight or get very lucky.  9 times out of 10 you will die in pretty short order.
The other flaw with the system (and I’m ignoring the actual fighting because it is prey to the usual problem of people saying that anything that beats them is “overpowered”) is that the only restriction is your relative levels.  You can only invade a player who is a higher level than you.  That sounds sensible right?  It stops unfair fights.  Unfortunately, in this game, your equipment plays as large a role in determining your ability as your level, if not more.  What’s worse is that there are numerous ways of getting very good equipment without having to be a high level yourself.  This has meant that there are a lot of (pretty sad) people out there who have collected end game weapons and armour and then use them to invade starter characters.  I would imagine they say this is “for the lulz.”  I imagine that is how they speak.
I should make it clear that I have no problem with invaders.  As said above it can lead to some of the greatest moments in the game.  Fighting another human character can be exciting, scary and lots of other really good emotional things.  What seems baffling is why somebody would go to all that trouble purely to make a hard game even harder for complete beginners.  This game is tough, especially at the start, and the last thing a new player needs is for some completely over-powered shitehawk to turn up and attempt to fill the yawning, howling chasm at the very centre of their being by engaging in the virtual equivalent of kicking a puppy.  A cute puppy.  With really big eyes. 
However, even despite these flaws fighting other players can be a lot of fun.  It can be infuriating, frustrating and exhilarating but it is always important to remember one thing.  You have already died hundreds of times.  What’s once more between friends?

Next:  Why (whisper it) Dark Souls isn’t actually that difficult.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Help a Brother Out - Being Good in Dark Souls

Dark Souls pt. 2

So... we've talked about the difficulty and why it's important (or even vital) to the game.  Let's talk about something that's more optional - dealing with other people.

This is an area of Dark Souls that is a little bit more um... experimental.  There are other words I could use but I think that's probably the most polite.  When it works it is sublime, but more often than not it doesn't work, or it is abused.

You have choices to make here.  In broad terms you can be a goodie (by helping others) or a baddie (by brutally murdering others.) 

First up.. let's be nice and talk about helping each other (aah). 

Dark Souls is a tough game (you may have read this somewhere already.)  The toughest bits are probably the start (because you don't have a clue what you're doing) and the bosses (because they are generally huge, slobbering demons or other nightmare creatures that want to dismember you and then eat your still twitching, armless, body.)  It can get disheartening to continually pit yourself against overwhelming odds and get beaten. 

Oof! Ow!  Oh god, it's the bonfire again.  Right, dodge that zombie, kill that giant.. ah, boss... Bang! Aaagh! Bonfire again.  Repeat. 

A guy could start to feel a little low.

But!  Don't worry!  Help is at hand!  Get some humanity (and the game will give you some if you beat enough enemies without killing the boss), reverse your hollowing and touch one or two of the white (or, even better, yellow) signs and you will be joined by a friend.  An actual human friend.  In a lonely, desolate world it is nice to have a friend.  It is even nicer to have a friend who can fire lightning bolts and has a huge sword (ahem.)  Now go!  Go and work together to defeat your enemies!

Of course, what with this being Dark Souls and everything, you don't get to build a strong working relationship.  You can't chat.  You're not friends.  You can only communicate with a series of hand gestures (like a kind of medieval Marcel Marceau)  or by being the one who obviously knows where they're going.  As always, this fits in with the whole ethos of the game.  Dark Souls' world is lonely.  Most of the game is spent on your own, but occasionally you get to see shades of others going about their business.  They prove strangely comforting.  Similarly it can be encouraging to hear the bell tolling in the Undead Parish, you know that somebody somewhere has succeeded.

Summoning, or being summoned, fits in with this.  A little bit of comfort, a glimpse of other worlds, but really you are still on your own.  Once the local boss is defeated your new friend will go back where they came from, leaving you alone again to face the horrors ahead.  While they are here, though, they are your companion and your protector.  Cherish them.

The benefits of summoning somebody are obvious.  There are 2 (or 3) of you instead of 1 but what's in it for the summonee?  Is that even a word?

Well, the summonee (yeah, just going to go with it) actually gets a few rewards.  You get half the souls of anything that's killed, including bosses, and you also get 1 humanity if you assist in killing the boss.  In addition members of the Warrior of Sunlight covenant get a shiny medal.  Nice.  However, probably the most important thing is that you get the satisfaction of helping others.

Because Dark Souls is hard.  I don't mean to go on about it, but it's kind of unavoidable.  Most of the bosses can seem impossible until you work them out, and the start is especially punishing.  So it's nice to help somebody through that.  It would be a shame for them to start the game and give up because they just can't beat those damn gargoyles.  You can show them how to beat them, you can show them where the secrets are that you found, you can take this poor lonely wanderer under your immensely skilled wing and keep them safe.  It's a beautiful thing.  You're a beautiful person.  In amongst all this dying and horror and desolation you can create something wonderful - brothers and sisters looking out for each other like proper human beings.

Summoning Tips:
1.  You can only summon, or be summoned by, people within 10% of your soul level.  So be careful of this.
2.  Some people go through the game at a deliberately low level - this means you may be dumped into NG+ when you don't expect it.
3.  Summoning somebody may make an area extremely easy.  There are lots of ways to get great equipment without being high level.  I summoned somebody in crystal caves once who basically completed the area for me.  Great, but I missed out on doing it myself.
4.  Put your summon sign near a bonfire.
5.  Think about joining the Way of White, or Warrior of Sunlight convenants - they get more chance of being summoned.
6.  If you are summoned, it is your job to protect the summoner.  If they die, so do you.
7.  Check with the summoner who they want you to kill first when fighting Ornstein and Smough.
8.  Belfry Gargoyle area is very popular - stick your sign down by the side entrance to the chapel.  So is Capra Demon - stick it outside his fog gate.
9.  If you are summoning remember to keep your helper's health topped up with your estus flask.  They're no good to you dead.
10.  If you plan on regularly being summoned then it's worth getting the "Heal" spell, or using humanity or divine blessing to keep yourself healthy.

Next up:  The Baddies..  (boo!)

Friday, 10 February 2012

Prepare To Die - Why Dark Souls is Difficult

Dark Souls pt. 1

Dark Souls is famed for its difficulty.  If you went out onto the street and asked people what they know about Dark Souls then you would probably get a blank look and a quickening of the stride.  However, if you then went back indoors and asked some people on the internet who play games you would get one resounding answer "oh yeah, that's that difficult game."

Difficulty is central to Dark Souls but not, as some claim, because the developers are sadistic lunatics who want to make a game which is as difficult as possible.  The difficulty level of Dark Souls is there for a reason.  In fact it’s there for many reasons.

This is not something that the developers shy away from.  In fact, they love it.  They know their target audience.  This is a game that is presented to you as being difficult.  The box says "Prepare to Die!!!", the trailers say "Prepare to Die!!!"... everything says "Prepare to Die!!!"  You are told, repeatedly, that it is going to be a challenge.  This is deliberate.  They want you to be scared.

That feeling of trepidation as you're playing the game is one of its greatest strengths, and the marketing is designed to instil this before you've even put the disc in your console.  The whole game is based around you being scared.  Watch people playing it.  Their shield is up at all times, they stick their head through a doorway and instantly jump back.  Danger is everywhere, and that is a wonderful thing.  How many games can you say have really scared you?  Resident Evil 2 springs to mind, but even that was just cheap “jump” scares – anybody can do that. Dark Souls made me nervous.  Genuinely, and for long periods.

This is a good thing.  You are experiencing emotion as you play the game.  That is Good (see, I even gave it a capital letter.)  It makes you concentrate on what you are doing, it makes you pay attention to what is going on.  It also has another effect...

The feeling when you achieve something is amazing.  Just as there is no down without an up, no yin without a yang, so you need to spend 99% of your time scared and nervous to fully appreciate the moment when you teach that huge, slobbering demon who exactly is the Daddy round here.  There is nothing like it in gaming, there has been nothing like it in gaming for years.  When I beat Ornstein and Smough for the first time I was physically shaking.  It is a wonderful feeling, and you get it because you deserve it.  You did it! (To coin a phrase.)  The game didn’t do it.  The game didn’t hold your hand and tell you what to do.  The game doesn’t give a flying one.  You did it.  You.  Little old you.

Because modern games are dull, aren’t they?  Come on.  Be honest with yourself.  Look down, deep into your gaming heart and admit it.  Yeah, it’s great being a cyborg, or Batman , or the Dragonborn but isn't it all just a little bit tedious?  The chances are that the reason you don’t finish a game these days isn’t because you’re stuck but because you’re bored.  Follow the arrow, there’s some baddies, beat them up, maybe pick a bit of dialogue and get your reward.  Repeat, repeat, repeat.  Booooorrrriiinnnggg.  They’re not games any more, they’re gratification engines.  There are no ups, no downs, just a constant level of “quite nice”.

This game doesn’t do that.  Here there are proper highs and proper lows.  There are moments when you cannot see how you are possibly going to progress.  When you first encounter some of the bosses they kill you in one hit, they smear you all over the nicely rendered stonework in an instant.  This happens to people and they cry “it’s so difficult” but they don’t realise that this is the whole point.  For there to be achievement, there needs to be something to overcome.

Next: You're not alone.