It’s been a little over a week since the release of Dark Souls III. Like many of you, I have been slogging my way through the game’s labyrinthine pathways, dispatching sullen enemies, narrowly avoiding death in order to level up and do it all over again. At least, that’s when things are going my way.
The Dark Souls series has become synonymous with a high level difficulty; often players are turned off by this perceived difficulty, only playing for a short time and giving up, or never playing at all. There are reviews out there breaking down Dark Souls III and detailing the reasons why it is an amazing game, how it’s adapted and integrated lessons from it’s sister game Bloodborne, but, I am going to go over two major reasons why I keep returning to Dark Souls series: Combat and narrative.
The most brilliant thing that Souls does is combat. For an action game this is do or die and in this case—die, die, die. Basically, get used to dying. Every instance of combat with any enemy, feels like it could be a fight for your life and the precious souls you’ve collected. If the player is not paying attention, or becomes over confident in their skills, it is easy to be blind-sided by an enemy that the player has eliminated many times without issue. The player is forced into hellish encounters where the enemy is only one flurry away from ruining the careful progress the player has made up until that point. It is unforgiving, the way combat should feel.
It’s not only the enemies that the player engages that make the combat so intense but the areas in which they are encountered as well. This point might well sit in an entirely different category called “level design,” because From Software designs wonderful worlds that become characters in their own right. Sometimes, enemies are crammed into a small room that the player must deftly navigate; sometimes, the player must take on an enemy one on one in a narrow alley; sometimes, the player must lure an enemy into a position that favors the player and at any point, the player might attempt to dodge an attack and mistakenly roll off of a cliff and plummet to their death—adding the threat of the level itself.
The Z-targeting system, which has featured in other games prominently, works very well for a game with nightmarish enemy design. The player is forced to look at the enemy and pick out weaknesses in its movement set. The combo system here works against a stamina meter, careful timing and intelligent positioning. Everything is done with purpose and it shows.
Generally speaking, gamers want games that have linear (if complex) stories and clearly delineated moralities. Most triple-A titles feature stories with Good Guys and Bad Guys that battle it out until the good guys win. Or maybe, there are some twists and betrayals and politics with shades of motivation. They still follow the same plot-arcs we all learned about in 4th grade. The stories in the Souls games are winding and mysterious, wrapped in thick and layered metaphors. Death and rebirth feature heavily, alongside light and dark as themes that the Souls games use to construct epic stories and rich lore.
When playing through these games, it’s easy to lose track of where you are in a “story,” that is to say whether it’s the beginning or middle or end. There doesn’t seem to be an arc, per se. It’s because the game lacks the normal signifiers to the player that they are making progress through a story. Instead, the player spends the game discovering the relationship between ages of darkness and light.
The most impressive aspect of the narrative is how it’s delivered. Parts of the story are gleaned from talking to NPC’s, while other parts are hidden in item descriptions or names; timelines are not always clear and how things relate to each other is often not explicit. Nothing is ever presented to the player as a precise narrative. It’s even possible to gain information about the story, or the characters in it, from the architecture of an area. This obviously can frustrate some gamers, but finding the connections in obscure lore and unraveling the mystery and subtlety of the story is the part of the charm of this series. Many communities and forums exist on the internet that are concerned with obscure theories, oblique narrative connections and helpful strategies for new and veteran players alike.
These games definitely aren’t for everybody but they are unique games, made with a tremendous amount of care; it’s difficult not to understand them as modern masterpieces. People that approach games in a casual way, or get frustrated easily might not find these games to be fun. But, most of the time when I watch new players get frustrated by the game it’s because they don’t learn from their own mistakes. Admittedly, the game doesn’t tell the player what it is they do wrong, but, I find that these games have a decidedly retro feel to them. There was no tutorial telling you to pick up the mushrooms in Mario, the player learned for themselves. I have been punished in games like Metroid and Castlevania for stubbornly sticking to a single tactic when other, better tactics could have been employed; I have been punished by these same games for making progress and then playing carelessly. Dark Souls may punish hard, but it always seems fair.