Dark Souls doesn’t care about me. It’s indifferent to everything I do. It’s Carpa Demon just flick me off the face of the world with as little effort as I brush a fly from my shoulder. The game is passive, indifferent, stand-offish. Any progress I make in this game is going to be a battle against the game, not with it. Dark Souls will give no quarter.
But it’s not simply that Dark Souls is ‘hard.’ Lots of games are hard, but few convey this sensation of fighting against such an indifferent opponent. Most games are hard in the way they go out of their way to make your life difficult. Dark Souls is hard in the way it is just there and, to add insult to injury, the way it couldn’t care less about me. Fell off a narrow ledge and died? It doesn’t care. Killed a massive demon and opened up a new path? It doesn’t care. It’s indifference to me makes me even more determined to prove myself. Dark Souls’s passive difficulty motivates while the aggressive difficulty of other games frustrates.
This indifference of the game towards the player shines through every aspect of its design, but, paradoxically, it is a deliberate indifference. Dark Souls is exquisitely designed to feel as though the world simply doesn’t care about me—something that could only be achieved if its developers actually think about me first and foremost.
Most fascinating to me is how the level design, the very layout of Lordran, makes me feel unwelcome, like I am not supposed to be there. Dark Souls takes a conventional syntax of how video game spaces are meant to work and subverts it to mess with the player—all while acting like it isn’t doing anything at all. Most game worlds are designed so that the player is looking where the designer wants them to look. Maybe a future objective is framed by the environment, maybe a doorway spits you out looking at stairs that will take you to the next place, maybe a landmark is visible from nearly every part of the game world. Most game worlds ever-so-subtly guide us through them. Dark Souls, though, masterfully takes how we understand game spaces to screw us over.
An example. After I leave the Undead Asylum (the closest Dark Souls has to a tutorial level), it drops me at the Firelink Shrine, a sort of central hub area that connects to the rest of Lordran. Lordran is open-world and, from the start, there are multiple paths I can take. The bonfire I have been dropped at sits beside a gaping chasm. To my left is what looks like a stairwell going down. Straight ahead are the ruins of a temple with a doorway. To my right is a dead tree and the wall of a cliff.
On my first game, I spend well over an hour trying to find the right path. First I take the stairs down, find an elevator, and end up in the dark depths of New Londo. This seems like it might be the right path, as I kill a bunch of weak undead. But before long, invincible ghosts destroy me. Clearly this is somewhere I shouldn’t be yet.
I try going through the temple, and find the graveyard. Bones comes together, falling apart backwards into skeleton warriors. If I’m lucky, I can just kill one of these before the next five kill me. The kicker, though, is that even if I manage to kill one, these skeletons drop very few souls, so fighting them doesn’t help me to progress at all.
I waste more than an hour going back and forward between these two paths. There’s no other way to go so one of these must be right. Both seem impossible, but Dark Souls is meant to be hard, right? I just have to keep trying.
It’s not until a friend suggests there is a third path that I notice the cliff wall behind the tree that I previously dismissed actually has the narrowest of staircases hugging its side. From the bonfire, the stairs are nearly invisible, half-concealed behind the spindly tree. These stairs take me to the Undead Burg, an area where I am meant to be going. But from the bonfire, it feels like a secondary path. It feels like an afterthought, this weird little secret path over there.
I have seen this called bad design by frustrated new players (including myself). But, in fact, it is immaculate design—this part of the world was build in a way as to make me do exactly what the game wanted me to do. It wanted me to try the wrong paths first—both to build an appreciation that dying and failure are crucial parts of the Dark Souls experience, and that there are paths that I will be able to explore in the future.
But it also works to ingrain and reinforce the feeling that will linger throughout my time with Dark Souls: that neither the game nor the world care about me. It didn’t flag me towards the path I need to take saying, “Hey, Brendan! Try over here!”. It just sat there, arms folded. Not going out of its way to make the path hard to traverse, but not caring enough about me to tell me where the path was in the first place.
This kind of level design permeates the entire world (at least, up to Anor Londo, where I currently find myself) to make me constantly feel like a trespasser in a callous land. Sometimes I have to skirt around the rim of buildings, so narrow that one of my character model’s feel sits atop open air. What looks like a few protruding polygons from a cliff are, in fact, the first steps of a path to an entirely new area. It’s not just that there are ‘secret’ paths, out of the way. It’s that the paths often don’t feel like paths at all. It’s the un-video-game-ness of them that makes it feel so indifferent.
Of course, these paths are perfectly designed to feel not designed at all, to feel like the paths you have to take in a broken video game—or the paths you have to take to break a video game. The designer seems to disappear, abandoning you, caring for you as little as the game does.
Many hours later, I reach the city of Anor Londo, with its wide paths and towering buildings. It feels like the inhabitants of this city were at least twice my own height. Not far into the city, the path hits a dead end. To the right is a giant cathedral, at least five-stories tall. Diagonal stone beams run parallel with the sloping roof, sweeping down from to beneath my current path. These beams are pointy, with no handrail. They didn’t look like paths at all—so clearly they are.
I rolled off the path and landed on a beam. The camera refuses to sit perfectly behind my character, and I am forced to do a weird zigzag walkrun up the beam to compensate. At the top, I could jump onto a balcony of the upper floor of the cathedral (I actually land awkwardly on the handrail around the balcony) and, from there, I can pass through an open-window into the cathedral. After thirty-odd hours of playing, I thought to look for the weird path, but only because the game has taught me to fight the game. Don’t go for the typically game-ish paths, I’ve learned; go for the paths you try to find when you are trying to break a video game.
In Grand Theft Auto 3, there is a way to break the game so to get to a closed-off area you’re not supposed to be able to get to. Rockstar were aware of this issue and placed a sign on a wall here that says, “You weren’t suppose to be able to get here, you know”. Instead of closing off the area, they put a reward there. A secret that slaps the player on the back and says, “Well done!”
In Dark Souls, such out-of-the-way paths are the very routes you have to find. Nearly every place I visit in Lordran feels like it could have a sign that says, “You weren’t suppose to be able to get here.”
By discovering this path into Anor Londo’s cathedral all by myself, I feel like I have learned how things are with Dark Souls. I have, at last, learned to appreciate the game’s antagonistic-yet-apathetic stance towards me. If I want to progress, it won’t help me. I will have to find my own way. Not into the game’s world, but against it.
About the Author:
Brendan Keogh a Media and Communications PhD student at RMIT University. He is a freelance videogame critic and journalist for the likes of Edge, Hyper, Unwinnable, Gamasutra, Pixel Hunt, Ars Technica, and PC Powerplay.
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