Dark Souls: A Game of Two Genres
With controller in hand, a gamer boots up any entrant of the Souls series by From Software with certain expectations in mind; they will play a punishingly difficultaction-RPG, but one that rewards tenacity and skill. The Souls games are known for being a challenge, and when Demon’s Souls came out in 2009, gamers were introduced to this new and engaging style of play with no holds barred. In the first day of the U.S. release, the opening area of the game caused over 3,000 character deaths, according to Atlus Software.
Over time, the gamer population became used to the Souls series, and learned the ins and outs of the mechanical nuances of each game. Slowly but surely, Souls fans “got good” (to reference a popular internet meme), progressing through each game with increasing speed and style, until the release of Dark Souls III earlier this year.
The final game in the Souls series, according to series director Hidetaka Miyazaki, was met with an interesting complaint – that it was too easy. While this sentiment is a popular debate among Souls fans, there is one explanation that gets voiced on a regular basis: the game isn’t too easy, you’re just good at playing it.
The Souls games are almost a genre unto themselves, and their fans have spent dozens, if not hundreds of hours honing their skills to be able to play the game proficiently. By the time a fan works their way through the previous two Dark Souls games, possibly Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne as well, they have trained their fingers and thumbs the same way a Guitar Hero player works their way up to Expert mode, or a Super Mario Bros. player learns every pattern in every world.
As a contrast to the complaint that Dark Souls III is too easy, a quick check of the Steam statistics 1 shows that only 84.8% of players defeated the first boss. While an experienced Souls player can get through this challenge within the first half-hour, a full 15.2% of all players couldn’t do it at all, and 10.7% of players couldn’t even get to the first bonfire, which is located half way through the tutorial area. That would be like 10% of all Mario players being unable to get past World 1-1. According to the Steam Community stats, each boss has a lower completion rate, until the penultimate boss, which clocks in at just over 45% completion (the final boss doesn’t have an achievement associated with him, so we can’t actually see a completion rate there – there are three endings, and each of those is an achievement unto itself, and surely many players have played through multiple times to get all three endings). With less than half of all players beating the game two months after its release it is safe to say the game isn’t too easy, but the player base that does get through the game with ease does so because of the rigors of the previous installments in the series and learning the mechanics of From Software games.
Experts of the game start giving themselves challenges to artificially increase the difficulty. Things like “No Shield” or “No Magic” runs are common, as are “No Death” hardcore runs where a player will stop playing, or even delete their save, if their character dies once. One of the more common challenges is the “SL1,” where a player attempts to beat the game at Soul Level 1, never increasing their raw stats.
Through experiencing this style of gameplay, Dark Souls undergoes a transformation. Instead of an Action RPG, the game becomes more akin to a pure Action game, like Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden or Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda. The game’s protagonist becomes a collector, seeking new and more powerful items, searching out power-ups in the form of equipment improvements, and maximizing every equipment slot for each set of enemies and bosses.
In this set of restrictions, the challenge level of the game is increased, and it forces the player to put all of their Souls expertise to use. Even the choice of beginning class has a huge impact on how the rest of the game will play, as the player will have no option of character growth. Picking the right weapons, the right improvement tree, the right rings to wear, all have much higher impact on the success or failure of a particular level or boss than when the player can compensate (or overcompensate) with higher stats which can increase survivability and damage output. From Software’s mechanics are so tightly implemented that even simple tasks, like drinking from your Estus Flask to get healed, have in-game factors that either speed up the process or increase the amount of healing given.
In the end, this is the beauty of the Souls series. These “challenge runs” not only give veteran Souls players a new set of parameters in which to operate to enjoy their favorite games, but it can renew the passion and exhilaration they can experience through the playthrough.
Speaking from personal experience, going through the first Dark Souls game at SL1 was amazing. I felt the same kind of joy at beating a boss as I did when I played through for the first time, knowing that I had overcome something that my brain originally thought was near-impossible. When I first heard about the SL1 challenge I expected it required superhuman levels of skill and prowess, attainable only by the most dedicated and masochistic players, willing to see that fateful “YOU DIED” splashed across their screen hundreds of times in the pursuit of the unattainable.
And in a way, I was right. Using the Dark Souls Death Counter website 2, I can see that in all of my time in Dark Souls, I have died a total of 1,571 times, and counting, over six characters. Steam shows my Played time at 407 hours (and counting). This represents the time spent from first picking up the game in 2014, learning the nuances of the game, forcing myself to keep going despite dozens of deaths, to finally finish that first time, until now, where I am willingly making the game harder for myself. Have I attained superhuman reflexes? No. What I have attained is a mastery of the game; an understanding of how the game works, and the intricacies of its systems such that a standard playthrough is trivial, and I can reach the end credits in a fraction of the time it took me the first time.
Through self-imposed restrictions, the game changes and is experienced in a whole new way. The RPG elements become lessened and the focus is on the action. Combat turns into a ballet of button-presses and precision moves rather than a straight hack and slash, the player unable to rely on optimized builds and high-powered weapons and spells. Like other action games, Dark Souls becomes reliant on mechanical knowledge and pattern recognition rather than being able to go back to an easier area and stock up, boosting your character’s abilities to make the next challenge easier. This reveals the genius of the design of the Souls series. The game is carefully designed and crafted such that the player can dictate their own experience, and fundamentally change the skill set they have to use to win. Dark Souls is truly a masterpiece of game design.
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