How Dark Souls Teaches Us to Accept Failure
The Age of Fire is ending, and an undead plague is gripping the land. The undead, feared by the populace, are herded into asylums, kept far away so their curse cannot spread. You are one of these undead, locked in a cell, leaning against the wall, head on your knees in despair. Then a corpse falls into the cell, and on it, the key to the door. A strange knight nods from a hole in the ceiling and disappears. You pick up the key, grip your broken sword hilt tightly, open the door, and head out into the asylum…
The beginning of Dark Souls is a confusing and desperate scene, meant to knock the player off balance from the first moment. Led only by strange messages on the floor of the prison, the player is taught the most basic controls and little else. Within ten minutes of hitting “Start” for the first time, the player is ambushed by a boss-level encounter, the Asylum Demon, left to fight the hulking monstrosity with only a broken weapon, and a single tutorial message on the floor telling the player to run for their lives.
To say the Souls franchise (Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, and Dark Souls III) throws the player into the deep end, head first, is an understatement. With little notion of what to do or how to do it, the first time a player starts one of these games they have to overcome seemingly impossible odds just to get out of the tutorial level. The Souls games are known for their difficulty and unforgiving nature, and have a reputation among the gamers as some of the hardest games around. Like Contra in the NES era, the original Tomb Raider on PlayStation One, or any of the Ninja Gaiden series, the Dark Souls games are known to require dedication and determination to complete.
To get an idea of how hard these games actually are, the Steam community provides a good indicator by tracking the achievements of the players. In Dark Souls II, only 76% of players defeated the first boss, The Last Giant 1. In Dark Souls III, 82% of the players who got through the tutorial pressed on to defeat that game’s first boss, Vordt of the Boreal Valley 2. For an experienced player these milestones represent barely an hour’s playtime, but for many it is an insurmountable task.
But the difficulty of Dark Souls is balanced by its fairness. Enemies attack with consistent animations, and are encountered in the same places. Players can learn to only engage one in a group at a time, or predict where an ambush may be. They can learn to block, dodge, and parry predictable attacks, and develop the instincts to anticipate the movements of an unfamiliar foe. For those that persist through those first few grueling hours of the game will find the game getting easier – both by the virtue of their character getting more powerful and their own reflexes improving.
Unlike many games, the signature failure screen is not “Game Over” or “Continue? Y/N,” but “You Died.” These two words become part of the player’s experience over and over, but the game never stops. Your character dies, appearing back at the last checkpoint, ready to try again. Your souls, which are both the currency and experience points of the game, are at the spot where you died, resting in a glowing green bloodstain. The enemies are back where they started as well, making the path back to your souls no harder or easier, but a replica of your previous trip.
“You Died” isn’t an indicator of the end of your journey, but instead says “Try again.” No matter if it was a foolish error, an unexpected ambush, or simply a foe that proved too difficult in the moment, the results are the same. The player has the option to resume their journey, fighting their way back through the obstacles they had previously overcome to take another crack at what cost them their life in the last trip. In this way the game isn’t punishing the player for failing. Instead it is resetting the arena, letting the player learn from their mistakes, to try again, and to set the stage for a future success.
It is not only a mechanical consideration, but one within the plot of the story. The character is afflicted by a curse – one which does not allow them to die. They rise, again and again, their bodies and minds deteriorating with each passing. The return to the last checkpoint doesn’t feel like the game reverting to a previous state or save, but your character returning to life despite the best efforts of the world to end them. The whole world has reset, except for those massive adversaries who’s souls you carry with you, preventing their return. Even when you die, there is a sense of progress, a sense that like you, everything else has come back from the dead as well, ready to fight you again.
Hollowing and being Human
In Dark Souls and Dark Souls III, the death mechanic follows the path outlined above. Your character is punished in a two ways: the loss of their souls, which are left behind at the spot of death, and the loss of their Humanity. The Dark Souls series is all about the struggle to remain an intelligent, coherent individual, keeping the insanity of undeath at bay. When someone loses themselves to the undead curse, they have gone “hollow.” Hollows represent the majority of the enemies in both games – waves of undead coming at you, locked in repetitive, nonsensical, tortured existences, ready to lash out at anyone that comes too close. There is a mechanic in all three games to “unhollow” and gain a benefit from embracing the spark of life. In all three games, when you die, you lose that benefit, and have to consume a limited resource (Humanity, a Human Effigy, or an Ember, respectively) to regain it.
The other function of Humanity is related to the multi-player aspect of the franchise. While the series is a single-player game at its core, there are a few mechanics that allow both cooperative and competitive multi-player. When you are in human form in all three games, you can find summon signs on the ground where players can be brought in from their game in the form of a white (or gold) phantom to aid you. This also makes you vulnerable to invasion from other players, who appear as red (or purple) phantoms in your game and will try to kill you. The strategy of when to reverse your hollowed state becomes a careful balance of risk and reward – are you willing to risk invasion to summon help, or would you rather go it alone and keep yourself safe from hostile phantoms?
This mechanic serves as an equalizer. Novice players can summon companions to help them with a particularly tough area or boss, which will always make a fight easier, but take on the additional risk of being killed by a hostile player, which is a much more difficult foe than your average AI enemy. In this way the game delivers the same message: learn from your mistakes and get better. There is no easy solution to Dark Souls, no difficulty setting, no work-around. The game forces you to improve as you go, and thus accept that dying, over and over again, is the only way to do so.
The Dark Souls II difference
Dark Souls II, however, has a few changes to the core mechanics that change the way the game judges death. In Dark Souls and Dark Souls III, the benefit from humanity is static. Being hollow or being human is a binary state – if you die, you become hollow, and you have to spend a humanity or an ember to reverse it and regain the advantages thereof.
In Dark Souls II, the game takes a different tactic. When you die for the first time you start becoming hollowed, and your maximum health goes down by 10% for each subsequent death until you’re only half as durable as you started. You return to 100% when you consume a Human Effigy, and the process starts over. Dying over and over has a cumulative penalty, which can hinder a starting player greatly. While there is an item in the game that caps the penalty at 25% health lost, it takes up a valuable inventory slot to equip, thus limiting your optimal effectiveness. In this way Dark Souls II is a harsher judge of player performance.
In addition, being hollow in Dark Souls II allows invasions from other players instead of the reverse in the other two games. The more times you’ve died, and thus the lower your health, the more likely you are to be invaded. This means the worse you’re doing in an area or against a boss, the more likely it is you will be invaded, and thus hampered further. By consuming a human effigy and reversing your hollowing you not only gain the benefit of being able to summon help, but also prevent invaders. This creates a significant desire to remain in human form as often as possible, but effigies are a limited resource. A novice player could easily find themselves stuck at 50% health, with no way to reverse their hollowing, being regularly invaded and unable to progress.
The other major difference in Dark Souls II is that, eventually, enemies will stop re-spawning. If a particular enemy is killed twelve times, when you die and return to the last checkpoint that enemy will no longer be there. This serves a dual-purpose. First, it means a player that is struggling with an area deep into a level can effectively clear out all of the earlier enemies and make their progress through the level easier. A player could even clear out every enemy, leaving the whole level empty except for the boss, thus allowing them to have multiple attempts at a boss without having to worry about the difficulty of the approach.
The double-edged sword of this mechanic is that a player cannot rely on a single, easy-to-defeat area to harvest a mass of souls so they can gain levels to make the next areas easier. Known as “farming,” this tactic is a safe-haven for novice players. They can keep fighting in one area as a way to practice, and a way to gain souls so they can improve their character’s statistics. Dark Souls II has an inherent way to prevent excessive farming, thus forcing a player into the next area whether they feel they are ready for it or not.
No matter which entry of the Dark Souls series you play, you will die, over and over. This is the only way to improve; the only way to learn the game, the mechanics, the movements, the controls, and the tactics is through trial and error. If you have the fortitude and patience, you will, over time, find things getting easier. Enemies that were a road block in your first hour of gameplay will be trivial by your tenth and a nuisance by your twentieth. The all-too familiar “You Died” will be replaced by the ever-increasing message of “Victory Achieved.”
By not having mechanics of permanent death or game-ending circumstances, Dark Souls encourages the player to keep trying. It is an upward climb, but an ultimately rewarding one. Through perseverance, and a lot of failure, the final boss can be met and the game won. Failure becomes a normal part of the process, and in that way, despite the game’s punishing difficulty, helps the player “get good.”
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