Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Why Dark Souls Is So Hard

Before playing the Souls games, if someone would have told me that they wanted to design a game that was not only difficult, but also would force players to repeat lengthy sections of game already played through after dying, I would have said it was a bad idea. That sort of game-design, I thought, was an inferior relic of the past. That's how NES games were made. And that was an unfortunate consequence of the technology of the time, not a virtue. Forcing players to repeat challenging sections of a game today is just unnecessarily punishing and would result in nothing more than pain and frustration.

All that is actually true. But what I forgot (until I played Demon's Souls) was that those old NES games, with all their faults, achieved something that modern games have lost sight of. Along with the pain and frustration comes powerful feelings, including fear, anxiety, excitement, and elation. These emotions are not produced by narrative (storytelling, cinematic, etc.), but by the game design itself in which difficulty and punishment play an integral part.

The Souls series is infamous for their killer difficulty, and plenty of people have claimed this as part of its charm and what makes it so unique and fun. The thing is, I think people tend to get this slightly wrong when they describe the design principle at play. People like to say that it's all about the joy of overcoming a challenge. Actually, I think it's more like the relief that comes from conquering a fear. In other words, Souls games are more about the things that take place within, rather than without.

You see, when you make it to the Tower Knight, the effect of his massive frame depends a great deal on the fact that you've just survived a gauntlet of crossbowmen, armored knights, snarling dogs, and a fire-breathing dragon. That battle was tough enough, and no doubt, you've probably died more than once on your way. Passing through that last fog-gate, all this struggle fleshes out and frames the impending confrontation, giving it special meaning. Essentially, it invests the Tower Knight with the power to punish you, i.e., the power to send you back all the way to the beginning of the level. The consequence of this is real tension. You know that the Tower Knight can do more that just bash your character with his giant spear. Much more significantly, he can demolish what you've accomplished up to this point. And that is far more intimidating.

It's interesting to think about how much bigger-budget games try to evoke feelings from the players through dynamic set-pieces, compelling narratives, and professional voice actors. The aim of these devices is to draw the player in, and in certain cases, they prove effective. But Dark Souls and Demon's Souls achieve a deep immersion by simply giving the player a real stake in the outcome of in-game events. The difference here is that narrative conventions can only invest players in illusory goals (save the world, for example, that exist outside the player), while Souls games invest the player in goals that pertain to his/her actual self (master your fear and defeat the boss or be banished to the beginning and lose your progress).

I think this is a principle of game-design that reveals itself in many parts of the Souls games. It makes sense, for example, that narrative is largely absent from the games. Bits and pieces can be discovered through item descriptions and NPC dialogues. But nothing resembling a story with a plot is presented at any point. As a result, players invent their own stories for what is taking place, which makes them own what takes place in the game in a way that a narrative-driven game cannot. The same logic applies to the lack of explanation regarding game-mechanics. You have to discover these things on your own, and as a result, these discoveries become part of your self, and thus further immerse you into the game world.

Of course, none of this would work if the game were not fundamentally well-made. Crushing difficulty turns into apathy or despair if the world it takes place in doesn't have an underlying consistency. The Souls games have this, and so they succeed where other difficult games fail. The tools for survival must be present to you from the beginning, and the basic rules of the game must never change. Dark Souls and Demon's Souls maintain this contract with the player at virtually all times, and as a result, the player has faith in his ability to persevere to the end.

So to all those interested individuals wondering if they should try one of these games (but feeling a little intimidated by all the talk of difficulty), understand that such feelings are the point. You're supposed to feel intimidated, when you play these games. This is also the reward, because these negative emotions tie in directly to the positive ones you will experience after you overcome your fear.

The only downside to this structure is that Souls games are never so good as the first time you play them. No matter how many NG+'s you play to, the Tower Knight will never be quite be so terrifying as he was on NG. The same goes for Ornstein and Smough and the Four Kings. Sure, they get "harder," in the sense that they hit harder and have more health. But the "hardness" of the Souls games is really only in service to the feelings that they evoke, and those feelings also depend on the dread that comes from knowing what's behind you and NOT knowing what's coming next.

I'm looking forward to Dark Souls II, but am also wondering if it will provide the same highs that the other Souls games did. I played the beta, and it was certainly challenging. But, though I like the open-world design of Dark Souls, I feel the bonfire system sometimes undermines the tension of boss fights by making it too easy to return to them after dying. In some ways, Demon's Souls did this better. What do you think? Can Dark Souls II bring back those feelings of terror and triumph elicited by its predecessors?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Dark Souls and The Legacy of The Legend of Zelda II

People often ask about the relationship between Dark Souls and The Legend of Zelda series. Are they similar? Is Dark Souls a modern day equivalent of Zelda? In what ways are they different? And so on. Experienced players are typically dismissive of the comparison. They are quick to point out how much easier The Legend of Zelda games are compared to the crushing difficulty of Dark Souls. They stress how Dark Souls' combat is precise and tactical while Zelda's is loose and imprecise, or how Dark Souls is dark and Zelda is not, or how Dark Souls is cryptic and mysterious and Zelda is not. The overall message being that Dark Souls has little to do with Zelda.

It seems to me that this attitude reflects a lack of perspective concerning the Zelda series. Perhaps others are thinking of games such as Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, or Skyward Sword. No doubt, these games are a far cry from Dark Souls. But are the naysayers thinking of or remembering Zelda II: The Adventure of Link when pooh-poohing the comparison? I don't think they are. Because if they were, they would not be so dismissive.

Here's why. Zelda II is hard, really hard, and unforgiving as hell. The game regularly throws enemies at you that are both aggressive and devastating. These foes are tricky and each requires unique tactics to overcome. Zelda II has no qualms about forcing you to pass through gauntlet after gauntlet of such opponents with no respite along the way. And Zelda II will tear all your experience points away from you when you die in these battles--which you will, a lot.

Let me give you an example. Death Mountain: you may have encountered this location in other Zelda games, but you have no idea what it means in Zelda II unless you've played it. You go up against it pretty early in. Essentially, it's a maze of caves filled with bats, fire-breathing dragon skulls, and axe tossing beasts, among other fiends, that will murder you in a heartbeat. There are no clues about what direction you should be taking and no checkpoints to save your progress along the way. The design, moreover, is simply sadistic. You'll attack a slow moving creature on the ground only to be suddenly knocked back by a flying bat which then opens you to the attack of the slow moving bugger you were about to complacently kill. In another segment of the mountains, the game puts you in a narrow corridor guarded by a psychotic dino-soldier who charges you down. Each encounter is tense and requires thinking on your feet as well as strategic planning upon return visits. Because you will die, many times, in those caves.

Dying hurts in Zelda II. Not only do all the enemies you killed re-spawn, you also lose all your experience points that you gained by defeating baddies. Those points are gone, forever. And it's a major blow. The experience points are your only means for leveling up your abilities (strength, defense, and magic). Without them, you face a much steeper challenge with later-stage enemies.

Sound familiar? Indeed, it should. Zelda II, like Dark Souls, is a constant struggle against the system, an endurance match against the toughest of adversaries in a game world where death has real consequences. You die and you lose what you've accumulated. What souls are to Dark Souls, points are to Zelda II. The main difference between them being that Dark Souls is more forgiving because it at least gives you a chance to retrieve your souls by returning to the site of your execution.

Combat in Zelda II is likewise deep and meaningful. It doesn't feature equipment loads or scaling damage. It's more basic than that. You start with sword and shield. You have a standing thrust, a kneeling thrust, and a jump attack. Later you add a down-stab and an up-stab as well as a number of spells. Despite the simplicity of this arrangement, the depth of combat is surprisingly good. You really have to think and strategize your approach to each enemy. The complexity of enemy attacks isn't cheap or unfair because the controls are so tight. Precision timing is both possible and essential. When you die, it's never because the game is poorly designed. It's because you made a mistake which you need to learn from and try again.

Other similarities exist between Zelda II and Dark Souls on the aesthetic level. Defeating a boss in Zelda II brings the same profound sense of satisfaction that it does in Dark Souls. Getting to the boss always involves a grueling battle through his palace and its many guardians. So once you finally make it to the big-bad, your heart is pounding with the thought of having to pass through that meat-grinder all over again if you fail (which you probably will). Each boss itself is unique and requires special tactics to defeat. Figuring out an effective approach is half the battle. But the challenge adds to the emotional impact of the fight, so that when you finally overcome it, you feel like you've really accomplished something through your determination and skill.

Zelda II is also quite dark. From the opening title screen to the game over message filled with Gannon's laughing voice, everything oozes foreboding. The overworld is creepy. The towns are eerie. The people are like lifeless zombies. There's no place in Zelda II where you feel relaxed or at peace. The menace of the game fills every moment with a haunting dread. And yet, much like Dark Souls, you feel compelled to dwell in this space despite how unwelcoming it feels.

I have to mention the NPC's as well. Their cryptic hints such as, "If all else fails, use fire," or "I am Error," are equal to Dark Souls must obscure moments.

Without a doubt, there are many important differences between the two titles. But these two games share a deep kinship at their cores that involves complex, demanding, and serious gameplay defined by uncompromising difficulty, tight sword and sorcery combat controls, unguided exploration, and foreboding atmosphere. You end up walking away with the same feeling by playing either game because of this shared ethos. In a way, Zelda II is an ancestor to Dark Souls that represents the newer game in incipient form.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dark Souls 2 Beta Impressions

After two rounds of the North American online beta test for Dark Souls 2, a number of details (some factual, others suggestive) have revealed themselves to players. Many of the established changes in the game (progressive health bar reductions, invasions whether one is human or hollow, dual-wielding) have been discussed extensively by others (cf. the Dark Souls 2 thread on Reddit). In this post, I want to focus on some more speculative insights I've gleaned from the beta experience.

One thing that stands out to me in the beta is that From seems to have rethought the mechanics of PvP. A new (or revisited, depending on how you see it--more in a second) emphasis on stunning/breaking your opponents guard seems to be in effect. Using a longsword, I found that a successful hit with that weapon would momentarily stun the target, providing an opening to land several more hits. The same thing would happen to my character when an opponent successfully landed a hit from his weapon.

Some people are (pejoratively) referring to this dynamic as the return of "stun-locking" from Demon's Souls, in which players were able to hold an opponent captive with repeated strikes from which the only escape was a glitch called "toggle-escape." I, however, really liked the new mechanic and thought it really sharpened the relative advantages of wielding larger or smaller weapons. Each battle felt more like a deadly dance, waiting for the right time to land a blow. Because a successful strike prevents the target from immediately retaliating, greater significance is given to precise and calculated timing, and the new, slowed-down pace of attacks in the beta heightens this. It's also not a cheap and easy victory for whoever gets the first lucky strike. A revised stamina meter (which depletes quite rapidly) prevents you from getting more than a few hits on your opponent before you run out of steam. In other words, no indefinite "stun-locking" here is possible.

Another development I noticed in my playthroughs concerns boss design. Many players are complaining that the bosses in the beta were too easy. While I agree that they weren't the most challenging bosses every thrown in the player's path in the Souls series, I think this complaint misses what is most significant about these bosses. If the bosses in the beta weren't Ornstein and Smough part 2, they both set themselves apart  from the bosses of Dark Souls by involving the player in unique gameplay mechanics that were largely absent from that game (but were more evident in Demon's Souls).

Whereas many of the Dark Souls bosses seemed to be cut from the same cloth (and by this I mean they all involved essentially the same gameplay mechanic of timed dodging and striking. See my post on Demon's Souls vs. Dark Souls for more), the bosses in the beta were each uniquely designed and pressed for unique responses from the player. In the case of of the skeleton lord, it was important for the player to utilize his/her environment to both provide cover from attacks as well as space and break-up the assault of the enemy horde. In the fight against the charioteer boss environment and enemy design once again meshed, but this time to create a different experience. The circular corridor with alcoves led to a more patient style of play involving observing and waiting. The pauses in movement caused by the passing of the charioteer brilliantly created a moment in which players were inspired to leave clues for others. Eventually, you found the "trick" to stop the charioteer, after which a tense battle between you and an undead stallion commenced.

Now, I'm not saying these are the best bosses battles ever conceived in a Souls game. My point is that they point to a new emphasis on making the boss battles unique encounters that stand out from regular play. Personally, I like this direction and am excited to see more.

The last thing I would like to discuss is the matter of difficulty modes. In the last hour of the beta test on Nov. 10, a bulletin was streamed at the top of the screen stating the beta was now entering "high difficulty mode." Some have wondered, anxiously, if this is some indication that Dark Souls 2 will feature optional difficulty settings. We were assured by the game's developers that Dark Souls 2 would feature no easy mode. But they never said it wouldn't have a hard mode!

In my opinion, I don't think the higher difficulty "mode" indicates a difficulty setting will be present in the next Dark Souls game. First, the exact message streamed was this:

The "High Difficulty Mode" will be performed from now. This is to test the difficulty balance. This test will be used for the difficulty setting verification later. Thank you for your cooperation.

Notice that the term High Difficulty Mode is in scare quotes. The function of scare quotes is the distance the author from the usual meaning of a word or phrase. It's like saying, "I don't really mean this." Second, incorporating a high difficulty setting (rather than an easy mode)  might not go against what From has promised if we take that promise in the utmost literal way, but doing so would be so blatantly manipulative and abusive that I don't think From would go there.

Then again, the square quotes argument depends upon whoever sent the message knowing its correct usage. More and more native English speakers seem to lack an understanding of it and I've seen them misused on many occasions as markers of emphasis (as if they were italics), and to quite hilarious effects. For example, I once drove by a billboard for a restaurant that advertised its "good coffee." Whoever did it, clearly thought they were highlighting the term. But technically they were communicating that they didn't actually think their coffee was good (or that it was a euphemism for something else). Judging by the bulletin's odd grammar ("will be performed from now"), it's hard to put too much faith in the meaning of the scare quotes.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Demon's Souls Better than Dark Souls: A Unique Perspective

I've recently returned to playing Demon's Souls after being enamored of Dark Souls for months, and I have to say (though I didn't think it while playing Dark Souls) that in important ways, Demon's Souls is the better game.

Now I know this topic has been discussed endlessly, and I've been reading various threads on it, and though I've read lots comparing the games in terms of graphics, atmosphere, and nexus vs bonfires, I haven't found anyone articulating what I perceive to be major differences in enemy design.

In brief, Demon's Souls has superior enemy design. The superiority comes from the fact that there are so many enemies in the game that require very unique and thoughtful responses on the part of the player. By contrast, Dark Souls tends to throw enemies at the player that all require the same basic responses that are more twitch based than cerebral.

Case in point, the Mind Flayers in Demon's Souls. Successfully combating them requires using the environment to your advantage and monitoring their patrol patterns and than finding the right moment to leap out from the shadows and strike them down. When you get to 3-1, you haven't encountered anything like this yet, and as result, most players are quickly shown that the direct confrontation they used with other enemies doesn't work in this case. You have to stop and think and deliberately plan your moves well in advance.

When you consider the bosses of Demon's Souls, this intellectual component of the game comes through even stronger. Many of the bosses in Demon's require you to find a weakness in your opponent and use it to your advantage.

The Tower Knight is monstrously big, but his size is also his liability. You realize it and run between his legs and attack from behind. Remember that oh-so satisfying sound when his heel decompresses? That was the satisfying confirmation that you've solved part of the enigma that his hulking frame represents. Other bosses, such as Fool's Idol, Flamelurker, the Maneaters, Phalanx, Penetrator, and Old Hero, continue this idea of boss as complex problem by throwing the player into unique situations that call for unique, thoughtful responses.

When does this happen in Dark Souls? The archers at Anor Londo could be an example. Ornstein and Smough and the Bell Gargoyles are definitely brilliantly designed boss battles that stand up to anything in Demon's. But beyond these examples, I feel there isn't much more to find. Too many of the boss battles (and regular enemies as well) in the game devolve into the same set of tactics of rolling and attacking, attacking and rolling. They almost never make you really pause and consider your situation thoughtfully. Instead, you are encouraged memorize and attune your unconscious twitch reactions until you are good enough to dodge the bosses attacks and hit him during his opening. This is an inherently weaker and less creative approach to boss design, and it makes the bosses less rewarding to engage with.

I think the Knight Artorias exemplifies this problem well. He's tough as nails and can kill you in a heartbeat. You have to learn his attack patterns and master the timing for dodging them and find the moments when you can strike back at him. It's fun, it's intense, but at the end of the day, when you triumph over Artorias, you don't feel like you've outsmarted him, you've just out-practiced him. You've ingrained his moveset so deeply into your psyche through repetition that you respond to his attacks without thought. Too many bosses in Dark Souls fall into this mold of mindless reaction. And it's never as fun as, for example, the pure joy that comes from the moody and methodical encounter with the Fool's Idol, with its tricks and traps and the multiple solutions to them that only mindful play can uncover.