Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Dark Souls II: The Death of a Dream
The recent announcement of preorder bonus items for Dark Souls II disturbs me on multiple levels. Superficially, I'm concerned that certain players will gain an unfair advantage (which they essentially bought) by wielding these weapons, undermining the "achievement through perseverance" ethic that defines the Souls series. But more deeply, I'm troubled by what the bonus says is happening to the series.
I won't beat around the bush, but state straight-out what I mean. The Souls series seems to be being stripped of it's grassroots character. Instead, it is being transformed into a market-driven commodity that is more concerned with profit than it is with the integrity of its game world.
This shift from fan-base to corporate-base has been presaged by several announcements leading up to the preorder bonus. First, the maker's (From Software) partnership with the conglomerate Namco-Bandai for the sequel was ominous. Then, the director's mention of increased "accessibility" set off bells warning of corporate meddling. Many were later assuaged when journalists started reporting that the game was still difficult. But shortly after this, a bombshell hit when From revealed that Dark Souls II would feature voice-chat and mechanisms for facilitating co-op with friends, both changes in design which seemed to go against the core aesthetic of isolation that defined the earlier games.
The preorder bonus is thus just the most recent indication of the series losing its soul. More specifically, it is one of many signs pointing to the intrusion of for-profit ideologies into the very core of the game where once they did not exist.
In Dark Souls, for example, there was the Drake Sword. Though it could be acquired early in the game and would give players a distinct advantage, it was an in-game item only. It could only be acquired through gameplay, either discovering oneself or learning about it through others. The pre-order items are of another class. They are purchased by the player before the game even begins, not played for. The fact that you can also find the items in game (as From has stated) doesn't change this.
The difference is this: the Drake Sword was not COMMODIFIED. The preorder bonus items are commodified. The Drake Sword was a special item whose acquisition was completely bounded and contained within the artistic unity of the game and the free community of players that grew up around it. The preorder bonus comes from a system of values external to the game world and its community, a space governed by capital, i.e., private ownership, profit, and marketing, which the game community has little to no direct control over.
The contrast here between pure in-game items and pre-release DLC is of course one that has been the subject of much debate. For the Souls series in particular, however, it poses a special threat to one of its defining attributes: its community-led distribution. The Souls series has one of the most active communities in gaming history. Its success has largely been driven by a fan base motivated by personal passions rather than profit. The preorder bonus betokens a turning point in which that collective, community-based ownership of the series' past is being subordinated to the private aims of its corporate future.
The signs of this sea change are written all over the wall. Many of the game's most prolific and established community members have already been co-opted. Epic Name Bro, one the biggest voices in the community, has been officially silenced due to his paid work on a forthcoming strategy guide. Another major contributor known for his lore videos, VaatiVidya, after being invited by Namco-Bandai to try out a preview demo of the game, is now effectively doing PR videos for the company in which he dismisses legitimate concerns about the questionable changes to the series and tells fans to go preorder the game now! Other prominent community members have been invited to special preview events that subtly pressure them to talk up the game afterwards. Whereas once these people were free to express themselves as individuals within the community, they are now in part owned by and serve the corporate interests taking charge of the game.
It's sad that this is happening. Some might say it was inevitable. The Souls series could be said to be victim of its own success. The pure, genuine love of fans that propelled Demons' Souls and Dark Souls to Game of the Year status has come to the attention of capital and it is working hard to convert that affection into cash. We all know how it will end. The people that see Dark Souls II as a way to make money will never understand what made the game such a hit without their big advertising budgets and market research. They'll simply cannibalize the good-will of the fans until nothing is left but a hollow husk.
So begins the death of a dream in which art triumphs over greed. It was certainly nice while it lasted.