The DNA of Dark Souls: the challenge and death

By David Craddock, Apr 15, 2013 12:00pm PDT

Editor's Note: In the first part of Dark Souls DNA, we locked the hub world structure used in Demon's Souls in a steel cage along with the seamless world layout of Dark Souls and let them battle it out. In part two, we discuss perhaps the most important element of any Souls game, the element that will make or break Dark Souls 2: the challenge.


Most game tutorials are designed to teach players the controls. X reloads, A jumps, clicking the left mouse button pops off a shot. Demon's Souls' tutorial is designed to teach you that you will die. If you manage to slash and claw your way to the tutorial boss, he can strike you down in one hit, maybe two. Survive, and the game transports you to a dungeon where a dragon punches you in the face for an instant kill. Dark Souls was just as brutal, depositing players in a starting area where the most obvious path, one leading down to a graveyard, pitted them against enemies far beyond their abilities so early in the game.

The harshest punishment players can experience in a Souls game is dying not once, but twice. When the player dies, a bloodstain appears. That bloodstain holds the player's souls, experience points that double as currency. Players can reclaim those souls if they make it back to the bloodstain without dying. But there's a catch. All the enemies you defeated also get a new lease on life, making the journey to bloodstains quite the nail-biter.

And that's the hook that reels Demon's and Dark Souls players back in time and time again. In most games, dying means reloading my last save file until I can skate through encounters without a scratch. Dying feels like... well, like playing a game. In Souls games, I am the character. My heart rate picks up. My palms grow sweaty. If I die before reclaiming my dropped souls, I haven't just lost experience points. I've lost time spent earning those souls, real hours that I'll never get back. "The game is telling you, 'This is literally you," said Shacker JohnathanDoe. "How would you react and play if you were thrown into this world and know nothing about it?'"

Rushing forward means certain death, even against only two enemies.

"The Souls games have finality. Your actions have meaning," Shacker NastyJack chimed in. "The first time I played Dark Souls an NPC named Patches pushed me down a hole. He'd done this to me before in Demon's Souls. I sat there honestly a good five minutes debating whether to kill him or not. I knew that if I did I'd never see him again, but he so obviously deserved it that in the end I had to do it. I didn't get him as a merchant later that game and that's fine because I had made the choice I wanted to make."

What's the deal, then? Why would any gamer play such punishing games for any reason other than bragging rights? Simple. On the first night I played Demon's Souls, it took me nine hours and over a dozen deaths to finish the first level. In most games, my frustration over so many deaths would have spelled certain doom for my defenseless controller and an arbitrary patch of living room wall.

But Demon's and Dark Souls don't suffer from the same flaws as games that claim to be "difficult" when they're actually "cheap." They are firm but fair. Of the many times I died that first time out in Demon's Souls, I couldn't place the blame on shoddy camera work, unresponsive controls, or impossible odds. Every misstep was my fault, and that drove me onward. I kept playing because I wanted to conquer my own shortcomings, and every time I did, I felt a tremendous rush of exultation that no game has been able to match. No game except Dark Souls, that is.

So, which is the more difficult game: Demon's Souls, or Dark Souls? I could run through a laundry list that makes arguments for either or, but that wouldn't prove anything. The takeaway, the element that will make or break Dark Souls 2, is that challenges in a Souls game can be vicious, but they must also be fair so that victory tastes all the sweeter.

"The challenge of the game not only puts players on edge while they play, it also gives you an incredible sense of achievement when you finally succeed," said Shacker Gwyndion. "I think a lot of modern games are afraid to give players a real challenge, but these games do and they do not apologize for it (and they don't let up). When you finally beat that boss after failing time and time again... the rush and feeling of accomplishment is very intense." Grumbeld agreed, saying, "I also appreciated the epic boss battles. I had no clue how I'd manage to take a few of them out, and I felt like a tiny god when I did. Specific bosses would be the Tower Knight in Demon's Souls and the Gaping Dragon in Dark Souls. These massive creatures made me feel small and insignificant."

Toppling the Tower Knight is one of the sweetest accomplishments in Demon's Souls.

Neither Demon's nor Dark Souls ever drops a mountain in your path without giving you the tools to climb it. "Being toxic or being cursed [in Dark Souls] is just a situation the game makes you deal with," said NastyJack. "With toxicity you're going to get that pure panic moment where your health is draining and you've got to manage your Estus or [teleport] back to a bonfire to cure yourself. With curses the game slaps you in the face with 50% health and then tells you to deal with it. And you do because it's perfectly possible. Everyone gets cursed and everyone deals with it and then they try their best not to let it happen again. This is how Dark Souls challenges you."

After announcing Dark Souls 2 in late 2012, new series directors Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura stated that they wanted to make the game more accessible to new players. Their remarks caused fans to worry that their favorite hardcore game might be toned down. Following last Wednesday's Dark Souls 2 gameplay reveal, Tanimura-san assured players that the sequel won't suffer the indignity of an easy mode. However, even I, a devout Souls fan, can admit that both Demon's and Dark can be difficult in unnecessary ways.

Dark Souls suffers from technical issues such as the occasional shoddy camera angle and slowdown. Those issues crop up in many games from time to time, but they're especially aggravating in Souls games. Knowing that I messed up is critical in compelling me to try and try again until I master the part that gave me trouble. If a Souls game screws me over, it's just another buggy game that invalidated all the hours I spent becoming a better player.

Blighttown's rampant slowdown and camera issues made it more frustrating than fun for many players.

One area where both games could use some work is the "less is more" approach used to explain game systems. Shacker ConfusedUs agreed. "The game doesn't need to continually hold the player's hands, but would it be so bad to put the training wheels on for a bit longer? To make the basic rules of the game more obvious? No, it would not. Far, far too many players have given up on the Souls games because they hit a wall early. These walls are artificial, the result of a lack of information."

Many gamers get off on the fog that Demon's and Dark Souls casts over their systems, claiming that discovering those systems is a part of mastering the games. I agree, but only to a point. During my first time playing Demon's Souls, I consumed most boss souls, which give you thousands of souls you can use to level-up and buy equipment. I didn't realize until halfway through the game that boss souls were also used to forge unique weapons, spells, and miracles--but only after first handing over a specific Demon's soul to the blacksmith in World 2-1.

Because the game didn't make me aware of the more productive way to using boss souls, my first character missed out on crafting all sorts of goodies that would have made my experience more fun. Dark Souls corrected that mistake; the description of each boss soul states that it can be used to "acquire a huge amount of souls, or to create a unique weapon." You might miss that description if you don't take the time to examine the items in your inventory, but that's your fault, not the game's.

Anor Londo is one of the most challenging areas in Dark Souls, but the rewards justify the tribulations.

Dark Souls 2's directors have a fine line to walk in balancing their game, but the notion of firm-but-fair should light their path through development as brightly as a torch in a pitch-black cavern. There's something to be said for a game dropping us into its world without a map or a compass, but is such an approach part of a Souls game's challenge? I don't think so. Knowing how to use a boss soul is one thing, but feeling like I climbed Mount Everest when "YOU DEFEATED" flashes on the screen? That's the real fun.

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