Dark Souls 2
An interesting question came up the other day while talking about dualism and the mind body problem, the idea that the brain isn’t all you need to create the human experience: as videogame characters are controlled by external entities with consciousness, does this mean that these characters too have consciousness? Put another way, am I the soul in the character I create in a game, and by extension, is someone else controlling me?
It might seem easy to dismiss this, but the more I think about From Software’s series of brutally hard “Souls” games, the more I think there might be something going on, subconsciously at least, in the designer’s minds: Dark Souls 2, like Dark Souls before it, like Demon’s Souls, is all about being human and the rights and responsibilities this begins. And when you realise that, well, it isn’t even subtle.
“We expect that death comes fast and Dark Souls 2 doesn’t disappoint”For one, “Humanity” exists in all of these worlds both as a race and as a token for collection, a badge of honour to be displayed. In the last game a counter proudly beamed our humanity as a number, with extra strength coming with each digit. Dark Souls 2 takes the opposite approach, showing a slow degradation in both visual appearance and the length of the health bar the further away from being human we become, the more hollow.
The protagonist of DS2 has been cursed. By who, or what, it is unclear. But this curse compels us to find a cure, for we are human, and human’s don’t lie down so easily and die. Thus the player must guide the protagonist across the lands of Drangelic, much more varied in their terrain than those of the past, seeking great souls to devour in order to see the king, but what is waiting in that throne room is a big surprise to say the least. On our journey we’ll see others roaming the land (or at least standing around, see below) many seemingly on similar missions. And from the start it seems like we might be special. But doesn’t everyone think like this?
So what if the poor beings in Dark Souls 2 were conscious? What they might think might go something like this: …there’s something lurking at the back of a cave. It doesn’t see us yet, but it easily could. And when it lumbers forward it might not relent. It might carry a giant hammer or the ability to close the gap in the blink of an eye. It might spit poison, it might have claws that cause bleeding. It might be afraid of the light from the torch, but can we spare the material to light it this far from a fire? And what if that doesn’t work?
So we expect that death comes fast and Dark Souls 2 doesn’t disappoint. Our life here is a gift timed in minutes. But we are not completely alone even in the darkest spots. Sometimes we see spirits, fleeting. We can read their messages that seem to span time, that might help us on your way, or might not. We watch pools of blood form that trap the final moments of those that have fallen. But we have all fallen. We are all here. We might even see a link to have these others cross into our world as friend or foe. Sometimes they come anyway. Some of them are other humans, or so we think, while some are controlled by the game.
A wise man wrote that when you die it’s the same as if everybody else did too. And in Dark Souls, you know, everybody does.
For all the talk about the sequel to From’s 2012 hit being made more accessible there is little to fear here on that count. To veterans of the previous games much is as expected, to someone coming to the series fresh it must feel like hell on earth. However in this game the difficulty felt as if it had a different focus to its predecessors. There were more times where it was hard to figure out what to do next or where to go. The term choke points would be apt: moments when the game put its hands around my throat and squeezed. Coupled with the multitude of different weapons and armour it can become overwhelming.
“Connection problems are minor issues in a game which at its heart is about being alone, but they are issues all the same”The difficulty is of course part of the appeal. But it is important to stay on the side of fair if trying to make a player think. I’d say that it isn’t really deliberate obfuscation in any case, but a symptom of a design team knowing their world too well and not considering how it appears to someone new. Something that should have been picked up in extensive play-testing, which was no doubt done in the main by people already enveloped by the lore. Even a tweak so simple as letting you know the name of the key you need for any given door would have helped; keys often aren’t stashed just around the corner here as in most other games.
Some of this is made worse by another design flaw: there seems to be so many items collected now that a mechanism is badly needed to track what has been seen before and what hasn’t. Plus the torch mechanic feels underused, perhaps because the portable light doesn’t affect the graphics the way preview screens suggested, so it is easy to leave it unlit until all of a sudden it becomes THE required item to make progress. Perhaps if the game had been released for PS4 it could have retained this graphical flair and dependence on the torch, but time will tell on this with the PC release right around the corner and no doubt a next generation upscale to come.
Also, at the time of writing, the online system often malfunctions. Summoning and being summoned can work just fine, or it can go through the motions and then kick you at one of several points in the process. These summons are often very helpful if not required for certain bosses, especially in new game plus where some of the ones that would be a cakewalk gain extra allies just to make things that much more difficult. As another illustration of the issue, if this isn’t a deliberate change from before, in two complete play-throughs I was only invaded by another player “dark spirit” one time, despite spending many hours in full human form (if for no other reason than despising the green flesh when cursed, i.e. vanity). Although welcome while learning the layout of several new and deadly areas, it’s a little bit surprising. Version 1.02 came out halfway through but didn’t seem to make much difference, 1.03 is on the way.
These connection problems are minor issues in a game which at its heart is about being alone, but they are issues all the same. It is very frustrating to have to wait around being summoned when there seems to be a decent chance of instant disconnect and then another long load while you return to your world. Another annoyance I came across was that the target tracking seems to be off (though very rarely for some of the giants who can spin on the spot and smash you as you try and strafe them) and this makes some of the weapons less useful than others. Hopefully all of this will be addressed.
On the other hand, some of the changes work for the better. For one, a much appreciated improvement is the repair system where now weapons automatically renew at a bonfire rest, and even if they break they can be easily fixed by a blacksmith. Another appreciated change but overall one that I am neutral on is the fast-travel system, which works from the start and is never taken away. While there is something to be said of having to trek back through danger to get to the right merchant, even Dark Souls switched it up after a certain point. But the original Dark Souls was also far better at connecting its world and allowing shortcuts to open. It’s a tricky balance, but absolutely needed here when coupled with the need to level up using an NPC (as in Demon’s Souls) rather than at any point of rest. However most of the bonfires here are too close to the bosses and it takes some of the risk/reward immersion away when the clear incentive is to warp out and level up whenever the souls in your possession grow.
In this way, Dark Souls 2 is very much a game of the past generation. The world doesn’t feel very alive or very real compared to recent games. Although some of the earlier stages do have wandering enemies, the later mostly stand in space while you approach. Merchants sit around waiting for you, too, betraying the fact that you are their only customer, repeating the same lines over and again. A trap is set and then reset. Nothing ever learns. Nothing changes. That is until after ten deaths when any given monsters seem to simply pack up their teeth and nails and disappear.
“We long for these moments of triumph, for the moments when we display mastery over those beneath us, those mere machines, those lines of code”Whether deliberately old fashioned, or not, this is a callous game, for sure. It is easy to get impossibly stuck and spend hour upon hour on one boss or area, gradually running out of humanity, running out of hope. So why do we do this? Why return? To me, Dark Souls is somewhat ironically more about light rather than the absence of it. More, it is about the rekindling of the light, the flame from within that we carry and collect. It is about humanity destroying the world, carrying our curse, and it is thus no surprise that its mythology resonates. Remember the choice of endings in Dark Souls? Remember trying to decide which was “right”? There is no such choice here, but nonetheless the conclusion makes perfect, bitter, sense when it comes. And then it all begins again.
So we keep at it for the time when we do conquer the demon, or the dragon, or the impossibly spindly giant. We long for these moments of triumph, for the moments when we display mastery over those beneath us, those mere machines, those lines of code. We do it because we ARE human, we are in control, at least we hope. We are the soul within the game, and no virtual deaths can take that away. We play and play again because we can’t stop. We can wait forever for our moment, even though, ironically, our own lives too run out. We wait for the moment when we just avoid the crashing blade and snap back, when we discover a boss can be parried, can be stabbed in the back, can be laughed at from afar as it’s peppered with hexes. This is what makes Dark Souls 2 so special. It is of us, and within us. If we are its soul, then it is our heart, an essential game to stoke the fading embers of generation last.