Games of this generation are known notoriously for hand-holding and giving the player very little opportunity to think about their choices or the consequences. Failure within video games is representative not of a lack of understanding but of failure to subject yourself to the whims of the creators. If an objective is given and you fail to follow it, that’s game over; the player often has no choice but to accept this. 2011’s Dark Souls, an open world role-playing game out of Japan, throws away the notion of linearity and presents the player with an experience that they must go on much, like their avatar within the game does. It is an experience full of choice and consequence, ultimately testing not only the player’s morality but their willingness to accept the concept of life and death.
Dark Souls is famously known for being the hardest game of this generation out of sheer design. You are nobody, a weakling regardless of starting class or race. When you find yourself mysteriously sprung from prison on an island high up in the sky swarming with mindless undead, the player is given the chance to escape this hellhole. The thing is, there is no objective flashing at the top of the screen; there are no arrows guiding you to the next waypoint. It is the player’s initiative to move forward, to open the door to their prison cell and step out into the unforgiving world where almost everything is ready to kill you.
Dark Souls’ world is persistent. There are no save points, no moments where you can just reload if something goes awry. Choices are permanent. The people you meet will remember what you have done, whether for good or for bad. Will you decide to help them or betray them? The game never tells you what to do or where to go. It never gives you a single hint. It is through the interactions between the very few sane characters you meet that the world starts to open up and you learn more about it. After escaping the prison you meet somebody who tells you that two bells must be rung, one high above in a church and one far below, beneath the earth, and that is all. The game gives you a choice, but does not tell you which of these is better, which of these is the right one, because there is no right choice. It wants you to explore and investigate the world by your own curiosity, not an artificial one. It becomes apparent that one is the smarter, easier choice, but only after trial and error. Only after the player experiences death do they learn.
Death is as integral part of Dark Souls as life. Death is inevitable. There will be many times where adversity will overcome the player for a multitude of reasons. Death is not meant as punishment, either. Death is a way of teaching, a way the game allows the player to learn about what is and isn’t dangerous. Through the constant reminder of death the player can overcome obstacles, because they will have learned. When the player dies they return to the last bonfire they rested at. The bonfire represents life and safety, but they are hidden and infrequent. When a player does die they have the opportunity to return to the spot they were slain and regain their lost power in the form of souls and humanity. Again, the game does not force this and quite honestly does not care. There is yet another choice, an opportunity even, to regain what you have lost and continue on, having been educated by past experiences. It is all up to the player what to do.
Souls and humanity are two of the most important parts of the game. When monsters are defeated the player will gain a certain number of souls and sometimes a little bit of humanity. Souls are what fuel player progression. Souls can be spent to level up attributes like strength or endurance, allowing your character to hit harder or wear heavier armor. Souls also serve as the basis for the economy. In a land filled with undead and demons people are only willing to accept souls for their services, and they will have the player pay a hefty amount. This strikes a tenuous balance within the gameplay; people, even the player, demand souls, but to die means losing all accumulated souls, and death is a very frequent event.
Humanity is as much a commodity as it is a concept in Dark Souls. In the world everyone is undead, though some still have their sanity and are even willing to help the player. These people have “humanity.” Humanity (in its raw, tangible form) can be found on the corpses of those who didn’t make it or rarely found on the bodies of those you have slain, but it can always be found with those who still have it (that have the very essence of humanity). Unlike souls being the dollar bill of the world, humanity is something more, something not always concrete. When a player dies they lose their outward humanity and return as an undead husk. When this happens, they can spend some of their “collected humanity” to become human again. Again, it is part of the tradeoff. Being human presents many benefits, but also opens up far greater dangers. And to die while being human is one of the most tragic moments in Dark Souls.
Dark Souls is very much a multiplayer game, though not in the traditional sense. Throughout play you will see ghosts or apparitions moving about. You will come across little messages on the ground, usually warnings or signals of treasure. The ghosts are people, other players in the world. The messages are written by them, sometimes to help and sometimes to hinder. Dark Souls brilliantly meshes together a multiplayer component that doesn’t force you to interact with anyone directly, but assures you that you are never alone, even at the game’s darkest and most tense moments. If a player chooses, however, they can become human and summon other players to their world by summon signs located on the ground. Only people who have explicitly placed these signs on the ground will be summoned, so there is never a moment where you are forced to help somebody. When another player is summoned they usually wave or bow, representing peace and cooperation. There is no voice chat or typing in Dark Souls. There is an in game emote system that conveys the most basic elements of emotion, and the game has the players do what they will with that. Imagine you and all the other players as mute, only able to communicate through signals or hand gestures.
Now, the game does not force multiplayer, but you will never be prepared for the first time your world is invaded. Becoming human allows you to cooperate with other players, but also allows them to invade you and ultimately try to kill you. This can happen at any moment and in any area of the game so long as you remain human, the point being that the invaders are coming to take away your humanity.
Many people have shied away from this game. They question what the point is, why they would want to play a game that will just make them angry. What does it have for them? It is unforgiving, ruthless, and will probably frustrate many. There is no direct storytelling, with the game relying on environmental storytelling. Characters will fill you in on plot details, but very scarcely so. Nobody is designed to be a storyteller because everyone has their own story to tell, not one of an overarching plot. The experience lies in the exploration. People you have met may end up dead later on, and the player would have no way of knowing besides a vague memento on their corpse. Characters aren’t always willing to tell you things, and often go insane if you don’t interact with them enough. The player is looking for answers just as much as the characters in the game. It is an experience unlike any other, one that tests true patience but rewards those who are willing to learn and accept that death is okay, and through death comes life.