Sunday, January 1, 2012

30 Minutes with Dark Souls

I didn’t really believe it, but I get it now.

I recently spent some time discussing cruelty in current-gen games, and a friend asked why I had left out Dark Souls. The truth is that I hadn’t played it (or spiritual predecessor Demon’s Souls). After a single half-hour session with the game, I’m beginning understand why my post got him thinking about it. I haven’t encountered any actual cruelty yet (i.e., situations that have rendered a playthrough entirely unwinnable), but I can safely say that Dark Souls ranks among the most hostile games I’ve ever played.

The game’s unwelcoming attitude toward the player runs so deep that even before the game began it was clear that I was on enemy turf. When the initial options menu and character creation screens forced me to use the XBox 360 controller’s D-pad instead of the left control stick, I actually found myself wondering if it was already passive-aggressively trying to show me who was boss.

30 minutes later, my bloodstain (along with all of my collected souls and whatever else I dropped) now sits in a room with the huge Asylum Demon, who took me out during our second encounter after a surprisingly close battle. It was the second time I had died, but my first time dying in a room with a thing that I didn’t particularly want to go back and have to fight again. As far as I know my things are all still in there, waiting for me to fight my way back and claim them. After respawning, I turned the game off (not out of frustration, but in an effort to bring my heart rate down out of the cardio zone).

One hears the word “evil” thrown around a lot with regard to this game, and as strong as it is, it’s a pretty appropriate descriptor. The lack of any tutorial beyond superbrief fighting instructions occasionally scribbled along the path (As an aside, I’m really supposed to just remember these button combinations? Is this a fighting game?) leaves the novice player feeling isolated and alone—I’m as utterly unsure of the rules of this universe as I am about what lies in wait.

All that, and I’ve been thinking about it all day long.

So bring it, Dark Souls. After years of namby-pamby checkpoints and un-droppable quest items it’s good to find a game that doesn’t take me for granted. It’s good to have an enemy.
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