Sponsored By

Dark Souls: The Performatism of Dying... a lot

How dying a lot is important -- beyond just being frustrating.

Joshua Adam, Blogger

March 15, 2017

4 Min Read

I figure my first post may as well be on a game that is still collectively (even if not ubiquitously) gushed over and mythologized. Or, more importantly, shows my methodology as a possible proof of concept (or failures depending on perspective...).

And for further clarification: I will be talking primarily about the Dark Souls series and not include "Demon's Souls" or "Bloodborne." Nothing against them aside from the fact that I, alas, do not own a PS4 and cannot play "Bloodborne." 

I will still refer to games within this strangely accepted genre of souls-likes: purposeful revel in obtuse and cryptic description, precise and deliberate combat [sic...?], and memorization. This includes games such as last years "Salt and Sanctuary" (2016) or 2013's "Rogue Legacy" or, even though genre-wise the most divergent, "Darkest Dungeon" (2016). All of these games rely on largely similar ideas of exploration, experimentation, and -- of course -- failing an awful lot in the process.

Failing... a lot.

This concept of futility and cyclicity is paramount to what makes "Dark Souls"... well, "Dark Souls." But the most important part of the series' difficulty is not simply that it's hard, but that the difficulty is tied to the narrative itself. Any game can be hard. There are entire genres of games devoted to being hard and obtuse. 

The first point here is that "Dark Souls" accounts for player death in one of the more elegant ways; as an accursed undead, or variant thereof, you are incapable of permadeath, only a hindrance that costs replenishable resources. Death in the game simply spits you out back by the bonfire. While this is a more elegant way to explain how the player character resurrects from death (beyond reloading the game from a checkpoint), it's far from the only game to do this, "Bioshock" did this in an effective way as well.

"Dark Souls" takes this a step further with the hollowing mechanic. When the player is devoid of humanity, they physically look like a zombie -- ie hollowed. Advanced hollowing in the game results in characters being nothing more than pathetic zombies. Therefore, the point of continuous living and dying is the avoidance of becoming a hollow yourself.

And by yourself, I don't refer to the player avatar. Rather, you the player. A partial manifestation is the crestfallen characters (knights that have abandoned their quest for possible absolution) but the player themselves is the perfect manifestation. The quest is arduous and trying to get you to give up. As a result, the game's hollowing effect is meant to reflect the state of you the player. In this respect, the zombified hollows that roam the Undead Burg aren't just mindless zombies but the remnants of those that have given up or lost their free will and humanity in the process.

From this, we can then infer a metanarrative in which death, normally a failure condition for a game and one which particularly AAA attempts to avoid, is integral to the experience of the game. This is the true basis for which "Dark Souls" is designed. The difficulty is by intent is not some throwback to quarter-sucking arcade games or "NES-hard" but far more well defined.

Therefore; if the game were too easy and the player never experiences death, this metanarrative is lost or if it were it would make no sense. As such, "Dark Souls" -- and largely the rest of the "masocore" genre -- is hard not just to be contrarian but because it narratively makes sense. The fact that this difficulty is then justified and (mostly) fair only adds layers of complexity. This difficulty is also fascinating because the tone of the game plays it straight, never truly breaking "kayfabe" and assumed as a literal part of the universe (as opposed to parody games like "I Wanna Be the Guy.")

Therefore; we can further expand the performatist elements, as opposed to strictly postmodern elements, as the result of the metanarrative in conjunction with sincerity of the games' tone. Thus we can view "Dark Souls" as not postmodern but an excellent example of performatism in gaming. 

This is, however, imperfect. The best case for "Dark Souls" perhaps breaking character and winking at the player is best seen in "Dark Souls 2" when the aged firekeepers mock that you will die (a lot). In spite of this, the complexity of "Dark Souls'" narrative is often overlooked because there is little actual story. Most of the series' story is interpreted through an impressive fan effort. However, as I am trying to convey, "Dark Souls" narrative structure (perpetual death) and how it feeds into the game's cosmology is far more interesting than identifying the plot (which is largely irrelevant). This metanarrative surprisingly tight-knit, requiring only minor extrapolation at best, but is alas often overlooked in favor of the series' more base characteristics (gameplay, balance, awesome sky-boxes). If anything, people are just dying too much to take a moment and recognize that each death has a purpose -- even if frustrating -- and not just a boring time tax... which is what makes "Dark Souls" vastly superior to its many clones.

...although your mileage may vary with that point (fk u Nameless King).

Read more about:


About the Author(s)

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like