Dark Souls needs no introduction, if mostly because people never seemed to shut up about it ever since it was first released in 2011. Me being a curious gamer with broad tastes and even a specific appreciation of games with swords, shields and monsters, I was pretty much guaranteed to pick this game up sooner or later. I write this the day after having traded the game in for other games – for the second time no less – so it should be clear that I don’t quite find it to be my thing in the end. First time I played Dark Souls was October 2013 and at that time, I was pretty much convinced I would love the hell out of it. I played it for a week, all the while also being somewhat sick. In retrospect, this probably didn’t do wonders for my perception of the game’s atmosphere and I was also less patient than normally. So what did I just do last week (March 2014)? I bought it again, of course. This turned out to be a very bad idea as I ended up with pretty much exactly the same opinion of the game now – only a bit more nuanced and I can say for sure that I don’t want to play it any more.
So let’s get into why I don’t like it. This won’t be a review as much as it will be my personal perspective on the time I spent with Dark Souls. You see, I never got any further than beating the Gargoyles, the Capra Demon, the Gaping Dragon and that butterfly thingy in the Darkroot area, but I did get a whole new perspective on my gaming hobby. I guess that means that the game left quite an impression on me, just like it has on so many other gamers, but in my case it just wasn’t a very good impression.
Let’s start with the basics. More than anything, Dark Souls’ reputation first and foremost concerns the difficulty of the game. Darks Souls is for masochists, Dark Souls is harder than any other game from the PS3/360 generation, Dark Souls is so hostile that casual gamers will run away in terror. Dark Souls will break you. Or this is what people usually say about the game, anyway. It did break me all right, but it was the tedium that finally got to me. Like in the case of so many other RPGs, people tend to conflate repetition, tedium and high demands on time with actually difficult challenges. The game is structured in such a way that you have to trudge through well known, well worn areas again and again ad nauseam, fighting the same increasingly easier enemies. This will happen when you die and have to go to a boss or other area to try again. It will happen when you need to go find a specific entrance to another area, a specific merchant or something else you need to check.
The first time I go through an area, it is actually pretty damn exciting. I enjoyed plunging into the Depths on my second stint with the game just as much as I did the first, but running through parts of the Undead Burg area repeatedly to fight the Capra Demon again is pure, pointless tedium as it only gets easier as your equipment gets better.
I dislike Dark Souls for much the same reason why I stopped playing games like Final Fantasy and The Elder Scrolls. I still like an RPG in the style of Dungeon Master or The Legend of Grimrock and the difference is tedium.
Let’s do a little thought experiment. Let’s say Dark Souls was more linear in structure. Maybe it offered access to a bunch of areas at a time and let you choose which one to challenge from a menu (Megaman style, oh yeah baby!). When beating one area, it is locked off and you can’t enter it again. Beat all of them and a new bunch of areas appear. Each area ends with a boss and a check points are placed just at the start of every area and just before the bosses. Under this structure, the game would still be very, very challenging, but the repetition is gone. Some would argue that this detracts from the sense of scope of the game’s large, intricately interconnected world but I would gladly accept this loss for less backtracking. The game would also be significantly shorter but since the only thing lost is redundancy, I would consider it an improvement. Sometimes less is more.
The RPG genre is a strange one. In the 80’s, with games like Might and Magic, the Bards Tale, Wizardry, Final Fantasy and SSI’s AD&D titles, levelling up your characters through grinding was far more important than input precision and strategy. I much prefer what RPG’s started doing in the 90’s, with games like Eye of the Beholder, Dungeon Master and Lands of Lore; all of which played like some sort of clunky, slow action game. Attack could be dodged, swings could miss and enemies could be flanked. The Realms of Arkania series showed that strategy could be taken to the next level in an RPG context and I loved their drawn out, square & turn based battles. Most of all, I liked these RPGs because there was no need to grind. Then Diablo and MMORPG’s happened and suddenly, the genre was all about repetition and time investment over ability and thought, just like in the 80's.
Dark Souls effectively combines the two approaches by prioritizing input skill and wise preparation over power levelling but it mimics the repetitive structure of RPG’s that favour the grind.
So here is how Dark Souls changed my perspective on games: Having sold the game for the second time, I see more clearly how games waste our time. Time you will never get back. Time you better make and effort to spend wisely. Now, more than ever, I wish to be critical of what a game asks of me and what it gives me in return. First and foremost, the time I spend with a game should be interesting in some way, be it through atmosphere, story or challenging gameplay. What I don’t want to do anymore is walk across large, empty swaths of land or drive down endless streets, looking for something to do. I also wish to step away from any sort of game that forces me to repeat things I already mastered over an hour ago, just to pad out the length of the game. This means no open world games, no RPG’s that ascribe to that dreadfully redundant Metroid-esque structure that has made Castlevania games so boring for me and it means no games where only a higher level can win you the next fight. Consequently, I play more action and strategy games now than ever. Had I travelled back in time to show my RPG happy self this following scenario, I wouldn’t have believed it: yesterday, I traded in Dark Souls for Halo Wars and Halo: Anniversary and I don’t plan on regretting it.