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Learning Basic Fluency In Dark Souls 3's Cemetery of Ash

A level design deep dive on why Dark Souls 3's Cemetery of Ash serves as an expertly-designed tutorial that can push newcomers to their first major victory within the first hour of play.

This following is a copy of a blog post taken from my portfolio site which you can view also there if you'd like

An Introduction Regarding The Introductory Tutorial In Dark Soul 3

The reason I brought you here is because I'd like to examine the introductory tutorial found in From Software's recently released Dark Souls 3. As a level designer, I'm always appreciative of a great tutorial, especially one that's informative and fun to play. Extra bonus points are awarded if it's cleverly woven into a game's main entry point or narrative structure.

The tutorial in Dark Souls 3 does all of this, and the real elegant thing about it is if you're already familiar with the series, you can skip a lot of the tutorial content since the explicitly instructional parts of the tutorial (learning inputs and their corresponding actions and so on) are confined to narrative devices in the world that the player can choose whether or not they want to interact with. The same has been true of a lot of tutorials in the Dark Souls series, but this one is streamlined to teach the player only the necessary fundamentals. The tutorial is also expertly paced by virtue of moving the player's checkpoint through the environment as they progress through increasingly challenging encounters, thus minimizing frustration if the player eventually fails since the player isn't far away from where they died. This all culminates at a "final exam" of sorts that requires the player to prove their fluency in the core fundamentals they've just been taught. If they player fails the exam, they are forced to study the fundamentals again -- working their way through various challenges in the environment -- before they can attempt the exam again.

Upon starting the game, players awake from a slumber of indeterminate length that was rather questionably spent inside a sarcophagus that's curiously still above ground. Did they die? It doesn't matter, they probably will die soon enough and be well aware of the circumstances this time around. A name is soon put to their surroundings: the Cemetery of Ash.

Exemplifying Mastery As An Experienced Dark Souls Player

For players who have previous experience with the game's earlier entries, they will (probably) blaze past the series of fodder enemies before lighting their first Bonfire and then continue onward to attempt their first boss fight -- all within the first 30 minutes of play. Once players defeat this first boss, a locked door opens and they're free to set out on the rest of what will surely be a challenging journey. 

Earning Basic Fluency As A Player New To Dark Souls

For new players, however, unlocking this first door might take a lot longer. However, I will argue that the designers are smart to hold them in this starting area until they've displayed a mastery of a range of fundamentals they'll need to succeed against the first boss and beyond. 

If the new player is so inclined, they can interact with a multitude of Messages emblazoned on the ground and learn the game's controls as they go. These will be used in novel ways later on, but for now the designers of the Dark Souls 3 utilize this device to communicate directly with the player, instructing them and prompting them with situations to use their newly-acquired knowledge. I won't cover the content or instruction of every Message found in the Cemetery of Ash, but I will highlight some specifics. Rest assured that they will inform the player of all the tools and mechanics they will need to succeed here.

Onto specific instances of where the player might learn from a Message, let's examine one of the early examples, where the player sees a static enemy off in the distance enrobed in a black hood. Positioned a safe distance away from this enemy, a Message placed on the ground instructs the player on the use of the game's lock-on targeting system. Locking onto this enemy as the player engages makes this encounter much easier to manage. (Earlier Messages inform them how to attack and freely manipulate the player camera.)

This encounter is purposefully made to be (comparatively) easy in relation to what's ahead. This lone enemy doesn't have much of an effective attack range since they're armed with a short, broken sword that doesn't do much damage. The enemy is slow and typically only takes one hit from the player to defeat. Still, if left unchecked, the enemy can unleash a flurry of successive blows, causing a significant net damage. If the player dies here, they will respawn a short distance from this initial encounter. (The amount of time it takes for the player to recover from failure, in order to attempt a challenge again, is a valuable design consideration that I'll expand upon later in this post.)

The next crucial lesson the player will learn, after this initial encounter, is to be observant of their environment. A keen eye and ear will often provide players with an early warning, revealing or hinting at hidden dangers. Nearby, peculiar white flame perched atop the rim of a crumbling font invites the player over to inspect it. What players might not realize is that one of two corpses nearby will reanimate as the player draws near. (If the player listens before closing in on the 2 idle corpses slumped at the base of the font, they might hear the sound of laboured breathing -- that's the sound of a single enemy here who's playing dead but not actually dead yet.) If the player manages to overcome the eventual ambush, they're rewarded with the item trapped within the white flame. This item is of a specific importance that the player shall discover if they experiment -- or simply read the item description in the Inventory menu.

After this unexpected encounter, the player is presented with three branching paths. In the distance, a central path that leads through a chokepoint between two looming earthen walls. Closer to the player, to the immediate left and right, the player will be offered (completely optional) opportunities to attempt various mechanics such as the Parry-and-Riposte and Backstab manoeuvres, respectively. 

As a side note: for extra keen players who explore beyond these side paths, there are two additional optional fights in this area that are a big step up in terms of challenge. Players who examine a Message placed before a path leading through a waist-deep puddle will have fair warning, however! (I won't spoil the surprise of what lay beyond this watery slog.)

The aforementioned side paths will eventually dovetail back to the central opening, which serves as the exit to this small area. As players draw near, they'll be met by a new, crossbow-wielding foe.

This enemy is another easy fight, provided the player stays mobile (or raises their shield, if they have one) and listens for the audible cue of the crossbow bolt being fired -- this is a vital feedback cue for the player that will warn them if the enemy is off-screen at the time the attack is initiated. This enemy requires a bolt to be loaded before they can attack, so once the enemy initiates a generously lengthy reload animation, they're left completely defenseless -- this is a perfect window of opportunity for the player to close in and attack.

After the player leaves through the exit, they're treated to a fantastic vista reveal (which I'll not spoil), before rounding a corner that leads to a Bonfire perched atop a hill. The Bonfire emits an audible crackle -- a welcome audio cue players will quickly yearn to hear as they explore uncharted areas. Its warm reds and oranges contrast against the surrounding earth tones, imploring the player to draw near.

Interacting with the Bonfire lights it, creates a restore point that the player will return to upon dying, which will come in handy for what's yet to come. The player can also Rest at any lit Bonfire in order to fully replenish their health gauge and refill their stock of Estus Flasks -- but this comes at the cost of respawning all enemies in the world. Resting at a Bonfire also sets this as the place the player will respawn at if they die. This is an important milestone in bookmarking physical progress through the game's world that the player will become acquainted with in a few minutes as they run a good chance of being overwhelmed by the next series of challenges.

If they've not seen it in the distance yetplayers might notice what remains of ruined rampart, perched dangerously close to a cliff's edge: a stone archway flanked by torches. This will probably become the player's next navigational focal point. Even if the player doesn't decide to go directly to the archway, they'll eventually be funnelled to it as they descend the hill.

There are several challenges between the Bonfire and the stone archway. I'll not spoil most of them, but I'll say that the difficulty is increased as encounters now involve engagements with several enemies at once. These enemies have increased offensive capabilities depending on what they're holding, they do more damage, and also absorb more damage before dying. The player will also be reminded not to trust any corpse unless they first put it there! If the player dies along the way, that's OK. They will respawn at the Bonfire atop the hill, fully healed and ready to begin the descent again. Eventually, players will arrive at the archway and discover it's guarded by another crossbow enemy, a similar design pattern employed at the chokepoint before they reached the Bonfire.  

Once the player has made it to the bottom of the hill and through the stone archway, they've achieved another milestone, a milestone I'd like to dub "basic fluency in conversational Dark Souls." This basic fluency involves a working understanding of camera control, player movement, and combat systems. In the opening paragraph, I mentioned a "final exam" -- the player is about to make their first attempt in mere moments.

Through the stone archway, the player will take in several things of note arranged in a clearing to their front. First, there's a massive armoured figure kneeling motionless in the centre of a reflecting pond. (Is it a statue? A monument? Another enemy playing dead?) The reflecting pond's perimeter is composed of a mixture of crumbling walls, clusters of gravestones, and a tangled mess of exposed roots. A considerable section of the pond's circumference also drops directly off a cliff's edge. 

The player also might notice smatterings of blood pooled on the mirror surface of the pond. These Bloodstains serve as a warning to players that there's some kind of immediate danger here. If the player navigates to and interacts with one, they'll see a transparent red phantom materialize above the Bloodstain-- this replays the last moments of another player's life before they met their end. If they're not wary already, the players should be treading with caution here.

Past the enigmatic fixture in the centre of the pond, there are two torches on either side of a doorway containing a set of closed doors that are also curiously large in scale. As the player carefully navigates past the figure (maybe keeping an ear attuned to listen for any audio cues to suggest danger), giving it a wide berth, the player will discover the doors are locked.

Turning around, the player might finally decide it's time to approach the figure still kneeling in the centre of the pond. Maybe they might attack it from behind, attempting a Backstab. Players will discover their attacks produce no discernible effect.

Moving to the front, they might notice a large coiled sword had, at some point, pierced the left shoulder of the figure and is still embedded there. The player is also given the interaction prompt to remove the sword if they're close enough.

Once the sword is forcibly removed, the figure slowly gets back to its feet and then dislodges the polearm planted in the ground nearby. The player is finally introduced to the final boss of the tutorial: Iudex Gundyr.

At this point, the player will probable use the rather generous unobstructed area of the reflecting pond to move as far back as possible from Iudex Gundyr. This is a good reaction since it's safe to assume that Iudex Gundyr's polearm has a very long reach. The design of this area affords the player a lot of space for evasive manoeuvrability, but they must always be mindful of their surroundings -- so as not to get backed toward the cliff edge, lest they fall to their death. (Certain attacks from Iudex Gundyr are also capable of inflicting knockback damage states that will send the player careening over and past the edge.)

If the player attempts to flee back through the stone archway, they'll discover that it's now blocked by an impenetrable wall of thick billowing grey-white fog. This is a conscious design decision to enclose both the player in the arena once the fight has begun. This prevents the player from "kiting" the boss through the gameworld outside of the specified arena. The "wall of fog" is true for almost all boss encounter entrypoints in a Dark Souls game, which new players will later learn as they see it repeated throughout the rest of the game. 

I won't get into specifics of the fight because I want that to remain a surprise for anyone who might be reading that is yet to start Dark Souls 3. 

For the new player, they will probably die in this fight. This is OK, it's part of acclimatizing to the challenge. If the player slows down, studies the attack patterns of Iudex Gundyr while using the skills they've learned up to this point, the player will eventually overcome the challenge.

While they're attempting to defeat Iudex Gundyr, however, there are some new lessons to be learned that only present themselves if the player has the opportunity to die.

The first lesson is, up to this point, only possible to learn when dying inside the boss arena. This new knowledge is the fact that the "wall of fog" (a player might have noticed from the inside of the reflecting pond arena while fighting the boss) is now a permanent fixture. This seals the boss inside the arena, making the space outside of the arena comparatively safer for the player. After respawning at the Bonfire, players making their way back to the stone archway will now notice a prompt at the "wall of fog" allowing them to traverse past it, back into the boss arena so they can attempt the fight again.

Another important facet of this mechanic to consider is that the player is never forced to re-enter the boss arena the moment they respawn; they can freely approach the arena and re-enter whenever they want. (This is useful later on in the game if the player assumes a boss might be optional or simply not the appropriate avenue for progression at that specific time.)

If they've not died previously, fighting the earlier enemies, this is the moment the player might become acquainted with another central mechanics of Dark Souls 3: any acquired Souls held at the time of death are dropped on the ground. (Souls are earned, in varying amounts, from slain foes or consumable items.) Players will learn how and where they can invest this resource in due time, but the concept to grasp now is that, when they die, they drop the entirety of their held Souls at the exact point in the world where they were killed. They might now notice when they re-enter the arena to face Iudex Gundyr again that, hovering above the ground at the spot they last died, there's a large ephemeral sphere of sorts, emitting a green glow. If they can manage to reach and interact with it, they can reclaim this stockpile of lost Souls. If they're killed before recovering their lost Souls, the stockpile disappears from the world and the player loses that amount forever.

At this point, this cycle will probably repeat itself as many times as necessary before the player finally earns a triumphant victory over Iudex Gundyr. The fallen foe's previous resting place at the centre of the pond is now replaced by a new Bonfire, thus advancing the player's progress through the world with a marker they will return to upon death. The door on the opposite side of the reflecting pond is now also unlocked, allowing the player to finally continue onward to the rest of the game. This, in my opinion, marks the logical end of the tutorial for Dark Souls 3. The player has successfully displayed their fluency in the basic core skills required to progress through the remainder of the game. (They will build upon these core skills and have to learn a lot more if they hope to finish the game, of course.)

Now that we've covered the full tutorial at (quite exhaustive) length, let's go back to the beginning and examine everything at a high level to identify some common patterns and design considerations that aim to make Dark Souls 3 the most accessible game in the series yet. 

High Level Look At The Path To The First Bonfire

The path from the player's absolute starting position, the Sarcophagus, all the way to the first Bonfire is a laid out in an abstract map below. You'll notice that the path of least resistance here ignores any branching or optional paths, heading directly through a series of three easy battles.

The distance from the Sarcophagus to the Bonfire isn't a terribly large distance, in fact. If the player dies anywhere along their path to light the Bonfire, they will respawn back at the Sarcophagus. It's safe to assume that, with an increasing amount of player deaths, their experience with the game's system also increases. It's then probably another safe assumption that the time it will take them to get farther away from the Sarcophagus (and closer to the Bonfire) will then decrease as they get better at successfully surviving encounters.

The terrain in this initial area is rather forgiving as well. There aren't many hazards aside from enemies, there's lots of space to move around in, and not many obstructions that compromise manoeuvrability or sightlines. Returning to the idea that the total distance to the Bonfire isn't very long in the first place, the player will probably get there pretty quickly, all things considered.

A quick aside: I'd also like to discuss a technical, real-world consideration. The load times between dying and respawning are rather low  -- obviously this depends on the player's hardware specification or platform of choice. This means that the downtime after a death -- as the game reloads and resets the world state -- is kept to a pleasant minimum.

High Level Look At The Path To The Iudex Gundyr

Jumping ahead to the milestone whereupon the player has lit the first Bonfire, the challenge is obviously increased, but some similar patterns are observed amongst a mix of new concepts on display.

The player will immediately notice the enemies here are more capable at dealing and sustaining higher amounts of damage, they are sometimes grouped in pairs, and the more complex terrain arrangement makes encounters more challenging. Still, the player will eventually suss out a path of least resistance among the two main branches offered, provided they ignore the optional encounters.

I've not measured it, but I suspect that the distance from the Sarcophagus to the Bonfire is actually shorter than that of the distance from the Bonfire to Iudex Gungyr. This is another player-centric design decision aimed at minimizing frustration. Because the player will have to immediately adjust to the increased challenge of the encounters here, when they reach Iudex Gungyr, the difficulty of that fight will require another quick adjustment. The player will probably die at least once fighting the boss, so it's imperative that one of the paths of least resistance is made easier than the other path so the player can quickly re-enter the boss arena and attempt this fight again. 

The environment design in the area outside of the boss arena might be challenging to navigate at first, but the player will become accustomed to it if they travel through it multiple times. The interior of boss arena, by comparison, is a really large, round space with no clutter at all. Consider the fact that the radius of this arena is far larger than the length of Iudex Gungyr's polearm. This generous space and lack of any obstructions (other than the boss as it moves through the space) allows the player to focus entirely on the task at hand. One caveat to this is that players will still have to be mindful of that cliff's edge! 

In Closing, Now That The Doors Are Open

Dark Souls 3 has, in my opinion, the best tutorial in the series. I feel my deep dive into its expertly crafted introduction just might prove how it's now the most accessible Dark Souls has ever been -- at least at the start. Above all, I feel that the journey through the Cemetery of Ash will rapidly allow newcomers to achieve that first crucial victory that often serves as the breaking point -- converting them from a frustrated sceptic to a true believer.

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