I’ve been playing a lot of Dark Souls recently. Not the new one. No 2 or 3, just plain old Dark Souls. I could write about why I am really enjoying it, or why I think that other people should play it, but that would be just add to the cacophony of hyperbole and fanboy love for this game. Exactly the sort of stuff that makes people not want to play a game. The sort of stuff that made me avoid it for this long.
When Demon’s Souls came out, I didn’t have a PS3, and my second kid had just been born. Playing any game, let alone that game, for any length of time was just not happening. People raved about Demon’s Souls, but I had played some King’s Field, found it unbearably dull, and hearing that Demon’s Souls was the spiritual successor to King’s Field snuffed out any flicker of interest.
I have a harsh reflexive sense for when a game doesn’t respect my time. Walking for hours to hit a save point, or dealing with forced waves of enemies before you can advance to a new area have always seemed like really hack moves. Having kids has only strengthened this reflex. I’m not talking about long games. Games that take time, but build and move as you play them are some of the best experiences I have had playing games. As long as they let you drive the pace of the experience.
I have never been more frustrated with a game than when I was dealing with the save system in Resident Evil 4. Even if you know exactly where every enemy is and how to deal with them some of the stretches between areas in Resident Evil 4 can take more than half an hour. That’s not tension building.That’s garbage. It’s also worth noting that I really liked Resident Evil 4, but for all the good, it just does not respect the player.
I picked up Dark Souls a few years ago on one of the steep Steam sales. I tried it once, but didn’t really understand the save system and feared that I had just entered into a new Resident Evil 4 situation. I figured that, while other people might enjoy it, it probably isn’t for me.
The common rhetoric about the Souls games is that they are very difficult, but fair. What I have never heard is how much this game respects the player. The player drives the experience. Want to play for fifteen minutes, that’s fine. Want to play for seven hours, sure go ahead. Both experiences will move the game forward. Want to spend a long time in one area, not a problem. You can still make progress. There is never a time when you feel like the game is holding up your ability to play it.
I thought that this game was something that it is not. I might have said something stupid recently like “Dark Souls isn’t hard, it’s just one of the most videogame, videogames.” Which is to say, you play it. It might have been stupid, but I meant it.
So, if there is anyone else out there who is sick of hearing about how wonderful these games are, but are afraid of brutal time sinks, the majority of what you hear is not what this game is about. There might be deep mysterious lore, but that doesn’t matter. The setting and spectacle is stunning, but not core to the experience. The game might be difficult, but it doesn’t just throw any random luck based nonsense at you and the penalty for dying is mostly symbolic. You can play it for a long time, but you aren’t required to spend time playing it.
If there are any game design takeaways from Dark Souls, it should be how much it respects the player. It respects you to the point that it expects you to drive the experience. It expects you to play when you want and how you want. It is one of the most videogame, videogames.