Have You Played? is an endless stream of game recommendations. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.
Dark Souls, you may have heard, is pretty good. You don’t need me to tell you that. However, us calling Dark Souls an RPG let alone declaring it the best RPG proved unexpectedly controversial so I’d like to talk a little about why it’s so very much a game about roleplaying. Rather than carefully pick a role following the suggestions and nudges of quests, rewards, and dialogue options, Dark Souls has you actually play a role without prompting.
First, to briefly recap: Dark Souls is a hard-as-nails fantasy game where you’re trying the save a doomed world – for a bit longer, at least – and will die many times. It’s a gorgeous and surprising world with an intricate layout and great worldbuilding and careful combat and you’ve heard all that. But an RPG?
Dark Souls offers a lot of choices, but doesn’t present you with them. You can find and help a few people in the world, if you want. Well, you can try to – sometimes they’d be better off without your intervention. You can pledge allegiance to factions and do their bidding, which might be to murder other players, punish the guilty, nurse a sickly demon, or worship ancient dragons; I joined the Forest Hunter covenant and defended a fallen hero’s grave by hunting other players. You can defile tombs, kill demigods, spread decay, kill everyone who irritates you, and maybe even save a few lives.
You play a role by playing it, not by answering multiple choice questions.
The thing is, Dark Souls is happy to let you play a rube. It looks like it wants you to charge through, doing what you’re told and following the obvious path. That’s the foundation of its story: you’re one in a long line of rubes. But Dark Souls is a game about learning, and opening up to patience and curiosity. That most obviously comes in its combat, where mistakes are punished harshly, but soon you learn to examine and distrust its world, and hopefully will realise you should apply that same scrutiny to everything and everyone around you. Given how broken the world is, you have a lot of freedom to play the role you want.
Play the rube and you’ll not only miss arguably the ‘good’ ending, but you might not even notice it’s an RPG.