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The RPG Scrollbars: Hollow Pursuits

Third time the charmed?

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Ever had one of those games that you just long to get into, but can’t? There haven’t been many I’ve wanted to get into more than the Dark Souls series. To sink into the world I see people talking about on my Twitter feed. To have that sense of discovery in ash and ember. For that crumbling world to feel like something more than just a succession of traps and gauntlets. I want to like Dark Souls. I really hope Dark Souls 3 is the clicking point. But… so far, (whispers) I’ve never managed to like Dark Souls.

I say ‘managed’ for a reason. I’m not saying Dark Souls is bad. Nor do I have any problem with a game that’s a brutal challenge, or simply a game that’s not for me. What frustrates me is that I desperately want it to be for me. From the snippets of Keza and Jason’s book to the little bursts of design like Miyazaki wanting to see tragedy rather than horror in his undead dragons, it sounds great. But then I try to play one of them and just bounce right off in a way that I haven’t really done since STALKER.

For Dark Souls, things weren’t helped by the awful port, and having issues with DSFix. I shelved it in the hope that Dark Souls 2 would be a better starting point, and to a point, it was. It was a smoother game at least. But in both cases it just didn’t take long before generally small niggles built up and took the experience from a journey of discovery to one of disappointment. Again, more in myself than the game.

This isn’t always the case. I don’t blame myself for not enjoying Fallout 4 for instance, but Bethesda for stripping out most of the RP stuff in favour of shooting. That’s also a world tinged in regret, but the regret is that the game isn’t better. For Dark Souls, I’m fully aware that I should be able to punch through it and enjoy myself, but just never seem able to.

It’s not even for the obvious reason. Yes, the game’s hard, but that’s really not it. I’ve played plenty of hard games before. It’s not even the central combat’s insistence on having to commit to moves harder than Simon Belmont in a hurdles race. It’s that I just always seem slightly out of step with the whole experience – the timing, for instance, even against basic enemies. If they’re not being polite enough to look the other way.

But I think that would be okay, if I didn’t find the whole thing pretty dispiriting. A lot of the time, that comes down to dealing dealing with fans.

In Dark Souls 2 for instance, I started the game, and after a brief moment of glee at finishing the tutorial and a genuinely warm ‘ooooh’ at wandering into Majula for the first time, with its gorgeous orange colour-scheme and relaxing background music, I… uh… promptly took exactly the wrong path, ending up in Tower of Heide without even knowing that Forest of the Giants existed, broke all my equipment and ended up losing a big part of my health-bar.

To players with hundreds of hours invested in the series, this constituted “being stupid”. Well, maybe, but wow, are there few better ways to turn someone off a game than telling them in so many words. In another game, maybe I’d have immediately figured out that getting beaten up by giant knights was a hint that I’d gone the wrong way, but I was coming into this as a new player. How was I meant to know what the game’s idea of a welcoming committee would be? The series motto is “Prepare To Die”, not “Don’t Worry, It’ll Be Fine.” And that’s before not knowing how durability worked let to me breaking literally everything I was carrying without realising it, and assuming that doing basically no damage was just the curse of low-level gear.

Still, I continued plugging away, hoping to reach that moment of revelation – at the time, Dark Souls 2 had yet to sink in players’ estimations to the point it has now – only to find that there was a definite split between how I was thinking about the game and how existing fans were.

For example, when I go into a starter town and the local blacksmith tells me he’s lost his key, my assumption is going to be that the key will be… well, around, somewhere. Or that he could just climb through his sodding window and repair all the stuff I broke in the Tower, but that’s another issue. The idea that it’s being sold by an NPC at the end of the first dungeon just seemed crazy. And then there are mechanics like having to milk NPCs for all of their dialogue before they go and do what you need from them. It’s discovery, I guess, but not the kind of discovery I can get behind – not learning about the world as a coherent place, but just picking up on part of the design that only an illogical person could have any hope of intuiting.

Now, if I missed some huge clue, please feel free to go back in time and tell me. Not now, then. And again, this isn’t code for ‘I think Dark Souls is crap’, though watching playthroughs of DS2 (I never watched one for the first game due to holding onto the idea that I’d go back to it one day) I can’t say I was particularly blown away by any of the imagination or craft on offer. I mean, it looked okay, if you don’t mind over-written and poorly translated nonsense and an obsession with bosses that pretty much just seemed to be knight, knight, undead monster, knight in a car, knight with his buddy…

I couldn’t see what would make me want to spend hours picking it apart, instead of just giving up and opening a wiki. It didn’t help that everyone I spoke to had long-since bought into the series’ grammar and vocabulary to the point that not finding something coherent simply meant missing the point. It’s a common problem for many genres, of course. Why can’t you solve that adventure game puzzle with £10 and a trip to the hardware store? Because we accept that the nature of the genre is doing what you can with what you have. Why do RPG shopkeepers buy whole suits of armour for 1G but sell health potions for 20G? Because as goofy as it is, the already broken economy of these games would get ridiculous.

In exchange, we’re allowed to carry enough armour to kit out an entire platoon and keep fighting at peak health down to 1HP, before suddenly losing all will to live and just keeling over. Learning the grammar and vocab is part of many games, but it’s particularly key when they come from different cultural backgrounds. Japanese RPGs play by very different rules to traditional Western ones, just as German strategy games tend to have – and I’m putting this politely – a distinct style and approach to things. (Less politely: the tendency to get more anal than a rectal thermometer.)

Learning the grammatical rules does tend to lead to problems when games and series’ run on though. By the time of Dark Souls III, the fourth (fifth if you want to include Bloodborne) Souls game, so much of the meaning and value of the lessons learned calls back to previous entries, and it’s hard for fans to remember a time before they understood the basic rules.

MMOs suffer from this a lot, with the word ‘noob’ less used as a description than an insult. Dark Souls 3 definitely does. I’ve been amused watching my Twitter feed to see that people who have put hundreds of hours into the series, often going back to Demon Souls or even King’s Field, have been playing the new one and being a bit disappointed to find it less of a challenge than the previous ones. No shit! I don’t know how hard or twisted it would have to be to avoid that, but I suspect it would take a first boss who can only be defeated by chessboxing and a final foe with exactly one pixel of vulnerable flesh. Covered in impenetrable armour.

But I hope they’re right. “Oh no,” I say. “It’s easier to get into? Oh no. Oh, the humanity.” While secretly breathing something of a sigh of relief. It is after all probably the last chance I’m going to get to actually get into one of these games before the company moves on (I don’t have a PS4, so Bloodborne was out of the question) and the first time it’s felt like I might not be too late to the party to actually feel the sense of discovery instead of simply ignorance of what everyone else already knows.

I have a new controller all ready to go. I have a stockpile of soft drinks and chewy sweets. I really want it to work out this time – the third time to be the charm. At the very least, I’d like to see what everyone else seems to see, not just tweets going ‘git gud’. Fun fact: everyone who has ever said that will be second against the wall, once we’re done executing people who shout at people in MOBA ‘new player’ servers.

Bah. I’ve not even started the game yet, and already I’m feeling cranky.

Elsewhere, are there any games that you feel the same way about – anything old or new that you desperately want to like, but which fights you every step of the way? It doesn’t have to be in terms of pure difficulty. It can be simple mechanics, a general vibe, or even just a strange lingering cloak of no-fun over the whole thing. Whatever it is though, there’s little more frustrating, especially when everyone else seems to be having fun. Let me know down below. With the power of words.

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Richard Cobbett

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