Dark Souls III is a favourite here at RPS, but it hasn't lit a fire in the hearts of the entire team. Recently, Alec jumped into the game, having observed the series from afar for some time, and shared his thoughts. He, Pip and Adam gathered to discuss the appeal of the series, and talked about its divergence from traditional RPG systems, the intimidation factor and the complicated nature of its much-debated difficulty.
Adam: Dark Souls III is probably going to be in my top three games of the year, despite the thousands of good games coming out this year. I’m continually surprised to see it selling quite as well as it does though, because so many people that I recommend the series to treat those recommendations as a form of sadism.
Pip: Do you curate who you recommend it to? I mean, there's no point recommending it to me because I've tried the series and I just didn't enjoy myself even when I got the hang of combat. Rang the first bell in the first game and felt done.
Adam: I do. Although people who have read my reviews of all three games in the actual Dark Souls series (still no Demons’ or Bloodborne for us PC folk, sadly) might take issue with that. A positive review is a recommendation and it’s tricky to walk that critical line between explaining precisely what the appeal of a game is while also wanting to celebrate it as a thing in and of itself. I feel similarly about Crusader Kings II, in that it’s one of my favourite games and I wish everyone could enjoy it in the same way that I do, but I have to temper that excitement and enthusiasm by recognising that - yes - these are games that some people will find frustrating and unappealing.
Obviously, I’m very pleased when people do find the fun, but I wouldn’t spend a great deal of effort trying to convince people to push on if they’re really not enjoying the experience of the game in the early stages. I thought Alec might walk away at one point last week when he started to dig into the third game and was surprised to return from a press trip and find that he was playing Dark Souls I, having broken through some barrier in III.
Pip: So, the thing I would say is that no game is for absolutely everyone, regardless of how broadly it is aimed so I just factor that into reviews anyway, But it seems to be a particular consideration when it comes to Dark Souls – do you think there's something peculiar to that game which is hard to communicate about the appeal and who might like it?
Adam: I think a lot of it comes down to its apparent genre and the aesthetic. It’s a weird slant on the kind of fantasy worlds that populate Dungeons and Dragons and so many other RPGs, but it’s still recognisable. It’s a game where you play a knight or a wizard or a barbarian, and then you hit monsters with swords and spells until they fall over. And it’s an RPG.
Anyone who likes those things - and that’s a huge portion of the people who play PC games - might look at Dark Souls and think, “this is for me”. And it is, in many cases. But its combat system and the way that it treats death and levelling up, and even traversing the world and making choices, are so peculiar that it doesn’t fit into the genre quite as neatly as people might expect. On some levels, it’s far more abstract than a typical RPG and on others it’s far more tangible - the combat, for instance, is more like a beat ‘em up than a traditional RPG, in terms of the importance of positioning, parries and movement rather than stats and skillsets. Those things matter as well, but it’s an action game in a way that Dragon Age or Baldur’s Gate aren’t.
And that’s why people talk about ‘Souls games’ almost as a genre. It’s becoming like roguelikes - there are elements that lend themselves to other genres in a very loose way but the thing itself is very precise. In an ideal world, RPGs would be so varied that Dark Souls wouldn’t be quite so surprising; there’d be all kinds of different fantasy hack ‘n’ slashers, and it’d be one more unusual experience to add to the pile.
Pip: So with that in mind do you think it's actually a hard game or do you think that people go in with particular expectations because of how it looks and how games which went before it worked and then those expectations don't work out. Like, is it difficult or is it more about people having to work to overcome pre-formed gaming habits/genre conventions…?
Alec: Speaking as someone who, until just a few days ago, was convinced that there was no way this could ever be for me, it’s turned my whole concept of ‘difficult’ on its head.
It is about breaking habits and it is punishing, but it’s not punishing in a ‘here is our ridiculous hard mode with a stupid name like ‘nightmare’ and where every enemy has a gazillion hitpoints’ way. It’s about epiphany; you bang your head against the wall so many times then suddenly it gives way.
And it only has to give way once, is what I’m finding. Things suddenly fell into place, and now any other boss I find might still have me swearing but I simply don’t think “fuck this, this is impossible.” I believe I can do it. It’s about taking a step into something else, not an ongoing cruelty.
Pip: Listening to friends and colleagues talk about Dark Souls, and watching Alice play it a bit (while muted because she insists on doing her soothing voice which ARGH) it strikes me that the most important skills are actually patience and observation rather than anything else. And while it's never hooked me, it also didn't strike me as impossible, it's more that I prefer to get that experience of patience and observation paying off in puzzle games. That's why I was so keen on Stephen's Sausage Roll. It's peculiarly similar in those ways, I think.
Adam: I’d absolutely agree that patience and observation are the skills to master. What I find interesting is that the series has built up this kind of mythological quality - it’s intimidating and it wants people to approach it with a sort of nervous anticipation. You see these enormous, grotesque creatures - and even humanoid characters that tower above you - and you expect them to have a gazillion hitpoints. There’s this lovely parallel between the aesthetic of the world, which is intimidating as HELL, and the way that the game is observed and appreciated as a thing. I love that, but I think it’s also responsible for pushing people away who get the wrong idea about how the difficulty is actually knitted through the systems.
Alec: Something that I don’t think is said often enough Dark Souls - especially when talking about ‘difficulty’ is that it’s actually very, very simple. This was why rockists got upset about our declaring it the best RPG: it throws out so much of what conventionally makes a roleplaying game or even some action games in favour of this absolute focus on the purity of combat, with a few initially opaque upgrade systems hung around it. And that means it all becomes about flow; fight, push on a bit, gain souls, spend souls, lose souls, reclaim souls, repeat. An ever-widening circle of the same few things, but you’re quietly, naturally learning locations and enemy behaviours in the process, without actually having to try to. There really isn’t much to it: it is about patience and perseverance and atmosphere.
Adam: I won’t try to argue that it has enormously complicated elements beneath that first layer but there is a point when you realise you’ve peeled it back and seen this whole skeleton underneath, with factions to join, characters’ fates to decide and NPCs to harass/help/hinder or fall victim to. That’s the more abstract layer; the combat is the way that you progress but there are complexities to your other interactions with the world that only become apparent much later. Which, again, is one of those things that isn’t going to please a lot of people, and also one of those things that some people will never discover even if they enjoy the game.
Hell, I still haven’t touched the multiplayer for more than a couple of hours this time around and there’s an entire culture growing up around that, creating their own ways to play. Alice knows more about any of that side of the game than I do though. If you’re a novice, Alec, I’m pretty sure Alice makes me look like I’m about one step ahead of you.
Alec: Haha, yes, I’m like the first boy in class to have sex who then instantly behaves as if he’s a smoking jacket-clad love expert. “Ask me anything lads. Wait, what’s a clitoris?”
Adam: “Sometimes there is more than one person involved.” “WHAAAAT?” Also, sometimes you realise that taking your armor off is really liberating.
Alec: I have barely begun, and that is exciting. Though I hope my natural inclination to bail on things that take too long doesn’t get the better of me.
Adam: Last time we spoke, you were still at the point at which you were cursing the game and seemed unsure whether you’d continue. Can you identify at point at which it clicked? Or was it a gradual appreciation?
Alec: Think I said this in my piece about DS3, but it was only when I gave up and declared my repeated failure to beat the first boss on Twitter that I was able to do it. I didn’t feel stressed and angry the next time, because I thought my time with the game was basically done, and it just seemed to unlock a certain flow.
Suddenly, I seemed able to dodge him, and keep it up - not turn into a frantic mess of furious, doomed slashing if he hit me once. I don’t entirely understand it. But it was in the act of beating that big, infini-axe bastard, of realising I could do what I had thought it impossible, that suddenly I was awash with the spirit of perseverance.
Adam: I came in way back when with Demons’ Souls and whether it’s because I wasn’t tuned into the conversations around it or whether it’s because there were fewer conversations to be had back then, I never went through any of these thought processes. I wanted to carry on because I found the world so interesting and every new creature was a new challenge as well as a creepy contribution to the lore. It fascinated me but I’d never have expected a pile of sequels, or for those sequels to become bestsellers on Steam.
Alec: Going back to what Pip was saying about puzzle games, I think there’s absolutely a crossover both in philosophy and in terms of what your brain does if you determine that you will continue. I had this with The Witness (which I haven’t finished): there were a couple of early puzzles that just drove me spare, had me convinced that there wasn’t a way into this game, then suddenly I worked them out and the whole world seemed open to me, psychologically speaking.
As in DS3, I felt that I could do it rather than that I was being presented with cruelly insurmountable obstacles, and that made me excited to continue, as opposed to nervous and angry about hitting another roadblock. And, as with Dark Souls, before I actually played the Witness I was absolutely convinced that I could not enjoy it.
Adam: Weirdly, and I’ve mentioned this before, I found The Talos Principle really easy to get to grips with but the puzzles in The Witness completely baffle me. I can watch solutions on YouTube and still not understand why a thing worked.
If only I could hit the puzzle-grids with a claymore.
Do you feel that jumping in at DS3 has been satisfying, or do you want to go back and start from the beginning? I’d recommend starting with 1 and possibly skipping 2 (even though it’s a very good game, particularly in Scholar of the First Sin edition) and heading straight to 3. The first one informs this new one in lots of interesting ways.
Alec: Yeah, my DS3 campaign is benched while I (very slowly) play 1 in my (very limited) free time. I want to know it and know it well first, both so I can talk more authoritatively about the series and so that I can see how 3 builds upon it, or fails to. Plus RPS Chum Keza MacDonald - co-author of You Died: The Dark Souls Companion, donchaknow - was telling me that mid/later bosses in DS3 do turn into nightmare punishment bastards for the kind of fast, slashy character I’ve been going for, whereas apparently 1 has more leeway there. I’m not ready to be a big, slow kinda guy yet.
Adam: Dark Souls III is one of the most interesting sequels I’ve ever played, but to say why might plant me in spoiler territory. It’s a fascinating approach to the problem of doing the same thing over and over again though, which is entirely fitting given that the whole series is sort of about the problem of doing things over and over again. Live, die, repeat and all that. It is, in a way that appeals to me so much that it’s embarrassing, an apparent commentary on the mechanics as well as the lore.
That’s why it’s the best sequel to the best RPG of all time.
Alec: Another reason I went back to 1 instead of continuing with 3 is that I was sniffily talking to Keza about the lore, and how I felt the rapturous dissections of what it all means you see all over the internet were just people trying to inteljustify hundreds of hours spent twatting things with a sword to themselves.
While she’s rather more J-game-reverent than I am generally, I decided to take her seriously. I was previously thinking it’s basically like WoW, where people get really, really into the fiction because they want to feel that fighting the same dungeon boss a thousand times over actually meant something, but that ‘mythic’ word came up, that it’s more like the opaque, strange, lyrical journey of Beowulf than the dull info-splurge of The Silmarillion, and that interests me more. I want to see if there’s something to it, that it can feel like a true legend and not just a horrible fan wiki.
Adam: It’s a fantasy story without exposition and for that I will always love it. You’re like an archaeologist, piecing together fragments of a world that has fallen over.
Alec: I think I’m going to fall over now, if that’s OK. Up too late in the Undead Burgs, I was.
Adam: That’s fine. The most generous thing about Dark Souls - and people don’t give it enough credit for its generosity - is that it’ll always pick you up and throw you back into the fight.