Ok, So I know that many people have been writing about Dark Souls recently, and Im not sure I can add too much to the excellent article Skyrim and Dark Souls by Rich Stanton, but I have just finished my first playthrough (I doubt i will have time for NG+) and wanted to record a few thoughts.
In many ways Dark Souls reminds me of another of my favourite games, Monster Hunter, which Ive written about previously. In both these games, death can come quickly if you aren’t paying attention, and the mastery of your chosen skillset is essential if you want to progress. Dark souls provides a reasonably wide range of different offensive options, from tanking approaches to ranged weapons and magic. All of these choices expect the player to learn the skills and potential combos of their chosen path.
As with Monster Hunter, different weapons have different movesets and can also provide opportunities to parry, counter, stagger and inflict status effects. Picking your weapon,armor and style is part of what gives players in both games a real sense of ownership and agency. In parallel to Monster Hunter your chosen skill path is important, but often less vital than the ability to read and exploit the behaviour and attack patterns of the enemies. Even when highly levelled, it is still easy to die if you become careless, or try for that ‘one extra hit’. The resulting sense of danger (specifically in areas like blightown or the tomb of giants) generates a tense but rewarding experience. Dark Souls will kill you if it can, capitalising on any mistakes you make. But when you beat it the feeling of achievement is much greater than that in many easier mainstream games.
Another aspect of Dark Souls that makes it a refreshing change to the formats of many other RPGs is the hazy, dreamlike quality of its narrative. The lore of the world is never imposed through wordy cutscenes or in world texts, rather it is implied through the level designs themselves which are punctuated by lost and wandering NPCs. In a similar narrative style to the Silent Hill series these NPCs deliver fragmented and surreal backstories, of both their own journeys and the lore of the world. Just as in Silent Hill, the inhabitants of Dark Souls mirror the alienating and unknowable nature of their world, hinting at guidance but never quite trustworthy. Like Silent Hill, they reappear at different stages of the game, sometimes transformed or suddenly malevolent. Their personal arcane missions mirror the strange futility of your own quest and their abstract awe and fear of the world supports the general atmosphere of hidden purposes and uncertain goals.
Dark Souls never prioritises “the story” over “the game”, instead it treats the story as the world, as something that pre-exists and is there to be ‘read’ through exploration and sparse NPC driven exposition. The world is also a silent one, populated by mute enemies who forgo the battle shrieks of many games in favour of the unsettling clink of bones or chainmail behind you before a lethal stab (The quiet emptiness of Dark Souls castles and catacombs reminds me of Vagrant Story and its lonely streets). The rules of the game world even allow player actions that could seriously hamper narrative progression. Unlike Bethesdas work you can kill the NPCs, they dont just fall conveniently unconscious. After accidentally hitting a blacksmith, the affronted guy would attack me on sight whenever i ventured near his forge. You can pay for absolution to remove such sins, but the NPC who provides this is equally cryptic and obscure.
The ending cutscene (linking the fire), is possibly the shortest one in the whole game, finishing your playthrough with little resolution to the narrative and dumping you without ceremony back at the beginning of the game. This reflects Dark Souls attitude that the world and the process of playing within it is the story. Like STALKER, there is a powerful sense of autonomy in the game world, and like GSCs scarred wastelands there is also a real sense of loss in leaving this world. Because unlike most other linear script-driven cutscene games, the story isn’t there just for you “the player”, it feels like it is there despite of you, and will continue to be there long after you have turned the power off and walked away.