What happens when you try turn a notoriously difficult game into a crowdplay experience? Daniel Nichols wanted to find out.
Dark Souls is known for its challenging gameplay. But it never seems to be tough enough for the most dedicated members of its player base. From low level runs and attempts at beating the game without a weapon to absurd self-imposed constraints like playing with a Rock Band guitar or voice commands, the most hardened of Dark Souls players are always seeking out new ways to explore and exploit the already punishing adventure.
The appeal of upping the difficulty probably comes from the pride that good Dark Souls players take in mastering the ins and outs of the game’s complex systems of combat, and the twists and turns of its winding world map. Games as hard as Dark Souls are a rarity, and so its fans must constantly reinvent their approach to it if they want to recapture the high of that first moment of budding expertise.
The latest and most egregious example of people layering additional difficulty on top of Dark Souls actually mixes in the chaotic free-for-all of crowdplay games. It's called Twitch Plays Dark Souls.
Like Twitch Plays Pokemon from 2014, Twitch Plays Dark Souls is a live-streamed, crowd-played event that turns spectators into participants… though not always very good ones. By inputting commands into Twitch chat, viewers take control of the Chosen Undead, prompting him to run, roll, dodge, and fight his way through the perilous world of Lordran.
When Twitch Plays Dark Souls began two weeks ago, the mere fact of its existence garnered the stream over 15,000 viewers-turned-players. But their collaborative crowdplay was a disaster. The collective spent days spamming the menu, rolling into walls, and needlessly backtracking. It made the idea of ever reaching--let alone beating--a boss seem impossible.
Pokemon, with its turn-based combat and lack of reflex-based mechanics, lent itself to the crowdplay approach. But the rapid and dangerous real-time combat of Dark Souls quickly proved to be too much for the crowd to handle. (Twitch’s stream delay certainly didn't help matters.) Those who chose to view the spectacle from afar rather than participate were quick to dismiss Twitch Plays Dark Souls as the latest dumb, gimmicky attention-grab in the world of video games.
But the failure of Twitch Plays Dark Souls at its inception is actually when things got interesting...
Daniel Nichols is a control engineer who likes to fiddle with Dark Souls in his spare time. Twitch Plays Dark Souls got its start when he devised a script that could take chat commands and translate them into player input. “Like many divergences in my life, this one began with ‘can it be done?’” says Nichols. He hadn’t spent very long coding the script before deciding to take it for a test spin, and he alerted the Dark Souls subreddit of its existence. He never expected the stream to take off the way it did – especially at such an early stage.
“The sad part is that everyone got to see what I could program in just a few hours instead of having a mature, tested script,” Nichols tells me.
So, as thousands of viewers tuned in to the madness that was Twitch Plays Dark Souls 1.0, Nichols got to work immediately, figuring out new ways to make this crowdplay experience possible. “From the very start, it was painfully obvious that chat needed help,” he says. “The delays, the trolls--nothing was getting done, and dozens of hours later, it was starting to get stale.”
The tweaks Nichols has made to the script in the past two weeks have resulted in a system that lets players switch between anarchy mode, where chat commands are registered and executed instantly, and democracy, where the game freezes after commands so that Twitch players can vote on the next one. Also included with the changes are more commands, a way to account for delay, and a more coherent layout. With Nichols’ tweaks in place, crowdplayers are far better equipped to take on Dark Souls’ challenges.The player collective has already taken out the Asylum Demon, the Taurus Demon, the gargoyles, and more!
When asked if he has confidence that Twitch players can actually beat Dark Souls, Nichols says, “I do actually, I really do.” He notes that the only barrier now is the potential for boredom. Because of the voting system and delay, it can take several minutes to pull off moves that would normally take a few seconds in real-time. He's still figuring out how he can "mix it up" and keep it fun for people during these delays and the inevitable down time between battles.
“I try and monitor it as much as possible, but I am just a normal person,” says Nichols. He finds time to edit his script and track the stream between his full-time job and night classes for his PhD.
Perhaps most interesting about Twitch Plays Dark Souls is what Nichols describes as its “rubber band effect.” Nichols explains: “The more people that play, the more chaotic and non-progressive the gameplay becomes. But, as players lose interest, an elite group forms, completes an important task, and brings a lot of people back to the stream.”
Of the “important tasks” that attract more viewers to the stream, the biggest of all is slaying bosses. A few participants in the stream have edited video of these battles into smooth fights, minus the pauses, and posted them on YouTube.
To the Twitch Plays Dark Souls community, even the small tasks are worth celebrating. Over on the Twitch Plays Dark Souls subredditst--both of them--users are sharing screenshots memorializing moments like the lighting of the bonfire near the first blacksmith, or the reinforcing of their weapon. These are normally minor events in the game itself, but when over a thousand people cooperate to achieve them, they become a lot more exciting.
It's a testament to the thrill of accomplishing anything in the chaos of a Twitch Plays game, and to the lingering affection for FromSoftware's magnificent action RPG. Twitch Plays Dark Souls seems like a way for veterans of the series to relive those small-but-precious victories in the company of others who want to experience the same thing. With its passive multiplayer, which allows everyone to share notes of encouragement or warning with each other in-game, Dark Souls has always been a sort of communal experience.
In light of that, this bizarre crowdplay experience seems like the logical extension of what the community already responded to in the game. The idea of thousands of Twitch players joining forces to beat Dark Souls together might seem ludicrous at this early stage, but my faith in the community makes me believe that it's possible.