When Dark Souls broke its contract

charlie_brown_lucy.jpgLast semester I found myself needing two copies of Xbox Left 4 Dead so that we could study that game in class. I already owned one, and feeling too lazy to requisition another from the university, I arranged a temporary trade for a friend’s copy. He requested Dark Souls in exchange, having observed my copious tweeting on that topic a few weeks before. The semester’s over now, and my friend had quickly found that Dark Souls wasn’t really his cup of tea. I’ll propose a lunch to reverse the exchange sometime, but I’m in no particular hurry: I don’t really want to see Dark Souls in my house again, let alone in my game console.

To say I don’t like the game would be an oversimplification bordering on falsehood; in fact, the game brought me many hours of enjoyment, and I carry lasting fond memories of certain gameplay moments. As reports from friends filter in that they are finally finishing the game (it takes upwards of 100 hours to traverse), I think back to these moments, and the chance that I’ll give it another look someday rises above absolute zero. But this can’t happen in the near future: my relationship with this game ended so disastrously that it’s really better for both of us to avoid contact for a long time.

I must risk sounding melodramatic to explain why this game so profoundly unsettled me: I had never felt such purely negative emotion about a videogame in my adult life as I did at the moment when Dark Souls betrayed my trust.

The contract between the game and myself was simple, and should prove familiar to anyone who has played or even read about the game: play very conservatively, and you will find reward. One of the first things I read about the game described it as a critique of the power-gamer fantasy present in most single-player action-adventure games. Contrary to expectations set by games such as Arkham Asylum or, indeed, Left 4 Dead, rushing into a mob of common bad guys will almost always result in the player-character’s demise: one solid hit from even a weak enemy sends your character reeling, defenseless against further abuse from any other nearby enemies, who will not hesitate to dish it out. Watching your scary armed-and-armored warrior get torn to shreds by a trio of naked, gibbering wretches is quite humbling, and teaches the player quite effectively that, unlike most other games in its genre, being outnumbered is not a setup for a cinematic brawl that will let the player vicariously exult in the main character’s superheroic prowess. Rather, it’s something to flee from, desperately looking for higher ground or narrower footing, so as to instead confront the baddies one at a time.

This fascinated me, and I bought into it. After the shock of initiation into the game’s reality — the tutorial level is less on-ramp than boot camp, pulling no punches as it beats any action-adventure preconceptions out of your gut — I found myself even enjoying it. This process involved a small but real personal transformation, at least while I was in Dark Souls’ world; I had to unlearn and relearn so much about playing videogames like this, and to take nothing for granted and to focus entirely on the game while I played. Significantly, the game has no pause button, so I needed to coldly ignore (or irritatedly dismiss) any real-life requests for attention or assistance. Dark Souls insists that if you’re going to give it any of your attention, you’re going to give it all of your attention, until you win or you fail. This outrageous attitude only fascinated me more; I was hooked.

As I learned to play by its rules, very slowly, Dark Souls started to reward me. I still recall the thrill I felt when, after hours of play, I found a wooden shield better than the junky, broken one you begin the story with; it was as if my harsh taskmaster casually grunted a compliment at me for the first time. Much later, when I finally bought a reasonably powerful attack spell, and had a fairly good understanding of the world’s initial areas, I felt like I was finally starting to approach the game as a peer.

The betrayal took place at the start of a planned evening with the game, the day after an especially enjoyable and (I thought at the time) successful sally through the sprawling early set of levels called the Undead Burg. After many trials, I had finally wound my way to the other side of a certain portcullis not far from a central save-point, finding a lever there that raised it. I took this as a clear signal that I had completed that area, and opened up a new one. I could see more bad guys waiting beyond, but at this point I had played Dark Souls long enough to know better than press my luck and charge on in: when you die, you permanently lose all the “souls” (experience points, basically) gained since the start of your session, and I was too laden with spoils to risk that. I chose instead to stick to the contract: I retreated, back through the portcullis and to the save point, calling it a night.

At the start of my next session, I reentered the space with the open portcullis; the usual array of enemies surrounded it. (That all enemies you have slain come back to life every time you save the game — or get yourself killed — is one of the first things you learn, so this came as no surprise.) But something new happened this time: as soon as they saw me round the corner, several of the goons in the distance turned and ran through the open gate, towards that lever. A second later, the gate slammed shut. And then the auto-save icon flickered in the corner of the screen, confirming that my progress across the map from the previous evening had been tidily erased from the single save-slot that the game allows you.

As a young teenager, I would sometimes get very angry at videogames. I threw controllers and shouted and carried on just horribly when I spent a month’s allowance to buy Golgo 13 (which looked so cool in “Nintendo Power”) only to discover how ugly and mean it was, or when the hated Blue Wizrobes in The Legend of Zelda made their first appearance, shifting up the game’s difficultly level by a quantum.

In retrospect, of course, I see these as childish reasons to become upset; as an adult, I recognize these rather as reasons to take a break, or at worst to give up and move on to something more worthwhile. Like all well-adjusted gamers past a certain age, as I get older I tend to be much choosier about the games I spend my time with. In Dark Souls, I thought I had found something rare and remarkable, worthy of investing long hours into its exploration and eventual mastery.

In one stroke, with a clatter of chains and an echoing thud, it showed me how just much it respected my investment.

Part of me still expecting an evening of play, I mechanically stumbled on for a few minutes more, like a body that doesn’t realize its brain is dead. My fighter engaged the foes as usual, but the fight had gone out of us. Slowly, deliberately, I placed the controller back on the coffee table, and stood. My character lowered her shield, and stood also. Her enemies wasted no time, and she was already sighing her familiar death-moan — losing the precious powerups that we had won the previous day — as I stooped to press the console’s power button. Then I crossed to the bedroom and sat, silently, as my partner asked what happened. It took several minutes to find the words to even begin describing my feelings, then. I managed a little more on Twitter the next day, and I finally try to express it in full, today, months later.

I found the event a two-pronged insult. Bad enough that the game proposed I re-conquer the same section of the Undead Burg again, repopulated with the exact same enemies and challenges, as if the previous evening’s hours of play had never happened. But the setback came not as a result of foolishness on my part. It would have been one thing had I slipped up, or gotten too cocky, and allowed my character to die; at this point I had long since accepted swift and costly death as the game’s constant risk, perhaps even its central pacing mechanism. But I didn’t die; after winning a little bit of ground, I fell back to regroup, so that I might fight some more another day. I was following the rules. I had maintained my end of the contract to the letter. And then, through the use of wholly unclued events — enemy characters had never before this shown any interest in the environment, lever-pulling or otherwise — the game made up a new reason for failure, on the spot. Lucy pulled away the football, grinning, and as I lay there stunned she invited me most sincerely to try again.

A little out-of-band reading revealed the correct path in this area. The lever is an outright ruse; one is supposed to press on past it, finding an elevator that actually performs the permanent map-expansion that the portcullis pretends to offer. But while I did start up the game once or twice after that, with my skills perhaps dulled by resentment, I never came close to replicating my feat of reaching that area a second time. The more I thought about it, the less sure I became that I even wanted to actually succeed and continue. Now that the contract lay broken, I had no assurance that the game wouldn’t pull similar or worse maneuvers on me in the future. Why would I willingly walk into that? Friends on Twitter understood my plight but urged me to continue anyway, insisting that this event was an anomaly, or that the game front-loads all this sort of player-griefing to its earliest stages. I appreciated the sympathy, but it all came too late: I had been well and truly burned, and just couldn’t play the game in good faith any longer.

I do not regret the time I spent playing Dark Souls. It really did impress me that a solitaire videogame experience could make me feel real-life betrayal, and my experience as a game critic is richer for it. One of my friends, while in the midst of an ultimately victorious Dark Souls traversal, commented that they found it an excellent videogame adaptation of an abusive relationship. The portcullis affair made me feel I knew just what they meant. The game knew that it still had what I wanted, and waited for me to pick myself up and crawl right on back for more. It took an act of will to loan away the disc instead, my way of turning and walking out with my head held high. Perhaps it’s better that my copy of the game stays, unplayed, in someone else’s house for a while longer.

This entry was posted in Best Of, Essays, Jmac on Games  and tagged  , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to When Dark Souls broke its contract

  1. knutaf says:

    Well, that's a pity. I always felt that particular bit was unusual. I don't think there's any other part of the game that taunts you in that way, or tricks you into thinking you unlocked a shortcut. From then on, if you think you unlocked a shortcut, you actually did.

    So, did you finish it? There's so much amazing stuff to experience after that, that it would be a pity for a weird aberration like this part to poison the rest of the game.

  2. Chris Dahlen says:

    Then it's a good thing you didn't get to the curses!

    I wish you would give the game another chance, and I'll also mention that once you're pretty well along, Undead Parish will be so easy that you can actually run across that courtyard and get through the gate before they have time to close it on you. (And like you say, the shortcut to the Shrine is just as convenient.)

    But I agree with you that the game is not just difficult, but really deeply frustrating in places - that it hits you with setbacks that don't seem fair, and sends you through sections that are just unrelentingly discouraging. Undead Burg almost made me want to give up, because the boss seemed impossible, every attempt took a chunk of time to work up to, and yet it took too long to grind up to another level and overpower it. Eventually I figured out the solution, but it was really discouraging.

    Later in the game, I got frustrated by other things. The last section is a pain in the ass. Even when I started cheating and checking wikis, I just learned that there were several NPC quest chains that I kept breaking by accident because they were so brittle and weird. I accidentally got the "wrong" ending because I just happened to overlook the action I needed to take to get the one I wanted. And one of the only great moments of story in the whole game was spoiled for me by a Eurogamer article!

    So yeah, I have plenty of complains too. And yet ... I finally beat it, and now I find it hard to play anything else, because I feel so comfortable and proficient with it, and so intrigued by what it's still doing to me, that I just can't put it down. I really need to turn over to Skyrim now, but the games are so diametrically opposed (Skyrim lets you PAUSE, and SAVE, and RELOAD!) that it's going to take time to change gears.

    Dark Souls is painful, and not fair, but there's really nothing else like it (that I know of). I don't know. I'm tempted to urge you to give it another chance. But ... I don't know. You already know what you'd be getting into.

    • Well, I would be a poor Charlie Brown if I gave up after only a single failed kick, now, wouldn't I. The day will come when I will be sure it'll work this time, and...

      I happened to read your post about Sen's Fortress yesterday, by the way, after I wrote this essay. I agreed wholeheartedly with the spirit of it; I admire the game for the same reasons you point out. By god I have not just the layout but the stonework patterns and the way the light falls on the brown ivy across those damned Burg buildings beat into my head now, months later.

      I picked up Fallout: New Vegas after the loan. I have been having tremendous fun with it, and yet I am keenly aware of what I'm not experiencing, just as you say.

      All this means that there's another post or two about Dark Souls from me still to write, despite my abbreviated experience. I don't know that any other videogame that I didn't even finish has inspired me so much.

  3. Okay. So...

    I think even in spite of what I'm about to say your response remains basically valid (which I'll explain), but I don't think the game quite "broke" the contract in the way you describe.

    If you pay attention you'll notice the gate is open the first time you enter that room, and the first thing that happens when you enter the room is the enemies, alerted to your presence, run to close it. Therefore if you're savvy on the "all enemies respawn" rule, which it sounds like you were, it should have been logical to assume that the first thing they'd do when they saw you was close the gate again.

    So technically, I feel, the game is shooting straight with you. What feels douche-y is how UNLIKELY you are to actually observe this behavior the first time, since it happens WAY at the far end of a massive room while you are being attacked by a metal-clad boar from hell. The "enemy closes gate when sees you" behavior is consistent and observable, but good luck noticing it your first time.

    Like you I hadn't even realized the gate was open the first time, only to be closed by the enemies when I entered. I only realized this later, but once I did it didn't seem like a clean betrayal to me so much as a (admittedly frustrating) information parsing challenge. The deck is stacked against you pretty absurdly in that room, so that your misunderstanding is the overwhelming likelihood. This is why I think your reaction is justified, though I still would defend the game on consistency.

  4. Dark Souls was the best bad game of 2011. I put countless hours into it, yet I still don't recommend it to my friends.

    I had the same frustration you did, and I was nearly ready to quit there. I pushed through, but eventually other frustrations managed to end it for me. Here are the main ones I gripe about:

    1) Blight Town graphics lag. The game occasionally turns into a slideshow here. I lost count of how many times I died because the game decided to freeze and I'm suddenly rolling off of a ledge to my doom. This was super frustrating.

    2) Lost Izalith lava brightness. In this section, you're inside a volcano fighting giant dinosaur things. The problem I had was that bloom effect on the lava is so bright that it would actually make it difficult for me to see what was going on around me. (Like having a flashlight shined in your eyes in a dark room.) I managed to soldier through this, but I was nearly at my breaking point.

    3) Invincible boss. There's a boss you run into late in the game that is totally unbeatable. Dying to him causes you to spawn in a new place nearby, and you have to fight your way out. I overlooked a small switch on the wall that takes you to the next area, so I assumed that I needed to fight my way back to him and figure out some sort of trick that would let me kill him. I did this several times before giving up and reading a walkthrough.

    4) Crystal Caverns invisible platforms. This one finally got me to put down the game permanently. You're walking through a cave made entirely of crystals, with big crystal behemoths that can knock you off to your death pretty easily. The kicker is that many of the platforms you need to walk across are entirely invisible. You can shoot arrows down to try to figure out where it is safe to walk, but it's time consuming and boring. That was the last straw for me.

    • thebigJ_A says:

      Or you could pay attention to where the bright, obvious shiny things are hitting the walkway, clearly indicating the path...

  5. Damien Neil says:

    Your experience is, of course, valid for yourself. If that's the moment that made you decide the game wasn't for you, so it is.

    I had the same experience of having that gate closed on me. I suspect everyone does. My reaction was laughter--the rather weak enemy that closes it was acting perfectly rationally! I'd flee too, in his shoes.

    And, critically, you don't lose too much progress if the gate closes. The alternate route is slower, but I don't think it takes more than five minutes when you're familiar with it, even at lower levels when the enemies are still noticeably challenging. I'd have been infuriated if I'd lost a substantial amount of progress; as it was, it was only a minor setback.

  6. Brad says:

    Great post! I really appreciate a well-written anecdote on a game experience.

  7. Andrew says:

    I'd love to say that you should keep going but for the same reason I can't recommend it my friends is that although it has beautiful moments in it, Dark Souls is extremely frustrating the whole way through.

    I didn't experience the problem you had. I continued on to the bonfire and found the lift and didn't end up using the gate until much later and by then a little back tracking was no problem.

    What annoys me most are the little problems with the game. As it is so easy to die, and much of the time is spent on narrow ledges, any small issue can be very costly.
    I've been killed by:
    Sudden swings by the camera as it moves around objects causing my character to veer off into an abyss.
    Large hitboxes on scenery which I bounce off into an abyss.
    Large hitboxes on monsters which either prevent me from running past through empty space to safety or giving the monster an unexpectedly large attack range.
    The camera getting stuck behind some scenery and I'll have to fight a monster blindfolded while I wrestle the camera back into position.
    Delayed inputs - sometimes buttons take several seconds to register, usually leading to an insta-kill as I lower my shield in time for the enemies strong attack. Or tapping dive roll when the game doesn't seem to be responding to the first button press, causing my character to dive roll, stand up and then dive again, several seconds after the button press. This also happens when I try to exit a menu quickly while being attacked, and I'll jump backwards off an edge. Most games are more forgiving about multiple button presses, so I've had to learn to be much more precise.

    I really wish I could remap the buttons, because I never want to use the strong attack, just the jumping attack (forward+Strong) but if I don't hit the combo precisely, then my character spend several seconds undefended winding up for the attack and recovering afterwards. To know what I should do, but have my character do something else is almost enough to make me rage quit.

  8. jake says:

    please don't return to dark souls. you see, challenging part, much like the one you have experienced, is all part of FromSoftware's special form of natural selection. only those skilled enough to complete the game will be able to. so basically you suck for getting stuck in undead parish.

  9. Note: the above comment fell into our spam filter. I have resurrected it, because it's not spam. However, it's not exactly contributing to the conversation either, is it? Sheesh.

  10. thebigJ_A says:

    While the above comment isn't very nice, and I don't like his wording, the point is valid. If the undead burg is that difficult for you, you just aren't particularly good at the game. No shame in it. I'm shit at fighting games, so I don't play them. Perhaps Dark Souls is that way for you.

    The game didn't break its contract, though. You took the wrong lesson. The game teaches you to OBSERVE, not go slow. The gate is very early in the game, and as such is part of that lesson. Were you observing, you'd see them close it the first time through.

  11. Robyrt says:

    I totally agree with you - Dark Souls does break the implied contract with the player here. It was planned, and they will do it again throughout the game with other rules you thought were inviolable. Each rule is broken exactly once, and specifically designed to shock the player. Now, I had some advance warning because Demon's Souls was famous for doing the same thing, but I can totally see how you would feel that sickening sense of betrayal.

    So yes, Dark Souls is fabulous and I enjoyed it way more once I got out of that stupid undead town and into more interesting and unique scenery. But if enemies closing the door behind you is a deal-breaker, it's probably best you stay away, because that part of the game isn't going away.

  12. chapel says:

    So you got to the second level (excluding the tutorial), found that one thing you did that worked for you in the first level didn't work in the second, and gave up. I would argue that if stuff that you did in the first level always worked in every level, you're playing a pretty crappy game.

    Also, Dark Souls is not contractually obligated to make things easy on you. It's mantra, to me, seems to be: "fool you once, shame on me; fool you twice, shame on you."

  13. bufftucker says:

    Jesus christ quit using a goddamn thesaurus on every other word. It makes you sound pretentious and compensating for your lack of intelligence.

    [Username spelling changed because cheap swears are cheap. Also, "It makes you sound compensating"? You *can* use a gerund that way, I suppose, but it trips your parallel structure all over the sidewalk... --Ed.]

  14. Midnight Tea says:

    If you do give Dark Souls another go, here's another strategy for you. If you stick to the east side of the Undead Parish, past the portcullis, you'll find a path to the right through some bushes. Follow that path and you'll hear some clanking in a building ahead of you. That building houses both a bonfire for you to rest at, and a blacksmith to improve your weapons. Plus if you leave the building the way you entered and keep going straight, you'll find that elevator people mentioned.

    The secret to Dark Souls is to not repeatedly bash your face against the same obstacles like you would in a more linear game. The game will outlast you. It's kind of a shame the beginning of the game is so linear with so few branches because it doesn't do enough to encourage exploration over conquest.

  15. Damo says:

    I'm sorry but the section you are talking about is pretty much right at the start of the game. If you're already having problems I think you did the right thing by giving up. God knows how you would have reacted to getting cursed. Also, got don't have to go back to a bonfire to save, that happens all the time automatically. In fact, unless you cashed in your souls or wanted to kindle it, there was no point you retreating back to that bonfire after opening the gate.

  16. Mushfeq says:

    This was a very interesting post.

    I can definitely relate to the frustration the poster experienced. Early on in the game, I died dozens of times at the hands of the same five minor skeletons at the beginning of the Undead Burg, and came close to quitting on several occasions. The game really does have a distinctly unwelcoming quality to it.

    But I disagree that in the situation that you described, the game is breaking some sort of contract. I'd submit that it's introducing you to its real nature: rife with unfairness and the constant potential for disastrous mishaps, and always demanding that you execute the seemingly impossible not once or twice, but ad nauseum. It's a nasty game, as anyone who has gotten invaded and killed right before they managed to reclaim their lost souls knows. It's unfortunate that this introduction couldn't be a bit gentler. It comes on like a slap in the face.

    I like to joke that without this game, I'd never have had the patience or perseverance to finish my Phd.

    • Mushfeq says:

      It's been a while since I played the game, so I'd forgotten that you can't get invaded while "hollow". Still, there are an almost unreasonable number of ways to die when the stakes are really high.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>