Sunday, 28 August 2016

Dark Souls 3: Design, Difficulty and Me

I am not a man who likes difficult games. I grew up in a time where it seemed like many games deliberately wanted to punish the player, with too many mistakes meaning a total game over. They were borne of the arcade mentality, where a new life would mean more money in the slot. Being good at a game meant you could play for longer on whatever meagre allowance you had. I was never good enough, so arcade machines just seemed far too expensive.

The games I grew to love took a more relaxed view of difficulty, a different approach. Sierra adventure games may have many ways for the player character to be killed, but they also allowed liberal use of save games and were relatively short. Ultima RPGs would usually freely resurrect the player character and party if you were defeated. Many games allowed for cheating, or had in-built cheats to give you access to almost everything will little or no skill required.

Dark Souls is halfway between the two approaches. Death is easy, common and should be expected for an inexperienced player. Often though, you will not lose that much per death (although the combination of multiple deaths can lead to greater punishment). You respawn at a bonfire after each death, so while you may have to repeat a section over again, you never are forced to start right from the beginning like those arcade-style games of old.

However, many parts of the game are still too difficult for the likes of me. Many Dark Souls players are quick to say how fair the game is, how anyone can progress, and that all it takes is patience. These things are not quite true: the game isn't entirely fair (nor should it be), not everyone can always progress, and people's patience for certain sections or certain bosses is highly variable.

So in Dark Souls 1 I hit a wall. I got somewhere between half way and two-thirds of the way through the game, and I just couldn't manage to get further. The available avenues to me were blocked by difficult fights and difficult bosses. I had nowhere to turn. The game sits on my hard drive even now, unplayed.

I did get Dark Souls 3 for PS4 though. It feels so much like Dark Souls 1, while being faster and more difficult from the outset. The very first boss is so much more difficult than the first Dark Souls 1 boss. I persevered and defeated it anyway, glad of my previous experience with DS1.

It helps that the game is so beautiful I think, with its big gothic towers and strange monsters. It could so easily have been another bland fantasy RPG, but the graphic design squeezes every drop of ability from the PS4 to create a game that is a joy to explore. Each location feels truly different, and each monster type appropriate for its environment.

Dark Souls 3 I completed. It was difficult, I was frustrated a lot at times, but I finished it. I even finished the extra difficult optional sections. Some of this was down to my own patience, my small level of skill, and perseverance. Some of it was down to the summon system. Summoning is a wonderful multiplayer addition to these games, bringing together a sense of community that is built into the very fabric of the game.

It's also highly dependant on the amount of people playing at any given time. Certain difficult areas are very sparse with helpful summons (and often thick with invading attackers). Without summoning in help, I could never have finished the game. It makes certain areas and bosses much easier, and allows those with lower skill levels the ability to see all that the game has to offer.

In DS1 the summon system was a bit harsher, but provided many of the same benefits. Unfortunately playing such an old game means that at best there may be only a few thousand people playing it, and the chances of one of those being in an appropriate place and time to be summonable is slim at best. Many of the early areas had NPC summons, but this was inconsistent at best.

DS3 seemed to lack the NPC summons almost completely, with only limited exceptions. I find this a big shame, because there will be those who will want to play the game when it is no longer popular and find they have nobody to call on when they get stuck.

For all the talk of Dark Souls design, this is the bit that sticks with me. For all the changes in the series to make it more forgiving for new or low-skill players, to allow more people to enjoy the best about the game, the multiplayer element is a puzzling one.

On the one hand, the way it is designed makes the multiplayer a seamless addition to the world, makes the world a living, breathing place and fits in perfectly with the lore. On the other, playing the game without this interaction is almost like playing a shell of a game. It's still completeable, it's still got much the same content, and indeed you'll mostly avoid invading players that way, but I feel like you'd miss out on one of the things that makes the game so unique, and so well loved.

It would be difficult to replace this system with one that works in an offline capacity, but not impossible. There are already NPC invaders and summons in the game, however limited they may be, so to improve upon this would not be out of the question. It would be quite a large thing to patch into the game though, to trigger when the game was months old perhaps.

Personally, I'd prefer a game where the bosses were removed, and instead it was focused on the more interesting parts. For me, the most interesting part is exploring each new zone, each new section. Carefully learning to defeat or avoid each monster, exploiting any weaknesses, and learning the secrets of the area. Boss fights seem like a step back towards arcade mechanics, no matter how well they are presented.

No comments:

Post a Comment