Sunday, September 20, 2015

Dark Souls is Classic D&D in a modern video game

I'm talking about one of the coolest, most fun and most brutal video games out there: Dark Souls. I'm surprised I haven't seen too many RPG gamers talk about this one, as it is certainly old-school enough. Here are a few D&Dable things this game does that most other video games completely fail to do:


1 - The world is fucking dangerous / no hand-holding

Dying is a thing in DS that happens a LOT. Giant poison lakes, pit traps, basilisks, enemies that roll barrels down the stairs, blind corner ambushes, pitch dark levels and all kinds of other sneaky tricks await. Enemies are not rated for your level, or divided into discrete areas of a certain difficulty. Almost all the enemies are bigger, faster, stronger and scarier than you.

Instructions are minimal. What happens when I use a bonfire? What can I spend my souls on? How does parrying work? Which weapons are good? How do I use magic? Where should I go next?? All these questions and more await your own solutions. The game doesn't belabour the point with endless tutorials, a great big quest arrow floating overhead or anything else. Here's the world: go. See what's out there. Try stuff. Have fun. Make mistakes. Figure it out.

2 - Not everyone is hostile / things aren't as they seem

No big deal, it's the first boss!
Just like any campaign setting, you need a few NPCs to sell you things and dish up a few rumours. They're found in the most unlikely places in Dark Souls. Those gross infected egg carrier guys? Nice fellows mostly - too busy praying to attack you. The spider ladies? Well... one of them is nice. Meanwhile, the normal humans are some of the worst shits in the game, betraying at every opportunity, abandoning their comrades, dying in shame or kicking you into a pit.

3 - Fights are like puzzles / learn from your mistakes

Once you figure out how an enemy fights, how it "thinks," things get much easier. Boss fights especially are about trying new combinations, different weapons and spells until something works. Sometimes you need to move fast, just wear some short-shorts and run around real quick. Other times you need to gear up and stomp around in the heaviest armour you have. Maybe you can climb up a wall and jump down on a bosses head, or use a special weapon they are vulnerable to. D&D is the same - learning how the monsters fight and what the best strategies are takes place over the lives of multiple PCs, as your characters get wiped out by bigger and stronger enemies until you've gone toe-to-toe with the whole Monster Manual.

4 - The world fits together

On left, see the parapet where dude above is being chased.
There is a video here of a guy looking at the collision data for the ENTIRE map of the game. It all fits together as one piece. You can walk from one end of Lordran to the other and from top to bottom. If you're looking around and see an interesting area, you will be able to walk to it - that's the actual level you're looking at over there, not just a background picture! This is great because the world makes sense. By the time you get to Lost Izalith, you've been staring at it from a distance at several different points and can't wait to see what the fuck is inside.

I don't think this can be emphasized enough. It's key to how the game plays, especially as you unlock shortcuts to speed up your travel through the world. Backtracking happens a lot. Because enemies re-appear constantly, the world never stops being dangerous. Knowing how to get to your destination with a minimum of risk is important, and there are almost always multiple routes to take. In other words, the kingdom of Lordran is well Jacquayed. 

5 - Actions have consequences

Whoops! Did you kill one of the merchants by accident? Tough shit. The game autosaves, so you can't just go back to a previous save if you missed some of his gear. Did you let that psycho killer out of his jail cell? Or maybe you said the wrong thing to somebody, and now they hate you? The game might be harder, but it wasn't picking on you - it let you make that decision yourself.

6 - Choose your level of involvement, or: it's all about how ballsy you wanna play it

Did I mention this is the first level?
If you like, you can sit around and grind monsters for XP until your character is way over-leveled and has all the best stuff. Or you can beat the game at level 1 if you want the sense of accomplishment and the cred. It's easy to wander into areas much too tough for your level - and it's even possible to win through if you're good enough. This fact alone takes the game into the realm of good D&D thinking. The world is there, waiting for you - take it on however you want.

7 - Look under every rock & take anything not nailed down

Sometimes it's hard to figure out where you should go next. The entrances to some levels are hidden away, and the world is so big and open that it's easy to forget where you've been and where you planned to explore later. The blacksmiths who upgrade your equipment are easy to miss, the best treasure is always hidden somewhere, and even paths required to finish the game are off to the side where you might not think of looking. Sometimes you need to backtrack to places you thought were closed off, because they have since changed. There is no automapping feature.

That's the whole idea! You have to try everything, go everywhere and talk to everyone or you'll miss some key points. This is the kind of approach I want to see when I run D&D: players engaging with the game world and taking an interest because it's the best way to survive and thrive.
That's an iron golem all right.

8 - Challenge your assumptions

You will hear a lot of people (including me) say Dark Souls is tough as fuck, it's impossibly hard, it will break all your controllers and eat your kids. I am in no way a man of quick reflexes or much speed on the controller - I'm useless at Street Fighter-type games, and if you want to play Counterstrike I'll be hovering around 0 kills & 20 deaths, just fodder for guys with steady hands and decent eyesight. I have stuck to turn-based RPG and strategy games to avoid this humiliation.

Why are they all so BIG?
So why do I like Dark Souls? Although it is hard, it's not as bad as everyone makes it out to be - it just works differently than most games. Sort of like dropping a group of Type IV players into The Grinding Gear. Sure it might be trying to kill you, but your undoing is sealed by assuming things about the game and world that aren't true. Once you know what's out there, new strategies are adopted and you can begin to thrive. I mean, basically what I'm trying to say is this.

None of this even covers the setting, story, scenery, multiplayer (a whole article in itself) or NPCs and monsters you'll meet. The more I think about Dark Souls, the more I think about great megadungeon stuff that I want to play in.

PS: To have a few laughs with (and at the expense of) a guy playing the game for the first time, go here.

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