Soulsborne

I first discovered Dark Souls huddled down in a dingy basement, like one of the lost and despaired corridors so common in the game’s setting.  Since then the series has been one of my favorites.  The second installment made some dramatic shifts to core gameplay elements (backstabs, poise) and felt off, but I still powered through and slaughtered Nashandra.  But it was 2015’s Bloodborne and last year’s Dark souls III that the series hit its high point, mastering the formula.

After what felt like months of battling frustration, I finally beat both Dark souls III and Bloodborne last month (at least the vanilla game), so I feel like I can finally comment on the series as a whole.  What makes these games so appealing?

The fascinating thing about the game design of the series is they take the opposite approach to many of their peers.  other RPGs go heavy on dialog and exposition, Souls is sparse.  Other games rely on randomized enemies and events, everything in Souls is scripted.  Other games polish a user interface util its intuitive and clean, Souls sticks with a barebones tables and text.  It eschews difficulty modes or learning curves.  It simply presents a direct challenge to the player and gives them tools to work with.

All the praise of the original still stand: uncompromising difficulty, cryptic lore, unhelpful statistics, pixel-perfect collision and response.  But III and Borne honed the formula to a fine tip.

I will say that III feels like a remake of the original.  Certain zones are identical, from the architecture to the trash mobs.  Some zones *are* literally the same (Anor Londo), but experienced hundreds of years later, so the stones have experienced considerable weathering.  At times this is a bit of a letdown, that we can’t experience more of From Software’s brilliant originality, but it’s good that those motifs can be experienced on the current HD modern console generation.  III goes beyond the original for a number of zones and bosses (Abyss Watchers, Pontiff) and closes with a nice throwback (Soul of Cinder as Gywn).  

Bloodborne is a different beast.  Probably the darkest video game I’ve played, the setting is an unholy melding of victorian architecture and lovecraftian horror.  One of Dark Souls core mechanic – blocking with shields – has been abandoned (even mocked), in favor of guns, parrying and lifeleech rallies.

Beyond the fights, Bloodborne tells its story in fascinating ways.  Players gain “insight” from encountering and defeating bosses, or consuming Madmen’s Knowledge during the playthrough.  As insight increases, new details are revealed about the world.  Monsters grow dozens of eyes, like spiders.  And instead of merely a bloodred sunset, a huge spindle-legged monstrosity is revealed, climbing the steeple of the central cathedral.   Numerous characters have also blindfolded themselves, removing their vision of the mundane world in exchange for a glimpse of the eldritch truth.

The player’s journey moves through creepy plazas and grand cathedrals, along with dingy villages of wooden huts.  But it also warps in and out of nightmares and dreamscapes, trapped in some recursive figment of cursed and dying adherents of the blood church.

All that being said, Bloodborne’s dark palette and and motifs can be overwhelmingly dreary, and DS III is a nice change of pace to fight on glowing lava fields or sparkling snowscapes.

Even as the Soulsborne games are objectively solid, but it’s is the organic community that’s turned them into legendary hits.  The lore, secrets, and the labyrinthine level design requires multiple playthroughs and hours of erudite study, plenty of fodder for wiki communities to digest.  Beyond that, freakishly talented players have adopted the game as a prime candidate for speedrunning.  The various combinations of achievement possible in the games is astounding.  Some run through and slaughter all the bosses as quickly as possible.  Other’s find glitches and exploits to simply reach the end credits in twenty minutes.  Some even do it all naked, without getting hit once.  Others stick the online PVP gameplay, using exotic weapons, or trolling opponents.

I’ll never be that good, or have that much time and dedication.  I’m content to master the game to the level where I can defeat the bosses, maybe come around again in NG+ and defeat them a second time.  There’s nothing more satisfying than finally executing all the perfectly timed rolls and counter attacks to victory, hands sweaty, heart pounding.  In a way, that rush is behind me, which is a bit bittersweet.

From Software says they’re done with the Soulsborne series, but the formula has been such a wild success, I’m sure spiritual successors will abound.  I’ll be there, dodge rolling and backstabbing with the rest of them.  Praise the sun.

The Zen of Dark Souls

I played a lot of Dark Souls this summer.

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I was staying in the basement of my in-laws. My own house had been torn apart by hammers and crowbars, in preparation for a renovation that would last many months. So I had my Xbox and little 26 inch flat screen in the corner of the basement, facing a grungy blue lazy boy. Water pipes gurgled overhead. The bathroom was two flights of stairs up, so I’d often resort to stepping out the back exit of the house to piss out into the yard under towering oaks.

But back to Dark Souls.

It’s considered by many to be the hardest video game of this generation. It’s a fantasy RPG, which means you kill bad guys and get experience points and then spend those points on making your own avatar more powerful. You get weapons and armor which help you kill enemies and monstrous bosses more efficiently.

Most RPG games are a long grind of clicking a few buttons, decimating waves of enemies, and spending your time comparing the attack benefits of a magic long sword + 5 versus a flaming battle axe of ownage +3. You still do that kind of thing in dark souls, but it’s far less of the appeal.

You see, the heart of dark souls lies in single combat between the player and an enemy. The world is grimly dark, some bastardized hybrid of fantasy tropes with ancient mythology. The ancient world is dying and the gods have abandoned the world to fall into darkness blah blah blah. So most of the baddies you fight are undead: zombies, skeletons, liches, etc. Your avatar are also undead, your smiling human face sucked in, leering out of dead eyes. Your armor hangs loosely off your skinny limbs.

And so most of the time, it’s you, a skeleton knight, faced off against another skeleton knight. You both have shields and swords. You circle each other. The enemy may lunge with his weapon. At this point, you can keep your shield up and block, but the force will throw you off balance. You can also roll to dodge or – even more difficult – parry his attack. Once the enemy gives you an opening, you can attack, but the enemy also can block, dodge or parry.

So there’s this rock-paper-scissors match going on for every battle with nameless yard trash (to say nothing of the boss encounters).

The bottom line is you die. A lot. Dying becomes this sort of Zen experience in Dark souls. Every time you perish, the screen fades into a sort of soothing gray, an ambient whoosh oozes from the speakers, and big red letters proclaim: You Died.

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At this point, you lose all your accumulated experience – called souls – represented as a green glowing orb, somewhat similar to Sonic the Hedgehog, spilling all his golden rings.

You have a single change to recover the souls before they are gone forever. Often, you’ll run back to the spot you died, pound the A button to collect the souls, and just die once again from the same threat that took you out originally.

There are sections of the game I played for many hours, getting nowhere. I’d learn patterns to defeat or avoid the enemies, only to have a sweaty finger slip off the controller and send me caroming off a cliff. Or I’d mistime a parry and get impaled instead. Or I’d drink a health potion (named Estus Flask) without running far enough from an enemy, and as my player performed the painfully sluggish drinking animation, I’d get beaten down with swords or arrows or falling boulders.

But the fact was I was stuck in that basement. I had nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. The fridge was so packed with leftovers and 15 varieties of fruit juice I didn’t have any room for a six pack, so I’d take swigs from a brown bagged bottle of Wild Turkey 101.

And so I learned to drop down on the Taurus Demon from above, after applying Pine Resin. I learned how to run through Blighttown, blocking the toxic blowdarts with the Spider Shield. I learned how to aggro the Fire Drake and cut off his tail for the Drake sword, running under the portcullis and into Undead Parish. I memorized the attack pattern of Chaos Witch Quelaag, who I nicknamed Spider Bitchqueen, the animation signaling she was about to breath fire: grabbing the grotesque spider head sticking out of her abdomen and gently urging it to vomit forth magma.

All of these moments eked out with clenched jaw and sweaty controller, usually a few drinks in, a few deaths in, by this point standing up from the sunken lazy boy, not only to concentrate, but to get a brighter view on the LCD TV, which rendered the game incredibly dark when viewed at an upward angle.

Then Ormstein and Smough, biggie and smalls, big guy and ass hole, or just O and Smo. These guys were my reality for a long weekend. I perfected the run-through from the bonfire to their arena. I traded out equipment till I was at the perfect combination of mobility, lightning resists, damage dealing, and defense. And then I dueled with them for many hours.

The thing about Dark Souls is it doesn’t change. The AI doesn’t really include any randomness. Everything is hardcoded to react exactly the same to the player’s actions. The game is deterministic. It’s a system you can observe and memorize. And once you do that, it’s just down to performance. You play the game like the scientific method, coming up with theories and hypothesis, running experiments, almost always fatal, and then coming up with conclusions. The world is unforgiving enough that you can’t really fly by seat of your pants. You have to approach every situation with a plan and exacting will.

And the thing is you can’t just let your hands do the playing. Lots of similarly hard videogames – Super Meat Boy, bullet hell shooters, move too fast to let your brain get in the way. You just have to react on muscle memory. Dark Souls is actually a pretty slow video game. Every animation plays out in full, deliberately. The bosses telegraph their moves with big windups, deep breaths, angry demonic roars. You know what they are going to do before they do it. So you have that split second chance to apply your knowledge of the proper response: block, parry, roll, counter.

I eventually beat Ormstein and Smough, back pedaling through the arena, using the broken pillars as speed bumps. Throwing pyromancies at O until he succumbed, then pounding on Smogh when he was winded from his huge hammer swings. In the end it was easy, played out without any mistakes, hardly any damage.

It was an exhilarating finish to see the big fatty dissolve, my soul count increment by 60000, a new bonfire unlocked. But it felt like some sort of saga had ended. Some endless struggle, some purgatory that was standing in for my own purgatorial stay in the basement, was over.

I went on and beat the whole game in a few more days. None of the other bosses or zones were anywhere near as hard. A couple of the later bosses (Four Kings, Gwyn, Saeth), I beat on the first try. None of that scientific method stuff, just powering through on instincts. The mystique of the game – as this super hard unbeatable thing, that could be conquered by only the most dedicated video game players – was broken. It was over, and all that was left were fun little diversions, alts and speedruns.

My house is still under construction, I’m still in the basement of my in-laws, playing through GTAV.

One day I’ll get out of here, and be back to some sort of normalcy. But the endless waiting doesn’t seem so bad now. I’m making progress, baby steps. I beat Dark Souls, how hard could it be?