Saturday, June 10, 2017

Dark Souls, Zelda, and the Virtue of Patience

On September 22, 2011, the gaming community got to experience something that it hadn’t felt for a long time: difficulty. I’m not simply talking about a game that could be played on a higher difficulty than usual; I’m talking hard gameplay. Real hard. Not impossible, but still...

Really damn hard.

Pictured: death #487 of your first play through. (source)

The RPG titles that came out in the years leading up to the release of Dark Souls wanted to push the boundaries of what gaming could do. To most developers, this meant overhauling the ability of games to immerse players in a different world. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the front runner for those games that sought not only to create worlds but to make them believable. The game’s graphics style is impressive to say the least, and the ways in which the game mimics reality are charming. Players are capable of forging their own armor and weapons, cooking their own food, and even marrying an NPC should they have the appropriate necklace to do so. And sure, previous entries allow for just as much detailed gameplay (if not more; the second game in the series, Daggerfall, set records with its level of detail and the sheer degree to which the player’s experience could be customized), but Skyrim takes things to the next level. You sorta feel like you are there, that the world looks organic and behaves organically as well. It still remains a favorite among the gaming community.

It remains a favorite of the modding community as well. (source)

However, Skyrim also took out some features that other games in the series had: customizable spell creation, more specific skill tree leveling for different weapons, and more detailed item enchanting, to name a few. The aforementioned Daggerfall even has skill trees devoted to learning the languages of each of several different creature species within the game. And the map in which the game takes place held the record for years for the largest in-game world based on surface area. (The record was finally broken by Minecraft.) Because of its sheer complexity, Daggerfall is a much harder game to play. So huge is the world and so numerous are the options that the game has to track the player down by making the main-quest-initiating event find the main character, instead of requiring the main character to journey to the right place.

Skyrim doesn’t have that level of intensity in its design, and because of that it is objectively easier. However, while some shake their heads at the comparison, bemoaning the series’ decline in quality due to the loss of complexity, many people think of this as a good change. Consider the paralysis of choice that writer Alina Tugend of the New York Times discusses in her article. When too many choices are presented to a potential buyer of goods, the potential consumer is actually made anxious by the number of possibilities. With a greater selection of goods, the likelihood of choosing the less-than-perfect option is greater as well. For most individuals, this conundrum occurs when trying to choose which deodorant to buy or which meal to order for lunch. But in the gaming community, this sort of complexity can become stifling and simply a chore, and the last thing a game wants to be is a chore.


There are other games, ones that remove the complexity of choice and instead introduce the difficulty of exploration, and it’s these games that actually bring people back for more. Consider The Legend of Zelda. The game doesn’t offer much in the way of complexity. While there are a number of ways to attack enemies, the sword you are given at the beginning of the game or one of its upgrades is your bread and butter. Other items, though there are many, are usually only used for specific instances, removing the anxiety of choice. Players don’t really get hung up on how to kill an enemy or how to access certain areas: you either have the best item for the job and use it, or you don’t have it and stick with the options left to you.

There do exist choices to be made in The Legend of Zelda, however. Those choices primarily revolve around where you want to go. For those of you deprived enough to have never played it (shame upon shame!), the game starts you off on a small rectangular segment of the larger world and tells you nothing. You see a cave at the upper left part of the screen and in this cave you receive the famous instruction, “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this,” after which you are given your first sword. Now armed, you are free to explore the world.

This beats a taser any day. (source)

And therein lies the adventure. You aren’t told where to go. You aren’t told what items to use. Of the number of dungeons in the game, you aren’t told which one to go to first. You just… go. You encounter enemies as they come. You find what secrets you can. You travel the world as you’re able (‘able’ meaning you have the items necessary to access various places).

The anxiety of choices is replaced by the tedious nature of slow exploration. Each rectangular segment of the world has its own secrets and challenges with few exceptions. You, the player, are almost constantly fighting off some creature or another, and when you die, you appear back at the beginning, tasked with trying to return to where you were before you died (assuming you don’t decide to try your hand at another route). Because of the nature of the exploration and secret-finding the game requires of you (and it is required if you want to get to the end), the bulk of the gameplay revolves around trial and error. Where many games hinge upon being able to beat up enemies effectively and rewarding you with better ways to kill things as you go on, Zelda hinges upon exploring the world to solve the puzzles that hinder your progress. Combat is secondary. Combat is for stopping things from killing you and sending you back to square one. And if you do end up back at square one, you can put another mark down under tries attempted and errors made.

To be sure, the Elder Scrolls series has its share of puzzles and complicated chains of find-this-to-unlock-that-to-go-there sort of challenges. But those quests nowadays are almost handed to the player compared to the sort of work some of the older games of the world required of players. Such was the challenge of The Legend of Zelda, for instance, that I had to look up a guide to figure things out. I just wasn’t patient enough to beat the game on its own terms. (That, and my copy of the game was a borrowed one.)

But despite the challenge inherent in the tedious nature of the game, Zelda remains a platinum-grade classic. No one doubts the influence and pure fun that the game gave to hundreds of thousands of players. As games progressed, the need to continuously try, try, try again remained. Games even began to incorporate the life count to emphasize this. In Sonic games, for instance, players have a limited number of times to try beating a level. If they die or run out of time, they lose a life. Lives can be gained via the collection of enough rings or the finding of a 1-up, but the principle of having a limited number of tries is ever present. Mario did the same thing beforehand, as did Donkey Kong, Metroid, Streets of Rage, and a great deal of other side-scrolling and/or platforming titles.

As time went on, however, and as gameplay mechanics became more complicated and advanced, the point behind games became less about challenge and more about utilizing whatever game mechanics and unique gimmicks game designers could think of. Slowly but surely, customizable gameplay overtook trial-and-error gameplay. Granted, RPGs have been around for as long as any other genre of game (minus classic arcade titles like Tron and Pac-Man), but even then gameplay was about puzzle-solving and strategizing, not straining to figure out which of twenty different skill trees one ought to build up.

I’m not saying that that sort of thing can’t be fun; people get a kick out of it, but for a long time, the kind of difficulty in gaming that only came from trial-and-error progression was missing.

Until Dark Souls.

There’s a reason people have been comparing the Souls series to Zelda (and they have). Both include grueling stretches of trying not to die, both utilize item discovery to proceed to certain areas, both tell you little of the world and its lore, both spawn you back to a designated spot when you do die (Dark Souls is a little merciful in letting that location change with each bonfire you rest at in the game), both feature respawning enemies that behave in semi-predictable patterns.

And both require the patience to keep fighting, keep discovering, keep pushing forward.

Until you discover you're actually playing a JRPG. (source)

This brings me to my ultimate point. The game rewards patience. Patience is an idea that has been largely lost on the audience of most games these days. Quick-saving and/or dying with minimal consequence in the more recent world-exploring games allows for players to play almost seamlessly through a game’s campaign without much hindrance. But for Dark Souls players, getting through various dungeons or boss battles often requires multiple attempts. I still remember the agony of trying to defeat Dark Souls’ bell gargoyles boss battle. It took me nearly thirty damn times to do it. Nowadays I can usually do it in one pass, but I needed a lot of trials to remove the many errors in my play style first. I nearly abandoned the game because of that, though. I nearly put it away for another year, when I would have some gameplay guide or another to help me.

But the one guide I did look up, a video on YouTube, told me not to look up guides to beating the game. Why? Because I would ruin the experience for myself. To look up how to beat a boss or how to get a weapon or what have you—that sort of thing ruins the point of the game. The point is to be frustrated a little. The point is to suffer through multiple deaths and to curse at your TV as you lose an hour’s worth of progress (of which I am very guilty).

The point is to have patience. Though the game features a leveling mechanic, you can’t simply level-up to the point of being overpowered to beat the game. And though the game lets you find weapons and tools that make portions of the game easier, you can’t simply forge or find the best armor or weapon or what have you. You need to work at it. You need to use your brain in ways that most games today do not require of you. You need to study bosses’ moves and take advantage of the memorized pattern. You need to memorize where enemies are and what works and doesn’t work when fighting them. You need to explore and risk losing all the souls and humanities (crucial collectible items in the game) in order to get from one bonfire (the game's form of checkpoints) to another.

See, unlike many action-RPGs today, Dark Souls, like The Legend of Zelda and other such games before it, requires not that you beat the game but that you beat yourself. That’s the game: fighting your complacency and laziness and actually doing work (in a video game of all places) in order to reap the rewards.

If you can do that—if you can beat yourself, if you can tell yourself to get back on the horse—then you’ll have a good time playing the game. It might not always be a pleasant time, but it’ll be engaging and fun. In many ways, playing Dark Souls is like owning a dog: it’s not nearly as easy as owning a pet rock, but it’s much, much more rewarding. And fun.

"Praise the sun!" -Literally everyone that has played this game. (source)

Before you go, intrepid young sport, let me ask you:

What games have tested your skills and patience in satisfying ways?


What boss has given you the most trouble of any game you've played?


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