You may have heard that the Souls franchise is hard. You may have even heard that it can make you into some sort of bizarre double-man. The director and supervisor of the series often talked about his desire to use difficulty to facilitate a sense of achievement (as opposed to collecting cheevos). I often hear gamers wearing the Souls series like a suit of armor, as though it were proof of their gaming prowess, and staunchly defending it from any attempts to improve “accessibility,” a word that seems to translate as “easier.” In fact, there was quite the kerfuffle back in 2012 when the internet suspected director Hidetaka Miyazaki of wanting to make an easy mode for Dark Souls 2, a comment that was speedily retracted. And in true PR form, Namco Bandai assured everyone in 2013 that the sequel would be “viciously hard.”
So isn’t it funny that just last month, the video series Extra Credits put out a video detailing how the true genius of Dark Souls 2 is… its easy mode! The producers detail out exactly how to make Dark Souls 2 a much easier experience, and go to great lengths to convince everyone why that’s such a great thing. It’s actually the sort of thing that EpicNameBro spoke out against during the 2012 controversy: he argued that having the option to lessen the difficulty robs the game of its tension and sense of achievement. Now, I disagree with Extra Credits (as I often do), but they’re definitely correct that Dark Souls 2 has what amounts to a “soft” easy mode, and that’s probably the reason why it slipped by so many gamers including EpicNameBro. But I think the important question here isn’t how hard the game is or isn’t. The important question is what kind of difficulty the game has.
In other words, what does it mean to be a truly “hard” game?
A Callback to Castlevania
There’s a comparison I always like to make: the Souls franchise is the logical extension of Castlevania. Now I’m not talking about recent ones like Lords of Shadow or even the oft-celebrated Symphony of the Night. I’m talking about the original Castlevania on the NES. Maybe that sounds weird – after all, on the surface Symphony of the Night and the Souls franchise seem to have more things in common, like large collections of weaponry, open-ended level design, and experience points for killing enemies.
However, I find the moment-to-moment game play of a title like Dark Souls to have much more in common with NES Castlevania. Attacks are slow and deliberate with long wind-up times. Taking damage is a really big deal, not just because of how many hit points you lose but also because the resultant stun can put you in a really bad position or even drop you off a cliff. Each individual enemy isn’t just a fly to be swatted – they’re a considerable threat that deserves respect. Mistakes are more punishing in general, and the games command a level of caution that makes you slow down and consider what’s happening around you.
It’s the speed of the combat that makes all the difference. It’s not a simple matter of lining up two sprites on the screen and mashing X to auto-hit your target with instantaneous slashes like newer Castlevania so often does. When you slow combat down, you become much more aware of the individual nuances of the fight, and the execution time and recovery period of each of your swings really make you commit to any attack. When you do make a mistake, the game can fairly punish you for it without having to move so fast that you couldn’t react to it otherwise. It’s a good test for almost any game: if the depth of strategy holds up even while the game is slowed down, it means it has true depth rather than a series of reflex tests.
The Souls franchise also has a really strong mechanism going for it: the stamina bar. It’s a unified resource that powers just about everything you do, from sword swinging to blocking to running to dodging to casting – you name it, and the stamina bar is linked to it in some way. Souls games typically get a lot of mileage out of stamina, and the biggest reason is that spending your stamina on one action means you can’t spend it on something else. If you empty your stamina bar on a long attack chain, you can’t immediately raise a shield to block a counter-attack, so you’re forced to strategize and anticipate future moves. On top of that, stamina regenerates extremely slowly while you hold up your shield, which puts a severe penalty on pure defensive play. It’s more than just a model for realism – it restricts your moves in a very deliberate way and forces you to take risks.
One very clever aspect of the stamina bar is the player’s ability to overdraw it. If you try to perform a move that takes more stamina than you have, the game lets you do it anyway, putting you at a negative stamina value. You still regenerate stamina as quickly as before, but you have to regenerate all the negative stamina first before you can do anything. In that way, this brings much needed clarity to an otherwise more obtuse game play element. Since different moves or even different weapons use different amounts of stamina, it’s really difficult to estimate at a glance whether or not you have the stamina required to execute a move.
So what could’ve happened is a situation where the player didn’t quite have enough stamina, and started mashing the button in order to have the move come out as soon as possible, only to have it come out at a frustratingly wrong moment. Instead the designers let players apply a simple test: “Do I have any green in my stamina bar or not?” If yes, he can swing the sword, roll out of the way, or anything else he needs to do without worrying about how much stamina “enough” is, and he willingly enters a disadvantaged position because he judges the risk to be worth it. The stamina system has clarity, depth, and best of all is very simple, meaning that it very elegantly achieves that depth without overloading the player with too many explicit rules.
So the Souls series is founded on a strong core mechanism and is well positioned to make for a very interesting game, and it’s no surprise that so many gamers have flocked to the series. But having a strong core mechanism isn’t enough – you have to follow through and design the content of the game to take best advantage of the system. And that’s where Dark Souls 2 falls down.
Complexity from Simplicity
Dark Souls 2 relies heavily on opaque difficulty. Much like the games that came before it, each enemy has a distinct, finite set of moves. The implications of those moves give the enemy moments where it is strong and moments where it is vulnerable. However, as you approach each enemy for the first time, he’s one big question mark in terms of what he’ll do to you. You can have some idea based on their size and weaponry, but you can’t really fight them effectively until you learn the precise nuances of their attacks. The famed “difficulty” of the series lies in the fact that each of their attacks does a pretty shocking amount of damage to you, and it’s pretty easy to die simply by virtue of “not knowing.”
Now, it should be noted that all games have this phase, the part of the game where you’re learning how it works, and the rules are being laid out and demonstrated to you. However, good games usually move beyond this point, into a phase where the rules start interacting in interesting and diverse ways. Castlevania on the NES does this right away from the start: notice how quickly that the game introduces you to creatures, and then almost immediately has you dealing with them in combination. Dealing with a swerving medusa head is a straight-forward challenge, one that you quickly master. Dealing with a constant stream of them in your face while trying to land hits on the axe knight that’s retreating in the opposite direction, while throwing axes at you, constantly threatening to pull back into the second axe knight… that’s quite a bit more complex.
But what’s important is that it’s complexity that arose from simplicity. The player already knows the simple rules that govern the scenario, from the flight pattern and spawn rate of the medusa heads, to the durability and behavior of the axe knights. It’s an interaction that provides a challenge that’s simultaneously familiar and new, it’s stimulating and unique, and it’s built from just two enemies on a flat surface.
This is the nature of elegant game systems – they do more with less. The tactical complexity of fighting two at once of even the same enemy is much greater than the sum of their parts. It’s not twice as complex, it’s more like ten times more complex. You’re not only dealing with the attacks of two enemies, you’re also dealing with the way they potentially interact and overlap, whether it’s by the timing of their attacks or the way their position affects your strategy. The two enemies multiply their complexity rather than only adding onto each other. Games that focus on combining small numbers of things into larger webs of interaction feel more cohesive and purposeful.
They are also ultimately more fair. You spend less time learning what things do and more time contending with how they interact. As a result, you go into situations with complete information, and your success is determined by how well you can anticipate the dangers and opportunities posed by the combinations. When you succeed, it’s more satisfying because you put the pieces together on your own without having to be told. You used deductive reasoning and improvisation rather than filling out all the right answers on a test from memory.
Yet, filling out the test from memory is exactly what Dark Souls 2 asks you to do. Dark Souls 2 has over a hundred enemy types without even counting the bosses. Now this might sound like an impressive bullet point to put on the back of the box, but remember: every single enemy type is a set of explicit rules that you first need to learn without any context. It’s another giant question mark that you have to either guess blindly at, or (the safer option) just wait and see what they do. You do form some strategy as you learn to deal with their individual attacks, but it rapidly becomes solved and routine. Once you’ve memorized what you’re supposed to do for any given attack, the enemy is as good as dead – as is the interaction between the player and the game. To continue to challenge you and explore more game depth, the game has to start combining enemy types into new scenarios. Otherwise the game has to introduce you to yet another new enemy type and have you guess at a new question mark.
Disappointingly, Dark Souls 2 so often opts for the latter rather than the former. Instead of presenting the player with the intersecting possibilities of rules he already knows, the game moves on to introduce new rules. Make no mistake, it’s far preferable to use combinations of old rules than to constantly introduce new ones. A player learning nothing but new rules will constantly run into unfair situations where he dies simply because he didn’t know what he was up against.
In a way, a player who doesn’t know all of the rules isn’t even playing the game yet. Just because he has a controller in his hands doesn’t mean he understands what’s happening around him, and by focusing on introducing new game elements rather than combining existing ones, Dark Souls 2 unwittingly seeks to prolong the period of “not knowing” as much as possible. Ultimately, the game’s tendency to shy away from well-constructed enemy combinations becomes the reason that the game needed over a hundred enemy types in order to keep the player engaged. Not only that, but the enemies have to deal huge amounts of damage in order to maintain the illusion of difficulty.
Don’t get me wrong – there are definitely moments where Dark Souls 2 has you fighting multiple opponents at once, and unsurprisingly, the best of these moments are where the game shines brightest. There’s a great sequence in the Shrine of Amana where you’re attacked from range by a series of shrine maidens who throw spells at you, and closing the gap to engage each one brings you in range of the next. It turns an otherwise self-paced affair into more of a gauntlet, and it ends with the sudden attack by a pair of aggressive Lindelt clerics as you engage the last caster. It’s a fast-paced scenario that sharply contrasts the pacing of the rest of the game, and it’s exciting in a way that isolated shrine maidens just aren’t.
Another memorable section is the pit in the Undead Crypt. You drop into the center of a room filled with statues and bells. Each time one of the undead rings a bell (which they will try to do constantly), all of the statues spawn a Leydia Pyromancer, a dangerous melee/caster hybrid who threatens from any range. In a confined area littered with obstacles, the challenge lies in the tension of deciding which threats to deal with in what order. Do you keep the undead from ringing the bells as more of them continue to claw their way out of the ground? Do you kill the pyromancers themselves, which are clearly the most threatening thing on the board, knowing that they’re bound to be respawned by a bell? When is the best time to destroy each statue to cut off the source of the danger and get one step closer to victory? The three objectives are in conflict with each other, yet each is directly related to the others, and weighing your immediate priority is a unique and memorable challenge. And notice that here again, a complex and interesting scenario was built from just three components that the player already knew about.
The thing is, Dark Souls 2 doesn’t seem to realize that the complexity that enemy combinations can provide is a good thing. While there are certainly many other examples of enemy combinations in the game, the vast majority of them don’t hold up as well for one common reason: they’re separable. See, in each of the previous examples, there is something to keep the encounter intact, whether it’s extreme-range attacks or an enclosed space. In contrast, most of the time when Dark Souls 2 throws multiple foes at you, it also gives you a way to isolate those foes. Usually it’s a pretty simple matter to draw the enemies backward until some fluke of their AI causes one to hesitate just long enough for you to hack up his buddy while he’s alone. Sometimes you can kill the both of them in one wide-sweeping combo before either of them can act. If nothing else, all enemies have a leashing range that causes them to disengage and drop their guard completely once they get too far from their home turf. Then you can leisurely dispatch them without them even fighting back.
As great as the crypt scenario is with the statues and bells, even that is separable: any statues you destroy stay broken forever even if you die. So if you fail the scenario midway through, you’ll never face it at full power ever again even if you wanted to, and it bypasses all the interesting tension and replaces it with a simple “Make suicide runs at the statues until you win.”
The Best Solution Should Be the Most Interesting Solution
What’s notable is that all this enemy separability is actually good for the player, but only from the perspective of the player trying to win. A player only focused on winning wants the game scenarios to be as easy as possible, and he will go out of his way to set up situations that are simplified in order to maximize his chances of victory. The ability to separate otherwise grouped enemies is so powerful, there’s rarely any reason to do anything else. There’s even a message players can leave on the ground that’s specifically dedicated to this: “Try eliminating one at a time” is applicable to almost every scenario in the entire game.
Now, a player can choose not to abuse how separable the enemies are as a personal challenge, but remember: the goal of winning is directly opposed to the goal of having a challenging or interesting experience. It’s one of the ramifications of the burden of optimal play: playing to win is by definition an attempt to push the game state towards something more familiar, towards something the player has already solved, towards something less interesting. So in a very real sense, the player’s instinct is to reduce complexity, and the game’s job is to resist his efforts to do so. It’s not reasonable to expect that players are going to limit or handicap themselves in order to create the best challenge, and even if they wanted to, it’s less reasonable to assume they’d even know how.
You see, one man’s overpowered strategy is another man’s clever solution. Where one player would say “Don’t leash enemies!” another would say “What’s wrong with that?” The biggest obstacle to players figuring out their own handicap is the fact that a single-player game has no baseline for how powerful the player should be. It’s no surprise that different players will have pretty wildly varying ideas of what’s legitimate and what’s “cheap.” Players already fight about cheap strategies in competitive games, and the problem is ten times worse in a single-player game where it’s usually just expected that the player gets to win. Where should the bar of performance be? That’s a hard enough question for the designer who’s with the game every step along the path of development. Why would we expect a player seeing the game for the very first time to be able to answer that? The simple answer is that we shouldn’t. A pretty common attitude among gamers is that if it’s in the game, it’s meant to be used. It stems from the idea that the player is trying to win above all else, and ultimately it’s the most practical and healthy attitude to have for both the designer and the player.
The problem is that there’s loads of things that are technically “in” Dark Souls 2 that are anti-complexity and borderline cheating! Offensive spells (sorceries and hexes in particular) deal high damage from range and stagger most opponents with each hit to produce the infamous “stunlock” effect. Even worse, the attunement stat now increases the number of available casts, and recharging those casts with consumables made a comeback from Demon’s Souls, ensuring that the player never runs out of spells. Stacking high amounts of the poise stat allows players to ignore enemy attacks and power through them with their own. A poise-stacking player is likely to have an experience similar to MMOs where he’s largely not even aware of the enemies’ attacks as he spams his own unstoppable combo and heals the damage afterward with his healing spells, farmed consumables, and twelve estus flasks. Enemies are almost always slower than you and have difficulty tracking or keeping up with you, which means anything you don’t feel like fighting can be flat-out skipped by running past it. Bows have extreme range, a targeting reticle, and can often kill enemies who can’t even reach you. In fact, Dragonrider, one of the early bosses of the game, can be sniped down to one hit point so that he’s effectively dead before you even enter his room. These aren’t even strategies anymore – they’re more like choosing not to play the game!
Remember, though, that the real crime here isn’t that players are having an easy time of it – it’s that those players get a worse game. This is the thing the Extra Credits video gets so distressingly wrong, and it’s founded on their constant assumption that games are a means to an end – that consuming and finishing it is more important than the actual act of playing the game (notice how James, their “game design guru,” just wants to see the story – the game is secondary). Reducing the complexity of the game down to the point where victory is a foregone conclusion, achieved by repeating a few simple actions, isn’t something to be celebrated. Rather it’s the act of forming strategy and problem solving that makes the actual moments of play engaging to us, and games need to force us out of our comfort zone in order to keep us strategizing in new ways.
But a game that puts your earned souls at risk demands victory at all costs, so players are encouraged to repeat degenerate, boring strategies even if they would like to try something new. This is, I believe, what EpicNameBro was getting at when he said that adding an easy mode relieves the pressure that Souls games try to create. You could properly engage Dragonrider in melee combat, master the encounter the designers made for you… y’know, play the game. But there’s really no need for that – it’s a much better solution to just sit around for a few minutes and mindlessly spam arrows at him.
The worst part is that the moment you decide on the arrow route, failure has disappeared and you’ve already won, but you still have to waste the time it takes to go through the motions of actually doing it. It would be a better situation if the boss wasn’t even there, and that’s a horrible place for a game to be. Dark Souls 2 comes from a series that professes to be hard, but then when you’re actually engaged with it, it seems kind of afraid to really challenge you. Instead it makes a lot of the challenge optional to the point where you often don’t even have to bother with melee combat, the core mechanism of the game. It’s no coincidence that the game play itself is the most interesting where it’s also the most challenging, but giving the player a way out can cause him to miss out entirely, and that’s what makes for a worse game experience.
The Bigger Picture
Veterans of the series have probably noted by now that previous Souls games are not wholly innocent of these problems either. Poise isn’t new to the Dark Souls lexicon. Farming consumables was one of Demon’s Souls’ hallmarks. Bow sniping worked on plenty of foes you didn’t want to fight legitimately. Lots of enemies are skippable by using the speed-run method. And the other games didn’t always make you fight enemies in groups – “lure it out one at a time” has always been both an available message and a dominant strategy. So the things I’ve been saying are true of the whole series in varying degrees. The series’ idea of difficulty has always tended toward “punishment” rather than complexity.
So we could compare Dark Souls 2 with its predecessors to see how it stacks up. We could talk about how the resurgence of storable healing-items pushed the game toward farming and brought it back to the era of Too Awesome to Use items. We could talk about how those consumables undermined the otherwise logical Estus Flask system. We could talk about how the sluggish heal of the Ring of Restoration turns optimal play into a super-boring waiting game between fights. We could talk about how the Skeptic’s Spice and Simpleton’s Spice mean even more farming in order to lower the stat requirements for all your spells, especially the ones whose effectiveness don’t suffer from your low caster stats. We could talk about how PvP matchmaking based on Soul Memory means that players can’t ever stop their level progression. We could talk about how Soul Memory means that all players must eventually max all stats to 99, and how this dynamic destroys the original purpose of stat diversity that the leveling system was supposed to serve. Believe me, there’s plenty of questionable design decisions that are unique to Dark Souls 2.
But from a broader perspective, what we should talk about are the reasons why everyone’s favorite boss fights seem to be Ornstein & Smough or the twin Darklurkers. We should talk about why getting extra +1’s to your weapon is so much less interesting than picking out your weapon in the first place. We should talk about how silly elemental weaknesses actually are when we’re really honest with ourselves. And we definitely need to talk about what it means to be a “hard” game.
The developers at From Software want very much to make a difficult game, and players seem to be really excited for that kind of experience. But we don’t really have a clear idea of what that actually means yet. Right now, we have this weird idea that a game is hard when you die a lot, and the Souls series thrives on that illusion of difficulty and an oppressive aesthetic. We call the Souls series “tough but fair,” and the reason we call it fair is because it follows its own rules consistently. But it really matters how the toughness and the fairness is actually achieved. The series so often makes each fight into essentially a life toll that initially punishes you for not knowing, but afterwards becomes so simple that you can do it automatically.
But there are these brief, shining moments where Souls creates a whole scenario based on those things that you’ve learned, and forces you to apply those rules in a complex field of battle full of interactions. The game play at those moments is a real joy to learn and master, but it doesn’t happen often enough to believe that the designers are fully aware of why that’s good. And by giving players ways to avoid that complexity, they rob them of the best parts of the game. It’s a shame for a series like this to be held back in that way, a series that has a lot of really creative ideas, especially with multiplayer and the covenants. Building a new Souls game that begins with the idea of unavoidable and inseparable enemy groupings would probably come out looking like a completely different game, but I believe it would be a better one.
But if you don’t believe me, go back and play any of the games again. Go into co-op and just sit back and watch what people do. Watch how routine that the games have become and how disincentivized you are to try out new things. Watch how players opt only for ultra-safe tactics and lure out single enemies in order to guarantee the win. Watch and see how it feels like players are just going through the motions rather than thinking on their feet and engaging with a proper challenge. I did, and it didn’t look hard to me.
Followed a link from TwentySided here and found an interesting discussion. By the way, I’d like to take issue with use of “interesting:” You may find fights with multiple foes more interesting, but I usually do not. I won’t argue that they can’t be more complex, but complexity can turn interest away as easily as provoking it. And I hope you’ll indulge a little story time with my examples below 🙂
There’s probably a better choice above, but it’s easier to find an example at the bottom, such as your last line: “And that’s the real problem with single-enemy combat: once you know the solution, the game is dead.” This is no less true of a game that focuses on multi-enemy combat. In order to keep those fights varied and balanced each must be carefully designed, and even if not carefully designed there is still only a finite amount of game. Just as someone who plays Dark Souls 2 multiple times will learn how to beat every individual monster, someone playing your hypothetical game will eventually memorize the most effective strategy against every particular grouping in the game. Then apply them just as consistently as dodging a memorized moveset and share them online for people who don’t want to learn it themselves. Increasing the AI’s ability to react to the player is just as much of a crutch as ramping up damage numbers and considerably more difficult from what I’ve heard. Random generation is the only true solution, and that has other problems. Aside from your focus on a certain type of challenge it sounds like what you really want is replayability*, but even randomly generated games get boring once you “git gud” and master the skills and knowledge such that on any individual run you know you took the best path and played as well as you could.
*Or possibly that you want higher quality encounters across the board? Not every battle can be boss-quality, unless you make Shadow of the Colossus with group fights instead of titans, which might work.
Furthermore, I take issue with your claim that, “once you know the solution, the game is dead.” This is true only if your reason for playing games is because you like to solve problems. As William TR has already said, there are other reasons to play. A book or movie can match or exceed in story or special effects, but neither gives the visceral thrill of being the decider, the one who presses the button that swings the sword that defeats the villain, even if it was a phony fight. There is satisfaction to be found even in challenges you have already mastered born of exercising that mastery. Consider this: even after mastering a certain piece and inventing multiple variations, would you fault a musician for continuing to play the original? Classical music that has been around for centuries is still played today by people that have long since mastered it, or “solved the problem.” I don’t think it’s bad game design to have a fight that you can master. Some players will move on to other pieces, and some will return to revisit their favorites.
“But there are these brief, shining moments where Souls creates a whole scenario based on those things that you’ve learned, and forces you to apply those rules in a complex field of battle full of interactions. The game play at those moments is a real joy to learn and master,.” This can be true for some (I won’t deny that it’s sometimes true for me), but I don’t think focusing on this would be better. There are many more layers in Dark Souls that I feel are being taken for granted, like leveling and equipment optimization. I recently worked my way through the Crown DLCs, and my most fulfilling boss fight was the singular Fume Knight, followed by a pleasant surprise you might call a cheese against the Graverobbing trio. Against the Fume Knight, I brought all of my combat skills to bear, memorized all his first phase attack patters over a dozen deaths, but could not best his second form. So I brought my equipment skills to bear, and devised a particular enhanced shield (not mentioned on the wikis when I checked after) which brought me close enough to finally win. After diversifying my stats later, I found the increased defenses and other gear I’d acquired made it much easier helping others in the same fight. Later on I found the Graverobbers. Like William TR I think this is a bad fight, so in protest I decided to just see if I could outgun them: I put together a maximum poise/maximum poise-break set so I could knock them down with impunity, and threw on a limited use consumable for regereration. I wasn’t sure going in, but was delighted to find that the old “screw this” strategy worked like a charm. However I also know full well that if I’d been using a low-str build this tactic would have been impossible, and while you say, “There need to be strategies that fail,” in a game that suggests you can play it however you want that’s just not cool (at least DS2 lets you rebuild, a limited number of times).
The point is this: just like there aren’t very many battles where you must deal with multiple foes, there aren’t many battles where you must adjust your equipment, and there aren’t even that many foes with movesets as large as the Fume Knight. Removing equipment upgrades would make the game different, removing consumable items, or focusing multi-foe combat with less diverse foes in more diverse groupings, any would make it a different game. The last more suited to your taste in puzzle solving, but not necessarily better for my taste in singular combat. I think we’d all agree that there is no best version of the game since it’s impossible to calculate a perfect average to make sure everyone gets an equal share. And as is the way of internet commenters, when there is an opinion we disagree with, we must match it with enough volume to feel that our voice is heard so our “share” is not diminished. Boo gank fights, long live dueling! :p
What you’re saying might be true to some degree, but it’s kind of unrelated to the thrust of the article. Souls professes to be a difficult series, and my main point is that it’s the wrong kind of difficulty. “Dueling” may sound cool from a thematic perspective, but fighting single enemies makes for very flat game play. There are only two phases to playing such a game: the part where you’re trying to play without knowing the rules, and the part where you know the rules and win. It exists in this mostly binary space of “Have you seen all of this guy’s attacks or not?” Once you do, you mainly fail by execution if even then. It’s this strange dichotomy of initial opacity where you die by not knowing, and sudden and complete transparency where you know exactly what to do just by virtue of knowing what enemies do. In such a scenario, there’s no room for strategy at all. Strategy is what you do when you know the rules, but not necessarily what will happen or precisely what to do about it. If you know everything your opponent can do, and what will always defeat any of those things, that’s just going through the motions.
The problem is that Souls generally skips right from “not knowing the rules” to “going through the motions.” It’s the space between those two phases that makes game play engaging in its own right. Just saying your game is hard by virtue of how many times players die says nothing about how much depth the game has. You say that multi-enemy combat has an eventual solution, and of course that’s true – all games are solvable eventually. The goal is to push back the point where the game is solvable and widen out that phase of “I know the rules, but not what I should do in every situation” as much as possible. Compare any Souls game with something like Go: you know literally all of the rules in five minutes, yet people have spent millennia pondering the ramifications of a deceptively simple system. The time spent playing Go is like 99.99999% spent in that space of formulating strategy. In Souls, that time is something like 1%. It doesn’t need to be that way.
You mentioned the customization of the game as well, but I consider that to be a problem with the game’s assertion of “difficulty” as well. I’ve thus far asserted that knowing what enemy attacks even are is tantamount to knowing the rules, which suggests that you spend a huge amount of time playing that game without knowing the rules. But customization takes that dynamic one step farther – by allocating stat points and using different pieces of gear, the player is now actually creating the rules. The player gets to decide how many HP that he has, how many hits it takes to stagger him, even what his weaponry, and thus attack verbs are! Essentially the designer is giving up the design decisions that are necessary to creating difficulty. I mentioned in the article that the player’s instinct is to reduce complexity, and the designer’s job is to resist his efforts to do so. This is because the player can’t be trusted with the knobs of the design – his goal is to win! He’s going to make decisions that are in his favor, and the sheer scope and granularity of the design knobs that Souls gives the player has the predictable effect of completely gutting the game. The prime example is being able to snipe Dragonrider to death from outside the boss room, something that would never have happened if the designer had sat down and decided “No range weaponry in a melee-focused game!” The game is littered with other examples. Poise, as a general example, probably shouldn’t even exist because of the design ramifications it has. Being stunlocked by enemies is so devastating that it basically requires poise, but the game becomes far too simple when you have it. The designer is pulled in so many directions trying to decide how much poise any given player will have when all he needs to do is say “This much.” Turning over the reigns of design to the player makes creating a “difficult” game completely hopeless.
Yes, there are lots of reasons to play games, but the reason I’m harping on this is because the designer’s intent in this case is “difficult.” The purpose of the article is to reveal all the ways that the game failed in that regard. And to be frank, the reason all these flaws exist is because the game is trying to serve too many masters, or as you put it “make sure everyone gets an equal share.” To think you can make a game for everyone is misguided and will pull the game apart on many levels. In this case, the desire to make an RPG where you duel single foes and can be 100 different flavors of fantasy warrior is at odds with the premise of the game being difficult. In many ways each is the antithesis of the other, as outlined here.
If Souls wants to improve on its promise of difficulty, a good first step is demonstrated by a mobile title called (fittingly) Wayward Souls. Its combat bears resemblance of the Souls series such as a stamina bar, but it takes several steps that curb some of Souls problems. Most notably it closes the doors of every single room you walk into, forcing you to face groups of enemies in a confined area without being able to separate them. It randomizes the groups you fight so you constantly face new combinations. These strokes serve to make you consider more than just “Here’s what he does, here’s what I do.” You have to consider the meaning of each foe’s attacks in relation to the others. You always have to think on your feet, and its combat is very exciting as a result. It sure beats going through the motions of killing the same guys the same way over and over again. Rather than letting the player run amok in the design with fine-grained customization, the designer gives distinct classes to play as, and even changes which encounters appear based on which class you took! This way players have the essential choice while still having a challenging play experience that’s relevant to that choice. There’s so many things about Wayward Souls that totally outdoes the Souls franchise, and I think it bears study and consideration.
Thanks for reading!
Thanks for responding! I suppose I did miss the thrust of the article then, since I never really internalized the hype machine of “Dark Souls is hard.” Considering how many times I’ve told people, “No it’s really not that hard,” maybe I should have caught that: I don’t like Dark Souls for the difficulty, but you like difficult games and your piece is about why it’s not doing a good job of being difficult. I like all the options available, often because they reduce or redirect the difficulty when I choose, but if the game wants to bill itself as difficult all the time for all players that is a bit disingenuous, even if I can’t fault them for latching on to it as an effective marketing scheme. It’s been a pleasure chatting 🙂
I’ve realized that this reply is fairly long so for the main portions, read paragraph #1 and #7-9.
1. I must say, this article really pissed me off. I’ve played the Souls games extensively, and I can say, you have a few things wrong with your, well, everything. First off, you seem to think that Dark Souls combat was made to face multiple foes, but it isn’t. If it was, the camera would be zoomed further out and the character wouldn’t need to be locked onto an enemy to face him, even if that player is moving the character away from the enemy. Instead, it was meant to take on singular enemies, one at a time.
2. I’ve always viewed Demon’s Souls as the game with the best level design and the most fun lore. But Dark Souls is where they tightened up the mechanics. The estus was limited at first; you’d have to sacrifice humanity for more, but you could upgrade it to past 12, up to 20. But it was designed as the best mode of healing. Sure there were miracles, divine blessings, and of course the overlooked humanity (which should not have healed players), but they were either rare or incredibly limited. Spells in general were in limited numbers, and certain things would increase them for much worse defects (the ring that you got from the hydra added more, but halved health). Cheap spells like Wraith of the Gods were fairly easy to roll away from, or you’d learn your lesson. Combat was tight and praised good timing over spamming. The stamina bar defines the game as a whole, to me. It would recharge based on how much armor and equipment the player carried (thus meaning that people who were Havel monsters would succumb to the fast players), and would go down fairly quickly during fights. Players had to play smart and attack when open. This is where your argument that a horde of enemies, combined to play off of each others’ weaknesses is bad.
3. Like I said before, Dark Souls was not made with multiple enemies crowding around the player. In Dark Souls, the times where the player is surrounded by a bunch of enemies, they are really weak, very slow at attacking, or don’t do much damage. But, if I am correct when you say a combination of enemies, you mean a group of varied enemies, some ranged, some melee. Well that doesn’t work either. The player cannot focus on more than one enemy while trying to fight, instead, they have to take their chances with attacking an open opponent, and risk being attacked while attacking by an enemy off screen. Remember Kiln of the First Flame? The last area of Dark Souls. It had six enemies including the boss, each one fairly difficult to beat. They were spread far apart and taken on one at a time. Or the Darkroot Forest. There were five really well designed AI opponents that could be taken on one at a time for a fair fight, but they were packed together to punish players who wanted to run past everything, they’d get spammed by the knight, thief, mage, and cleric.
4. But of course, you reference the Smough and Orenstein boss fight as a really big highlight. But you forget, it was made to be fought one at a time. You had the really fast guy to close in on the player, attacking fast, but also at range. Or the slow moving target who could be killed easier because he was pretty stationary. The pillars in the boss fight help shield the players from a gank too. Besides, once you kill one, the other one absorbs its power. I don’t think you know why a lot of players like that boss fight. It not only had fantastic music that really set the mood with changes in tempo, but also the boss designs are cool, and most importantly, they would absorb each other depending on which one the player killed, giving a choice on what the player can handle: a fast guy with small AoEs, or a slow guy with huge AoEs (those are the two main differences, not the only ones). My favorite, though, was Gwyn. The music was beautiful, the lead up was solemn and solitary (a fantastic mood to have for the boss fight given the lore and the pretenses), and of course, the required skill (he was very aggressive and damaging, but could be beaten with parries and rolls). Didn’t you like the Four Kings boss fight? There are multiples of them and they can vary their attacks to have ranged and melee. I didn’t. It was unfair and my least favorite fight in the game. Didn’t you like the Throne Watcher and Throne Defender? They were just like Smough and Orenstein: one fast and elegant, and one slow and powerful. I didn’t. The entire mood was off and the characters were uninspiring.
5. You complained about how there are too many enemies, but I didn’t have trouble with that in Dark Souls 2 because I didn’t act like a complete kamikaze retard. Look at the enemy: do they have a metal weapon, if yes, they will try to hit you with it, if no, they will try and either shoot you with magic or hit you with their fist. But that’s not an issue because you could see if they are running at you. If yes to “do they have a metal weapon,” then look at it: what is its shape? Big and thick and carried over the shoulder means it hits slow and powerful (unless it’s a boss fight). Small and sword like means it hits fairly quickly. Long and pointy means it is a spear. Two sided: what would Darth Maul do? Looks like a whip, get ready for a whip attack. Does it look like a fist kind of object: get ready for some punching styled combat. Just do a little thinking to prepare you for your attack. If you’ve gotten past the basic grunts in the game, you should be expected to think about what you do instead of saying “fuck it, this is like other games,” but doing that defeats the point of the game. It’s a third person real time strategy game where only one unit is controlled, the resource (stamina) recharges, and everyone is probably an enemy. Should I send this heavy unit to attack (obvious heavy attack) or should I send this lighter attack, but more of them (obvious light attack). Maybe the director wanted players to think about their attacks.
6. You complain that their are too many easy ways out. Sure, why not. Bows are meant to draw enemies out, take as much damage off their health bar as possible. If players want to drag out opponents with them from a group, they can, because they are thinking strategically. It is up to the developers to make really complex AI like the Demigod in Demon’s Souls who would take advantage of his quickly replenishing stamina and really strong sword. I do think there should be leashes or at least parts of each area where enemies aren’t allowed in (near merchants and other things). If you feel that facing a bunch of enemies head on is a smart and fun way to play the game, go right a head, but don’t call players who decide to play smarter than what the community like to call scrubs, cheap or don’t say that they are ruining the experience of the game. What you don’t realize is that losing is not fun in games: maybe screwing around that leads to losing, but playing a game to lose is not playing the game right. If you think developers are right to group up enemies in a game where combat is slow and singular, then developers who put obviously unfair and over powered bosses at the end game are right (Final Fantasy and various other RPGs), or that make climatic boss fights be just stupid QTE are fine (Hitman: Absolution, Farcry 3, Resident Evil 5 and 6, etc).
Sometimes, developers don’t get it, sometimes players don’t get it.
7. But here is the most annoying part of your article. All of the other parts of my reply are meaningless to this part. You say that there is a spectrum between winning and having a challenge. This is a very binary spectrum. What you are suggesting is that players that win successfully in different ways than facing a horde of enemies directly is not the way the game is meant to be played. But wait, you forget an important part of the entire Souls series. Each player makes their own strategy that best suits them, freedom to play how they want. Some players do make it a whole lot more challenging by beating it soul level 1 or with only shields or no shields, etc. Some players enjoy taking their time to beat the game, slowly making their efforts meaning something instead of wasting their time with dying over and over again. Your binary spectrum of game play doesn’t account to the fact that the reason the person is playing the game is to have fun. People will enjoy themselves having won. I have beaten Dark Souls on Soul Level 1, no help from AI, no shield, no pyromancy. It was hell and I enjoyed it when I finished. But I also enjoyed playing through it regularly with no handicappers to my character, and it is still fun. I enjoy different aspects of the game from different perspectives every time I play. In fact, they were both equally fun. That is why a lot of people love the Souls series so much: it is so multi-layered in its execution that people will play it over and over again: overly challenging, overly easy, or just in the middles. Why? Because that is how they want to play the game.
8. You act like everyone who plays the games are incapable. You state that in the last few words of the first paragraph of “The Best Solution Should be the Most Interesting Solution.” If players need help, they can get it through a variety of in game and out of game places. You say that the best time of the games are when it’s the most challenging. You say that the best parts of the game are when the enemies group up. First off, right before Velstadt’s room, run into all of those knights and face them as one, see how great that is. Or right before the Executioner’s Chariot, face off against all of those creatures at once. Or tell me that putting in a bunch of smaller enemies into the boss fight makes it better, instead of making the player focus on an aggressive, skilled opponent.
9. You want to know what would make this game fantastic. It is not a horde of enemies. It is not taking strategies out so players are forced to just play YOUR way to have YOUR kind of fun. It would be to design a lot of different scenarios across a huge game so players who like only a few of those things can still feel accepted. I love facing off against singular, tough enemies who can’t take cheap liberties like some of the bosses. You like to be ganked by a horde of enemies. Both are in the Souls games. Players would be driven away from the singular scenarios. So, don’t act like you have the answer. I don’t fully. But I understand the community and how diverse it is.
You’re merely re-establishing what the article already observed. The game isn’t (consequentially) meant to make you face multiple enemies. Alright, but the mere fact that that’s the case does not say anything as to whether that’s a good thing or not.
Honestly your whole paragraph just sounds like a bunch of more reasons for combining the complexity of multiple enemies. This whole issue is really just specific example of the difference between inherent complexity (as in “We have 300 enemy types for you to fight!”) and emergent complexity (as in “We only have 5 enemy types, but they interact in a myriad of ways!”). The latter is what typically makes for interesting, elegant and deep gameplay. That’s pretty well understood throughout game design circles. The former however is well-suited for superficial marketing purposes and satisfies the consuming gamer’s craving for mass content. It’s gourmet dishes versus fast food.
Just because there are bad ways of designing encounters with multiple enemies, doesn’t mean that the idea is remotely wrong. That’s a pretty standard logical fallacy you’re presenting there. “If one specific instance of X doesn’t work, X doesn’t work as a concept.”
This is just a whole bunch of talk about mood and music and whatnot. Nothing particularly related to game design. This blog doesn’t talk about anything anyone could ever like about the software that is a videogame. You might like the sound effect of the footsteps of the main character. Well, that’s fine, but it doesn’t have anything to do with game design. This blog is concerned with the interestingness of rulesets, not audiovisuals etc.
Neither did the author play “kamikaze” style, nor did he say that this is “like other games”. In fact, he stated several times how it’s miles ahead of your typical standard 3rd-person action game of today. I’m not even sure whose words you’re addressing here. I assume you simply like the game, have thus married your identity to it, and view any critical point made against it as a personal attack. The result is you interpreting every other sentence as an attack as well. You’re in constant defense mode. This is not a personal attack against you, this is mean to help you question your approach to this discussion.
There should be no “easy way out”, because that makes the game less interesting. If cheating is essentially built into the game and explicitly allowed, players will do it. Players will optimize the hell out of their strategy, even if that involves doing very boring stuff (e.g. grinding).
This is where you get into the “one size fits all” territory. Yes, there’s a whole bunch of stuff you can do with the game, you can essentially use it like a toy, twist it to your liking, screw around with it a bit etc. That’s precisely because it’s not a tightly designed and focused experience. Everyone will find something to like, but no one will really like it deeply and wholly. Maybe read the first article of this blog to learn more about design focus!
The fallacy from point 3 again.
Questionable reasoning from point 7 again. While it’s true that mass content is a strong driving factor in today’s industry, that doesn’t mean it’s what makes a game good/valuable/interesting etc.
The article clearly establishes that in fact, facing multiple enemies would make for a better game: “Building a new Souls game that begins with the idea of unavoidable and inseparable enemy groupings would probably come out looking like a completely different game, but I believe it would be a better one.” I do believe that a different system of combat that would allow for grouped up enemies to form a more cohesive encounter to be a better experience on the whole. But what you misunderstood is that I was talking about the current Dark Souls games where combat is slow and methodical and very close up.
I see where you are coming from on this point. Sure a few enemies combined together instead of a few hundred enemies drawn out throughout the entire game would make for a better game, but there is an issue with that. Each enemy in Dark Souls 2 is supposed to be matched to their environment. There are a few repeats, but those usually fit in fairly well with the areas that they inhabit. The Souls series has done a good job of establishing the environment that the player is in. Whether it be by architect or weather or enemy design, everything is grounded in how the environment is supposed to be. This is why the lore aspects of the Souls series has been enjoyed by the community; they can draw conclusions about an area and form beliefs based on what is around them. Sure some of those enemies could be cut down, but most of the varied designs of the enemies help in grounding the player in where they are adventuring.
For the most part, this is true. But the scenarios that work are fairly limited given the design of the combat mechanics. In Dark Souls 2, the player faces two Dragon Riders: one melee, one ranged. This fight could be good with some tweaking, but as is, it is a terrible boss fight because the ranged Dragon Rider is off screen. To help this, the developers would have to turn down the music, or even mute it so the player can get a good auditory signal that an arrow was fired and they need to dodge. That would be a good fight, but the intensity that the Souls series has been acclaimed for during boss fights would be lost or toned down a good amount, thus making the encounter just like any other. Another good example of multiple enemies would be, like I stated, a bunch of really weak enemies with maybe one or two stronger enemies, like in the Church in Dark Souls. A bunch of really strong enemies that can block attacks and possibly have other ranged enemies like the encounter right before Velstadt is a bad encounter. What you don’t realize is that the player is always at the mercy of the game, while the enemies are not. Their weapons don’t bounce off of walls. Their don’t need to worry about losing because they will always be there, waiting for the player to try and run past them. They don’t have to worry about limited resources because they can just keep throwing what they want or consuming what they have. The player has to remember that once this encounter is done, there is another one, right around the corner, while the enemy is design to take that player down even if it means dying. The odds are always stacked against the player, and this becomes ever more prevalent in hordes of enemies. Good encounters would take into account that the player is always at a disadvantage in equipment, stats, and mechanics.
A decent game has decent mechanics supported by decent effects. A good game has good mechanics supported by good effects. A great game has great mechanics supported by great effects. The Souls games could be considered great games. If the mood of the game isn’t set properly, then it feels more like a shallow experience. Neglecting such a fundamental aspect such as the mood would be an insult to the entire gaming culture. If the entire experience is not built up properly, then the entire experience would fall flat. The Last of Us has fantastic music, mechanics, atmosphere, and story telling. Why would people remember it so fondly in a couple of years when the story was pretty cliche? Because the experience was so great. Why do people think Half Life 2 is one of the best games of all time? Because the experience was so great, and people remember that. Why are these things important to a blog about how the combat need to be redesigned for a better experience? Because if those weren’t, than nobody would care a year and a half after its release. Nobody would care about the lore or the community a year after its release.
“Make no mistake, it’s far preferable to use combinations of old rules than to constantly introduce new ones. A player learning nothing but new rules will constantly run into unfair situations where he dies simply because he didn’t know what he was up against. In a way, a player who doesn’t know all of the rules isn’t even playing the game yet. Just because he has a controller in his hands doesn’t mean he understands what’s happening around him, and by focusing on introducing new game elements rather than combining existing ones, Dark Souls 2 unwittingly seeks to prolong the period of “not knowing” as much as possible. Ultimately, the game’s tendency to shy away from well-constructed enemy combinations becomes the reason that the game needed over a hundred enemy types in order to keep the player engaged. Not only that, but the enemies have to deal huge amounts of damage in order to maintain the illusion of difficulty.” Here is where my argument really starts from. What the author is suggesting is that the player is fairly incapable. The player is a little sheep and From Software is the big bad wolf. My method of thought that I used (a form of common sense) helps identify how the enemy will react as I approach him.
What I don’t get from this passage though is, what old rules are the players supposed to face that will keep challenging them until the end. The first few enemies in the Souls games are fairly difficult when first played, but become easy as that player becomes more experienced and better equipped. Their AI is fairly slow to react and tends to stay open for attack for long periods of time, while the enemies at the end of the game attack faster and stronger, usually waiting for a weak point in the player’s defense. The jump is not sudden and the enemies are meant to conform to their environment.
But if the author is talking about the game mechanics, those are all given at the start of the game: parries, rolls, falling attacks, light attacks, heavy attacks, ranged attacks. It’s all present in the tutorial stages of each of the games, but it’s up to the player to utilize them in their current situation. Un-parry-able enemies are present in the tutorials too in the form of boss fights or those hippo-like enemies in Dark Souls 2. The prolonged period of “not knowing” could be attributed to the fact that players aren’t used to having to time their attacks and defenses like other games, or that players aren’t used to having to think about an encounter before they enter it. Should there be a player message that states: “Watch out, think before approaching?”
Or when you talk about old rules, is it a combinations of enemies? Just repeat the same few combinations of enemies in a multi-dozen hour experience? Or keep thinking of new ones, but that wouldn’t be old, now would it?
There are inherently more easy ways out of the game than there should be. But that is the fault of the developer for not designing the game properly in those aspects. To fix the bow method: decrease the range significantly at longer ranges and have it where those enemies being shot at can shoot back, or have a spare enemy who is fairly weak up close deal lots of damage from ranged attacks, and have those enemies’ attacks home in like crazy. Or all of the encounters could happen in close in environments where ranged attacks would require the player to be fairly close to the enemies. Or design the maps to where there are objects blocking the view of the enemies from the players. Or have enemies not have leashes, but instead become aggressive when they see the player and will run at that player instead of running and then back stepping. Or the developers could stick their heads together and find another solution at their business where they are paid.
On grinding a bunch of enemies, the purpose for that is usually to get equipment that randomly drops or get souls to level up. To stop grinding for loot, have all of the items that could be dropped in chests around the map that range from simple to find, to incredibly hard to find as they are behind an illusionary wall in the most random part of the map.
For the purpose of leveling up, though, that can be fixed in a few ways. First off, players who do this mainly do it for PvP, but this can be remedied by connecting players with similar levels, like in the original Dark Souls. Secondly, enemies could re-spawn infinitely, give less souls per kill, and become gradually more difficult as the grinding occurs, capping out at the equivalent of a bonfire ascended +9 boss. Sure it would be much slower and only take affect after the boss fight was completed.
To say optimizing a strategy is not fun shows that you don’t know a good portion of the community. Speedrunners love doing what they do and what they do is optimized strategies to get better runs. They spread these strategies throughout the community. If you think just because something is done the same that it is inherently boring, that is a fallacy. Some players will do that, others will try something new, but only if they want to. If people get bored of it, then they will. These strategies will help newer players pass parts of the game that they hate and allow them to grow from that to form their own forms of that strategy.
Here is where I have to say: [I say, ol’ boy! Do me the courtesy of holding your horses]! What you think I am saying is that one size fits all? No! No! Never! I’m saying that every experience is different because there is no clear answer to anything. I’m saying that some people will find a different meaning to different things than I will. The game is so loose in its lore and meaning and design that players are meant to speculate. Why in the hell do you think that players will like it less that it’s not definite? People prefer games more when they have a say in what could be, rather than what is. Why do you think that games like Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” is so popular? Choices by the player based on the game, whether inside of the game, or outside of it help make the game a better experience as a whole. You might not like having to think about why things are, but that is why we have people all over speculating: so they can answer and people can listen, and form their own answers. People love this game for more reasons than just gameplay. So [I most vigorously disagree with your supposed position, ol’ chap] for assuming that people are so shallow that they need things explained to them for them to enjoy it. Or that everything needs to be experienced during the playthrough for them to have fun. I stopped playing Dark Souls after my first run. But I got back into it because I saw someone playing it very differently, and I got back into it. I got into it deeply because I realized there were multiple layers to each experience.
Good effort. Why not think a little bit. The grouped encounters in the Souls series are not very good, especially in Dark Souls 2. They could be with a bit more pedigree, but they aren’t. The boss fight in the first crown DLC has a boss fight with three bosses all at once. Each one has unique pieces to them: one is slow, heavy and strong, one is moderately paced, moderately fast at attacking, and moderately damaging, and the last one is fast and has ranged attacks. Each one plays off of each other’s weaknesses. But was it a good boss fight? No, it was stupid and cheap. Why? They were three bosses with boss health against one (unless you brought a friend, but the article neglected that fact, so I will too), and they would attack and attack that very limited health bar away until they attack and attack that much more limited health bar. They can attack all at once, the ranged guy always tries to get off screen and away from the player to attack. Even if they were weaker, it is still unfair as they can still destroy the player with a barrage of attacks. That is the reason why most grouped up enemies won’t work in the game. It would have to be a very specially kind of combination to factor in the fact that the game cannot be unfair towards skill and the player’s disadvantages. Sure they can work against them, but they cannot be unfair. Like if there is a random one hit kill attack that looks just like another one of the boss’s attacks, that is unfair. Same can be said that if the game allows the player to be rushed by three strong opponents with a very small chance of success.
Are we looking at my previous points? What makes good values in today’s market is a lot of great content, or a small amount of great content, it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s great content. I hope developers don’t feel obligated to give gamers a lot of content unless that content is good. Dark Souls 2 has a lot of good content. Your “one size fits all” argument isn’t very valid given my reasoning that the game isn’t build like that, it’s built with multiple layers for all experiences to be unique. But if you feel like a game that does that makes it a “one size fits all” kind of game, then I think you misunderstand what that saying actually means.
I just want to point out one more thing: You brought up The Last of Us, Half-Life 2 and The Walking Dead. Yes, I have thought about why they are successful. And I think you’re dead on when you talk about mood, atmosphere, story, effects and all that. Essentially anything but the gameplay. Sure, TLOU and HL2 could be considered competent action games but they are definitely not particularly interesting or unique in gameplay. TWD barely has any gameplay, and when it does it’s mostly trivial and regularly defeats the (great) storytelling and its consistency.
When you think about it further though, it’s no wonder. We’re much further ahead in all of those art forms: music, storytelling, writing, creating moody visuals etc. All the while actual game design (as in ruleset design of interactive entertainment systems) is still in its cavemen ages. The art still hasn’t really found its place and identity yet. We often see games pretending to be movies, because that’s what we know. We expect movies to be decent by now, we have an idea of how to tell if they are etc. But that doesn’t mean this sticking to a fundamentally different form of art should be the (only) approach we take. It’s natural, it’s understandable, but it’s still worth seriously questioning.
This is quite a lot to unpack, but I’ll cover the most important points.
Firstly, I would agree that Souls wasn’t designed with multi-foe combat in mind. However, I’m suggesting that’s actually a problem. The simple reason is that single foes just aren’t that interesting in the long term. I read a Steam review of Lords of the Fallen where the player complained that the adds on the first boss were a cop-out – that having multiple enemies is a way of admitting “I don’t know how to make single enemies interesting.” The thing is, it’s not really possible to make just one guy have a lot of game play depth. You have your initial “What does this guy do?” phase, and once you learn when to time your attacks, you’re in the “Going through the motions of beating this guy I already know how to beat” phase. You no longer have to strategize or think on your feet – he’s just “in your way” until you casually apply the solution.
Now one thing the Souls series does to alleviate this is to have a huge variety of weapons. I do think it’s a good thing that the weapons aren’t upgrades to each other, but rather each viable in their own way. It means that once you know how to beat a foe with one weapon, you can play through with another weapon and have a slightly different experience. However, this wears out pretty quickly. Your second time will be easier than your first no matter what weapon you use because you’ve already figured out the one strategy that works. Your third play-through is even more routine than the second, and by the fourth play-through a lot of players have lost interest. Just because you have these YouTube celebrities who play the game hundreds of times for the sake of viewership doesn’t mean that’s a common play experience.
Ultimately, it’s up to the player to create his own experience. It’s up to the player to act against his own self-interest (winning) in order to create a new experience. Players are used to this idea because most games aren’t good enough to hold up in the long-term, and they require players to make their own experience. Yes, you can do this, but I don’t give designers any credit for experiences that players have to make. That’s like saying that an author of a book deserves credit for all the crayon drawings that one of the readers put in to enhance the experience. The fact is, players want to keep playing Souls games, they want to keep escalating the challenge and having new experiences. The guy who just recently beat Dark Souls using a guitar hero controller is certainly evidence of that. But players are forced to invent those experiences on their own. I think the base game, the one thing you can credit the designers with, would last much longer if you had to figure out the complexity of two or three foes at a time, and the evolving situations they create. The same two enemies can evolve into many more situations than just the same old one guy can over and over again.
But ultimately, Souls is designed for one enemy at a time, and it shows. Your camera isn’t very good at giving you information about your surroundings. Enemies do huge damage to you when they hit. These things aren’t really difficulty, as evidenced by the fact that with a little experience, players are breezing through the game. But they create the initial illusion of difficulty. When an infinite-stamina Drakekeeper in the Dragon Shrine pummels you to death in one combo, the game really seems hard. But then when you one-shot him with a fully upgraded Smelter Hammer counterattack, you find out that it was never really hard at all – you could do this all day! And from then on, Drakekeepers never have to be a problem unless you choose to let them.
So when you say that players who “lure it out one at a time” are playing smarter, I don’t disagree. They should do those things. But that’s what I mean by what you call this binary scale: the player, in trying to win and play smart, has deconstructed the potential complexity of the game. That’s his job, in a way, and a designer shouldn’t count on him doing anything else. If the player wants to increase the complexity of the game, and thus the challenge, he must do so by acting against his self-interest of trying to win. He has to do something other than the optimal thing he’s already discovered – basically he has to let the game win. Playing to win is at the cost of potential complexity, and vice versa. They are directly opposed to each other by definition.
Now I don’t think the Souls series needs to focus on hordes of enemies sent at you at once – in some ways that’s just as bad in the opposite direction. If enemy damage needs to be tuned unreasonably high when you’re only fighting one foe, then damage needs to be completely trivialized if there’s like ten or twenty guys, and that’s definitely not in the spirit of Souls. However, I think two or three is the ideal number, depending on the scenario. Enough to create an evolving and intricate encounter, but not so many as to make individual enemies completely beneath your notice.
Certainly not just one, though. You mentioned that the alternative to a group is “an aggressive, skilled opponent.” In the world of Souls AI, there’s no such thing as “skilled.” There’s just an AI script waiting to be exploited. Even Gwyn, who looks for all the world to be an intelligent agent, will stupidly fall for your traps every time. You just have to wait for him to wind up his most vulnerable attack, and parry it. He will never get better. He will never get smarter. After a certain point, he will never win unless you let him.
Although this is a far less radical sounding reply than your initial article, you seem to distance yourself from your own claims.
First off, you say that a single enemy cannot be very interesting. “The thing is, it’s not really possible to make just one guy have a lot of game play depth. You have your initial “What does this guy do?” phase, and once you learn when to time your attacks, you’re in the “Going through the motions of beating this guy I already know how to beat” phase. You no longer have to strategize or think on your feet – he’s just “in your way” until you casually apply the solution.” But you can. In Demon’s Souls, Old King Allant was interesting because he had his own story. He wanted a fight to prove to him that the player is worth giving the sword to. Once his health was taken down 25%, he would stop and allow the player to take the sword. But if the player kept attacking, he would go into a more skilled mode of fighting that played directly off of the player’s weaknesses. He would destroy the player unless the player really proved their mettle in one of the toughest melee fights. Or Maiden Astraea’s bodyguard Garl Vinland, who won’t attack the player unless he comes to close, and stays in the way of Astraea until defeated. Real emotion can come from these fights if they have meaning or if they are exceptionally difficult. And they can be made exceptionally difficult, in fact, just like enemies can be made exceptionally easy, like the base enemies from the tutorial. Enemies can parry and wait for openings.
The variety of weapons is kind of shallow. Most of them have similar move sets, but become interesting with special moves and attributes. But you state that “just because you have these YouTube celebrities who play the game hundreds of times for the sake of viewership doesn’t mean that’s a common play experience,” but I don’t run a YouTube channel and I have beaten that game at least twenty five times. Some of the playthroughs are challenge runs, some are just basic, but all are fun. I do know of a lot of people who play this game a lot because it is fun, not for views or fame.
You say that the only way for the game to stay interesting is: “Ultimately, it’s up to the player to create his own experience. It’s up to the player to act against his own self-interest (winning) in order to create a new experience. Players are used to this idea because most games aren’t good enough to hold up in the long-term, and they require players to make their own experience. Yes, you can do this, but I don’t give designers any credit for experiences that players have to make.” But many people enjoy simple runs because it is just plain fun, even after repeated playthroughs. They wouldn’t just make a game that is boring after a few playthroughs playing the game regularly, because they created different combat styles.
You point out a cheap enemy: “But they create the initial illusion of difficulty. When an infinite-stamina Drakekeeper in the Dragon Shrine pummels you to death in one combo, the game really seems hard. But then when you one-shot him with a fully upgraded Smelter Hammer counterattack, you find out that it was never really hard at all – you could do this all day! And from then on, Drakekeepers never have to be a problem unless you choose to let them.” And yes, that is possibly the worst designed character in the series. But there is difficulty with singular enemies if they factored in the possible stamina bar for the enemy, it wouldn’t be the case. And there are effective strategies, but not everybody copy and pastes strategies, they put twists on it with their own equipment and abilities.
I can tell you do like the Souls series. But it seems the game you want is not what From Software will produce. Just like how I like Skyrim, but I hate the combat system, how it’s built and how stupid it is. Everyone has tweaks to games that they like, even love. The Souls series has issues and that’s true on so many levels. PvP is quite broken for players who want to use whatever they want. The story is kind of off in Dark Souls 2, and so is the level design, enemy placement, amount of bosses, boss design, boss variety, music variety, enemy variety, and a few other things. But knowing that, your dream of a better Souls experience is not what others believe.
So the things you said about Allant and Astraea in terms of lore are true, and stories have their place. However, I’d encourage you to primarily think about games mechanically – after all, it’s the doing that is the primary motif that games have to offer. The story of Garl Vinland and Maiden Astraea is interesting, sure, but it’s a pretty garbage boss fight mechanically. Vinland basically makes these pathetic attempts to hit you, which you easily dodge, and then counterattack. Rinse repeat until he dies, and then Astraea actually kills herself to end the fight. What’s the take-away here? Basically that Garl Vinland is a super-derp bodyguard completely incapable of even the most basic tactics. Not too flattering. And that’s to say nothing of True King Allant, a “boss fight” so simple and forgettable that the wiki doesn’t even provide tips or strategy for it.
What we need to realize is that lore and story are secondary to the game play, not a substitution for it. You can apply the Allant or Astraea stories to any kind of game play you can possibly imagine. You can even tell that story outside of the game, and the Souls series is usually pretty good at that. I love the fact that most of the lore is on item descriptions and safely tucked away from the game play itself. Because when you let story and lore rule the game play, you get stupid boss battles like Maiden Astraea. Just because you made some interesting lore, that’s no excuse for making a flat, uninteresting game play experience.
It seems like mostly what you’re saying is “But other people think different things.” That’s fine, and they’re free to. I think these things, and I hope to be as convincing as I can be. I wonder if these other people who think other things might actually like a Souls game built on my ideas just the same, though. I guess the only way to find out is to build one and see.
Thanks for reading, and especially thanks for the comments!
After my second post, I started and finished a Soul Level 1 play through of Dark Souls to analyze the points given as before this, I was running off of year old fumes. While I must say that the game itself does group up enemies like in Anor Londo, the two archer knights on the thin platforms (which was notorious for being a real challenge), and Orenstein and Smough boss fight (which took about two hours to do) to make great experiences that create great challenges, it also had the Four Kings boss fight (the worst designed fight in the game) and the swarm of pinwheels and baby skeletons right before Lord Nito (a spam of spells that serves as an obstacle course more than a combat encounter). There are good groups of enemies that, while I don’t particularly like, add to the game’s experience as a whole. Dark Souls 2, though, did not take away these good encounters to put into the game.
To differentiate, there are areas with multiple enemies in near proximity that sometimes have attacks coinciding with each other (like the Tseldora caves and the mix of mages and spider zombies). But a combination of enemies in tight proximity that attack like a phalanx to play off of each others’ weaknesses is what I’m talking about.
The most memorable grouped enemy encounters are the worst for Dark Souls 2. Here is the list:
Heide’s Tower of Flame (coliseum between the Dragon Rider and Orenstein boss fights).
Huntsman’s Copse (leading up to the Executioner’s Chariot).
Belfry Luna (entire Gargoyle boss fight).
Grave of Saints (entire Rat Vanguard boss fight).
Brightstone Cove Tseldora (in boss fight room, the horde of unnecessary spiders distracting the player from the boss).
Doors of Pharros (in boss fight room, the horde of unnecessary rats distracting the player from the poorly designed boss).
Drangleic Castle (everything leading up to entering the castle, and the over population of Alonne Knight Captains spamming arrows all around).
Undead Crypt (cluster of guards before Velstadt boss fight).
Dragon Shrine (cluster of guards before Ancient Dragon pedestal).
All of the Memories (bad placement of ranged giants near melee giants nullifies melee combat).
Throne of Want (Throne Watcher and Throne Defender boss fight).
Cave of the Dead (entire gank boss fight).
Brume Tower (cluster of explosive enemies where the Scepter is located, and anywhere that the big Iron Warriors are grouped in a cluster of other melee and ranged enemies).
These were all of the areas that I hated with the grouped up enemies based on either poor enemy choice, over saturation of enemies, or even their existence. After playing Dark Souls again, I realize that the main issue with the game and group encounter lies solely with the lock on mechanic and close up camera being so picky on where they are pointed that any other enemy besides the one in the circle are in the very large blind spot. But that is only for that game. Dark Souls 2 manages to build off of that issue by poorly combining fairly robust enemies to make for annoying encounters unless dealt with in a specific way. Forcing players out of a specific combat style makes that encounter a gimmick. There are a few decent horde encounters, but compared to how the rest are built, it doesn’t feel worth it. The singular enemy encounters feel more fondly remembered because they didn’t piss me off as much.
So I want to make it clear that “groups of enemies are good” is only a starting point. Obviously there are bad ways to do do anything. The fact is, Souls is really focused on single-enemy combat, and it has a huge effect on the moments where multiple-enemy combat occurs. Because the single-enemy combat needs to seem hard, enemies are overtuned and made more powerful than they really should be. This causes the multiple-enemy combat to seem unfair, and 3rd-person, rotating camera makes this problem worse (which is why that camera angle really needs to go away. Seriously, it’s the source of so many game problems, you don’t even know). Ultimately, it makes multi-enemy combat drag out far longer than it needs to because often the only viable tactic is (wouldn’t you know it!) “Lure it out one at a time.” And since that’s the only way to do deal with these overtuned enemies, the developers don’t feel comfortable taking measures to prevent players from luring enemies apart, and the game play stagnates and falls apart.
The solution to this isn’t to just rearrange all the enemy layouts and call it good. This is a fundamental problem that needs to be addressed from the ground up, from the very start of development. Designers need to embrace the idea of multi-enemy combat right away in the beginning, tune the enemies appropriately, give the player an appropriate viewing distance, and never lose sight of the fact that the player is meant to be fighting more than one enemy at a time. They need to take steps to remove “Lure it out one at a time” as a strategy and promise themselves to never allow such a boring and flat strategy, but then, knowing that players can’t do that, they need to design the enemies accordingly. You keep using that word “gank” as though multi-enemy situations were unfair. My point is that they don’t have to be, but it requires some solid design philosophy to make it work, and Souls just isn’t there yet.
However, I roundly reject the idea that “Forcing players out of a specific combat style makes that encounter a gimmick.” Forcing a player out of his habits is what makes game play dynamic and interesting. Players shouldn’t be able to win however they want. There need to be strategies that fail, just as there need to be strategies that succeed. Determining which is which in each individual scenario gives the game depth of skill instead of being a flat experience of “Well, I found out the way I want to play, so I’m just going to rinse-repeat all the way through the game!” Applying a known solution to a known problem over and over again is boring. Having to devise new solutions to new problems keeps games fresh and interesting. And that’s the real problem with single-enemy combat: once you know the solution, the game is dead.
When I say that forcing players out of a specific combat style makes the encounter a gimmick, I mean that if a player is forced to deviate from their build (like a mage or cleric not being able to use what they’ve invested so much into in certain encounters). But, think of it this way: say there is a boss that can only be killed with range, that eliminates using melee and forcing the player to invest in ranged attacks.
A game that allows players to use all tactics (even if some are incredibly difficult to pull off) are fine, but totally eliminating that style is bad.
Thank you, that was great.
This is why a game designer has to be so careful to make sure the optimal path through a game is also an interesting and fun path. I feel this is the fundamental thing the Souls series gets wrong. It also affects the stats subsystem very severely, and in the same ways.
Soul Arrows, shields and spears/rapiers are basically easy mode for most players. I think this is probably good, except that using those tools is too defensive and drains the fun (just as you said). Such an oversight, because it would be very easy to alter those tools to make them more dynamic while remaining just as viable.
The games heavily incentivize players to play carefully; the early-game learning curve is all about training players to use caution. So I wonder how much players can really be faulted for doing so.
As much as the Souls series does well, there are gaps in the design choices. Studying the series makes it easy to believe that game design is still in its early days.
Well, that’s the point really – it’s not the player’s fault for playing the way he thinks is right. There’s an awful lot of finger-wagging and calling out of “bad behavior” in gamers, but we’re only just now beginning to suspect that it was the game all along that causes it. I think in general designers often leave too much of the experience to be determined by the player instead of owning their responsibilities as designers to efficiently and effectively deliver value. The Extra Credits video is so ecstatic about the player not having to choose an “easy” toggle at the start, but will easy mode seekers actually find it in the huge swathes of weapons and magic and stats? Will hard mode players accidentally find easy mode and have it color their perception of the game? It’s a completely dysfunctional solution to the problem of difficulty settings. The irony is that as much as the Extra Credits crew lamented that players feel bad choosing the easy mode toggle, by taking the time at the end of the video to outline all of the things you need to do to create Dark Souls 2 easy mode (so the players can actually find it, you see), they’re basically letting players choose the easy mode toggle after all! So did they “spoil” the magic of the soft easy mode and defeat their own point? Sometimes I wonder if they hear the words coming out of their mouths.
I definitely agree with you that game design is in its infancy. I think accepting just that little fact alone makes it so much easier to accept otherwise hard truths about games – that maybe that awesome game you played at the age of six isn’t so awesome in retrospect. Or even more likely, we’re sure to make games that are a hundred times better than the stuff we make now if only we’re willing to establish fundamentals of design. But that means knocking out some bad foundations sometimes, and that’s just not okay to some people. I think it’ll be largely incumbent on game designers themselves to just show people what these better games look like before more people start to understand.
Thanks for reading!