This is going to be a very positive article in the series and indeed one not so much about why I’m disillusioned with games as what I really want from them. I’ve talked for two articles now about what modern blockbuster games aren’t doing right, and how the simple pleasures of Angry Birds are if anything more “game-like” than Call of Duty‘s spectacle. I’ve talked about how plot in Skyrim is an unsatisfying galaxy of static plot points waiting to be discovered.
What I haven’t really touched on is what a good game is. It’s time to do that now, in the final part of the Gameplay series of articles. I’ll be putting forward 2011′s Dark Souls as an example of a game which does an awful lot right. The first thing to note about Dark Souls is how unobtrusive the story is. Conversations and cutscenes are few and far between, and what NPCs there are to talk to have little to say. The player is given the barest minimum of information to know where to go, and left to explore and discover the world themselves. On the surface this is much like Skyrim‘s system of discovery and exploration, but while Skyrim focused on letting the player roam freely and encounter things that would adjust themselves to be suitable to their current position in the game, Dark Souls‘ world requires the player to adapt to its challenges.
Dark Souls‘ first area is an exceptional piece of game design. Two paths from it are immediately obvious, with others less obvious but still easily discovered. None are given any particular prominence in narrative terms; they are simply paths from a central tower. The hint the player is given tells them they will, in time, need to go up and down. One path leads up, the other down. Almost all of the routes lead to apparently insurmountable challenges save one. Progress is possible, if the player is skilled, and there are rewards dotted around in the form of items that make the game somewhat easier; a skilful player can overcome the challenge and profit from it. Rather than simply present a locked door, or a barrier which prevents movement down a path the player is not ready for, Dark Souls lets the player experiment and learn that they are not ready, and try elsewhere.
This difference, between a curated and predictable experience and one where the player is left to experiment and discover what is possible with their current level of progress, is a strength of the game. It is game-like; rules are presented in the form of challenges that can be understood and approached, and by a mixture of progress within the game and practice, the challenges are overcome. There is a natural order of progression through Dark Souls but it does not force this on the player by removing their agency, but by letting them learn the limits of the game state.
The “rules” of Dark Souls are remarkably consistent and easily understood. Enemies will die if attacked enough; the issue is always surviving to do so. Areas are divided up by doors that always have the same properties. Bonfires are always safe areas. By establishing these “knowns” then the unknowns, the challenges that will be presented, become more effective. I mentioned when talking about Call of Duty that a player will come to learn where enemies are and react accordingly; Dark Souls requires a similar level of knowledge, but contains a far greater element of unpredictability. Enemies will begin in the same place but react differently each time a section is tried to the point where predictable behaviour appears an error in the game rather than an expected mechanic.
While Dark Souls is still reliant on a form of pattern-recognition, the patterns are more variable, and rote memorisation will not guarantee success; much like Angry Birds. It’s this quite substantial element of luck in some areas, tempered with the requirement for significant skill, that makes failure a rewarding process. What is more, the lack of visible waypoints, highlighted objectives or visual cues mean that progress in Dark Souls is more rewarding; you set off from a safe point not knowing how far away the next one is. In Call of Duty, the target location is always visible on screen, highlighted with a large marker. In Dark Souls, one simply has to explore; determining whether a path has reached a dead end or whether the player is required to complete a task to proceed falls to the player.
This ties into another thing which sets Dark Souls apart; progress has a measurable reward based around player agency. Completing a section of the game leads the player straight into the next area; the reward for progress is the ability to progress further, rather than to have your agency removed until the narrative section is over. Furthermore, each completed section then links into other sections, giving a second reward for progress; it is now easier to return to areas that have not been completely explored. It’s this dual reward – the capacity to continue, or the capacity to return to known areas and find out more about them – that replaces the restrictive narratives of Call of Duty which reward skill with passive consumption of plot; the player is constantly in control and must derive significance from what they are looking at and experiencing actively.
From this, it becomes apparent that Dark Souls‘ strength is that it rewards player agency and skill with progress in the game. Playing Dark Souls is your reward for playing Dark Souls. Despite the narrative being almost non-existent, and there being no big setpieces to watch, the sense of achievement gained from completing a level is almost greater than doing so in Call of Duty because at all times it has been the player’s work. A game state is established, and through perseverance, mastery of known rules and skill applied against luck, it is “beaten”. Much like learning how to use limited resources in Angry Birds to solve its puzzle. Similarly, by eschewing any semblance of a narrative or sense of time, and making a key part of what story there is that the player exists in a form of stasis (rather than the world appearing to as in Skyrim), suspension of disbelief is far more easily maintained. At all times in Dark Souls the player is put front and centre, given full agency and encouraged to learn by experiment, rather than being restrained and heavy-handedly guided through the game.
In short then, Dark Souls is a perfect example of how a good game gives the player significant agency, and by limiting the prominence of narrative and setting creating a pure test of skill. The importance placed on experiment, practice and perseverance against a subtly changing opponent bound by easily-understood rules differentiates it from many single-player games, which rely on curated and regulated progression between narrative points which remove player agency altogether.
This ends the series of articles on gameplay. The next section of this series will focus instead on the business side of the computer game industry, and why I am, as always, disillusioned by it.