Dark Souls Review: Death by Design
Page 2 of 9
Death and failure have been an integral part of video games since their inception, but the concepts are so common that they are rarely given much thought. Even games that expect players to take their stories very seriously simply skirt the issue, depositing defeated characters back at some recent checkpoint or save. When game designers do dare to consider the nature of video game death, they often produce acknowledged classics.
In Demon’s Souls and now Dark Souls, From Software develops their own unique concept of death, one that is inherent to — not a distraction from — the gameworld. In the fictional universe of the Souls games, undeath is a common state. Mortality, indeed, is less of a binary and more of a sliding scale; beings become more or less alive based on their experiences. In Dark Souls, when you are killed, you become a “Hollow,” a hideous zombie that somehow retains the ability to fight on. Life can be restored by collecting consumable portions of “Humanity” scattered throughout the gameworld. Having more humanity — being more alive — confers certain bonuses, including better loot drops.
Despite being creative in theory and satisfying in practice, this system is only tenuously explained. In the Souls series, game design is always the paramount concern. Most great RPG’s have great stories — think Final Fantasy VII, or Mass Effect. Dark Souls has no story to speak of. The intro cutscene consists of mythological blathering about Dragons and Lords. The few NPC’s that deign to explain anything speak in incomprehensibly overwrought dialogue, peppered with “thous” and the unnecessary addition of the suffix “-eth.”
And yet, Dark Souls is a great RPG, and one of the best games I will play all year. This is due to the incredible quality of its game design. The quality is so overweening, in fact, that the game design itself seems to become the story. Dark Souls is a game about a lone warrior who has to make his way through a variety of incredibly dangerous areas, and defeat a variety of bosses — this description would be equally at home on a plot synopsis or a design document. The game’s achievement in three areas — level design, combat design, and creature design — is the key to its success.