Written by Eric Layman
Category: News and Other Musings
Published: 21 January 2013
Battle Royale is a kind of insane Japanese novel where a junior high class goes to a remote island, each student receives a random weapon, and then they all have to kill each other. It's not as sadistic and exploitive as one might expect, instead employing its premise as a means to contextualize survival, isolation, and loyalty amidst absolute chaos. It's powerful, haunting and only a little goofy, and the 2000 cinematic adaptation is reasonably faithful to its source material. It also contained a small scene that perfectly encapsulates my entry point into Dark Souls.
In Battle Royale, survival packs are distributed at random - and not all are created equal. One student unzips his and finds a sword while another discovers a machine gun. Another unfortunate son of a bitch gets a garbage can lid, and the wave of panic and dread that washes over him is palpable and terrifying. He's fucked. Hopelessly fucked, and if memory serves me right he got an arrow through the face after about ten seconds. He wasn't prepared to deal with what was about to happen.
This is exactly what happened to me in the first few hours of Dark Souls. I had a weapon, but any potential threat took advantage of my inexperience and relieved me of everything I had. By design, Dark Souls forces new players to risk everything they have with every foot step. It's an intimidating premise because for the last fifteen or so years games have transitioned from this obtuse thing you figure out and have fun with to a routine event with familiar structures. Especially (but not only) if you play a lot of games, it's not hard to figure out what's going on and plow through content.
It's like being a math prodigy when you're a kid but then relying on calculator for so much of your adult life that you've forgotten basic computation operations. Dark Souls knows players aren't challenged like this anymore, but it's also aware and confident that a smart player can evoke a dormant ability to press forward and adapt to his or her surroundings. It's a significant risk in game design, and certainly one that would have been focus-grouped straight to the dumpster had it been developed in North America. Everyone who pays for modern game X is supposed to get an A to justify their purchase whereas Dark Souls forces the player to earn their grade (and show their work in the process).
Dark Souls' deliberate obfuscation of its systems doesn't make this easy but the potential of any gratification makes it possible. No matter what, you're the kid with the garbage can lid lost in a world of violent monsters. You fold either in cowardice or indifference, or you can rekindle your latent ability, turn garbage into gold, and then wield it to victory.