Learning from Dark Souls

During the holiday break I played through Dark Souls, a video game that I had bought sometime last year.  Before the break, I had attempted to play the game three times, but was turned off at every attempt from the frustration of dying multiple times in the same section.  More recently, I’ve been slowly reading through Gee’s What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy to prepare for a book report. Inspired by Gee, I would like to try to analyze Dark Souls.

Here’s a link that can provide some background info on Dark Souls including the release date, info on the gameplay elements, and plot.

Now Dark Souls, and the Souls series in general, have garnered a reputation of being difficult games in an age where such games have become scarce.  The phrase, “Prepare to Die”, was associated with the game, highlighting a central mechanic to the game, death. If you have ever played a single player game, like Mario, having multiple lives is a common occurrence with death acting as a “Game Over”, but in Dark Souls there is more justification to having multiple lives than most games.

In Dark Souls, the character you play as is a cursed Undead whose goal is to go out into the world to learn more about the curse, for some unknown purpose (possibly a way to get rid of it?).  Those afflicted with the curse cannot die permanently, when death occurs they are promptly reborn at the last bonfire visited. In Dark Souls, fire is the source of all life and bonfires scattered around the game world act as checkpoints, areas where you are restored to life after dying.

Now you may be thinking that not dying is actually a benefit, but in the Dark Souls universe Undead eventually lose their sense of self and go “Hollow”, becoming hostile to everyone. This is not a major concern for the main character who is not at risk of going Hollow because your sense of purpose is strong. An interesting idea to note, is that those who quit playing the game before completion could be considered to have gone Hollow because they lost their motivation to move forward.

Getting back on track, death is a major component of the game, it is designed so that the unwary will die constantly. The game is based around creating encounters in the environment that can lead to the player’s demise through strong enemies, environment hazards, traps, and tiny ledges…so tiny. Defeating enemies gives the player currency (in the form of souls) and in the death that currency is dropped. When reborn, if the player can return to where they died, they can pick up those souls, but if they die before then that currency will forever be lost. Currency allows the player to improve equipment, improve their abilities, and buy life saving items (such as antidotes against poison), so currency is pretty important. Also when the player is reborn, all defeated enemies return too, which is just beautiful. This increases the tension of the gameplay as death is much more painful than in other games, but successfully getting through a section of an area that had been troublesome is also very exhilarating.

Dark Souls teaches patience, to take one’s time, to learn the layout of an environment, learn your attack patterns, the range of your attacks, and to memorize enemies’ behaviors. “I need to take out the archer first, then run backwards to avoid the swordsman’s slash, then attack him twice before he lifts his shield up.” “If I climb the ladder, then I need to quickly jump down and strike the demon down before he jumps up to the second floor and insta-kills me.” These are some of the thoughts that become ingrained in my brain from facing the same scenarios 5 or more times. Dark Souls is also designed where levels are intertwined and shortcuts towards the central hub area are plentiful, making transversing the world  and memorizing its layout easier. This lets the player focus more on facing the challenges the areas present rather than dealing with being lost. The scaffolding that occurs on multiple levels is impressive and it comes with motivation to keep from dying.

At a certain level of mastery, death isn’t such an issue because you know that it is an intended feature and that the sooner it comes, the faster you’ll end up learning the area, its dangers and secrets. Reminiscent of not getting the intended results during a science investigation, Dark Souls eventually imparts that idea that what appears to be failure initially, is actually an opportunity to learn and improve.