Blogs of Rage #4 : Dark Souls and Stockholm Syndrome
So anyone who's been a somewhat regular follower of the show recently is likely aware I have been actively attempting to play Dark Souls 3 over the past several weeks, and as a result of my experiences with the game, I wanted to express some unpopular, possibly hated opinions regarding the game and its design choices.
First and foremost, I want to state for the record that I somewhat enjoy the franchise and have played Demon's Souls and Dark Souls 1 through 3, so I am not an uninformed stranger to the games, their mechanics, and reputation. I enjoy the brutal melee combat and that oh-so satisfying feeling that comes from vanquishing a hideous monster or knight, especially via a backstab or riposte. I enjoy the Borderlands-esque 'weapon porn' and customization that the games allows you to have in regards to attack styles and strategies. I like the Punchout style combat of strike-counterstrike as it keeps you focused and constantly engaged. I love traversing the gothic, decrepit environments to see the different stages, enemies, gear, and secrets. You'd think since I enjoy all of these individual components, combining them into a single, cohesive product would pretty much guarantee a gaming experience that I'd enjoy (I would have), but in this case, you (and I) would be wrong. Why is that?
After 20 something hours in Dark Souls 3, without almost no measurable progress to speak of, I've come to realization that I simply do not enjoy playing this game, moreover the series as a whole. In fact, the entire time I am playing it, I feel anxious, angry, and helpless, or at the very least unprepared. None of these feelings or emotions are synonymous with having a good time, or fun for that matter. I never turn on a game like Metal Slug for example and go, 'clear my calendar, it's time to go suffer'.
The game is hard, make no mistake, but I honestly can't say any individual piece of the game is in and of itself the sole aspect that is making the experience difficult. The combat or enemy movements aren't that difficult to avoid or counter, assuming it isn't a 3-on-1 slugfest. Once known, the stage traps and chokepoints can be minimized, if not outright avoided. Even the massive boss fights can be practiced and honed, as they are no different from any pattern-recognition game, like Contra. No, I believe the issue is the punishing nature of the game, as this game not only hates you, but it hates being considered a game itself, as if other video games were somehow beneath it.
How did I come to this conclusion? Consider the following:
1) Hits are very punishing, more so than almost any other game. While 'insta-kill' spots are not uncommon in other games (i.e. spikes in Mega Man), I cannot shake the feeling that there is some level of psychological manipulation being pushed on to the players. By that I mean, for the most part, from a full life bar, the first strike against your avatar will not outright kill them. No, that would be too simple. To the contrary, the game purposefully leaves you with a smidgen of health to give you the false impression you could still survive. It's that false hope that traps players into thinking, 'I can do better' or 'I almost had it', while in reality, you were screwed from the start. This is how the game keeps you coming back for more.
2) The world resets after each bonfire rest. This is done to purposefully show you no matter how much you think you can or have accomplished, all of your accomplishments are ultimately meaningless and futile as almost nothing can be permanently closed out in this world. This cycle of 'zeroing' out the world is meant to break and demotivate you.
3) To further tie into 2), the cyclical, repeating nature of the game, especially after a death, is madding. That doesn't sound that bad on the surface as most games make you repeat failures/stages, but Dark Souls takes it to another level where you end up getting trapped in some kind of Groundhog's Day nightmare, forever stuck repeating the same sections, with the same enemies, with the same attack patterns, with the same equipment, only incrementally getting a little further, if at all. Repeating sections is absolutely done to shame you.
4) Most of the enemies in the game are weak, nameless nobodies that can be killed with one or two hits, even with the weakest equipment. That being said, overtime, these same nobodies can just as easily kill you if you put yourself into an inopportune spot, or via sheer attrition, as the hundredth person you attempt to kill this cycle was the one that finally got the best of you. This is again done to show you that not even you, the hero, matter. You are just as weak and fragile as all the other bozos in the world. This is done to remove your feeling of worth.
5) The false impression that upgrading your character, your equipment, or anything else tangible really matters, or makes a meaningful impact. To the contrary, I argue at best, you'd go from 2 hits before dying to 3, or 3 swings of your weapon to kill a stock enemy vs. 4. At least in everything I've seen, including Let's Play videos, there is no real gear, armor, or upgrade, at any level, that would allow a player to house all areas and enemies. Moreover, you could argue this game is really about leveling the player up vs. your avatar, as it's really you playing better, less sloppy, or more conservative that gets you progressed further in the game rather than any material upgrade ever could. This is done to show you humility.
So why do some people enjoy, even love these games? It can't be as simple as they need a challenge or something hard to play. To that, I say there are literally hundreds of difficult games to play, many of which for all the wrong reasons, such as a lack of direction, or unbalanced enemies, or poor grinding/payout ratios. Ecco the Dolphin and Battletoads are hard, so why aren't people chomping at the bit to play those games, or putting them on the same pedestal as Dark Souls? To me, I think the answer is simple - Dark Souls is an abuser, and lovers of the franchise are in-turn either closet masochists, or they've been broken into believing Dark Souls is actually enjoyable. Hear me out - how often have you heard fanboys state 'Get Good' (or 'Gud'), or pontificate that people that don't enjoy the Dark Souls formula are somehow weaker than them, or you suck at 'real' games, or anything that pretty much boils down to the problem being you (i.e. the player) vs. Dark Souls.
Do you know who else talks like that? Hostages with Stockholm Syndrome, where the abductees, overtime and conditioning, no longer resent their captures/abusers, but come to actually identify with them. Instead of being able to objectively state feature X or design choice Y is flawed, they now surprisingly state the opposite, however irrational, and may even become aggressive in their defense of said traits. The statement, 'overcoming a boss fight after 3 days of failed attempts is so satisfying' post-conditioning could have just as easily been, 'this boss fight is grossly misbalanced in the game's favor and is a fairly dumb design choice' by the same person prior to his/her conditioning. At the risk of trivializing domestic violence, the relationship between Dark Souls and Dark Souls fans is eerily similar to that of an abuser and an abusee, where, 'Dark Souls only hits me because it loves me' seems more and more plausible the longer I think about it.
Am I kidding for the sake of comedy? To a certain extent, sure, but then again, can you also see where I am coming from?