Deciphering a Violent Language
Games criticism has a scope problem. Often, video games are evaluated in broad strokes, leaving behind more in-depth analysis of various components in favor of writing a concise, timely review which answers basic questions like “will I like this game? Should I buy it?” In itself, this isn’t a problem. Reviews certainly should prioritize answering those questions. However, there is value in diving deeper. In exploring the specifics of how a game works on players. With these ideas in mind, this article seeks to examine the encounter design of Dark Souls II. Using encounters in The Forest of Fallen Giants as examples, this article will demonstrate how FromSoftware establishes a language with its use of terrain and enemy placement, and then it will show the emotional payoff of that work. First, however, it’s time to set the scene.
I enter a ruined courtyard. Suddenly, a mob of hollow soldiers swarms me while another fires a bow from on high. Startled, I sprint away and scale a ladder up to the battlements with the soldiers shambling after me. A pair of hollows are crouched in the rubble at the top of the ladder, and they stand with weapons raised as I gain the wall. I cut them down and rush past. Coming to a gap in the battlement, I take a running leap, cutting off further pursuit. Alone with me on the isolated walkway is the archer. I slay him before he can draw his dagger. The frustrated hollows return to the courtyard as I watch from above, weighing my options.
I settle on a course of action and reach into my pack. Throwing knives rain from the battlements into the mob of hollow soldiers. Having thinned the herd, I leap back across the gap, cross the walkway, and slide down the ladder. The hollows pelt toward me. We meet in the courtyard, odds evened somewhat since our last encounter. Our blades rise and fall. In the end, they lay sprawled about the yard, their souls seeping into me like damp seeping into cloth.
This encounter is incredibly satisfying to play. That said, if it was the first encounter in The Forest of Fallen Giants, it wouldn’t work as well. The reason for this is because the first encounters in that area are focused on establishing a particular language to encounters. There are a couple of isolated enemies, there to teach you the basic behaviors of the hollow soldiers. Then, at a bridge, a squad of the soldiers awaits the player while an archer lets loose. There are multiple enemies, but the game is very forgiving with this group. The soldiers will begin pursuit from relatively far away, making it easy to draw them back and behind a hill, blocking the archer’s line of sight. From there, the player is able to cut each soldier down, one-by-one, rather than tackling the daunting task of fighting a group while dodging missiles.
This teaches the player a few things: one, that the hollow soldiers alone are not particularly dangerous, but that in groups they can become overwhelming. Two, that using one’s terrain is an effective way to frustrate the efforts of enemies with ranged weapons. These encounters encourage situational awareness and thinking on one’s feet. That way, when the player enters the ruined fort only to be ambushed by a large squad of soldiers, the danger is immediately apparent. Players who have been paying attention will be struck by a singular thought:
While some will have the skills to battle the mob, effortlessly dodging arrows and swords, others will quickly realize that fighting the group head-on is suicide. They will frantically search for other options, which the developers are happy to provide. This experience in itself is a big part of what makes this encounter fun. It’s startling, and it leaves players frantic for a way out. Then, they can use their environment and their inventory to turn the tables on the hollows, which is both engaging and rewarding. Notably, this emotional reaction, along with the frenetic running battle which ensues as a result of it, is conveyed very simply and effectively.
If it were a movie, there would be close-ups of the archer, and of the mob of hollows, likely peppered with reaction shots of the protagonist. The director would have to use film techniques to convey the stakes and emotions of the fight scene. But because Dark Souls II is a video game, FromSoftware uses mechanics to convey stakes and emotion. Because of the foundational work of the previous encounters, merely placing the archer in the player’s line of sight while having the hollows immediately rush forward effectively conveys everything the player needs to know and feel. So, this encounter is very effective at eliciting emotions from players and at acting as a payoff for the precedent established by earlier encounters. But what does this say about Dark Souls II on the whole, and more importantly, about the games industry?
This encounter serves as a complication to what people broadly think makes Dark Souls good. One often hears that Dark Souls is compelling because it’s atmospheric, mysterious, and oppressive. Because it uses punishing difficulty to create a trial-and-error gameplay loop, where players tackle a challenge again and again, with increasing frustration, until they finally overcome it. In contrast, the encounter in the ruined fort doesn’t really exhibit these traits. I didn’t spend hours butting my head against that fight. I did it all in one go. That’s not a brag–rather, it’s meant to remind people that FromSoftware utilizes an entire toolbox to make its games effective. To remind them that perhaps we haven’t truly finished digging around in that toolbox.
There are practical implications for examining these mechanics in greater detail. Dark Souls as a franchise has demonstrated a talent for spawning doppelgängers. These copycats can be successful in their own right, but many are pale shades of their inspiration. Lords of the Fallen is an infamous example of a Dark Souls clone gone wrong. And while there could be many reasons for this, it is worth asking whether the reputation Dark Souls has garnered actually reflects how the game works its magic. Delving deeper into encounter design is just one way to enhance our understanding of Dark Souls and video games in general. Critics will understand how to describe their experiences more effectively, regular players will be able to identify the traits they really love in games more easily, and developers will be able to utilize these ideas when building games. Basically, everybody wins.
Video games will improve as we find more ways to describe their effectiveness. Just as we can process our reaction to the existential decay of the broken realm of Drangleic, so too can we gain insights from a brief scrap in a tumbled, moss-eaten fort in the middle of the woods.