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An In-Depth Analysis of Encounter Design in ‘Dark Souls II’

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Dark Souls II Review Forest of Fallen Giants

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:

Oh shit.

Dark Souls II Forest

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.

 

Brandon Curran was born in a damn desert before being spirited away to the arboreal paradise of Portland, Oregon. He likes grey skies, green trees, and a steady mist of rain. When he's not writing articles about game design, he's working on that book he's totally gonna finish. In his spare time, Brandon plays video games, paints miniatures, and mutters to himself

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‘KartRider: Drift’ is Gorgeous But in Need of Fine-Tuning

KartRider: Drift is Microsoft’s new exclusive racer coming in 2020. Here are hands-on beta impressions from behind the wheel.

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kartrider drift

KartRider: Drift had the odds stacked against it from the outset. Though the KartRider series has been immensely popular in China and Korea for more than a decade, its brand recognition in the West has been largely nonexistent. Thus, when it was showcased at Microsoft’s XO19 event in November, many dismissed the game as a generic Mario Kart clone. In reality, not only is KartRider is one of the longest-running competitive racing games in the world, but its closed beta weekend proved that Nexon is taking the impending Western release very seriously.

Push to Start

Beta players were given access to three modes: online matchmaking, solo time trials, and the garage for character and kart customization. The online interface is simple and intuitive; with a press of the “X” button players can toggle between Solo, Duo, and Squad (four-player) races across Item Mode (featuring traditional kart racer items) and Speed Mode (no items). Switching between different configurations is a snap and, thanks to KartRacer already being such a massive game in the East, I rarely had to wait more than 20 seconds to get thrown into a match. Creating private parties and inviting friends to race is also an option.

Although maps took a while to load, performance was consistently smooth once races actually began. It’s here where Nexon’s investment in Unreal Engine 4 really shines; the tracks are simply a joy to look at. Each manage to pop with personality despite not being based on recognizable IP like Mario Kart or Crash Team Racing. Of the nine tracks available during the beta only two stuck out as being a bit samey. Each of the drivers also benefit from colorful, distinct designs and fully customizable win/loss animations. The only portion of the presentation that didn’t impress was the music, which was quite catchy at first, but looped endlessly irrespective of the track.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the actual course design, which is largely serviceable but also initially frustrating. For instance, a forest-themed track features logs that stick up from the ground and stop racers in their tracks. This wouldn’t be too egregious, but the logs are so large that only tiny spaces on either side remain. Nearly half of my races on this map were marred by traffic jams caused by a couple of these choke points. Another map features a jump that must be hit at just the right time to not collide with a building and cost players the entire race.

Even maps that don’t demand unreasonable precision from new players suffer from jarringly sharp edges that make it easy to get stuck on corners. This is only exacerbated by a finicky drift mechanic that takes hours of experimentation and countless losses to nail down. While growing more competent at cornering eventually felt rewarding and worthwhile, the high skill threshold here feels like it’s at odds with KartRider: Drift’s framing as an accessible, beginner-friendly experience. These aren’t necessarily design flaws, but they seem like missteps in a game that’s trying to appeal to as many newcomers as possible.

kartrider drift

Tantalizing Customization

While KartRider: Drift’s core mechanics might aggravate the casual players it’s trying to reach, its customization options are some of the most appealing I’ve seen in any kart racer. Players can choose from a range of skins, emotes, kart types, and wheels to fully deck out their characters. Be it the aggressively adorable Bunny Buggy or skins that turn characters into little baseball and football players, it’s tough not to fall in love with the clean, cutesy charm on display here.

One potential worry is that since the game will be completely free-to-play, it’ll follow the route of relying on premium skins and emotes to generate revenue. There was no store or lootbox-esque system implemented in the beta build, but it’s clear from the “Epic” and “Rare” tags on items that premium customization will surely be a major focus. Considering players gain experience and level up the more races they compete in, there’s hope that at least some items might be unlockables to encourage higher attachment rates.

KartRacer: Drift is an unusual Microsoft exclusive, and yet it’s clear that Nexon has poured a tremendous amount of care and resources into it over the years. Having crossplay with PC this early on was crucial and ensures a built-in online community of millions from the get-go. It remains to be seen if the team makes any track design tweaks or alters the hyper-touchy drift, but what’s already here is at least worth giving a whirl when it releases for free sometime in 2020.

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The Best Reveals of Indie World December 2019

From long-awaited sequels to unexpected crossovers to some surprising shadow drops, there was something for everyone in the latest Indie World showcase.

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Indie World

It’s been a banner year for independent games, and Nintendo has closed it out with a new Indie World presentation. From long awaited sequels to unexpected crossovers to some surprising shadow drops, there was something for everyone in this showcase. We’ve rounded up a few of the very best reveals below.

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The show started off strong with the reveal of Sports Story, a sequel to 2017’s much loved, golf-obsessed RPG Golf Story. Whereas the first game focused solely on the noble sport of golf, the sequel has a much broader scope, integrating a variety of new sports like tennis, baseball, and soccer, to name only a few. On top of that, the gameplay is expanding with plenty of new elements, including dungeons to explore, espionage missions to sneak through, and numerous memorable characters to interact with. Just like its predecessor, Sports Story will be a Switch exclusive when it launches in mid-2020.

Some of the best indies can be immensely stylish experiences, and such games were well represented throughout this showcase. The first one shown was Gleamlight, a 2D action game created by developers who worked on the recent Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. It puts players in control of a sentient sword, tasked with exploring a mysterious world made of stained glass. It leaves players to their own devices, with no UI or dialogue to tell its somber story. Like so many other games in this presentation, it will release in early 2020.

Animated GIF

Another eye-catching title was Liberated, which describes itself as “a playable graphic novel.” Literally taking place across the panels and pages of a cyberpunk comic book, Liberated features a mixture of stealth-based gunplay and action platforming, along with a dystopian story told from numerous perspectives. It will be a timed Switch console exclusive when it launches next year.

Indie World

Not all games were so serious or artistic – some were decidedly sillier. One such game was SkateBIRD, which, as the title implies, is all about controlling cute little birds on skateboards. This intrepid athletes will spend their time “grinding on bendy straws, kickflipping over staplers or carving lines through a park held together by sticky tape,” and if that doesn’t sound like a good time, I don’t know what does. These little birdies won’t take flight until late 2020.

Indie World

To get even sillier, imagine the bizarre bird-based dating simulator Hatoful Boyfriend set to an Ace Attorney soundtrack. As bizarre as that sounds, that’s exactly what Murder by the Numbers is. This murder mystery visual novel blends detective work with pixelated puzzling, featuring characters designed by Hatoful Boyfriend creator Hato Moa and music by Ace Attorney composer Masakazu Sugimori. Releasing early next year, this unusual mashup will be a timed Switch exclusive at launch.

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Procedural generation can feel like a tired trope in indie games. However, SuperMash, which describes itself as “the game that makes games,” looks like it should be a unique take on that style with its inventive genre-mashing style. Players will be able to mash distinct genres together – such as JRPG and platformer – to randomly created entirely new gameplay styles. It has plenty of unique mashing potential, releasing in May next year on Switch.

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It’s seemingly impossible for Nintendo to hold a presentation without a shadow drop or two, and that holds true with this Indie World showcase. The free-to-play multiplayer hit Dauntless was revealed to include exclusive weapons and armor in the Switch version, which also features full cross-play support. Likewise, the deluxe version of the philosophical puzzler The Talos Principle was announced for Nintendo’s hybrid wonder, featuring all the immersive mind teasers and world design that made the game such a hit when it launched years ago. Unlike most other titles in this showcase, you won’t need to wait until next year to play these – instead, they’re both available for download now.

Animated GIF

The presentation opened with a sequel to a fan-favorite indie, and fittingly enough, that’s also how it closed, with the announcement of Axiom Verge 2. Details are currently scarce, but this new title will return to the sci-fi universe of the original 2015 Metroidvania hit, including “completely new characters, abilities, and gameplay.” We’re sure to learn more about this mysterious new sequel ahead of its release in Fall 2020.

These are only a few of the most exciting reveals from Indie World. For everything announced, you can see the full presentation below.

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘The Walking Dead’

A look back at one of the most critically acclaimed narrative based point and click story games of the decade: Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

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The story-based video game has been around for a long time but there has been a spike in popularity in them in the last decade. One of the most influential and critically acclaimed narrative games is the 2012 game Telltale’s The Walking Dead, which initiated a tidal wave of choice-based games that still continues today.

Lee Everett, the protagonist of the first season of The Walking Dead Game.

Telltale Games was created in 2004 and had a significant library of games established — including games based on Back to the Future and Jurassic Park — before the release of The Walking Dead. It was the zombie point and click adventure that shot them to triple A game studio status though. The game took on similar mechanics to their other games but introduced a more cinematic style. Player choice is a key element in regard to dialogue choices and important decisions within the story. These shape the player character, Lee Everett, and change his personality to suit the play style. This was one of the most endearing features of the game, allowing players to experience scenarios slightly differently depending on your choice.

The Walking Dead

Lee and his ward Clementine had a strong connection that led to a lot of the emotional moments in the story.

The depth of the characters and dark nature of the narrative are the best aspects of the game. The player takes on the role of Lee as he is on his way to jail at the dawn of the zombie apocalypse. After a car accident leaves him stranded, he stumbles upon a little girl named Clementine. Lee becomes her protector as they and a group of survivors try to survive in the walker-infested world. This simple story of a man with a troubled past attempting to protect a little girl at the end of the world is incredibly engaging and it is difficult not to get emotionally attached to both Lee and Clementine. The system wherein certain characters will remember Lee’s words or actions is also a nice feature that can guilt trip you over your choices, particularly if you see the words “Clementine Will Remember That”. Lee is an interesting and complex character whose attitude and personality can change depending on player choice and Clementine is a loveable child who doesn’t fall into the “annoying kid” stereotype in most games. Both became beloved video game characters who set a precedent for likeable protagonists in gaming.

The Walking Dead

The cast of characters in The Walking Dead’s first season all had their complexities.

The legacy of Telltale Games and The Walking Dead still continues within the gaming community. Telltales unfortunate downfall in September 2018 was a great loss to story-based gaming but many have been influenced by Telltale’s work since. Dontnod adapted the episodic formula for their Life is Strange games, another fantastic narrative series. Others who had previously worked for Telltale helped bring other great story games to life. The co-writers of the first season of The Walking Dead game set up the company that created the 2016 game Firewatch, for example. More writers of the series launched Night School Studios, responsible for Oxenfree (2016) and Afterparty (2019). The Walking Dead catapulted Telltale Games to stardom, leading them to take on a slew of projects — possibly leading to their downfall. Despite this, the game has carved out a place for itself in history as one of the best point and click narrative adventure games that established a trend of games that encourage strong storytelling and complex characters.

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