Dark Souls (“Austerity Measures”)

by Adam Lederer

In the past month I’ve spent the most time playing Arkham City and Dark Souls.

Arkham City is a zealously polished game with clever combat, detailed environments, meticulously-tested encounters and difficulty curve, damn fine writing/narrative engagement, and is a big ball of glistening visceral joy.  Dark Souls in comparison is so much less explicitly/deliberately engaging on a moment-to-moment basis, is unfriendly to the player (downright nasty, really), and has a much lighter and more awkward touch with story.

Why does Dark Souls captivate me so much more?  Why does it worm its way into the emotional vine of my mind grapes, flooding me with what could be called nostalgia or yearning,  when I’m away from it?

I don’t want to bore you (or myself), so let’s give only a brief head-nod to some very valid factors that aren’t actually what I feel like discussing today:

  1. Dungeon-crawler loot mechanics at their finest – addiction central.  Dreaming new builds in my sleep.  Fantasizing about upgrading and feeling just a little more powerful.
  2. Risk/reward of the souls system – the intensity and investment is just through the roof.  Aftershocks are only expected.
  3. Ridiculous environment design chops.  It feels real, and it feels spectacular.
  4. Much grander (and vaguer) scope.  Let’s focus in on this vagueness concept…

And that brings us to my word of the day!

Austerity

Yes, that’s right, austerity!  Capital A, rhymes with parity, austerity.  Capitalization optional.  For now.  One day…

Dark Souls isn’t telling me what to do all the damn time.  And if it ever does… should I even trust it?  It’s my experience to have, my way.  There’s no invisible hand that’s guaranteeing I always have a mission and some thugs to beat up nearby, and that I can retry if I miss an objective.  Now, you may be saying, “Of course there’s an invisible hand, you moron!  It’s called game design.”

While I may be a moron, my point stands – the player feels free and independent, like an acrobat with no net, performing for an empty room.  It’s the incredible artistry that From Software has woven that makes us feel that we are picking up bits and pieces of a story never meant to be understood, making our way past undead throngs that were otherwise content to continue their days unslain.

The true role of an auteur is not to deliver a vision, but to let the audience experience their own personal vision.

– me, just now

So yeah, that’s it.  Arkham City, freaking amazing and all.  But I find it fascinating how much more Dark Souls has stuck with me.  Thoughts?