This is not a proud day for me, ladies and gentlemen. And I'm not just talking about how late this article has gone up. It's been a busy week.
I’d love to be able to write a detailed review of Dark Souls 3: The Ringed city, and rest assured a “souls retrospective” article will be produced later this month, now that the final bit of Dark Souls content - for the foreseeable future, anyway - has been released by From Software. However, it’s my shame to admit I haven't actually beat the Ringed City DLC just quite yet. In part, it’s because a meddling social life kept getting in my way (why on earth did I get one of those), in part, it’s because I was playing For Honor so long, and the games were just similar enough that switching back to the Dark Souls mindset and controls was a struggle (you have no many idea how many times I did a shield bash or parry trying to do a heavy attack).
But I’m not trying to make excuses, ladies and gentlemen, because there’s a third reason why I wasn’t able to beat the game, a reason I find much more… discouraging. I think I’m having something of a falling out with the series.
Now, don’t misconstrue me, I’m not saying I dislike the game or the DLC or anything. Dark Souls has been and will remain my favorite series, and the first game is still tied with Undertale for “best game ever made” as far as my personal rankings are concerned. But I think, across the four-and-a-half games that the series has spanned, something fundamental has changed about myself, and equally, something fundamental has remained unchanged within the core of the Dark Souls experience, and I have a hunch that this falling out can be blamed equally on both parties.
Let’s start with Dark Souls. As I said in just the previous paragraph, it’s still a great game, still a great series. But the thing about greatness is that it’s not really a static thing, not in the traditional sense, in any case. The great people in history will always be great, but that’s largely because they died before they had a chance to really ruin their legacy to the point of being useless. And while I’m not saying Dark Souls has cocked anything up, I am going to say that for a medium of entertainment, Dark Souls is astonishingly… safe. And for a franchise or a series, safety and security is the exact opposite of what you want.
Now, Dark Souls (or, Demon Souls to be more exact) didn’t start safe: it was a risky venture, making a vague, challenging, slow-paced action-horror game in a market where no one suspected it would be any good. The problem is that when it discovered its vein of ore, it stopped exploring the mine. And while it was certainly a rich vein, if you look at Dark Souls 1, 2, and 3, you’ll find only the most perfunctory differences between them. Sure, any Souls fan could tell you they were noticeably different: small tweaks to some mecahncis, adjusting the spell system, ect, ect. But those weren’t really changes, those were refinements, and say what you want about Dark Souls 2, but mechanically it was stronger than the first, just as the third was stronger than the second.
But any good, long-lasting series will, inevitably, use the foundation as a base to explore, rather than simply tweak the foundation. Mario would perhaps be the ultimate example of this: his first game was literally just walking and jumping, but Super Mario games in the years to follow branched out and explored something new: either shaking up the way those mechanics were used, or changing what kind of things you could use those mechanics to interact with. To this day, Mario mostly just runs and jumps (and sometimes spins) but Nintendo has crafted a massive toybox of things for him to jump and run and spin around that it never gets old. And while I’m not saying Dark Souls, a franchise that’s been around for a fraction as long as Nintendo’s iconic plumber, needs to have evolved so dramatically in its six years of life, I would say it would be nice if Dark Souls 3 didn’t feel so much like a mere expansion. If it had grown outwards, not just inwards, and created a fresher experience, not just a more refined one.
Part of why I feel this way is because between the release of the first DLC and the second, I’ve gotten exposed to more souls-like games that actually do attempt to freshen things up. Nioh, For Honor (to an extremely limited degree), Salt & Sanctuary… they all capture the raw Souls experience and try something a bit new with it, something games in the main soul series never attempt to do. Hopping back into the DLC, it became all the more clear to me that Dark Souls was kind of stagnant in itself, which was thematically appropriate but still a bit disappointing. The enemies were new, the levels were new, but it was all the same stuff. It just wasn’t as gripping as Nioh, because there was nothing that imbued it with a sense of freshness.
That’s not to say Dark Souls hasn’t ever innovated: that’s exactly what Bloodborne is, our half-game in the four-and-a-half game triology. But that’s a different game with a different goal and objective. It’s a souls-style game, not a Souls game, and I would have liked to have seen that broader-stroke style of design, saving the essence and re-imagining the rest, taken to the third game. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that now: when Dark Souls 3 came out, it was exactly what I wanted, more Dark Souls, but I know based on the reaction to Bloodborne that a bolder Dark Souls 3 would have been largely embraced by the community, and we’d be better off for it.
But I said there were two guilty parties in this equation, which leads us to re-examine the player, the one actually holding the controller: the me. Throughout the history of our medium, there’s been the occasional debate thrown around regarding the length of games: some people say they’re too long, others say they’re too short, and just about no one could agree on how much meat a game should actually have on its bones. And for the longest time, I was firmly of the belief that games should always offer more content, always be longer, and there was no such thing as a game that overstayed its welcome. “The only people who could possibly want a longer game”, I reasoned, “were critics, people who literally have a time limit and need to start playing something else”.
Oh, how young and silly I was.
While I haven’t reversed my position on content in games, I now sympathize far more with the opposing side, because there have been lots of times in this Dark Souls 3 DLC where I was presented with a massive, branching area, and all I could muster was a pained groan and anxious dread. I began to actively avoid side-paths and exploring an area in favor of rushing to the newest bonfire, because more than anything I just wanted to reach the end, feel that sense of accomplishment, and move on. It was a fleeting feeling, I’ve sense slowed down and learned to enjoy it (I had to fall back into some old habits) but in that time I since realized that, heck: there is a genuine relief to having beaten a game. It’s one less thing on your mind, one less experience to worry about, one less check on the bucket list. Even if you enjoy a game immensely and want to keep playing it, there’s a catharsis to just seeing everything in there and replaying it that I understand more fully. Before, I would have said you could just not play all of a game, but now? No, now I get it: just quitting in the middle, that doesn’t feel as good as watching those end credits. It lacks the closure.
And as I get older, my desire to just beat something and move on is only going to get stronger. The days of savoring and partaking are long gone: I have paperwork to do, houses to clean, jobs to attend to. I want to play games but if I’m never going to finish something, why taunt myself by starting it?
Dark Souls 3: The Ringed City is a very cool game. A very frustrating one, too, when you have a Dark-themed character who can’t do crap against the main enemies you keep running into. But while I may not be the same boy who fell in love with the series so many years ago, I can still appreciate all the things that first charmed me about this brutally hard game, and I certainly look forward to seeing all the cool games that will be inspired by it.
…even if, you know, I don’t have much time for them.