If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written, then there’s a better-than-good chance you’ve managed to stumble into one of my long-winded rants about Dark Souls. Specifically, how much I love the damn series, particularly the first, which I have claimed many times is a masterpiece beyond peer and the progenitor of an entire new genre of gaming. I’ve written about the cohesiveness of the Dark Souls series and the masterful way it weaved its elements and themes throughout every aspect of its design. I’ve written about how it saved the whole gaming industry from itself at a time when everyone thought easy games were the only kind that sold. I’ve written about how the minimalist design invites more creativity and more genuine interest in the lore than the most verbose and well-explored RPG’s in the world: how books in Skyrim are simply ignored whereas people hunger for even the tiniest scraps of lore you can dig up in an item description in Dark Souls.
I’ve dedicated much of my professional journalist life to lavishing the series. So imagine how excited I must have felt when I saw the news that it was time for the Return to Lordran event, a community-hosted event where fans old and new return to the first Dark Souls game and join together over a period of weeks to both enjoy the temporarily re-invigorated multiplayer as well as savor the game that’s touched us all so profoundly. I made a new character days ahead of time and held off on starting any new games in anticipation of pouring all my time into this.
I guess I forgot my old “Dark Souls and Growing Up” article, because we’re a few days in and I admit, as cool as it is to revisit the undead lands and the harrowing lands of Lordran, I’m still not quite… feeling it, you know?
But look, this isn’t about Dark Souls again, I’ve said more than enough pieces about that particular bit, this is just context. Because while replaying Dark Souls has proven underwhelming, it’s not the only game of mine to have fallen into this trap.
For example, BioShock Infinite. I loved that game. Loved it to tiny pieces. I may not have written about it as extensively as I’ve written about Dark Souls, but it was one of the few games that actually got me to cry, care about the characters, and invest in the world beyond a superficial level. I also fell into that trap of trying to ship Booker with Elizabeth, which, um, obviously didn’t go as I planned. #neverforget
So when I found myself with some free time a few years back, I figured, heck, we’ll give that a play. And to my credit, I was able to get pretty far into the experience, hitting the final phase of the Lady Comstock battle before a mix of frustration and boredom made me give up on that play-through. Custom Robo was a favorite of mine as well, back in the past, and I decided to give the main story another go after beating my brother non-stop for a month proved unchallenging. I threw in the towel after the second story mission. I’ve never beaten a Legend of Zelda game more than once, I’ve never managed to complete my non-lethal playthrough of Deus Ex, and the less said about my disastrous attempt at playing ICO a second time, the better.
“So you’re not a big fan of replaying games,” you might say, sneering, adjusting your glasses as you wonder why you’re still on this site. “Fine. So what?”
I’ll tell you ‘so what’, good sir/ma’am: because I also happen to be a huge fan of League of Legends, a game that has exactly one map and one objective, having spent countless hours rising and falling in the ranks. I used to obsessively play World of Warcraft, juggling multiple characters who, in turn, had to repeat the same dungeons, same quests, and same basic grind over and over again as I pumped them up to higher and higher levels. Even now, my nightly routine isn’t complete without a round or two of Orcs Must Die Unchained, which I have repeatedly said is terrible and will continue to say is terrible thanks to its reliance on the overused “Loot Box” trope I’ve come to loathe.
Replaying games isn’t the problem, here.
It’s no big mystery why that is though: some games are designed to be replayed, and others, not so much. Every game in my latter category was meticulously designed with the goal of being easy to replay through a number of features: some kind of log-in bonus, rewards that can be exclusively earned through an investment of time rather than skill, heavy social elements to keep you coming back, and a number of currencies that can be unlocked doing different activities that satisfy the feeling of ‘earning’ something premium as well as scratching that good ol’ “watching numbers go up” itch.
The former games, on the other hand, were designed with that “first playthrough” experience in mind. They present stories and plot developments, and while it might be satisfying to some small degree to see those play out multiple times, it’s all really about pulling you forward through a series of gameplay encounters and keeping you glued to your TV. The thing about glue, though, is it wears out over time, and it definitely can’t be reused after being laid down the first time. All things that the game does to keep you coming back (sans the gameplay itself) simply stop working, so it’s up to you to stick to the game that second, third, or fourth time. For some people, and playing some games, that’s easy. My brother has played and re-played Skies of Arcadia more times than I can count on one hand. I, meanwhile, was able to sink over 400 hours into Dark Souls 1 back in the day, which gave me a familiarity with the series that might be an indirect cause of my current doldrums.
That, and the fact the Xbox 360 controller will only let me dodge in the cardinal directions. That’s getting old real fast.
But anyway, it’s in realizing that these two games have a very distinct divide that I find myself growing irritatingly sympathetic to the recent movement to add loot boxes and other content that was once much easier to get in games. Well, maybe “sympathetic” is the wrong word, but I’m starting to get it a bit better. We always understood that the reason these systems were in place was because they played us psychologically: they used mystery and the promise of rare loot, like a lottery, to entice people to give even more money to the developers beyond their $60 purchase.
But what I’m starting to realize is that there’s another element to it to: it’s not just about milking us for all the money we’re willing to pay up, it’s also about taking advantage of the things that make us keep coming back to those free-to-play timesinks I mentioned earlier. The things that make it so easy to replay the same map on Orcs Must Die Unchained whereas I struggled to muster up the will to push through Blight Town in my replay of Dark Souls. If you had thrown in the odd loot box and progress bar, maybe a special ‘Dark’ currency I could spend on exclusive loot that was dropped randomly by high-level enemies, I’d be a bit more… willing to trudge through the venom and bile of the swamp to reach the boss.
I wouldn’t be more excited. Or happy. But the mere promise might be enough.
And you know what? That’s kind of worrying. Some games are better played then remembered, a point that Undertale and NieR went out of their way to illustrate (big thumbs up to Sarah, again), and a lot of those games fall into that mix. I get that you want people to come back to enjoy the multiplayer, or get the DLC when it’s eventually released, or just stay fans so you can be sure they’ll take a look at your next project when it’s released, but gaming is a storytelling medium too, and some games (like Shadow of War) might be ‘fine’ with loot boxes gameplay-wise, but storytelling-wise, they suffer for it.
Geez, this turned into an article about loot boxes and Dark Souls, and I was even able to fit a little bit of Undertale in there too - this is like an amalgamation of the subjects I spend the most time rambling about. Good job me, I guess. But it is getting a bit tiring to be rambling on about the loot box thing specifically; I’m not really set up to be that kind of games critic. I just feel like loot boxes are “the line”, you know? The point where the microtransaction slippery slope has to stop before it becomes too late.
But dammit, I think we just might be too late.