There is a fable by Hans Christian Andersen called The Emperor’s New Clothes, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. The story is that two weavers promise to make the emperor a garment that is invisible to anyone who is stupid or unfit for their position. The problem is not that everyone is convinced he is actually wearing the magical garb, but that it has an in-built defense mechanism, so anyone who points out the clothes actually don’t exist is branded as stupid.
This is the problem with Dark Souls 3.
There is a mythos building about the Dark Souls series – of extraordinarily tough games only the true elite can master. And that’s fine. Dark Souls is hard, that’s the point. I have no problem with that. When I was younger I would be happy playing FIFA on semi-pro (yes I will be mentioning that series in every article – deal with it) and spanking teams 15-0, but now I really appreciate the challenge of higher difficulties. The thrill of winning is ignited by the frustration of losing. I understand the unbridled joy that beating a tough boss can bring. I literally cheered and did a lap of the room after beating the Abyss Watchers, but that moment of happiness is couched in many hours of monotony and frustration, and it was not worth it. I have barely picked up the game since. There are other games I’ve found tough, either with puzzles, unbeatable bosses, or impossible levels, but the ones I persevered with had some things that Dark Souls 3 does not.
They had story:
I know, Dark Souls technically has a story, but it is little more than a loose thread tying together the bosses and coloured in by some obscure lore, giving the sense of depth without it actually being there. But a story is really about characters, and how they deal with situations. It took me almost a year to finish The Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, because I got stuck – and I mean really stuck – in some of the tougher puzzle sections. But I was pulled back by the insatiable urge to find out what happens next. That’s what happens when you have a good story; you have to get to the next bit. Dark Souls barely has any sort of thrust in its narrative. You have to defeat Lords of Cinder and find Lothric. Great. Why? Why my character, and why should I care? Yes, you can find the lore if you go looking for it, but it is the same with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, however that game has a deeply engaging personal thrust to it. The Dark Souls protagonist is almost literally empty, which brings me to point number 2…
They had characters:
I mean vivid, three-dimensional characters with agency, agendas and activity. The main character is a soul-devoid Unkindled, the NPCs exist primarily to help on your quest, and the enemies are lifeless creatures with no reason to be in the world other than to hinder your progress. You are left with little idea as to why anyone does anything, but even less inclination to care. The playable characters you remember, that stay with you, are rounded and deeply crafted by writers, or made by the players but given enough agency in the world to make their mark. Your character in Dark Souls is deliberately empty – but so is everyone else in the world, so why should I care about saving them?
They looked great:
Dark Souls 3 looks all right. It provides a number of rather stunning vistas, and some of the creatures are well crafted, but it is not exactly huge. Shooters often boast the best graphics because their levels are small enough for a high level of detail and crafting. By comparison, the sheer scale of an open-world game makes graphical excellence quite difficult, but increases the appeal of world-spanning views. Dark Souls is not a short game, but it is small. By design you die over and over, and constantly repeat sections. When you think about it, there is actually not a huge amount of world content, so there isn’t much excuse for the grainy graphics, poor lighting effects and lazy model crafting. If you really look, none of the monsters will win any awards for design. They are big and ugly, but surprisingly poorly detailed.
They were fun:
This is the clincher for me. Maybe I’m an outlier here, but I play video games for enjoyment. Things like story, character, and design all play their part, but the true test of a game is how much fun it is to play. No matter how competitive, no matter how tough, good games are fun. Honestly, what is fun about slowly running though the same sections, fighting the same monsters, or dying over and over again? Yes, beating the bosses is great, but the other 98% is grind, die, walk, die, grind, grind, grind, fall asleep, grind, die. Dying is the point, but it isn’t fun. Beating Vordt was great, but it wasn’t worth the tedium and frustration of actually reaching him. When I realised the game was little more than a rinse and repeat of the same process I quickly turned off it.
So if you’ve read through all of this and thought ‘he only hates it because he sucks,’ that’s exactly the problem. Let’s return to our fable, shall we? Any criticism of the game is quickly dismissed as someone who is casual. Because the game is so hard, apparently you get some sort of gamer-cred for being talented enough to finish it. If that’s you, great. Even if you enjoyed it, I understand many people enjoy the thrill of a challenge. But this does not mean Dark Souls 3 is a good game. It is hard, but it just trades on its difficulty so anyone who wants to be seen as a serious gamer must love it unconditionally.
This is my point. Because all of us want others to believe we are good enough at games to finish Dark Souls, most of us give it a pass on its tedium and lack of depth. Maybe it isn’t a terrible game, but it is deeply flawed, and even suffering from the problems of an annual release cycle, which I looked at earlier, but it is not great and barely fun.
If I’m not enjoying a game (you know, those things we play for entertainment) then I’m not going to finish it. It doesn’t matter how much street cred it earns me. I might even go and play Little Big Planet with my girlfriend, I don’t care. If I want to achieve something I’ll take my lazy ass for a run, if I want to have fun I’ll play a game that’s actually built to entertain me.