Dark Souls: depthless obscurity, an exercise in futility & bad game design

Coming from a moderate fan of Demons Souls, I was hoping that its quasi-sequel Dark Souls would improve on some of the flaws of that game. Namely, its depthless obscurity. Its inability to teach the gamer how to do basic things or understand basic concepts. Theoretically you could have played that entire game without knowing how to use magic, because you had no idea where a certain NPC was and could have missed them.

Dark Souls does not change this incredibly annoying inability of From Software to make a coherent game. The game is so obscure it’s utterly infuriating having to google questions almost every five minutes.

Here’s a rundown of what I once googled in the space of 30 mins, my gameplay constantly being interrupted:

What is humanity how to use it?
How can I tell if I’m hollow + benefits?
What does kindling do?
How to jump?
Why can’t I compare merchant weapon stats with owned weapons?
What are dragon remnants?
What is fire keeper soul?
Why can’t I hit invading phantoms?
Where can I find + use magic/miracles?

Dark Souls comes with a little manual booklet. It explains what the controls are, and blesses the reader with a few paragraphs that briefly touches on core concepts such as humanity, bonfires and souls.

But playing the game, you will be completely and utterly lost. Some fans will say that is the point of the game, to be lost, alone and afraid.

I don’t think they know what they’re talking about. The mood of the game should make you feel that way through aesthetics, narrative and sound design. The game shouldn’t make you run to Google to ask such basic questions like “how do I buy equipment, level it and use magic?”

Through Google I discovered that I had to talk to an NPC three freakin times before he will offer to teach miracles. I’d only talked to him twice before running to Google for answers. Seriously!?

"I thought they were gonna give me an Amazon Kindle. Sigh."

“I thought they were gonna give me an Amazon Kindle. Sigh.”

Eventually one may find the answers to these questions plaguing you throughout the game, if you chose not to use google, but only after hundreds of hours of trial and error, and not the sort the game promotes.

I’m NOT asking to have my hand held. I don’t need an initial level tutoring me on how to fight, level up, save, and craft. Though it would be welcome, but more importantly what the user needs is precedent, examples and clear signposts, even if they’re pointing towards a goal or idea. I don’t need a literal sign post saying “merchant this way”, but just a hint that merchants actually fucking exist in this world and where they might be found.

Near the beginning, an NPC says two bells need to be rung. Ok, that’s fine, I don’t need to know where, but at least I know a bell above and below need to be rung. That’s the kind of hint I ask for, but it’s few and far between when the game decides to provide you with a morsel of information. There’s a mute lady near him who does nothing when you attempt to talk to her, but aha, if you talk to her with a specific item she’ll do something.

a) no way to discern this.
b) if you knew this, but not what item, then would you have to literally trek to her every time you found a new item to see if she would do anything?
c) without websites unaffiliated with From Sofware, you’d go the entire game without knowing about her ability to enhance your healing flasks.

Horrendous bad game design, dressed up as ambiguity, and devoured by fans as intentional genius. I believe it’s simply incompetent and lazy. Unacceptable.  Tomohiro Shibuya’s comments on making Dark Souls II more ‘accessible’ are a step in the right direction, no matter what the fans think. While they spend hundreds of hours on websites researching how to develop effective character builds, I’m hoping the next game will have a FAQ button. (which knowing my luck, and From Software’s history, will lead me to an un-official Wiki page)

I have nothing against people who enjoy the way Demons Souls and Dark Souls makes them depend on websites to make sense of the game, but I get annoyed when they refuse to accept any criticism. The only thing fuelling their staunch loyalty is great and addictive gameplay. Without this, even the fans would be irritated that the game itself can’t do what numerous fan-made websites can, which is make sense of the game itself.

I won’t even bother dwelling on the laughable attempt at a story. What I will end with is this: I love games with narrative or games in open sandbox worlds. Dark Souls has neither and is testing my patience, surprisingly not with its difficulty (which is challenging in a good way), but with its inability to show me how to use its features.

16 thoughts on “Dark Souls: depthless obscurity, an exercise in futility & bad game design

  1. Pingback: Dark Souls: the less grumpy review | coolcalmdemented

  2. I’m glad SOMEONE out there shares my opinion on the game. I was starting to think I was the only one… Props to From Software for their ability to completely fool so many people into thinking bad game design means legitimate difficulty. I want to feel like I accomplished something when I defeated a big bad. Not when I managed to kill a skeleton, because I managed to overcome some sort of mental and physical handicap arbitrarily imposed on me.

    Also, just be glad you didn’t try this on the PC. Or at least I assume you didn’t, because if you did, you would have already set your computer aflame and been unable to even blog about it… Good lord, they didn’t even TRY!

  3. haha, yeah we’re definitely in the minority. Anytime I mention I don’t particularly like Dark Souls, I get attacked by fervent fans. I mean it’s not a wreck of a game, but just frustrating for all the wrong reasons. I have no problem with how difficult it is. It’s just not coherent. And yep, I’m on PS3 but I’ve heard about its PC woes, tough times!

    • It is a shame really. The game does have potential. I don’t find it to be a bad game either, but it seems unhealthy for the gaming industry when gamers praise this kind of design. Here’s hoping they stick to their guns with the next one and go through with their desire to make the game more user friendly. It is sad really how many of these raving fans are up in arms over this decision. It’s kind of sad really, how they unintentionally hurt the very game they love just because they were too stubborn to accept that the game has room for improvement.

  4. I absolutely love this game and its preferred way of teaching its players about the game. If you weren’t such a pussy and didn’t Google 30 things before getting to level 2, you would realize that LIFE is a little bit like dark souls. You can’t just Google the answer every time to enjoy the game. I’m sorry, but all of your points are laughable. Stay casual you guys, go play skyrim and let us try hards have a game that actually makes us try hard.

    • Its so funny, that you actually think that the phrase “try hards” means something good, you are aware of the fact that it really means that someone is trying “to hard” to potray himself in a light that he …wait wait WAIT.
      I just figured it out, I’m sorry..my god your comment is genius, you actually found the entire problem with dark souls, its the vast majority of casual gamers, that mistake bad desing for legit difficulty and actual players, who have a far greater experience and not just a few years on xbox are actually aware of the problems in the game.
      Wow its some kind of reversed reality here, so the guys you call casual are actually the “real” players and the try hards are what they always were, some 14 year olds, who claim to be “gamerz” simply because they played Xbox and playstation for a year.

      Thank you, thank you very much for this genius sarcastic post, because we all know, a game that drowns itself in obscurity is even worse than a handholder.

  5. I have an opinion for you! What do you think of the idea that perhaps those mechanics are left unexplained because From would like the player to experiment and learn what they are for themselves (or fail to experiment, at a tangible in-game cost)? Or perhaps that some of those mechanics (not being truly central to playing the game for most people and all, such as magic) are left ambiguous as an opportunity for discovery? I’m of the opinion that as easy as it was, as you said, to point out that two bells need to be rung, it would have literally been as easy to insert an NPC that vaguely explained some of those other mechanics; however, it wouldn’t fit with the game world, and most of those mechanics aren’t necessary anyway– and for that matter, in my opinion, are more fun to figure out for myself; and in the case that I truly miss something entirely, it’s never something critical to the game’s completion.

    One of the examples you gave actually demonstrates a method they use to teach the player about some of those obscure elements very wisely: the mute girl gives you no indication that she’s a fire keeper, you’re right. However, you don’t need to level your estus flasks near the beginning of the game, and something you appear to overlook is that she isn’t the only fire keeper, and the other fire keeper is far from mute! If you follow the directions and ring both bells, you’ll come upon the second fire keeper who in vague terms explains the fire soul things. Dark Souls is a game which is truly intended to leave you just as in the dark about these things as your character is until it’s appropriate for you to learn about them or you figure them out for yourself, with the exception of truly game-critical information such as how to attack and block.

    It’s absolutely not everybody’s cup of tea, I’ll admit– people LOVE explicit context, and the game has a tendency to give you things which have the potential to be very important, and often tells you nothing about them until later or only with specific criteria met (meeting certain NPCs which can be missed entirely, etc). That said, I think the problem here is an overabundance of precedence: your predisposition toward knowing about certain things in the game such as magic which you wouldn’t have known about if you hadn’t played similar games or Googled spoils that part of the game for you. I’m not saying it’s a perfect game; far from it: I still haven’t even completed it. However, I think a lack of explanation beyond the necessary and the depth of mechanics only found through exploration and experimentation is one of the game’s strong suits (if, admittedly, easily its most controversial aspect, and that most likely to alienate users– and in those cases, for a more or less acceptable reason).

    The important thing is to remember that no video game is perfect and no video game will serve everyone perfectly; in the same stroke, this game suits this flavor of game perfectly: if you are looking for a truly deep fantasy game that is competent on the surface level and deeply engaging for those willing to explore, this game is, in fact, perfect for that; it defines that flavor.

    Not your cup of tea? It’s far from my favorite flavor, so we’re in agreement– but the game is extremely good at what it tries to do.

    • Thanks for the feedback buddy. I can definitely understand your view point, the idea of discovery and learning the rules of the game-world is enticing. In an era where tutorial levels take up far too much time, I can understand how fresh it must feel to be confronted by a game that refuses to explain things consistently. I also like the feeling of wandering down a corridor and not knowing what is around the corner, or even how to confront the threat, knowing full well if I fuck up then I’m gonna lose all those souls. It gives you a rush.

      But I feel that what From Software are doing is espousing trial and error, and not discovery through journey. There are some things you can only learn through statistical probability, and life is far too short to spend hundreds of hours backtracking to discover if a character is going to react a certain way to an item in your inventory. The game has tiny flaws that just built up over the course of the game to frustrate me. Comparing a store’s weapons with your own is so cumbersome and unrefined, it’s a tiring experience.

      In cinema, rather than film a character get out of a car and walk five blocks into a building, you can just cut from the guy in the car to him entering the building. Games can also use this shorthand method in their design, and I feel that Dark Souls lacks it and suffers as a result.

      I think the fact that there are so many indepth wiki sites for this game, and so many questions asked by players on sites like gamefaqs.com, it highlights the fact that the vast majority of players do not play the game you think it should be played, but rather resort to what I eventually had to, which was to go online to seek some answers. I don’t hate this game or anything, I just think it’s too obscure for its own good, and reigning it in just a bit and having more clarity would have resulted in a more polished game.

      I’ve mentioned in this article that I appreciate the game, and there’s a second article where I talk about it more positively, so it says a lot about how divisive the game is to warrant such defence from its fans, and that’s fine when the discussion is constructive like this!

      I’ll be playing Dark Souls II just like every other gamer. Thief class as always!

      • You touched on something there that I certainly agree with: there are some rare UI elements in the game which could have been improved upon for accessibility that probably wouldn’t have affected the game’s quality for the niche players that truly love the game as it exists today; specifically, you mentioned item comparisons in the shop. While I’m pretty sure you’re not really intended to min-max numbers all that often with Dark Souls weapons, I can’t see a reason why the ability to should be obscured, and it’s kind of rough to do so in the game as it is now. UI clarity should be of the utmost concern.

        However, I’m sorry, but I fundamentally disagree with the viewpoint that the game’s quality overall is hurt by its lack of explicit context elsewhere in the game. I’m of the opinion that there is a crowd of players, myself at least partially included, that thoroughly enjoys the necessity to (seemingly to the point of excess) examine every possible outlet of interaction in order to yearn some of its deeper mechanics. I understand this makes the game less enticing for you (and probably quite a few others; many of which may even be fans of the game, but used Google much as you did) but I’m also here to posit that (and this is a big one):

        the game is not meant to entice you specifically; it is not a game designed to have broad appeal.

        It’s a game which is by most metrics optimal for the niche crowd of players who thrive on those elements which it plays to, and by eliminating that obscurity, From would be hurting the quality of the game for those hardcore players in exchange for the (ostensible) benefit of players who don’t enjoy that obscurity. From (as you said) “[espoused] trial and error” as a way to make the game better for a group of people who enjoy different things from you, a smaller crowd.

        I think your opinion is well-stated and probably reflects the opinions of a surprisingly large but less vocal crowd of people who played the game (possibly less vocal because of chumps like shamus up there who would accuse them of being somehow worse people for not enjoying the game); However, I think the statement that “the game’s appeal to many players, [yourself] included, is badly damaged by the lack of clarity on the behalf of the game” is a more accurate statement than the game’s quality itself being somehow lowered by its design choices. But, that’s also just my opinion.

        I guess what I’m trying to get at is that the opinion that good games should be able to be picked up by anyone, given interest in the games, is not an appropriate viewpoint. The homogenization of games to the end of trying to make games appeal to more people is what led to the kind of stagnation that plagues the FPS and JRPG genres badly. I’m of the opinion that actively making a game worse for a broad crowd in order to make it actively much better for a small crowd absolutely has merit. There is no perfect game for everyone, and the closer a game gets to perfect for one person, the farther away from perfect it will get for a dozen others.

  6. I’m of the opinion that art is made for the world to consume. I don’t believe artists ever make something with the intention that only a handful of people will ever experience or consume it. Now granted, that doesn’t mean artists make their work for everyone. In terms of videogames, they’re making a game to fit a genre and to appeal to fans of that genre. But I don’t think Tomohiro Shibuya would agree with your stance that they made the game for a small subset of people, I think he’d want as many people as possible to play and enjoy the game.

    I think Dark Souls II will implement changes, nothing too fundamental, but still an attempt at capturing more of an audience, and I think (hope) it will do this by more clarity of how things work in the game. It would not impact the gameplay in the slightest, and in fact will ensure gamers can get involved in the essence of gameplay far smoother than this game does.

    I will say though, your last paragraph is interesting, and I agree with much of it. I definitely agree about the state of FPS and JRPGs, and even western RPGs. Skyrim got so much praise when it came out, and although I played many hours of it, I still recognised it for the clunky bore that it ultimately was (to say nothing of the obscene bug-ridden PS3 release) At least JRPGs have wacky plots, western games can’t seem to drag themselves away from Tolkien’s influence. I want an RPG game where the fate of the world doesn’t depend on me for a change!

    • Alright, I can settle with that. I actually started playing Dark Souls a little while ago and was thinking about all of what you said, and I think I misunderstood part of it and tried to address a different issue than you were describing. You’re certainly right that games and all art are for the world to consume, and I feel like I was trying to tell you that your criticism wasn’t valid, which isn’t true. Carry on, in any case!

      And yeah, JRPGs, WRPGs, and FPS are in a really bad state; It’s really too bad publishers are too hard-pressed by their swelling budgets to play it safe in the AAA-world to get inventive with their settings, narratives, and mechanics.

  7. Think of it as adding challenge to the game without the developers having to think too much. Dark souls reminds me of eve online UI. They had a bunch of obscure menu items in an very messy interface designed without thought. This led a large part of the player base to believe they were elite because they spent time going over each option on random eve websites. The special needs commenter shamus that posted above did the same thing with Dark Souls and is never going to tell you that.

    Now imagine Dark Souls with clear instructions, a map, and tool-tips for every attribute and skill. Add a camera that isn’t garbage and what is left of the game?.. a very simple and forgettable hack and slash.

    • Lol, you guys just suck. There are plenty of reasons to love this game, and all you have are a handful of self proclaimed true reasons why its trash. Bitching about the UI? Its as clean as can be. at least come up with half decent critiques. You’re all just super casual and cant handle having to try hard. Go back do panda world WoW losers

  8. It sucks pretty bad man. The pvp fails completely because of horribble lag, and absolutely terrible balance. On top of that, after the first play through the game was no longer remotely difficult. The only parts that were “hard” for me were 100 percent dependent on my not having played them before. For instance that dragon fire on the bridge after the Taurus demon; that wasn’t hard, it was stupid. Same for the giant that threw bombs at me while i was fighting the golem on sen’s fortress, Seath being invincible, all the bonfires I didn’t know about at first, the endlessly spawning 4 kings, the unknown diminishing returns after level 40, etc. None of it was hard, it just required you to die in order to learn how to beat it. That’s not difficult, just pointlessly time consuming… Fail

  9. This is extremely late but I hope you see this! I love your blog and I recently made a topic on Reddit about how Demon’s Souls had some very good examples of learning through level design but it was hurt by the extreme ambiguity of it all that practically required a hint system that shouldn’t have existed in the first place. I do enjoy the satisfaction from the game, but even this criticism was too much and I lost so much Karma then from people who were unwilling to accept an alternate viewpoint to their own that it genuinely hurt a bit. It’s good to know that at least somebody is intelligent enough to, at the very least, consider the games to not be golden cows unworthy of criticism. The hostile reaction of the community has actually lead me to further reevaluate my stance on the game and I’ve concluded for myself that the game simply isn’t worth finishing. Challenges for the sake of challenges are not good game design, especially when important level and enemy details are left up to trial and error to figure out. I’d rather play a game that’s more rewarding, like Shadow of the Colossus or any Zelda title that mixes challenge with great aesthetics and empowering the player instead of intentionally frustrating him through crude design.

    • Shadow of the Colossus is a great example of a game that I think DS is trying to be. There’s no hand holding in SotC yet the player still has an idea of what needs to be done and figures it out without too much trial and error. Not once did I need to ask the internet what I had to do in that game.

      The hostile fan reaction really is unfortunate, you wouldn’t normally expect it from RPG fans, it’s the kind of behaviour often seen in FPS community. I think the fact that the DS games attempt to be ambitious and not go easy on the player is seen as refreshing, and it’s that aspect that they staunchly want to defend, which is fine, but they just go too far into vitriol.

      What really gets me is how fans praise the story of the DS games. What story!? There is no narrative at all! There’s obscure dialogue that hints at a larger world and mythology, but there is literally no story! It’s difficult to relate to anything happening on screen, which is a shame.

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