Dark Souls – A Look At Game Design And Time Management

Dark Souls – A Look At Game Design And Time Management

The following post is this author’s opinion and does not reflect the thoughts and feelings of Fextralife as a whole nor the individual content creators associated with the site. Any link that goes outside of Fextralife are owned by their respective authors.

Dark Souls – A fair number of readers here have played this game and have indeed loved this game. But I don’t quite share their opinion outright. I think dark souls has serious flaws at its very core as an action-rpg. This article will be divided into different parts, as such-

(1) – Action Game or RPG?
(2) – Defining Gameplay, AI, and Level Design
(3) – Genre Matching
(4) – Why This Game Is Hard
(5) – Why I Don’t Like Dark Souls
(6) – Why I Do Like Dark Souls
(7) – Truth of the Matter

 

(1) – Action Game or RPG?

Dark Souls at its core is an Action-rpg. An adventure game is usually more dialogue-heavy with branching paths. It has less work done on its combat portions and more on speaking with people and developing moral choices one needs to make. Likewise, one could not consider it a simulation or strategy game. Keep “strategy game” in mind, however, as it will come up later.

In this section, it’s important to decide – does Dark Souls lean more toward being an action game or rpg? Indeed, it has a level-up system and you ‘play a role’ as the ‘chosen undead’, but in terms of a traditional rpg versus a traditional action game, I think that one must conclude Dark Souls has a lot of time placed in its gameplay and not as much in storytelling features. Even the second point is arguable, but even that I think is negated by the truth of the matter – there may be many well thought out bits of story in the game that are very subtlety placed, but compared to a game like Final Fantasy 7, the pinnacle of what a traditional rpg should be like, there is simply not much story to be had. Dark Souls gives the player more free reign and much more interpretation of what clues mean. Most of the story needs to be sought out. However, the action is right at the forefront. This is meant to be played as an action game with rpg aspects played down in favor of the player being able to play the game. Indeed, a “difficult game” is meant to have difficult gameplay, and they were supposedly trying to make a “difficult game”.

Rather than an action-rpg, I feel it is more apt to declare this an action game with some rpg aspects to it. Therefore, it’s important to define the three major aspects of what an action game is.

(2) – Defining Gameplay, AI, and Level Design

In an action game, these three things are very important. I will use the following definitions for these aspects of a game:

Gameplay is defined as everything within the range of the player to control in a game. In dark souls, this applies to every weapon, piece of armor, and the full range of abilities a player can use.

AI (Artificial Intelligence) is defined as everything within the range of the computer to control in a game. In dark souls, this applies to every enemy’s range of options as well as their overarching behavioral tendencies.

Level Design is defined as everything within the levels of a game. In dark souls, this applies to enemy placement, trap placement, hint placement, and direction.

(3) – Genre Matching

An action game can have any balance of gameplay, AI, and level design time allocation. These are not by any means the only aspects of a video game. Far from it. However, these are the three things that I take issue with in Dark Souls, and I’ll explain why in a moment. However, it’s important to note one small thing with this that has been said; an action game can have any balance of these three aspects. However, as a result, the wrong balance can create a bad game, or an average game out of a game that could otherwise be nearly perfect. Likewise, other game types need a different type of balance. A strategy game needs a different kind of balance, as does a platforming game which is effectively a sub-genre of an action game.

(4) – Why This Game Is Hard

I believe dark souls is only difficult because of its level design. I do not believe the AI was particularly well-made in the slightest. I do not believe the gameplay is particularly hard either, which is the major issue with this game. If you calm down a moment and read, I’ll explain why I believe these things and why they matter.

The gameplay of dark souls as defined as a player’s ability to do things had far too much time developed in relation to the AI. Quite frankly the number of weapons possible to be used is a rather huge number, each with their own individual move pools and strategies. The player is abundantly capable of defeating any one enemy at once, even without grinding in excess. As long as the player is modestly prepared for any individual enemy that enemy can be defeated even without speedrun-level skill. Excusing outliers like over-grinding and under-grinding I don’t believe the AI is developed enough to deal with the player’s natural abilities, even if they’re bad at the game, when fought individually.

The game designers got around that by placing enemies in groups and placing an abundance of traps made to force you to slow the pacing of the game itself in order to deal with said groups and traps. This leads to many long-time players justifying the difficult design by saying other players that complain about the game should simply slow down and look around, leading enemies away individually or leading them into said traps. However, this is contradictory with what an action game is.

An action game is not about having slow pacing and difficult level design. It isn’t about leading enemies into traps in order to defeat them. Those are aspects of a strategy game; dark souls at its core is an action game with design practices similar to a strategy game. Some players like this and justify it further. However, look at what is the forefront of the game; the gameplay. You are always given the tools to deal with any individual enemy and with enough caution the ability to deal with clusters of enemies and traps. However in a game with such fast-paced, concentration-demanding gameplay, why would the level design be so focused in terms of the difficulty placement? This is why this game is hard. This is…

(5) – Why I Don’t Like Dark Souls

I have played games with AI that has been well-developed to a point that you can’t catch them in loops and fire at them endlessly until they die with them unable to do anything about it. The basic strategy in dark souls is always the game, even for non-applicable enemies; circle-strafe them until you backstab them. Practically every humanoid enemy is weak to this, and many non-humanoid enemies are as well. They don’t protect their weak spots well. Even the bosses aren’t very strong. Rather, the bosses are fairly weak all around because their AI is so easily taken advantage of. Yet this game would not be so flawed if the player’s abilities weren’t so well-developed when stacked against the computer’s abilities. Quite frankly it is only because of the tendency of enemies to be clustered together and the player’s inability to deal with clusters effectively in close-range that this game could ever be considered difficult. In a truly difficult action game, like a fighting game, the AI has a ton of time invested on it. In dark souls, the AI did not have a terribly large amount of time allocated to make it work properly. If you want a full explanation of this, I’ll write a whole article about how to completely abuse almost every single boss in the game and every normal enemy in the game.

As an action game I think the balance is unforgivable. I believe many players play this game for the gameplay and the difficult enemy placement. But I don’t find any enjoyment to be had in the AI and I don’t find difficult level design in an action game to be terribly fun.

Furthermore, the fundamental design philosophy of Dark Souls is completely shot, in my opinion. Dealing with a difficult level that requires either experiencing the game enough to know every enemy’s actions inside and out to run past them or lure them away to deal with them just so I can get to a boss that I proceed to have a mild amount of enjoyment fighting only to realize I’d have to deal with the level again to get to it the next time it comes around isn’t my idea of fun. It completely kills the boss in my opinion. A simple boss rush would’ve been nice, but as it stands, the good of fighting bosses doesn’t outweigh the bad of having to prove for the umpteenth time I’m good enough to fight said boss by being forced through a level that’s only difficult because of the pacing.

Finally the last thing at question, the pacing — pacing in a game is key. Slow pacing is perfectly fine in a strategy game where the player must constantly think and outwit either the AI or his human enemies. This, however, is an action game that must maintain its fast pace or risk essentially being boring. Having to lure enemies away slows down that pace, as does trying to run past them and dying in the process. Personally I prefer the latter, but one could theoretically do the first for 200 hours straight. Is it fun? No, not as such, after the tenth time through the game.

However, there is something more to be said, and that’s…

(6) – Why I Do Like Dark Souls

I don’t hate dark souls. I can’t say I like the game but I also don’t think I hate it either. To me it served its purpose as a time-sink as I waited for something better to come along. I found most of my entertainment to come from three places: Creating weapons, helping other players at hard points in the game, and looking for story.

I love the different levels in Dark Souls for their overwhelming beauty and amazing attention to detail. I also find the balance of the game to be very pervasive. I believe that the small amount of time dedicated to such a clearly well-researched land of lords with the many real-world mythology parallels was absolutely genius in its execution. To put it bluntly, what I found fun about Dark Souls was not its imbalanced action game aspects, but its very well-balanced rpg game aspects. While I don’t think the level up system is as good as it can be, it is very standard with just enough differences in builds to remain fresh. I neither like nor dislike the pvp as my internet isn’t the best it can be, but compared to other unnamed modern Nintendo consoles, the PS3 definitely handles internet better. However it should be noted I don’t like to pvp much, just in protection of other players, I protect.

These are all things that I find fun. These fit my sense of what a good story, good time-sink, and good co-op should look like. Yes, the online could use some more organization, but I don’t really hold it against it as a fundamentally bad part of the game because quite frankly I usually like to play solo and don’t like having help most of the time.

(7) – Truth of the Matter

To this end, I would like readers of this article to be honest about this game and every other game they play. I’m brutally honest about some flaws of games I really like in the modern video game era. While it’s important to look at games in a historical context, judging a game based on design practices now would make many of my favorite games look really, really bad. Dark Souls, however, is a fairly modern game. It doesn’t deserve justifications based on its time. If it is your personal opinion that you enjoy level design more than a well-made AI that’s fine, and I fully respect that. However if you believe the AI is good, just argue your point so I can completely and totally crush it. There’s a difference between an opinion that’s accurate or based in its own reality and an opinion that relies on faulty facts to argue its point. “I think the AI is good” can only be considered true as a self-contained statement without any basis of what “Good” is. I can tell you why this AI isn’t good if you give me a chance (probably a future article).

As an aside I do believe the reason why this game’s not as good as it could be is solely because of time limitations. If they had more time they would’ve developed the AI more deeply. That I do believe completely.

Note: None of this applies to the DLC. I think the DLC is very close to perfect. Go DLC master race.

I’m eager to hear your opinions and I’m sure they’ll be very well thought out and my house won’t be torched by the time I get home tonight.

 

3 comments on “Dark Souls – A Look At Game Design And Time Management”


  1. bainst says:

    I was thinking about these issues just this past week. The AI is indeed and unarguably poor (compared to most modern AI), but I would have an impossible time with the game if the AI were any better, and the strengths you list are exactly what attracts me to the game.

    I think you hit on it a couple of times, but missed it in your initial definition of the game. It is neither an Action or RPG game (though it has aspects of both), but is (as you say later) a Strategy game, more akin to large console computer games from the 80s. These games had the same elements, but for the most part, the game play consisted in figuring out the level design.

    This is just an amped up version of Black Tiger (try to find the MAME for this one, if you haven’t played it before.

  2. SpecterOranges says:

    One might justify its failings as defining it as a strategy game, but the popular definition of the game is an action-rpg and I feel it leans more toward an action game with poor focus and built like a strategy game. However defined personally it could be considered mostly a strategy game rather than that being a result of poor planning on their part. I think that a complex AI on top of the level design would make this a much more difficult game, but I consider difficulty like that as good difficulty as the challenge feels like it’s on you as a player rather than you as a tactician. But that just cycles around. To each his own.

  3. Fexelea says:

    Well for what it’s worth, the AI has significantly improved for Dark Souls II. It still focuses on proximity when having more than on player, but backstabs are harder and the enemies will pursue you in a better way. I enjoy getting them to follow me around in circles and such, so I don’t want that to go away as I consider it part of the Souls Series.

  4. Anonymous says:

    You get them on every character. Just start the game and they’ll be in your inventory.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Perhaps I am just being blind but I can not see how to get the DLC onto individual characters. I have downloaded it on the Contents page of the game itself…but I see no way to move it to which character I want… Help appreciated!

  6. Avatar Fexelea says:

    Well for what it’s worth, the AI has significantly improved for Dark Souls II. It still focuses on proximity when having more than on player, but backstabs are harder and the enemies will pursue you in a better way. I enjoy getting them to follow me around in circles and such, so I don’t want that to go away as I consider it part of the Souls Series.

  7. SpecterOranges says:

    One might justify its failings as defining it as a strategy game, but the popular definition of the game is an action-rpg and I feel it leans more toward an action game with poor focus and built like a strategy game. However defined personally it could be considered mostly a strategy game rather than that being a result of poor planning on their part. I think that a complex AI on top of the level design would make this a much more difficult game, but I consider difficulty like that as good difficulty as the challenge feels like it’s on you as a player rather than you as a tactician. But that just cycles around. To each his own.

  8. bainst says:

    I was thinking about these issues just this past week. The AI is indeed and unarguably poor (compared to most modern AI), but I would have an impossible time with the game if the AI were any better, and the strengths you list are exactly what attracts me to the game.

    I think you hit on it a couple of times, but missed it in your initial definition of the game. It is neither an Action or RPG game (though it has aspects of both), but is (as you say later) a Strategy game, more akin to large console computer games from the 80s. These games had the same elements, but for the most part, the game play consisted in figuring out the level design.

    This is just an amped up version of Black Tiger (try to find the MAME for this one, if you haven’t played it before.

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