Picked up Dark Souls for the PS3 over the weekend. It’s a dungeon crawl with an interesting design philosophy. Namely, after the first ‘level’, all handholding stops. The player is given absolutely zero direction on which way to proceed, what to do, how best to survive, how to defeat opponents, etc. There are no maps, no quests, no directional markers, no signs. Nothing but a multitude of paths, all with dangerous enemies, most of which can kill you very easily. All the helpful narrative technologies developed in games over the last twenty years are completely absent.
The question is this: does this make for a better game?
Skyrim might be its polar opposite: another dungeon crawl, but that game is positively stuffed with directions on how to proceed. Pick a quest from an extensive menu – you can never run out of quests in Skyrim, it seems – and you will be pointed directly where you need to go as if you had a semantic compass implanted in your skull. Having trouble even with that? Ask a helpful NPC for advice, or peruse the many shops for helpful items. You can save your game anywhere at any time, so difficulty is greatly reduced. Enemies that can kill in one blow are very few and far between.
There is room for both kind of design philosophies, of course, but I wonder how much each game is a commentary on the other. Skyrim suffers from information overload at times – it has so many things to do that sometimes I feel overwhelmed, as if I were at work with a massive do-list, and checking off an item on the list only means I get the joy of moving to yet another. Yippee. Dark Souls does succeed in focusing the attention with its harsh penalty for death and emphasis on difficulty – there is only one direction, one quest, and that is forward into the jaws of doom. Success means more as a result. But I have to say that Skyrim hasn’t made me dash my PS3 controller against the floor yet like an hour of Dark Souls did, where the usual pushovers of the dungeon crawl genre – skeletons – owned me about 14 times in a row until I realized I wasn’t meant to fight them yet.
I think both games suffer from being at polar extremes. Skyrim is too expansive and easy, and Dark Souls is too focused and difficult. Reading reviews online, they both have fanatical followers much in the same way Camero and Mustang owners think their pony car is the best. It seems to me, though, that real greatness in gaming is the ability to appeal to the hardcore gamers as well as the casual ones (as ‘casual’ as playing Skyrim allows, of course).