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Oh the humanity! The online interactions of Dark Souls
by Will Ooi on 12/13/12 04:09:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 


The infamous difficulty of From Software's acclaimed Dark Souls has evoked a spectrum of emotions ranging from crippling fear and self-doubt, through to fist-pumping success and unbridled elation as hardcore fans and new players alike shared those same feelings of heartache and, quite possibly, controller-throwing fits of rage.


Yet one was never truly alone when it came to the suffering; the game's online system and deliberately limited communication helping to dilute the pain when you saw the vague but helpful messages scattered about before a boss area wishing you 'Good Luck' or offering strategic advice, and where catching brief glimpses of the spirits of other players resting at bonfires served not only to re-emphasise the comfort and safety of these safe havens, but providing one with much-needed encouragement as well. All these other people in their different armour sets and weapons had already, or were currently, going through your exact same situation, whether it be a repetitive pummeling by the Capra Demon or - in the case of Smough & Ornstein - role-playing the character of a lifeless rag doll. Knowing that you were all in it together, albeit via parallel dimensions, helped to preserve a human spirit and keep alive an oft-tested and waning sense of self-belief during moments of severe sorrow.


The ability to summon help, though, would come at - quite literally - a human cost, with the need to find and consume Humanity items essential if one was ever going to engage in 'jolly cooperation' with another person, be it Solaire the honourable NPC knight of Astoria, or a random 'real' online player. But players wishing to turn into human form in the game would have to do so with peril, the act being the Dark Souls equivalent of painting a bright red target on your back and immediately paving the way for your world to be rudely invaded. No matter how tough an AI-controlled boss was, or how much grief the appearance of a Black Knight could inflict on your physical and mental well-being, you could always eventually learn their moves and attack patterns even if it meant a few self-sacrificed lives along the way. But as soon as the horrible words "Dark Spirit [insert name] has invaded!" appeared, the entire fabric of Dark Souls would instantly change from PvE to PvP AND PvE (because hey, the existing enemies in the game weren't going to suddenly forget about you).


Arguably more terrifying and certainly more unpredictable than any enemy thus far encountered, invaded players would then need to steel themselves for some of the dirtiest moves in the book, achievable only by unwanted and unwelcome (and bastard) human opponents. Moves that even the game's multitude of unforgiving enemies would reconsider performing because it would have been taking things too far. And yes, lag backstab, that mainly means you.

In fact, becoming human in Dark Souls was almost akin to setting one's Facebook profile status to 'Open'; inviting friends and trolls into your life in equal measure as summoned co-op players coming in to assist were matched by just as many aggressive ones relentlessly determined to bring you down in humiliation. I once memorably encountered both of these player roles from the same person (in Dark Souls, not Facebook) within the space of 10 seconds whilst at my wit's end down in New Londo Ruins, my would-be friend's summon sign fading away prematurely in front of my eyes before the same guy's name then reappeared in that dreaded invasion notification as he opted to, seemingly on a whim, invade and kill me instead. Never mind frustrating bosses or one hit kills, the magic of Dark Souls' online relationships lay also in its fickle allegiances.

But the spirit and community of Dark Souls really is something special. In the absence of traditional co-op matchmaking or even a means of regular communication while in-game (Xbox players did have a way around it with Voice Chat instead of the disabled Party Chat), honour and etiquette is heartwarmingly prevalent amongst summoned players who, most of the time, bow to greet you or 'praise the sun' via the game's menu-selected gestures. The quick transitions from camaraderie to opposition also dictates the rules of engagement: help another player defeat a boss and you could receive a "Thank You" message after the battle. Piss someone off enough with your very own invasions and you'd best prepare to receive a, well, not so nice piece of correspondence afterwards. And if you were really lucky, you could even come across an unforeseen behaviour, such as a respectful invader bowing before the clash of swords, perhaps even sending you a "GG" later on regardless of the outcome.


And then there's the sheer art and simplicity of some good old fashioned experimentation.


All in all, the human interactions of Dark Souls may actually represent a rather optimistic reflection of real life because, let's face it, no matter what, Smough & Ornstein will always absolutely hate your guts, and regardless of how cute you think Great Grey Wolf Sif is, he will always carve you up when given the opportunity. Whereas with actual people - as unpredictable and dick-ish as we may well be - it's those who showed you kindness that you'll always fondly remember long after Gwyn and co have been defeated, and the rage and the joy has subsided. And who knows, quite possibly a tale or two of the ridiculous or the hilarious to accompany it as well.


~

Got any memorable Dark Souls interaction stories? I'd love to hear them!

~


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Comments


Ara Shirinian
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Why is the spirit/community among summoned players special when their only purpose is to help you? The only evidence you mentioned in support of this is how summoned players will pleasantly gesture or message you, but this is pretty common in online games anytime players work together to beat a boss.

Unforseen pleasant behaviors are just as rare here as anywhere else online. What _would_ be special, at least to me, is if invading players actually acted honorably more often than not, or if From did _anything_ more beyond a super rough numerical level comparison to determine if an invading player had any hope to be evenly matched with their opponent.

When the game has armies of players who build their characters to maximize PVP performance, while others are just building their characters to survive in the single player game, you end up with two horribly mismatched classes of players and a nearly guaranteed death for non-PVPers who risk exposing themselves to invasion.

Will Ooi
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Hi Ara, thanks for your thoughts.

It's more so the combination of the nature of the game itself, the boundaries of the online gameplay, and the resultant player behaviour within these confines that make it stand out for me:

For sure most online titles have their share of honourable and dirty players, but in Dark Souls' case I like to look at it via the lens of desperation, in that you have to work for the Humanity items in order to be able to simply request help in the first place (which can be in rare supply for unfamiliar players and not something you want to do when Anor Londo is tearing you apart), and then rely on there being players within range of your Soul Level playing at the same time as you who also leave their summon signs for your benefit...all of which makes the impact of any help you do receive a lot more meaningful than traditional menu-accessed co-op, and thus fostering a sort of empathetic obligation towards fellow struggling players. Other online interactions can certainly offer their own take on cooperation and etiquette, but only Dark Souls, for me, does so through creating pity.

In saying that, of course you also get rewarded with souls for helping out others, but I'd prefer to look at it romantically and say that we do it out of a willingness for others to share in the success and for them to learn something from our assistance first (maybe even on some strange, almost parental, self-actualising level), with soul payment being a more distant, secondary motivator.

I've also completely neglected to mention the covenants in the game, especially the one acting almost as an in-game court of law and specialising in sending out those 'good guy invader' spirits of vengeance to hunt down indicted troll players who have left others hard done by. In this respect I think the community is special in that, instead of filing a complaint or blocking someone via your game client or console facilities as you might do elsewhere, you can leave it up to the Dark Souls community itself to dish out these comeuppances by placing your faith in anonymous 'heroes' to step up and administer justice (or becoming one yourself on behalf of other victims). Sure, it doesn't work nearly as well as it sounds, but I appreciate that the sentiment is there.

As for players who focus solely on PvP builds made to annihilate, this is me being optimistic again but I'd say that that falls more outside of the 'spirit' of the game rather than being indicative of it, but certainly I agree with you that this aspect of the game needs some serious balancing. And then you've got the misfortune of getting 'Gravelorded', which turns the game into a nightmare unless you or someone else completes a successful invasion against the perpetrator, and I totally accept that resentment towards this mismatching can far outweigh any positive thoughts one may have on the community.

Ara Shirinian
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Fair enough Will. Among the other complaints, it's really too bad the covenant system is so obtuse in the game. Lots of really interesting stuff there that are almost completely inaccessable to the vast majority of players, including myself. It gives me feelings of World Champion Judah Friedlander's dojo where the storefront is a wall of bricks and you can only be a member of the club if you can figure out how to get past the brick wall.

Will Ooi
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Definitely, yes. I guess one could argue that by being so obtuse and inaccessible, the community then thrives from the sharing of key knowledge outside of the game through Wikis and forums...which is more a workaround of the vague mechanics than an ideal solution, but it does end up keeping the community alive externally, intentionally or not.

Dark Souls II will presumably seek to amend this, but yeah, we'll have to see whether this compromises the mystery value of the game hardcore fans enjoyed whilst also allowing new players feel more at home.

Ara Shirinian
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Yeah, but the point is that the very way they've designed the system, it works to effect minimal or no participation... some semblance of community lives in spite of the system, not because of it.

There can be some virtues to deliberately burying secret, hidden stuff, but this only works if their nature is compatible with their hiddenness. If a system (covenants) needs a population of active participants for it to work, and if it works better the more people are involved, then what's the purpose of hiding it so exquisitely?

Will Ooi
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Absolutely agreed. Makes me think of one's first experience getting bullied in that area packed full of Forest Hunter members - it's enough to put you off for good.

Even accessing the DLC/Prepare to Die content was a massive chore with such inhibiting prerequisites that no one could have figured it out were it not for the specific instructions disclosed by From, which is really pushing it. And following those instructions but still having to quit and reload in case a crucial golem didn't appear where it should have? Crazy.

Jesse Tucker
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I haven't retained my human form for the most part because I'm not currently interested in the PvP aspect of the game, so I'm mostly exposed to the messages left on the ground.
To those unfamiliar with the game, you have a limited number of mix and match word components that can be used to form messages. While someone can leave some bad advice such as "jump here" on the edge of a cliff, it eliminates the horrible abuse that plagues many online experiences. In that effect, it shares a similarity with Journey, where you can only whistle at other players.

Will Ooi
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It's really bizarre why you can't tell whether messages have been rated up or down, with them just showing up as, say, "25", which could mean that it's either extremely helpful or a horrible, horrible trap. As if the existing trolling wasn't enough, From then felt compelled to include another method by which players could get tricked. Not nice!

Ara Shirinian
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Also, in practice the signal to noise ratio with these messages is so bad that the game teaches you over time that the only useful information a given message really communicates is "there's a chance something sudden and bad might happen nearby so maybe be careful."

It would be interesting to see if there are meaningful cultural differences between the way japanese players use these devices vs. americans.

Ulf Hartelius
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From my personal experience, the amount of trolling/fake messages decreased the further into the game you got. By the time you entered (and even more after) Anor Londo, I'm not sure I ever encountered anyone trying to trick me.
That experience exemplifies the unity that the players have: we're all in this together! And THAT experience is what I've found nowhere but in these games. The face-to-face interaction was, from my experience, not that different from any other game with online components. Sometimes people are nice, sometimes they're not; regardless of if they're helping or killing you.

Jesse Tucker
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I was generally able to tell the difference between trolling messages and genuine ones. Every so often I'd get lured into reading a message that happened to be directly under a trap, but for the most part many of the messages were quite helpful.


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