Welcome to The Level Grind,a column that asks questions about game design and industry culture from the perspective of a game player.
A few weeks ago I wrote about Dark Souls and how my initial impression of the game was, for the lack of a better term, "wrong." I'd given the game another shot after some convincing from a friend, and since the fanatical position on the game's brilliance had transitioned from boil to simmer.
It's easy to say I fell in love with Dark Souls, yet weeks have passed and I haven't played the game at all. Though my time was focused on other games for review, I wondered why the urge to delve deeper into From Software's complex world had subsided after my gushing editorial. What I've come to realize is that kindness is to blame.
Soon after my editorial on Dark Souls was published, I was flooded with messages from players congratulating me on figuring it out. I had somehow stumbled upon membership to the same club that was partially to blame for my reluctance to give Dark Souls an honest chance. These messages were followed by links to tutorials, best practice tips, and recommendations for level and gear focus; fanatics relishing in discovering a new member of its tribe.
Heeding this expert advice, I jumped back into the fray and continued along in my adventure. During a late evening session, I decided to spend some time offering my services in an early game area to other explorers. Co-op in Dark Souls is rather simple: players can use an in-game item to leave a summon mark in the world, visible to any player that has used collectible "humanity" to become human. Once summoned, you are transported into another player's world and can help them defeat enemies until you are killed or a boss is downed.
Scrawling my message of assistance onto a church's steps with the White Sign Soapstone, I readied myself to aid an inexperienced Dark Souls adventurer. Instead I was paired with a powerful player, outfitted in expensive-looking high-level gear. Despite my partner's obvious dominating power, I went to work, carefully battling enemies one by one as I had been instructed to do.
My partner sat still, barely flinching at enemies as they approached, allowing me to do all the dirty work. Once the area was clear my partner stood in silence, offering no emotes to mime his plan of action for our co-op journey. Instead, after a few moments, a pile of items fell from my partner – they were offering up freebies for my devastatingly low-level character. Drop after drop fell from my partner's avatar, with gobs of top-tier items, weapons, armor and ammo; typical rewards for those only after dozens or even hundreds of hours of work were left at my feet.
Excitedly, I accepted the offerings, outfitted my character and lumbered alongside my new ally in freshly cut gear at a pace similar to wading through a sea of molasses due to the weight of the new items (as seen in the video above). I offered up a hearty thanks via Xbox Live message and was given a, "Good hunting!" reply from my online partner ... and we parted ways.
Everything I could ever want was carefully laid out in my inventory. I had hit the jackpot without ever playing the lottery.
It was a magical experience concocted from one part 'right place, right time' and two parts generosity. Only later did I make the connection that it's entirely possible my new wares were the stuff of in-game hacking. Despite this, I remained in my new suit of armor and ventured forth carrying gear I had no business owning.
Perhaps my least favorite phrase is "embarrassment of riches," but that's exactly what my character was enjoying. The ability to one-shot nearly everything – save for bosses that can still kill my overpowered avatar – was handed to me for nothing. There was no steep challenge faced to acquire such materials, no sleepless nights of hard work and dedication. It was just given to me.
But the experience had changed too drastically. The enjoyment I had from that challenge had dissipated. That this person's random act of kindness – or possible desire to "get rid of the evidence" (note the sarcasm) – had ruined the experience. My interest in continuing through the saga waned, leaving my collected souls to decay as they await my return.
Playing as that character with that gear feels like I was handed the keys to the castle before earning my first steps into the kingdom. Dark Souls – and many games like it – earn their entertainment value by instilling a sense of purpose into the player. The journey ahead is difficult, but the crucial steps to advance – along with all their successes and failures – help build confidence and give reason. Thinking of it like a sports event, it's always more inspirational or epic when a team is being trounced and comes from behind for the win versus a team that wins by a blowout.
The drive to succeed and the possibility that it is within our reach is what makes a challenge worth pursuing; guaranteeing a victory eradicates any semblance of a challenge.
My position on microtransactions in free-to-play games or the auction house in Diablo 3 is similar. The ability to eschew challenge with a few dollars and some simple button presses is extraordinarily attractive in the face of frustration. Spending a few dollars to bypass difficult moments in games I hope to complete is an interesting proposition. I've rarely given in to those temptations, but when I have I'm often left bored.
The simplest approach then is to ditch the gear entirely, but ... let's be honest, I'm not going to do that. It's fun to roll into other people's games to help them on a difficult quest and decimate baddies. Even better was one instance soon after earning the gear where a partner's world I was summoned into had been invaded by another player. Using my powerful gear, I tore the troll to pieces within seconds. My plan is to return to Dark Souls, shelve the gear in favor of items I should have access to and continue on my quest. Without the history of earning the gear in my possession, I've lost respect for the challenge that lies ahead. I've grown bored of areas I'm set to explore because they pose little risk. Kindness has removed the challenge, and that challenge is part of the experience; removing that difficulty only serves to harm the most attractive aspect of Dark Souls.
But I'll still don my heavy gear and sharpened super-weapons to aid in the adventures of my low-level brethren, protecting them from those that attempt to diminish their experience by invading the world with the worst of intentions.