Late last night; one of those dizzying moments of realisation that often come after physical and mental exhaustion. "I finally understand. It's all connected." I woke up this morning and tried to remember what that realisation was, but like a weird, partially remembered dream I could only grasp at fragments.
I had been struggling with a boss battle for far too long. My first boss battle, actually. The new game mechanics were completely crushing me of all hope. In Dark Souls II players who remain 'hollow' are punished. Each time the players dies he or she permanently loses a part of their health. This continues to the point where, if you continue dying and don't/can't restore your humanity, your health bar is literally stuck at 50%. I had chosen the 'Warrior' class and had very little health to begin with (the Warrior class specialises in strength and dexterity) so this boss could literally swipe me down in one hit.
It was classic Dark Souls. Classic. I was being punished for being shit. Punished for dying when I shouldn't have died. That punishment was making it more difficult for me to survive. Dark Souls II was literally kicking me while I was down, sending me into a spiral from which there was (seemingly) no escape. In Dark Souls II the weak get weaker.
And I was weak. So very weak.
Restoring my humanity was impossible. A new item, a 'human effigy' was required to restore it and I had already used the only one in my inventory. What the fuck was I supposed to do now? Human Effigies could be bought, but they were expensive, and I didn't have enough souls. A new feature of Dark Souls stops enemies respawning after you've killed them a certain amount of times, so I couldn't farm for Dark Souls dollars. I wanted to howl at the moon. This is fucking BULLSHIT.
At this precise moment I hated the new mechanical additions to Dark Souls II. The original Dark Souls didn't punish you for remaining hollow, it didn't slowly strip you of your health, it didn't remove enemies from the map after you killed them a certain amount of times. Why was this happening to me? This is completely unfair, I thought. Possibly out loud.
But I hadn't quite lost my patience. I backtracked, went to the previous area where there were enemies for me to kill, where I could gather souls to buy the human effigy I needed. I got halfway and, in a moment of lost focus, died. I lost all my souls. Despair.
I decided to head back. A long slog. Then I made another fatal mistake. I saw a powerful looking Knight and, instead of avoiding him, thought 'I can totally take this guy'.
I died. I lost everything. Again.
But incredibly, before getting stabbed in the throat I managed to collect, from a random corpse in the clearing, a human effigy. A goddamn human effigy! I was saved! SAVED! Back at my bonfire I restored my humanity and after a few more failed attempts at the boss battle I was previously struggling with, I finally killed that giant bastard. Victory achieved.
That victory came from my struggle. Knowing that I only had one hit before death absolutely forced me to learn the patterns of this boss perfectly. When I finally defeated him I felt literally untouchable, like I was gliding through the fight, like gravity didn't affect me, like a bloodied, death dealing ballerina.
I took a few deep breaths and started to think about what I had just experienced. The unfairness of my initial situation, the way in which the game punished me, the way it made me weaker in my weakness. Then I began to dwell on what I didn't like about Dark Souls II, the aspects of the design that I felt were misguided.
There was the bonfire teleportation, which I felt sucked the cohesiveness from the world.
The fact that players could be invaded whilst hollow.
I disliked the idea that you could 'clear out' an area of enemies. That just didn't feel like Dark Souls to me.
What else? Well, every item in Dark Souls II was terrifyingly finite. Even merchants could run out of goods. Necessary items like Human Effigies, life gems — each merchant only has a small stock of these items and, when they run out, they don't come back ever.
But then a realisation. I think I'm finally starting to understand. It's all connected. Everything is the way it is for a reason. Dark Souls II is not Dark Souls. It couldn't possibly be. Dark Souls II is Dark Souls II and every design decision I disliked slowly began to make sense in the context of that game.
Dark Souls II is game that seeks to eliminate every cheap method of victory possible. It crosses them off a list like stray bugs. If this was the original Dark Souls I would have farmed for souls, I would have stocked up on Human Effigies and killed the boss quickly. I would have brutalised him without properly learning to defeat him with skill.
In fact, I wouldn't have even gotten that far, because I would have had no reason to remain human. I would have played like I played the original Dark Souls: spent all of my time hollow, avoiding invasions, avoiding huge parts of the game to progress quickly, cheaply. I would have farmed for souls and levelled up, cheaply. I would have bought all the gear, loaded up and simply tanked my way through.
My health went down as a hollow because the game wants me to become human. The game allows hollow invasions because it wants to stop me from avoiding a huge aspect of the game, the PvP. The game made it difficult for me to farm for souls because it wanted to avoid cheap exploits. Same goes for the limited amount of Human Effigies. In Dark Souls it was common for people to completely stockpile 'humanity', that game's equivalent of Human Effigies. That simply isn't possible in Dark Souls II and with good reason: it would feel cheap.
I started to understand. It was all connected. The things I hated, the design decisions I loathed — it wasn't about me. It was about Dark Souls II. It was about protecting the integrity of the game itself. Dark Souls II was forcing me to beat this boss fair and square and it gave precisely zero fucks about me or my precious little feelings.
"If you want to progress, do it fairly." Dark Souls II doesn't just say these words, it enforces them like an authoritative mantra. It completely removes the training wheels. It crushes them under foot and demands you do this goddamned thing properly.
In the end I respected that. I understood it.
I'll be updating with new Dark Souls II Diary posts throughout the month! I'm looking forward to playing through the game with all of you by my side. Stay tuned!