Most people agree that Dark Souls II is pretty good. There are some open questions about whether it improves upon its predecessor, or whether it's as good as was expected, but for the most part: Pretty darn good. That's most people. Some don't agree.
One notable dissenter is Michael Thomsen, who, writing for Forbes, posits the question: "Is Dark Souls II The Worst Game Ever Made?" Those familiar with the game and its community might immediately take such a headline as half-serious hyperbole — and of course, fans in forum threads around the internet have been quick to deride Thomsen's article as trolling/clickbait — but I know Thomsen well enough to know that he means what he writes, and to take his arguments seriously.
In the article, Thomsen lays out a number of reasons why, in his opinion, "the sequel to the worst video game ever made is also the worst video game ever made." He's no Dark Souls lightweight, mind — as he's sure to point out, he allowed himself to fall into a deep obsession with the first game, sinking in between 300 and 400 hours, and has reached the 150-hour milestone in the sequel.
No matter how vehemently you may disagree with his premise, it's worth reading Thomsen's entire article, if only to have your notions of what make a video game "good" directly challenged.
It's often argued the Dark Souls II teaches players, but one rarely hears about what is being taught. In its exploded plot we are told about love, guilt, greed, sex, war, chauvinism, hatred, and many other safely fictive themes, but we aren't taught anything about them, nor are they presented in a way in which players could meaningful begin to experiment with them on their own. The game only teaches players about itself. The amount of time and effort spent in learning its lessons is dramatically outweighed by the significance of having that knowledge. What good does it do me to know that Intelligence scaling for magic users becomes half as effective after level 40? What have I learned by knowing that The Rotten's overhand smash attack can be dodged by rolling directly into it, or that his offhand sweep attack will automatically cause damage even when your character is several feet away.
I learned all this and more, too much more. It took hours, and days, and weeks, and even now, after 150 hours of play, I have only just started to unravel the most arcane parts of the game. Why? This is less an education than a massive structure of enforced compliance, insisting on obedience to illogic by dressing it up as a fantasy diversion, and counterposing curiosity with swift and punishing traps that reset major progress, a kind of negative reinforcement that's long been established as the least effective form of instruction possible. This fusion of the worst possible teaching method with the least worthwhile knowledge become insidious when applied to a play structure designed for endless repetition, in which the next goal is always moving farther away.
You may recall Thomsen's name from a similar article in Slate back in February of 2012, in which he asked of the first Dark Souls, "Is a 100-hour video game ever worthwhile?" In that essay, amid a number of comparisons with Tolstoy's War & Peace (in which Dark Souls inevitably suffers), Thomsen allowed this bit of positive reflection on the game:
There is real beauty in Dark Souls. It reveals that life is more suffering than pleasure, more failure than success, and that even the momentary relief of achievement is wiped away by new levels of difficulty. It is also a testament to our persistence in the face of that suffering, and it offers the comfort of a community of other players all stuck in the same hellish quagmire. Those are good qualities. That is art. And you can get all of that from the first five hours of Dark Souls. The remaining 90 or so offer nothing but an increasingly nonsensical variation on that experience.
At the time, then-EDGE magazine editor Jason Killingsworth responded to Thomsen's essay with a forceful and lengthy rebuttal (also worth reading in full), which is perhaps best summed up in the following excerpt:
The words "trying" and "gaming" are always interchangeable. Progression may grind to a halt when you're revising your strategies for overcoming a given obstacle, but the game itself doesn't. Each pass constitutes a unique slice of gaming because you are constantly becoming more skilful at negotiating the game's mechanics. When you read the same five pages of a book, the progression of words fall in precisely the same order. Theoretically, you could attempt Dark Soul's most ornery boss battle — Smough and Ornstein — a million times and no two attempts would be exactly alike. This dynamism is what makes games living organisms in a way that films and books can never be. So what if it muddies their ability to tell stories?
In the latter half of a sentence name-dropping his homeboy Tolstoy yet again, Thomsen accuses Dark Souls of leaving one's head "overflowing with useless junk". (What would he make of Tolstoy's revered contemporary Dostoyevsky who rambles on for ages in The Brothers Karamazov about the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church?) The 'useless junk' to which he's referring is the statistical variations between Dark Souls' diverse weapons types. If you're critiquing Dark Souls from a literary framework, these stats seem like superfluous mathematical filler. But if you're critiquing Dark Souls as a game, these variations can subtly shift the dynamic of play and bend your trajectory closer toward victory's thrilling bulls-eye.
I had a similar conversation with my colleague Jason Schreier a couple of weeks ago when trying to convince him to give Dark Souls II a shot. It is fundamentally worth it, I argued, to take the time to learn a game so demanding, because as a "design text" (for lack of a better term), Dark Souls II is challenging in a way that is actually similar to, say, a great work of music. It's true that the knowledge that you accumulate to complete it is mostly only useful on its own terms — or, most of what it teaches you is "How to play Dark Souls II." But it is also true that like many an work of high design or aesthetics, literacy in the object itself can be rewarding and worthwhile.
To my eye, both Dark Souls and its sequel are worthy of consideration on their own terms. For example: What punk designer decided to put that high-up archer right there in the Forest of Fallen Giants, just so that he'd fuck with you every time you tried to climb back down the ladder to the bonfire? And how else can you come to appreciate the sly humour of that bit of design, without taking the time to experience it repeatedly and learn to survive it? Surely something that makes me smile so often is worth my time and consideration.
So I'll admit that I'm more on Killingsworth's side in this one than Thomsen's — back in 2012 I was only too excited to share what I termed a "smackdown" of an argument I found to be jaded and anti-video game — but that doesn't mean I haven't gotten something out of Thomsen's intense, dedicated dissection of his Dark Souls dislike.
If and when Dark Souls III comes out, I hope that Thomsen will find the motivation to pass through this wretched gauntlet yet again. And if he does, I'll be willing as always to go through it again with him, even if each time I come away more and more certain that Dark Souls and its progeny are, in fact, not terrible at all.