The Argument That Dark Souls II Is Terrible

The Argument That Dark Souls II Is Terrible

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.


Comments

    Personally I think DS2 is easier than the original but its also better than the original. The recent nerfs to boss hp and damage were unnecessary.

    All in all people can voice their opinions all they want, it hasnt stopped me from enjoying the game for 100+ hours already. Which is more time than I could stomach putting into bf4!

    Last edited 29/04/14 11:16 am

      Played it for 100+ hours, but its not quite as good as the original in some ways = WORST GAME EVER AND YOU'RE AN IDIOT AND VAATIVIDYA IS A WHORE AND ECT.

      I'm finding it harder, but not the individual enemies. In Dark Souls each enemy was a challenge in it's own way, even the hollows in the Undead Burg. But I had the time to slow down, be intimate and treat each and every one with the attention they needed to get through without a scratch. I had it down to a ballet. In DS2, they just throw tough-ish (kind of maybe) enemies at you in hoards so that you can't just pick one out of the group and go mano-a-mano

      TL;DR: I suck at pulling just one enemy instead of a group in DS2

    This guy here explains some of the problems the game has.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UScsme8didI

    Just so you know, his critiques are only from disappointment, he still considers Dark Souls 2 to be a great game and would still prefer to play it over the majority of released titles from the last few years.

    My problem with the game is that it plays it too safe. It takes what works but never really expands on them.
    Also, while the art style is still really good, the design of the enemies were lacking. The majority of the time it was just big dudes in armour. The armour designs did look awesome, but there was no sewer, dragon crocodile lizard to fight. Dark Souls 1 had you fighting a giant pretty moth, Dark Souls 2 had you fighting a giant frog with a human skull.
    Probably my biggest disappointment came from when you were fighting Diablo in that fire lake. It was just so generic.

    I still consider Dark Souls 2 to be a great game and well worth playing. But I do find Dark Souls 1 more memorable. We will probably never see something like Sen's Fortress again.

      If that's the video I think it is, I agree with a lot of it. Dark Souls 1 is the better game.

        The biggest problem with Dark Souls 2 was lost potential. That mirror knight could have been memorable, but it wasn't. That guy made everybody dread the game in the early trailers. But not only is he near the end of the game where you would forget about him, he's not fully utilised. I only found out after beating him that he could summon in new players and how that works, and he only does it once. It would have been a whole lot better if that was his gimmick and he would always turtle up and summon random players whenever a summoned player wasn't in the game. Making you find a balance between offense on him and defense from the other player.

      That video pretty much hits the nail on the head.

      The game as a whole felt like a "B studio" Dark Souls game. A sequel made by someone that was excited about contributing to the series, but didn't quite understand what made the originals so great in the first place. It's still one of the better games to come out in recent memory, but in the end it fell significantly short of what it could (and should) have been.

      Here's hoping that with From Software being bought out by Kadokawa, the cash injection will allow them to put out something with a bit better direction next time (and less recycled enemies/bosses).

        Which really says a lot about Dark Souls 1. That game was so good, that even a bad version of it is still really good.

        Being bought out isn't always a good thing. They might not find much promise in the series and cancel it, or replace the entire studio with new people to make a sequal that's even worse. Also the promise of more money might make developers trying to make their game "epic" with everything being much bigger.

          So very true. As disappointed as I am with Dark Souls 2 compared to its predecessors, I still enjoyed it more than most games in recent memory (enough that I own both the PS3 and PC versions).

          As for the buyout, it's definitely possible that things could change for the worse, but I'm trying not to start screaming that the sky is falling just yet. I can't see there being any real chance of the Souls series being cancelled on account of it being From Software's most successful IP, and most likely the reason they were bought out to begin with. My secret hope is that they will take a dumptruck full of money to Miyazaki's house and beg him to come back, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

    150 hours is an awful lot of time to spend on a game that you feel is the worst ever made.

    That level of masochism probably makes him the perfect Dark Souls player!

      Yeah, I never got how people would willingly play a game they hate. I still remember many people complaining about how Halo: Reach is the worst game ever created, yet they would have 50 days worth of playtime :\

        You obviously don't spend a lot of time talking to fighting game players.

        We all hate the game that we play the most. It's a strange thing.

          Hey, how's the Cross Tekken game treating you?

            Sold it within a week of getting it. It just wasn't for me. Looking forward to ultra SF4 though.

              Wow, you lamed out so hard you lamed the game out of your house? Lame out it like you're playing what?

                Hahahaha! Hey it's not just me, 95% of fighting gamers hated that game. It just feels wrong as a street fighter game and the gfx style is a real 'acquired taste'.

                  Because all light, medium and heavy attacks did the same amount of damage universally across all characters.

        Just because you hate the game doesn't mean you hate everything about the game. I hate so many aspects of World of Warcraft that I can't even keep track of them anymore. Even at the peak of my playing I considered it's end-game just an awful, flimsy attempt to distract players from the fact they'd beaten all the real content. However I enjoyed raiding with my guild and felt a certain level of reward from my accomplishments in game. As a game it was terrible but it was still entertaining.

          I mean like, people who hate everything about the game and attack anyone who likes it. Who regularly posts on forums about how everything about the game is terrible and that nobody should play it to prove to the world how everybody doesn't want it. Even going so far as to say there's no incentive to ever play the game from the very start.

    While I disagree with Thomsen on a number of points regarding the inherent value of a series like Dark Souls, I couldn't help but notice he's one of but a few critics who actually addresses a lot of complaints I have with the game. It's hardly the worst game ever made (and claiming so just seems like a grab for attention), but on the whole I just found Dark Souls 2 to be largely underwhelming as a sequel on almost all fronts.

    only skimmed the above article... and while i haven't put a heap of time into any of the Souls games... there is a fine line between hard and a badly designed/made game... and i feel these games ride that fine line at times... default controller mappings and weird mechanics that are meant to feel like a "challenge" can sometimes feel like a poorly made game...

    that said i can see the appeal... and i think people who master it are awesome...

      This is exactly how I feel! Like I love the themes of death and trial and pergatory, and although I think the human models look hilariously gumby, the overall art design has thematic worth. However, some design elements just seem to be moving the goalposts for their own sake. Like elements of the UI and HUD can be needlessly obtuse and frustrating, and often are hamstrung by problems which have been solved by other RPGs for years, if not over a decade. Like often I feel like theres a difference between challenge, and fiddly needless padding of frustrations which have nothing to do with skill or your knowledge of the game.

    Calling it the worst ever is definitely click baiting - has he not seen the excavation in New Mexico? However getting people to discuss the merits of fantasy entertainment in game form is not without merit.

    It is a fascinating argument but my biggest problem with it is this article is - why are two largely subjective elements: The game teaches you about the game and It takes a long time to do it?
    Are these the only markers to determine whether a game is the best or worst - that is lazy and takes the shine off an interesting premise.

    Finally, what a game leaves with you is important - but I would argue that DSII gives you a extremely enjoyable/infuriating/beautiful experience during the game. The fact it is not preaching any grand universal lesson is what allows you to concentrate on the pure joy of getting from point a to point b in a challenging environment, delightfully shared with others.

    I don't know if it's easier or if the original Dark Souls (and Demon's Souls) just trained me well. I've still died a million times but I feel like I am progressing fast.

    While Thompson is undoubtably a good writer one can only assume that statements like the 'worst video game ever made' are being used simply to draw attention to his piece, but at what expense ? When one pulls back and looks at the intent of the article I call it clever trolling. I don't like COD but I would never (even if indirectly) argue that those who do are fooling themselves. Whenever a game evokes great passion from many people there always something to it, and honest game writer investigates this and tries to understand it.

    Dark Souls II is in my opinion a great game but I believe it suffered a terrible blow by the removal of the series creator. A decision that smacks of commerse once again trumping art. So it (once again my opinion) suffers on an artistic level which flows into the game play. Bosses, levels, and creature design often fall short. The story and atmosphere did not evoke for me the same intense emotions of the first two Soul Games. Even calling it Dark Souls II was dissapointing to me, a pandering to branding and all that Assassins Creed type boredom. The final fight in the game is very dissapointing. To use the War and Peace analogy what would that book have looked like if it was written by committee. It's game designers like Kojima (MGS) that give a series it singular artistic vision.

    All Thompson has done for me is to make me wary of reading anything he has to say.

    Last edited 29/04/14 1:35 pm

    I think the argument of whether spending 100 hours to learn a game's depths is worthwhile depends on a single question: are you having fun while doing it.

    Games are completely subjective, and you can sink either 20 minutes or 20 hours into a game, the one thing that proves if it's worthwhile is if you are enjoying it. Are you playing it to get that hit of dopamine when you level up and get new loot, or are you just enjoying the act of getting better and mastering the game's systems? It doesn't matter what you're playing it for, because if you're enjoying the process, then its worthwhile.

    His argument is weak, and it can be pinned against almost any other fighting game, MMO, or puzzle game without having to be so dramatic about it. In the end, if this guy can sink 150 hours into a game without putting it down, I don't think he has the right to call it the "Worst Game Ever Made" without being accused of being slightly inflammatory.

    Last edited 29/04/14 3:34 pm

      I have put just over 1,000 hours worth of time into Halo: Reach. Obviously the game is terrible because why else would I put so much time into it if it wasn't to prove to myself and others that it is?

    Fella seems to be labouring under the mistaken belief that you learn things for the sake of useful knowledge rather than the process of learning, itself.

    'Discovery' doesn't only apply to mapping new places, but to detailing to completion the precise topography of those places.

    He must HATE scientists.

    My main problem with it is there seems to be no context for what I'm doing in DS2. DS1 gave an interesting opening cinematic that established the world and the major players; DS2 opened with you being cursed, getting laughed at by an old blind woman, and jumping into a portal - no real details about the world of Drangleic beyond "it has a king", and a near guarantee that none will be forthcoming ("...you will stand before its decrepit gate, without really knowing why"). Then getting laughed at by three more old blind women.

    Not to mention we're tasked with slaying four of the most powerful beings in the land... because the devs put a bit of rubble blocking the path to Drangleic castle. My character is clearly not an invalid, given his monumental task, but he is unable to climb over a few rocks...

    I can't help but think, given the introduction and that rubble, that the devs are deliberately and openly taunting the player about their limitations, immersion be damned. Given that immersion and atmosphere were huge selling points (for me, at least) of DS1, I don't agree with their approach.

      I agree it a boring Zelda like structure. People have have complained about the arcane nature of systems like the world tendencies in Demon Souls. It was these unigue elements plus the feeling of being alone against overwhelming an malevolent forces that helped make these games so compelling. The giants in DSII just don't cut it and the repetition of past systems cut out the obtuse and arcane systems of the past that many of us loved unravelling.

    To me it boils to is the game fun? Yes or no. Yes=good game, no = bad game. Simple.

    I love this site but i get the feeling u guys have a deal with the people that own dark souls. this is just another long line of pointless articles on the subject of the game.
    go on, test it. do a search for dark souls with this website and see how many pointless articles there actually are.

    This game is a joke.. I like grinding and i don't care what other people say.. This game had limited enemy respawns which feels cheap! Like the enemies suddenly just decide to give up at some point... Most of the problems people had with this game could have been remedied with the enemy being able to respawn.. To allow grinding is to allow a player a chance to better themselves but this game was made by a some monkey in a suit who decided that they needed to streamline it... Oh, you can teleport freely around.. Enemies won't bother coming back at some point... They took stuff away from this game.. They advertised strong graphics at E3..
    Did you know it takes more space to program limited respawns then it does to program infinite respawns?? This game is a pitiful joke...

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