Dark Souls: Trial and Error Gameplay

Often when Dark Souls is brought up, you hear a lot of arguments over whether it’s a good game or not, and one of the large insults to the game is the trial and error nature of it.

I've gotten responses lately from other fans that like the game, because I say it was a trial and error experience. These fans defend Dark Souls, saying that it isn't a trial and error experience, but a game that is satisfying in its difficulty, and makes you care about death. They’re right to note the game does make you care about your life, but wrong in not recognizing that it is trial and error is what leads you to care.

Dark Souls not only uses trial and error, but I argue is built ENTIRELY around the concept. People attach this connotation with trial and error, that it involves the game being cheap with how it handles death, by not giving the player enough cues to manage-ably meet a challenge. This isn't really true, as trial and error only means that the player is punished for their mistake, and forced to repeat the pattern to progress further.

The success of Dark Soul’s I argue is built around it maintaining high difficulty, but still keeping the player coming back for more. This is done through being challenging, but not so harsh as to use permadeath that strips the player of all their progress on one failure, and instead simply pushes you back a large step. The key ingredient to the sauce I think comes from the game presenting you one chance to reach your body again, and regain that progress. It’s a huge carrot dangling in front of you, drawing you back into the danger like a seductive Siren calling out to a ship. Really they should just put a Siren on their cover, because that is the game personified.

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Dark Souls fits uses trial and error to do this, by resetting the world to put you through that pattern again, and forces you to learn to overcome the challenge. Then once you reach the area where your body lays, you get to kill the thing that killed you. If you vanquish the challenge, it gives you a much stronger sense of accomplishment because the game doesn't severely empower the player, but rather give you the base tools that your skill power to win. You’re still a fragile creature in the world, but you can keep the cycle of progress going if you just pick up your body before meeting the challenge…continuing the loop until you move forward.

Dark Souls strikes an alluring setup of trial and error, and uses that to make the player better. In so doing, makes you respect and embrace death. Through that process, I think the game manages to convey survival better than other games, who only approach the subject cosmetically with gore and cutscenes (I worry Tomb Raider will do this).

Dark Souls is not loved because it’s another hard game, just that it's a better teacher that encourages you not to give up.

What do you guys/gals think? Do any Dark Souls fans have anything they’d like to add about why the game works?

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