Imagine a world in which video games are played completely alone; a solitary event in which your only companion is a plot of pixels on an enlightened, glistening screen. There are no distractions, no interruptions, no social media or chatter to dither your undivided attention. There is only you, and the digital macrocosm in which you have entered.
Sadly, it can be difficult to find this type of experience in an age where nearly everything is continually connected online. Even great single player experiences tend to become distracted by their multiplayer elements. Since the beginning of the internet era, going all the way back to the 1970’s when online multiplayer games were played on machines like the Plato Computer System, many developers have designed their games with these interdependent features in mind. This mindset, in essence, is the cause of so many single player games becoming infected with online multiplayer design philosophies. What this generally translates to is; if you want the full experience of a game, as it was meant to be played, you must play the game in multiplayer…
Over the past couple of decades, many AAA developers have been leading a charge which has seen more and more connectivity forced onto players, whether they wish it or not. This unfortunately can mar the unique and intimate single player experience that I described in the opening lines above.
The Plato Computer System was the worlds introduction to “online gaming”. This picture is of the Plato V, released in 1981.
My disenchantment with online multiplayer gaming really began with the first online multiplayer game I ever played: Trade Wars 2002. It was an ASCII/Text based space exploration game you could play via modem while dialing into a BBS (Bulletin Board System). Even back in 1991 there were online trolls that delighted in nothing else but camping in a star system for hours; their sole purpose to kill you, as many times as humanly possible.
Trade Wars 2002 was my first experience with online multiplayer gaming, on an archaic 286 PC with a 2400 baud modem. It offered a fairly robust multiplayer experience for its day, including online trolls. *sigh* Some things never change…
Despite this initial experience however, my discontent wasn’t fully realized until 2004 and the release of Halo 2, which of course came with the ability to play online via Xbox Live. It was a “game” changing experience, for me personally, and in many ways, for the entire gaming community. Halo 2 changed everything. It wasn’t the first console game to be played extensively online, not by a long shot, but it was arguably the first to truly popularize it on an enormous scale. And with this prominence came a major change in the way console gamers played games. We could now interact with each other, via voice chat or simply in game with our actions. It was wonderful… and abhorrent at the same time. People became “cheaters” and “assholes” and “fucking assholes.”
This type of behavior poisoned the experience for me. I distinctly remember my future sister in law, circa 2005, sitting nearby, pretending to work on a PC while a group of my friends and I played Halo 2 together online. When our session was over, she had the brave insight to enlighten us with the purely scientific study she had performed while we were partaking in our mind altering mayhem:
May we all hope to have a sister in law that’s smart enough to make you feel like a grown-ass-child.
I didn’t like what I was becoming. I also didn’t like what this new online gaming frontier was becoming. And I hated being squealed and cursed at by 12 year olds…and screaming at them myself. Who doesn’t hate that? So I pulled away from Halo 2 for a while, and in doing so realized that I had never really played the single player mode. For some odd reason, the desire to play and complete the single player campaign in Halo 2 had been sullied for me by the awful online experience. As a result, I found myself retreating from online multiplayer games in general, even ones with exceptional single player modes. That is until 2009, when an obscure Japanese Playstation 3 exclusive titled Demon’s Souls was quietly released, to little fanfare (but rave reviews).
Demon’s Souls, aka, Dark Souls Zero. A game that dared to be different in an age of instant communication.
As it happened, I owned a PS3 and several things about Demon’s Souls caught my eye. The first was of course the old school nature of the game. Reviewers were calling it “Nintendo Hard” and extremely unforgiving, which instantly brought me joy. But what was most interesting was its innovative online play system. To my delight, Demon’s Souls had managed to marry online multiplayer and single player in such a way that they now no longer diminished the single player experience. And what was truly captivating was that they didn’t do it by simply adding a feature, which is so often the solution many game devs use in order to solve a perceived problem. Instead, it was what was omitted that made all the difference. Gone were the matchmaking, voice chat and infuriating exchanges with 12 year olds. Instead, they were replaced by cryptic player encounters, sign language, limited character messages and ghostly visions of your online brethren. The game sounded like the online multiplayer experience I never knew I wanted, and indeed it was.
Consider this also, it is pretty remarkable that the Souls series, known for their fantastic single player gameplay and atmosphere, managed to break new ground in the multiplayer realm as well. The experience of playing a Souls game, in multiplayer, is so seamless and subtle, it doesn’t feel like you are playing multiplayer at all. And this, ultimately, is what sets the series apart and at the same time, makes it an exceptional single player experience. I’d argue that this applies even when you are connected to the internet while playing, making your single player experience merely a perception and not a reality. Of course, you can play a Souls game offline, but why would you want to do that? Oh the madness!
And most important: where most multiplayer features subtract from the single player experience, in this case, the multiplayer experience strengthens the single player experience.
In a Souls game, if you can see it, you can generally get there. Some enemies, such as this seemingly distant behemoth, will be much easier with assistance from a mysterious companion or two.
Another aspect that makes the Souls experience unique is that it is both extremely personal, and yet also collaborative. From Software managed to make, what I consider, the perfect online experience in what is in most accounts, a single player game. Until this point, I hadn’t thought it possible that such a game, or games, could exist. The inventive way in which online play was presented was like nothing that has come before it. And it can grip you on an emotional level:
And these are but a few of the ways in which the Souls games flipped the experience of online gaming on its head. In each of these cases, other players touched your world in some way. But it is up to you, and your own single player experience, to invent what it is they mean. Rather than using pre-existing and at this point, standard tropes, From Software took a step back and limited themselves to only the most core mechanics of online communication and interaction. This resulted in the Souls multiplayer system resembling online gaming from the 70s and 80s just as much as the systems of the modern era. Or in other words, a new way to play online was born.
The Dark Souls series gets so many things right. It’s worth celebrating, especially with a magnificent view.
I will admit though, the Souls online experience isn’t perfect. Many have chastised it for being overly convoluted when it comes to the simple task of playing with an “actual” friend. While I feel that people are entitled to their opinions, I also feel that to criticize the Souls online system is to criticize the essence of what makes these games what they are. And while some games in the series (I’m looking at you Dark Souls 2) didn’t get the formula quite right, overall they are good enough for me to have personally put hundreds of hours of my precious time into each them. That in itself is no small feat in my life. And with the release of Dark Souls 3, From Software has arguably given us the ultimate Souls experience.
It takes an exceptional type of game to give you an encounter unlike anything you have ever played before. I feel like it only happens once in a very long while, at best. And on a night like any other, Dark Souls 3 gifted me with exactly such an experience. Let me explain…
Dozens of deacons, gazing upon you with a stony gaze of gloom. When the Cathedral of the Deep is finished with you, this tranquil place will seem gentle by comparison.
It had been a hard night. There was no progress to be had. I had just made my way through the blistering Road of Sacrifices and onto the Cathedral of the Deep. Again and again I marched my way into this Gothic castle of the dead, but I was repelled each time like the insignificant Hollow that I was. I simply could not break the cycle of charge, die, repeat. This was a Dark Souls game after all, I should have expected no less.
Since my frustrations had reached their peak, I decided to use a precious Ember and summon the power of the Lord of Cinder. As I consumed the glittering element, energy swirled around me and my body took on a tepid glow. Gone were the reservations I had felt mere moments earlier, replaced by a potent will to press on. But first…I required help.
The decision is yours. Choose your allies wisely.
As I looked around my Bonfire in the heart of the Cleansing Chapel, small signs began to appear; Summon Signs. These invitations from another world were anxious to be chosen, drawn to the reigniting power of Cinder.
Finally, I chose one, and another, then… I waited. Slowly, these “beings” began to rise up, through the portal connecting our worlds. They were ghostly, amber colored warriors, here at last to help me on my quest. We each took a bow, respect to our brethren…and were off!
A wretched mass of undead await in and around the Cathedral. Bringing help nearly always assures a less miserable scene.
First, through a graveyard, littered with hordes of reanimated corpses. Then, up the steps of the massive Cathedral, forward to the roof, where we were assaulted by suicidal, undead devils of the deep. On to the boundless interior of this wicked church of the deceased.
Even in the soaring heights of this crooked chapel, death patiently lingers. There is no escape, only horror.
Once inside, things became grim, but we fought on. From Satanic Priests, False Evangelists, and Wicked Dark Knights with mile high swords, to Enslaved Giants, surrounded by lumps of Reanimated Rotting Flesh. Our path was unbearably difficult, but we pressed on, to the altar, to the Deacons of the Deep.
“Altar of Sacrifice, curse of the damned, confronting the evil you dread, coalesce into one-your shadow and soul, soon you will meet the undead!”
Once inside, a mob arrived. A mass of melted wax and red eyed glowing rabbis, hell bent on returning us to whence we came. I was deficient at this point, not equipped for the fight. But my companions gestured “forward” so I gathered my strength.
The Deacons of the Deep. A miserable horde of fallen holy men, biding their time in a sunken temple, praying to a false god.
We fought one, then two, then ten, then thirty and finally, the Arch Deacon appeared. We raced through the mob, straight to the heart of the glowing red ember of death. We stabbed, hacked and blasted the elder until all that was left was a smoldering ruin of what once was. We jumped for joy and took a final bow, each of us gaining our reward for an unlikely but well earned victory…
Victory was ours!
Then, my new friends vanished, and I was left at peace in my singular world once again. I walked to my newly won Bonfire, took a knee, and relished one of the greatest gaming experiences of my life.