In a Mass Effect Renegade playthrough, you will have arguments with people. It gets heated and intense to the point that – sometimes – the game will make you kill the person you’re bickering with. “Wait, game,” you say. “I didn’t want to actually kill him. I just wanted to tell him what’s up.” So you re-load your save and do it right the second time. You practice a little self-restraint because the game taught you through your mistakes how to act to achieve the goal you originally wanted. This is trial-and-error gameplay, and it’s been employed since before the days of Mega Man. Alright. I’m learning, and I can do better next time. It makes sense to my logical mind.
That’s not how Dark Souls… is. Here is a game that seemingly expects you to have memorized the entire Wiki before even starting your first run. One tangential mistake can make huge swaths of story and characters simply disappear because you didn’t do this one particular thing in this one particular way. Dark Souls also has this permanence, where one accidental button press — say, the R2 button when you put your controller down because you have to run to the bathroom — can cause you to accidentally stab one of the few shopkeepers. They will then attack you, and you will have to kill them. Then they’re dead forever. You can’t buy any more items from them, or follow their story, or get them to help you during a later boss fight. Oh, you were 20 hours in? Good luck with the rest of the game.
Cave Story has a weird permanence, too. The handful of things you need to accomplish to unlock the actual final level and the real ending are so oddly specific that it’s like I’m trying to breed Final Fantasy VII‘s gold chocobo all over again. Hope you found a rope and stand in the exact place on the screen when the water starts rushing in, or you won’t save the girl! Hope you got a bunch of Carob Nuts and specific genders and qualities of chocobos from specific parts of the world, then breed them in a specific way!
Fine. There’s lots of obtuse secrets hidden in games throughout history. But the skulls in Halo 3 can be found if you’re willing to put in the time and explore every corner of the map. Multiple save files and a completionist’s hunger will let you see every possible outcome for Megaton and Tenpenny Tower in Fallout 3. And the special moves in Street Fighter IV are in the menu. My big problem with Dark Souls and Cave Story is that the secrets – things like “Even if Siegmeyer survives his final battle, if he has less than 50% health he appears to kill himself and his story will not continue” or “If you talk to Professor Booster after you see him fall (i.e. you try to save him from dying), you will get the bad ending” – are things that, without being told by a friend/the internet/whatever, you would never be able to figure them out. Not on your first playthrough. Not on your second. You don’t learn how to play the game better with the tools you are given — you have to be told, and only by something outside the game.
This is poor design, and it makes me so, so mad.
It could be and has been argued that secrets that can only be discovered outside the constrains of the game are a tribute to old, retro game design. This fosters a community bigger than the game world is able to create, a world that exists above and beyond the limited scope of the digital walls these two games built around their own success. Not financial success, to be sure, but your success at seeing everything this game has to offer. I’ve even read an article or two (which, if I was a real professional and remembered where I had seen them, I would link here) that explained how Dark Souls was created with the sole purpose of getting people on the internet and in real life together to discuss the secrets and the meaning of it all. Maybe it’s just an elaborate ploy to sell more strategy guides.
If I could pick one classic game that Dark Souls most resembles, it would be Rygar on the NES. You can go anywhere right at the start of the game, but there is a very specific order you’ll need to follow if you expect to make any progress, and the order is a complete mystery to the player. The bosses are incredibly hard and will require plenty of leveling up before you’re ready for them. And the clues given to you by the game are next to nothing. I’m all for secrets; I love finishing a game and knowing that there’s so much more left to discover if I only pop it back in for a second go around. But expecting so much more out of me than I could ever hope to know, forcing me to use the crutch of the internet just to figure out where the covenants are (a pretty big part of the game), or letting me finish the game without even giving me a hint that there is a whole final level and even harder series of bosses… that’s just mean.
Best example: you just bought the Artorias of the Abyss DLC. How do you even access it? Without the internet, there’d be an awful lot of people that spent $20 and haven’t the slightest clue where to go now. Sure, I guess that could be considered “retro,” or “a game that believes in its players,” but if you ask me, I’d just say it’s rude. I’d feel stupid for not being able to figure it out, but it’s kind of like Kojima telling you to tune your Codec to a frequency that matches his birthday. Come on. Are you kidding me right now?