Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Dark Souls II, Soul Memory, and why the Agape Ring isn't a solution

I said that I'mma start a blog, but I really need some pompous, overlong shit to set the tone, right?

So, let's talk about irrevocability, how it applies to the Souls games, and how Dark Souls II's introduction of the new Agape Ring successfully fixes some of the fundamental issues of the Soul Memory matchmaking system at the expense of creating a game that is – on the grand scale – a deeply unpleasant experience to actually play. Hold on, don't start cursing at me in the comments yet; give me some time to dig myself a real nice ditch, if you'd be so kind.

Okay, so, first: the Souls games are rooted in the irrevocability of player actions.

What I mean by this: consequences are permanent. They matter. You absentmindedly walk off a cliff, that 350,000 soul bloodstain goes bye-bye. You make Quelagg's Furysword and that's that resource gone; if you want another chance to make the Chaos Blade, wait until the next cycle. Put Yurt down before he kills Freke or lose access to Freke's sorceries. This is a good thing! This is a core part of their appeal. The Souls games are willing to punish you in a meaningful way for screwing up, which rewards you for being thoughtful instead of doing things haphazardly. It also encourages you to move forward after you screw up instead of simply trying again and again to tackle things from the same angle until it works. Resources are lost, opportunities close – so you have to adapt.

These irrevocable actions, though, are a fundamentally punitive mechanic. And that's dangerous. Punishing a player can create great experiences by giving real weight to failure and making success that much sweeter, but it can also make the game tedious and unfun if the punishment ever feels unfair.

In general, the punishment should always feel appropriate and fair. The player should never come out of a game thinking that “This is bullshit.” The response you want is “Well, I earned that.”

The Souls games can get away with being punitive because the response to their punishments is usually “Well, I earned that.”

Yes, your actions carry weight; yes, you can really, substantially hurt yourself. The secret here, though, is that – for the most part – the punishments a player will incur just for making mistakes in the course of playing the game are relatively minor. You lost a bloodstain? So what – it's just some souls; you can get more. You wasted some resources on an inferior weapon. Well, damn, that blows, but you can always go farm if you have to.

If you're screwing yourself, it's typically by conscious action. If your pyromancer kills Quelana before you buy all her spells and get a +5 ascended flame, you're pretty much fucked – but you have to make a choice to attack her. For that matter, you have to make the choice to keep attacking her instead of fleeing or letting her kill you before you go buy absolution so you can use her services again. You can completely screw yourself over, but it takes real effort to do so. Even with the somewhat dubious Pure White World Tendency events in Demon's Souls, you can still reliably get the outcome you're looking for if you know the right steps to take; just play offline, stay out of human form, and kill bosses. It's an unnecessarily circuitous, obscure solution – but if you know what to do, you will get your Dragon Bone Smasher. The more irreversible, semi-permanent (remember: you can always move onto the next cycle) punishments require you to make the wrong decisions. If your reflexes are slow or your gear is bad – well, that might cost you some resources, but you can always get those back. This is a contract at the heart of the game design in both Dark Souls and Demon's Souls.

It's also one that Dark Souls II – thanks to the Soul Memory matchmaking system – has violated from day one. Soul Memory has always provided a truly permanent (the first in the series, I believe – remember, even egregious mistakes like letting Yurt live long after you should have figured out how dangerous he is can be remedied by going onto NG+) penalty for a simple lack of skill at the game. You die and lose your bloodstain – you don't have those 20,000 souls to spend any more, but they're still being counted against you in matchmaking. You upgrade a weapon that winds up being suboptimal – oh well, you're still another 10,000 to 20,000 souls down.

The one saving grace here, funnily enough, is that Soul Memory is a broken enough mechanic that this doesn't really matter. All characters are on the same inevitable death march toward the same ultra-high Soul Memory tier full of fastrolling Havels spamming Great Resonant Soul and swinging around Ice Rapiers, so some inefficiencies don't really count for anything. The endgame is always going to bring you to a place where you can do whatever you want without consequence anyway; your character could be more optimized right now if you hadn't been murdered by the Royal Rat Authority's wacky-ass hitboxes, but the long term is the same. In short: totally killing the notion of an optimized build did, in fact, help to mitigate the permanent punishment for failure that Soul Memory presents.

You should probably see where I'm going now.

The Agape Ring allows players to arrest their Soul Memory at a specific, desired point. This is good, in theory; instead of an inevitable progression toward a metagame defined by the same amorphous max-level nonbuilds, you have x amount of total souls to spend on levels, gear, spells, etc. Once you hit that point, slap the Agape Ring in one of your four ring slots – it's not like Dark Souls II builds are unable to spare a ring slot; this is, after all, why the Ring of the Living and the White Ring are so common despite the fact that cosmetic-only rings would be dismissed as entirely not worth it in the prior titles – and you're good to go. It's an overly complex solution compared to simply reinstating Soul Level matchmaking, but I will grant that it does create a game that allows for meaningful, distinct builds. In that respect: mission accomplished.

However, now we hit a problem. All of a sudden, the punitive aspects of Soul Memory matter again. And they're nasty.

If you have a lifetime limit of 3,000,000 souls to spend before the Agape Ring goes on and never comes off, then that turns playing Dark Souls II with a specific build in mind into a tedious process of optimization, micromanagement, and usage of the safest possible strategies in order to ensure that you never, ever lose a bloodstain. You have to second-guess every soul you spend. Am I going to use this spell? The weapon I want to work with is the Silverblack Spear, so what's the absolute minimum I can spend on upgrading an interim weapon before that to get to Earthen Peak? Hell, maybe I can manage it with a completely unupgraded weapon? Wasted souls become permanent inefficiencies that will give you a worse character, and you're all too aware of that fact.

Worse still: losing a bloodstain is the same as spending souls, but without even a too-situational spell or some consumables to show for it. It's just a black hole that makes your character 3,000, 2,000, 17,000 souls worse. So dying is now – instead of an opportunity to learn and do better in the future – something that puts you into an incredibly vulnerable position and needs to be avoided at all costs. You farm Rings of Life Protection, you exterminate every enemy in Shulva that happens to be in the way of the Pagan Tree so you can repair them without paying for it, you consciously avoid any strategies that you aren't completely sure of in order to avoid that state of vulnerability.
Someone will counter that there isn't much meaningful distinction between 3,000,000 souls and 2,950,000 souls, as far as building a character is concerned. And, you know, that's completely correct; realistically, any well-designed build for post-Agape Ring Dark Souls II should have plenty of headroom between its cost and the end of the Soul Memory tier, to allow for equipment repairs, extra equipment and spells, consumables, and – yes – mistakes. And I don't doubt that there are plenty of players that can ignore these small inefficiencies, and I'm glad they can enjoy the game that they have; this is, after all, an opinion piece. Really, not even that; it's a rant on a blog.

But if you can't ignore these inefficiencies – if you're like me, and given your character concept and your limitations you want to create the best character that you can, whether that's for serious business PVP or a silly gimmick #GamerGate invader that shows up in the Catarina set and Durgo's Hat, fatrolling, powerstancing chicken wings, and throwing Dung Pies at everyone within targeting range – then the permanence and punitivity of Soul Memory as a mechanic turn it into a looming specter over your experience that makes it almost impossible to enjoy what you're doing. Priority number one is now avoiding waste, and when you spend souls on anything that's not strictly part of your build you're thinking of how you could have spent those on further optimizing your character instead – you start thinking of things in terms of lost points of stamina, alternative weapon choices, and so on.

Designing a character to a specific build in Dark Souls or Demon's Souls is mostly just a matter of playing the game. Put your stats in the right places, don't waste boss souls that you need for gear or spells, and maybe, if you have to, do something tedious like gaming the World Tendency so you can get a weapon you're wanting. Generally, though, as long as you keep your goal in the back of your mind, it mostly just happens; you're free to enjoy what you're doing, and hey, if that boss kills you, or you get invaded and outmatched, or you want to upgrade that Longsword to hold you over – no big deal. Soul Memory, however, punishes you for all of these things, and if you're aware of that fact it can become impossible to ignore it. You're burning through your character's potential power with every soul spent outside of the parameters of your build.

The result is that you can't shrug it off and move on when you take one of the small, measured punishments, like losing your bloodstain. The souls are no longer the important thing; the important thing is the tiny chunk of your character's lifetime spending cap that you just lost, and you're never going to recover. And for what? For something trivial – getting careless in a combat encounter you've done twenty times before, deciding that you'd rather not slog through Huntsman's Copse with unupgraded gear, buying a spell in your school of choice that winds up being too situational to be worth the attunement slot.

I recently started a new character on Dark Souls II after the new patch, pleased with the reinstatement of a meaningful division between different builds in spite of my misgivings about the Agape Ring as a solution. I dropped that character, though – and, as it happens, I'll probably never play Dark Souls II again. Because, for all that the Agape Ring improves, the presence of truly permanent and unnecessarily harsh punishments for execution is something that has a way of overshadowing everything else. Moment-by-moment, there's still plenty there to like; indeed, I liked Dark Souls II well enough at launch, even if it was a disappointment compared to prior titles, and the game that exists today is, in every other respect, a much better one than the one that came on the disc. But RPGs are about character advancement, and I can't focus on what's going on moment-to-moment when the game is forcing me to continually consider the potential permanent implications of every decision I make on my character advancement. Maybe it's not a dealbreaker for you; that's great, if so. Either way, though, it is fundamentally bad design.