Fear of the Red Phantom: Discovery, Refinement and Online Play In Dark Souls II

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Gathered at the Dragon Shrine’s first bonfire during downtime, my friend and I are having the conversation everyone’s having around the time of Dark Souls II’s release: it just isn’t as good as the first one. It’s not as hard, and when it comes to Dark Souls, that’s damning. We talk about how its bosses are less memorable for their abundance, how the ease of co-op play skews the challenge of the series in favor of catering to fans’ desires. We agree on the game as a whole being less memorable, less important to gaming’s canon in the way so many “improved” sequels are, but my friend has trouble reconciling my assessment of its difficulty with my cowardice. How can I say the game as a whole is easier when I’m actively avoiding one of the game’s biggest features?

I’d starting actively avoiding phantoms whenever I played, quitting to the main menu immediately. Sometimes I’d just Alt+F4 entirely, taking the arrival of an enemy player as a sign I should stop playing for the night. I was afraid of these phantoms, but not because I couldn’t beat them; I’d slayed more than my fair share of fools looking to knock me off a cliff. But they were such a hassle, especially in zones custom-built for player-versus-player fights, like the Belfry Luna, where it was harder to escape. I kept saying Dark Souls II was easier, but I couldn’t be bothered to engage in one of the most changed features. Why?

I don’t have a good answer for him, because the answer I was looking for at the time was so trite: I avoid other players because online play wasn’t what Dark Souls was to me. But now, a year after its release, I realize running from these phantoms made me miss Dark Souls II’s defining feature.

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For me, the Souls series is simultaneously about discovery and refinement. It’s about not knowing what’s around the next corner when you first enter an area, afraid that the next enemy you’ll see will be the one to make you spout your next expletive, and about running a gauntlet over and over to make it to the next checkpoint. It’s also about all the other minor things that make up its core—the experience of quick deaths, fighting tooth and nail to make progress, and reimagined corpse runs. It’s about not knowing and knowing all too well.

But every title in the series eventually becomes about the latter. Like with every notoriously difficult series, you can only have one first try. This shouldn’t be news to most Dark Souls players. But when it comes to this “lightning can only strike once” mentality, the Souls series has had the incredible luck of emerging not as a single, marketing-fueled blitzkrieg that swept the gaming consciousness with a single blow (as many other big-budget games do), but rather as a crescendo, building steadily from cult favorite to verified classic over the course of three games and six years.

To begin, Demon’s Souls seemingly came from nowhere, though we now know it as a spiritual successor to King’s Field. It was an eyebrow-raising curiosity when it was first released by Sony in Japan as a PlayStation 3 exclusive in ‘08, with no plans for an American release. Once the Japanese game-playing audience and importers go ahold of it, it gained its status as a cult hit, and an American version of the game (still PS3-exclusive), published by Atlus followed the year after. Because it wasn’t intended as a mass-market title, Atlus wasn’t Sony, and From Software was not a revered developer outside of a small following, the Souls series began in the U.S. as a critical darling, triumphant in a number of ways but limited at the time by many aspects of its release.

Dark Souls ’ release was accompanied by anticipation due to its progenitor’s critical reception. It finally cemented the series’ place as a rarified classic. Whether they liked these games or not, most enthusiasts had to acknowledge the series as influential; similar games made in its wake had to learn from it to adapt to the market that it had nourished. Though Dark Souls hit the ground running, even it took a while to gather all its steam, propelled into true stardom, no doubt, by the concurrent rise of online streaming and Let’s Plays.

The staggered release of the Souls games—from Japanese oddity to console-exclusive, critical darling, genre-redefining classic—is important because it meant that new audiences were constantly “discovering” the game. These phases of popularity built on one another, new players followed by new players, and so the games always felt like something new to a significant slice of its audience. This added to the game’s aura of mystery and discovery. Despite its burgeoning popularity, it still felt like a cult game, like gaming’s worst-kept secret.

It helped that Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, though in many ways similar, were different in clearly identifiable ways. Both were about discovering new areas, treading lightly to make progress, and backtracking to find new paths. Demon’s Souls emphasized the power of a single triumph through its level-oriented design. Dark Souls emphasized critical thinking by couching its discovery in a more interconnected world. This made Dark Souls feel far more “new” than most other sequels. The connected world felt like an entirely new experience of discovery.

Dark Souls II , pushed more heavily as the big-budget game the series had initially diverged from, was less apparently different. Its audience was ready to tear through its secrets, confident they’d find new twists to sink their teeth into. But in modifying a slew of its precursor’s features instead of inventing new ones, the sequel emphasized refinement far more than it did discovery. And as my friend, I, and many others noted, it simply wasn’t as hard, which meant fewer repetitions, and subsequently less refinement. More importantly, however, players sussed out its nuances more quickly, after creating a culture of collective discovery after the first two games. The game was less veiled in mystery. Less refinement, less discovery, less memorable. Lightning couldn’t strike a third time.

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Back to my fear of phantoms. Seeing other players and logging out wasn’t a knee-jerk response, but a learned one. Days (perhaps weeks?) earlier, my friend and I stood on the bridge leading to the Undead Purgatory, on the other end of which was a red phantom looking to cut us both down with what, from our side of the bridge, looked like a large Greataxe, which could easily knock us off the bridge. We approached him a few times, and though this was a human player, he would retreat back to his safe zone at the end of the bridge whenever we backpedaled too far, as computer-controlled enemies do. We weren’t in a hurry, so we decided to wait him out, and he left.

In every Souls game, Phantoms always felt like interruptions. Because players can customize their characters for online play by using items like Scraping Spears (which inconvenience the player by destroying their armor), those who customized their characters for PvP always read as sadists to me (and I may not be the only one who thinks so). They prayed on the weak, picking off players who wanted nothing to do with them. Early in my Dark Souls II playthrough, I wasn’t afraid of phantoms (I had a friend with me, after all), but eventually, once I’d learned how devious invaders could be, my leave-first instinct arose. I could usually take on someone who was built to slay others, but often, these “fights” ended in stalemates, as they did on that bridge. Waiting for someone to go away wasn’t my idea of fun.

Looking back, however, the changes to online play were Dark Souls II’s big leap, its version of turning levels into a connected overworld. Perhaps not as immediately identifiable as such and not as far-reaching a change, but thinking on the themes of discovery and refinement the series has always touted, this change was right in line with the series’ philosophy. Fighting against human opponents offered the chance for near-infinite discovery, since no two players would follow the same protocol. Every player-controlled phantom was a chance to have a new experience with the game, which is rare in single-player games. However, online play also offered the chance for players to refine; though no two players would play the same, the invaded player could eventually learn how these invaders would plan their attack, develop and refine their own strategies for dealing with those plans, and then test those strategies against invaders. This could create an infinite loop of discovery and refinement.

Of course, Souls games have always had online integrated into them—deeply, in fact. Players invaded each other in Demon’s Souls (there was even a player-controlled boss). They could leave each other messages. They could team up in Dark Souls, though playing with friends was hard to pull off. Humanity, Souls game’s most powerful currency, is inexorably linked to social interactions. An offline Souls game just isn’t the same.

But where Demon’s Souls emphasized refinement by making its levels more structured and grueling and Dark Souls emphasized discovery with its expansive world, Dark Souls II shifted its focus to online play, which gave it a bit of both aspects. Co-op was easier than ever and you could play most of the game with a friend (as I did), but phantoms were also harder to escape, and you could summon them at will. There were also blue phantoms, which acted as counter-phantoms that could help you when an enemy invaded. There was an arena specifically for PvP-oriented players to fight against each other.

You could maybe throw up “multiplayer” as the series’ third pillar, but I don’t think it is. As I said earlier, fighting an enemy player is like fighting an AI you have to “discover” each time, and you can “refine” your approach to PvP as a whole over several encounters. For those who are willing to dive in and aren’t afraid of getting a bit dirty, online play offers a potentially infinite pool of both of the series’ main pillars.

Not everyone saw it this way. I sure didn’t, at first. I’m sure that for a lot of people, the Souls games were a deeply isolated experience, peppered with invasions from other players that served to make already bad situations even worse, or be avoided entirely. Some people didn’t like the idea of being put on the spot against other people in a game they played as they did most other single-player games. But Dark Souls II brought that pressure to the forefront, and this shift in emphasis didn’t rub people the right way. There were, of course, those plentiful, less memorable bosses. They didn’t help.

Though it may have fumbled, Dark Souls II could be read as From Software’s attempt to tackle a common problem that many game developers have had to face over the years: how do you make a game that’s both similar to another game but also feels new? Dark Souls II’s answer was other players.

Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who can’t wait to see how Bloodborne tackles this same problem, and thinks guns over shields and randomized dungeons are a good start. He’s written for Paste, Kotaku, and several others. You can follow him on Twitter.

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