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The Dark Beauty of Dark Souls

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Ever since Microsoft added Dark Souls to its “quick sell” list and I managed to grab it for $10 (despite owning a copy lying somewhere around here…) I’ve been dividing my time between Dark Souls and whatever else is on my plate game-wise. As any veteran of Dark Souls can tell you, it’s a deeply frustrating game.

Heralded by many to be the answer to casual gaming, Dark Souls prides itself on being difficult – from unforgiving boss fights to unexplained controls (I had been playing for over 20 hours before I worked out how to run, and jump for that matter) it does the opposite of handholding and for many is a refreshing breath of air in an era where most games still teach us that the control sticks are how you move and that the start button opens the menu.

With that explained, you can see how it’s not the kind of game one can play for hours on end as a main focus – that’s an easy way to go mad from frustration. Instead I’ve been picking away at it for a few weeks and I have to say that it’s impressed me – but not in the way I thought it would. While many praise the difficulty, the boss fights and the gameplay overall – the biggest motivator for me and the feature which took me by surprise is the design and art direction of this game.

When I originally bought it I remember being disappointed at the graphics. The character creation screen was dull, the menu font was simplistic and the character I ended up creating looked very basic and predictable. Determined to press on, I found myself in dark and gloomy dungeon – a pretty stereotypical beginning for any fantasy RPG. I made my way out of my cell and followed the prompts, finally making my way outside where I was attacked by a giant demon. And he was hideous. The framerate on my Xbox plummeting didn’t help, but this giant Pitlord-like enemy (for anyone who doesn’t know what a Pitlord is, picture a centaur-like lizard person with wings) seemed crudely drawn and dirty – the difference between this and games like Skyrim was noticeable.

It was only after playing for hours and hours (and getting out of that dungeon) that I began to appreciate the art of Dark Souls – and it took even longer before I realised why.

Unlike most games Dark Souls doesn’t devote itself to creating overemphasised enemies who are both impressive and aesthetically pleasing. Instead it seems fixated on creating ugly enemies – and boy does it succeed. But that’s not to say that they are uncomplicated, in fact the opposite. Its enemies are every bit as dirty and dingy as the world they inhabit, and even the brutal gameplay of Dark Souls is reflected in the unapologetic rendering of its antagonists. Yes, they are ugly, but they are divinely ugly – like looking at the alien from Alien for the first time.

In a world where both designers and technology are working towards creating more and more visually impressive games, the real breath of fresh air for me was this design style which wasn’t afraid of being a bit rough around the edges. Sure, its dungeons are dirty, deep and uncomplicated. That’s what dungeons are like. On the other hand its dragons are sophisticated and well thought out, and especially frightening. Don’t believe me? Google “Gaping Dragon” and see what I mean.

It took me awhile to get over my first impression, but when I did I was thankful to Dark Souls for showing me the contrast between ugly games that try to look pretty (like say, Gears of War) and beautiful games which revel in their ugliness.

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