Dark Souls encodes a number of fundamental play dynamics that produce a particular kind of satisfying play. In this post, I am going to discuss a way the game supports and rewards an enterprising but focused player stance toward the unknown.
First, the game penalizes both reckless and overly cautious play. A player of even a relatively high level character can still be messed up substantially by some of the weakest and simplest enemies if the player fails to pay attention and take the threat seriously. In contrast, a player that is too cautious will always be on the back foot, and less able to take advantage of opponent weaknesses. In this way, courage in the face of danger and a spirit of enterprise serve the player best for developing their own skill, improving their fictional avatar, and deepening the complexity of the imagined world. In short, the game entices player engagement and rewards persistence in the face of failure (amplified by many other design decision that are beyond the scope of this post), rather than providing participation trophies for just showing up or presenting a passive media entertainment experience. (Post continues after 80 second video fighting an Old Knight in Dark Souls 2.)
Second, this reward and penalty structure creates a cybernetic feedback loop. Feedback loops are powerful, but can also topple into degenerate cases. The most engaging forms of feedback loop for gameplay involve adaptation rather than return to static equilibria. The system improves itself. If a feedback loop reaches a static equilibrium, the “game” ends, even if the players continue to engage due to habituation (perhaps analogous to how a thermostat maintains static conditions). If the feedback loop is negative, at some point the game ends because the activity as pattern destroys itself (similar to how a democracy can collapse into tyranny, a market bubble can pop, or a virus can burn itself out by killing all the hosts). In an adaptive feedback loop, each iteration of feedback produces a more complex, satisfying, resilient whole.
The play iterations of a tabletop roleplaying game can manifest similar dynamics. In one example of a degenerate case, players learn to avoid play by creating elaborate scripts to mechanically deploy when presented with any challenge. In OSR/etc. games, this sort of script may manifest as something like: always look at the ceiling, tap the floor with a ten foot pole, listen at the door. Disconnected from any context or cost, such scripts represent rote mechanization rather than adaptive learning. Players indicate by such behavior a way that their own motivational architecture is to some degree incompatible with or in tension with the game mechanisms or the particular campaign instance.
In the adaptation case, players learn how to navigate challenges by developing skills, along with the contextual knowledge of when to use the skills, and in so doing increase competence. This allows a player to face more complex challenges that incorporate, but move beyond, the existing skill. A simple example trajectory of several iterations might be fighting one troll successfully (to learn troll weaknesses), then fighting many trolls, then tricking other opponents without access to troll weaknesses into fighting trolls, and so forth. Ideally, the player would learn such details through play rather than outside of play by memorizing facts from an official rulebook.
Dark Souls, being a computer game, might be a purer example of this dynamic compared to a tabletop roleplaying game, since options are more constrained, but the template applies to some kinds of successful tabletop roleplaying games. The various versions of Dark Souls, and specific challenges within each, embody this ideal design to greater or lesser degrees; sometimes the game misses the mark. Though Dark Souls rewards certain kinds of creativity when approaching challenges, it has a basic combative frame which limits the learning potential. Additionally, sometimes the challenges degenerate into tedium—such as some long approaches from bonfires to bosses which require the player to pay a relatively boring tax to attempt a previously failed challenge again. But the abstraction is still clear enough to be a useful exemplar. (Post ends with 112 second video fighting The Lost Sinner in Dark Souls 2.)
(Videos are personal play recordings, all Dark Souls 2—I apologize for inflicting my poor technique on the viewer.)