Taking Out the Stats in Dark Souls and Bloodborne

I read this article about ‘Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice’ and how From Software’s plan was to do away with the RPG elements of leveling, stats, etc. The author, Erik Kain (what a cool name), seemed to be really excited about it, due to the fact the title of the article was, ‘Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice’ Will (Hopefully) Solve Dark Souls’ Biggest Problem, the “Biggest Problem” being in reference to the RPG elements in the Souls games. I’m going to talk about a few different RPG elements in different contexts and see if we can’t sort some of them out. This analysis is going to be very in depth and will discuss the existence of statistics as an RPG mechanic in Dark Souls and Bloodborne and not much else. I also don’t take a stance on whether or not Soulsborne should or should not have stats, this is purely a what-if about taking stats out.

Levels, Skills, and Other Such Stats:

Ah, the sweet bliss that is leveling up. It is rarely a negative, though scaling enemies have been known to make leveling up more stressful than rewarding (looking at you Elder Scrolls). More often than not, you get a skill point, a free heal, a primary resource refill, and unlock a new skill or ability. What’s not to love?

In the Dark Souls and Bloodborne series, levels are used similarly, they are used to increase a statistic your character uses by a very small amount. This makes your next encounter with the enemy you can’t seem to get past, that much “easier” which helps motivate you to keep going.

Let’s pretend we just took leveling completely out of Dark Souls, no more stats, no more weapon levels (what ‘Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice’ will be).

What are we losing by taking stats out?

  • The feeling of leveling up.
  • Soul farming.
  • Your encounters becoming “easier and easier” due to slight statistic increases.
  • Relentless amounts of build planning and statistical comparisons between loadouts.

The feeling of leveling up:

UntitledScreenshot from Dark Souls III (From Software)

No feeling of leveling up? That is rather sad. Though, while it might just be me, when I level up in a Souls game, I don’t feel as ecstatic about it as I do in other games, probably due to the fact a single level does next to nothing in the grand scheme of things. Differences are primarily made over a long period of time and over lots of levels.

Soul farming:

Untitled1Screenshot from Dark Souls III (From Software)

Soul farming is when you kill enemies you know how to kill over and over in hopes of getting enough souls (the primary in-game currency dropped from enemies) to level up your character or buy items. If you die while holding a lot of souls, you leave them on the ground where you died and if you are unable to get back to that exact point alive in your next life, those souls are gone forever. You die a lot in this game, so in order to be successful in leveling, sometimes you farm on easier enemies you are more consistent against instead of progressing the game.

It’s this, “instead of progressing the game” that makes me stop and think, why? The game is made to be progressed, give me more content, let me enjoy the game! But instead, I am killing this set of Lothric Knights over and over again to be able to afford my next level. While the fact I am not progressing is troubling, you do seem to gain a lot from soul farming as a player, as opposed to a character. You learn to fight better with your current build and as a result become more confident in fighting your next enemy. This could be considered both a pro and a con, considering confidence in fighting enemies makes victories less sweet and deaths more defeating while simultaneously increasing your chances of victories in the first place makes it more of a grey area.

Your encounters becoming “easier and easier” due to slight statistic increases:

Untitled3.jpgScreenshot from Dark Souls III (From Software)

One thing you can always depend on is if you get stuck in an area, you can always keep killing some enemies, keep dying, keep retrieving your souls, get enough souls to level up, leveling up to increase a stat (damage, health, etc.). This makes it so getting past a certain enemy is always seeming more and more possible. This encourages you to keep trying, after all, this time you deal a little more damage, right? I cannot stress the importance of preventing rage quitting of your game enough.

Relentless amounts of build planning and statistical comparisons between loadouts:

IMG_20180711_154622Not actual build, photo cred to Alec Ellsworth, what a bro.

Oh, the spreadsheets I have poured over to analyze the different weapons and gear of this game. It was something to do while in my general education classes. It was playing the game without playing the game. I had some of my most fun planning to play the game. I could just be crazy, but I really enjoyed this, and don’t see it being as important without the statistics in the game currently.

What do we gain by taking stats out?

  • The ability to use any weapon you pick up to its complete and intended design.
  • Less permanence and stress on decisions being made, and way fewer decisions to be made in general. 
  • We don’t have to have two monitors, one with the game the other with the game’s wiki.

The ability to use any weapon you pick up to its complete and intended design:

Untitled43Screenshot from Dark Souls III (From Software)

Using any weapon at any time can be cool. Just pick one up, it looks cool, use it. Sounds good enough. My only thing is the fact that these games are very skill based and if you don’t get enough practice with one weapon, you won’t get the opportunity to excel at the use of said weapon, which ultimately sounds sad. Spending resources on a weapon ultimately makes you more dedicated to the said weapon’s use. While all of the enemies throughout the game increase gradually in difficulty, you gradually increase your ability to deal damage and take damage and it’s quite awesome when you can make any weapon in the game keep up with those demands.

Now, what if there was no difficulty curve to climb? You just had to kill things? After all, if everyone around you gets tougher at the same rate you do, are you even progressing? Or is it just the illusion of progress when you are finally able to take down that boss? A lot to consider. One problem being, the maps have a very fluid game flow design, allowing you to theoretically fight one of the last bosses at the beginning of the game. Will we have to get rid of this amazing Metroidvania style exploration?

This is when I finally say, Dark Souls and Bloodborne are not designed this way on purpose (Oh my, From Software knows how to design video games?!). This is one of the reasons they have the entire stats system we are talking about, to enforce some sort of linear progressions, despite giving you the option to theoretically ignore most of it and fight who you want when you want.

Less permanence and stress on decisions being made, and way fewer decisions to be made in general:

Two-Buttons
Do we need to credit meme creators? Well, it was Alec Ellsworth anyways.

Having fewer choices to make in the statistics system can really go either way. On the one hand, having fun in a game is frequently thought of as:

Total fun  = (Meaningful decisions / Time played)

– Soren Johnson

With this in mind, many would argue that most of your decisions are made in designing your build before playing or during combat itself. Both of these things are a lot of choices. The former is slow, calculating and contemplative while the latter is almost purely instinctual: kill or be killed; run or be killed; be killed or be killed a half a second later. This is still Dark Souls, people. Some people would rather all of your choices be in combat while others like being able to fall back on an overarching win condition with their build in order to succeed. You have to have both in order to succeed in this game.

The biggest hit this would be to SoulsBorne is almost certainly its pacing issue. Time spent over your stats and comparing weapons is self-paced and contemplative as opposed to, well, the rest of SoulsBorne. When you are fighting it is very rarely not intense. Especially towards the beginning of your time with the franchise, if you are not familiar with difficult games it was probably more of a white-knuckling experience for you than anything else. In order to take a break from this, you would soul farm, look at items you picked up in that last area you just cleared, debate what skill to level up next, etc. This article is not about pacing, so, if you haven’t been beaten over the head with the concept yet, here, beat away.

Untitled4.jpgSekiro: Shadows Die Twice E3 Trailer

One thing I see ‘Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice’ doing well is that instead of relying on pouring over stats to simulate downtime in its pacing is replacing it with world traversal and stealth tactics. I think this will work really well and I am really looking forward to Bandai Namco pushing its third dimension harder.

We don’t have to have two monitors, one with the game the other with the game’s wiki:

While optional, many players play while constantly having to look things up about the game because the game doesn’t tell you really important things about items in the game and instead the entire fanbase either has to figure it out, usually resulting in permanent loss in an item, or looking it up which never fails to take you out of an immersive experience. And hey, while you’re on that wiki page, you might as well check the map to see if you forgot any items! Oh, wait, you’re not playing the game anymore at this point, you’re just checking things off a checklist! This paragraph alone has made me switch back to Trello and write down three other article ideas I’m going to need to write on in the future. So, just know, I’m irritated folks. Love you guys. Ending this point here before I explode.

Other Souls-like games that did less with stats:

ss_051cd90e0d4329259efe71cba64c439cdd607beb.1920x1080.jpgMomodora: Reverie Under The Moonlight (Bombservice), Steam Store

Momodora: Reverie Under The Moonlight (steam): 2D Metroidvania Souls-like where you gain more abilities and have a few opportunities to increase damage and movement skills. Super fun game and absolutely slap me silly gorgeous pixel art.

ss_45d690181e625f8d7f7ebb2820a913c5889bb076.1920x1080.jpgDead Cells (Motion Twin), Steam Store

Dead Cells (steam): 2D Metroidvania Souls-like Rogue-like with randomly generating areas that little in the way of controlled progression in the stats department, but you do get more equipment with more effects. The game is an absolute blast and worth sinking many an hour into.

ss_92c7e8f34c00bdb455070ecdd5b746f0d2f6d808.1920x1080.jpgHollow Knight (Team Cherry), Steam Store

Hollow Knight (steam): 2D Metroidvania Souls-like game that I haven’t played enough to be able to tell you about the progressions system but the game is gorgeous and super fun!

I guarantee there are a lot more, but I’m only going to give you games I have actually played so that I know for sure they are good. Yes, they are 2D Metroidvanias, but they capture the gameplay beautifully, don’t let it deter you.

In conclusion:

Dark Souls and Bloodborne would not be Dark Souls and Bloodborne without the stats system in place. But there are a lot of interesting things that could come out of them if they were maybe designed from the ground up without the stats system, which hopefully you can take into consideration if you are hoping to make a game similar.

Thanks for reading my first ever article or post or whatever. This one is inconclusive where most of my rants tend to have a point. I really just wanted to have a good open minded conversation (yes, I am aware this is a one-way article). I am actually going to start up a discord server for people to discuss things on, just for the fun of it. More details on that at a later date.

Usually, people have a more reading section at the bottom, but I actually included most of my research within the article when they are referenced.

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