Dark Souls has long been one of my favourite games to play whenever I feel like I haven’t had enough self-loathing for one day. Given the amount of time I’ve put into playing it, however, I am almost astonished by the amount there is I’ve still yet to discover in all four iterations of the Souls franchise. One facet of gameplay I have typically avoided is the PvP aspect of the series, which makes up a substantial part of the gameplay. Typically I did so because I considered myself to be very poorly skilled in that area – I’d had enough of a hard time with the basic mechanics of the game, I decided to play the easy route; i.e., be “carried” through the game.
I was leisurely playing the game one day, and my partner who was playing cooperatively with me began pressuring me into Player vs Player (PvP) play. Partly to silence him, I relinquished and agreed to some organised PvP gameplay in Dark Souls III. While undertaking this “challenge”, I began to notice nuances of etiquette. Having been briefed on a few unofficial rules prior to my foray, these nuances became quirks that changed from player to player. Thus, an idea was born: to look into these subtle nuances and quirks of PvP in this virtual world, and seek to understand the etiquette behind the different groups. Upon undertaking this study, I began to understand that the virtual world was rich with its own sub-cultures that I had previously been blind to through my reluctance in participating.
As a method, autoethnography combines characteristics of autobiography and ethnography. When writing an autobiography, an author retroactively and selectively writes about past experiences. Usually, the author does not live through these experiences solely to make them part of a published document; rather, these experiences are assembled using hindsight (BRUNER, 1993; DENZIN, 1989, Freeman, 2004).
So with this in mind I hunkered down and considered how I would even begin studying such a topic. I discovered that I had simply scratched the surface of what would end up being a very deep rabbit-hole. The subject matter, however was a prime opportunity to undertake an autoethnographical study. What appears to be a daunting compound word becomes quite clear once you break it down:
Auto = Self; Ethnos = Cultural; Graphy = Research.
Self-cultural-research. More eloquently put, autoethnography is a method of research where the researcher takes part in the culture that they are studying in order to gain an understanding of the subject. It is a mashup of autobiographical and ethnographical methodology.
There are many ways to incorporate the researcher into a culture which is often dictated by the form this culture takes; so it goes without saying that there are many different approaches that can be taken to autoethnographical study methods. In the virtual world of the internet, the most common approach to becoming involved in an online community is to create an account with the affiliated branches of such. This includes accounts for video games, related forums and content sharing websites. You would then actively participate in the community by contributing and involving yourself in associated events within the community itself.
I took a number of approaches myself. I began participating and even creating threads on Reddit – making sure to subscribe to and contribute to topics within relevant ‘subreddits’ to the Dark Souls community. I created an account on livestream platform Twitch, downloaded some streaming software, and began to record and stream my own experiences with the game. Twitch streaming ended up snowballing into something bigger – which I will touch on later – but through that, I gained access to communities I never even knew existed through communication platform Discord, as well as began to interact with my own audience through Twitch who contributed to my streams.
You know what they say about assumptions…
As mentioned previously, I avoided PvP like the plague. I assumed I was absolutely terrible at going up against other players, especially skilled ones, who had actually put time and effort into perfecting techniques that specifically target other players rather than the environment and enemies found within the game world. I had previously formed most of my opinions by overhearing my partner and my friends’ interactions with other players while being in Xbox party chat with them; in between sounds of victory cheers, there was a lot of frustration. I knew these people to be rather good at the game – they were marginally better than myself, I opined – and therefore I had absolutely no chance of getting anywhere other than on a one-way trip to frustrationsville.
From these assumptions I had formed a hypothesis prior to undertaking this study: that I would be in for a terribly frustrating time gathering information, and I may not even be able to see how deep these sub-cultures really went as my skill level will have restricted me from participating to the fullest extent. Because of this, I decided the best starting point for this assignment would be Reddit – because I knew that if I would not be able to gain entry into the coveted inner-circles of the PvP world, then I may as well ask the opinions of those who had. I had some success in this venture and gained quite a lot of insight, but not before the thread descended into pointless bickering. Typical of Reddit; my initial hopes were high but they were subsquently lowered as soon as name-calling began.
I knew little about PvP etiquette in the Souls series – only that invaders employed ‘scummy’ tactics in order to win by any means necessary, and that ‘structured’ PvP was dictated by a few generally-known rules; the community-based code of honour had seemingly completely changed the way PvP was handled in the third installment of the Souls franchise in a way that may have been completely unintended by the series’ creator – which even inspired additions to the recently released downloadable content (DLC).
So what is this series you keep referring to?
If you are not familiar with the Japanese phenomenon that is the Souls series, it may be a little difficult to follow on. The franchise has four games total, and each iteration besides the first has accompanying DLC. In order of release, there is:
- Demon’s Souls (2009)
- Dark Souls (2011)
- Dark Souls 2 (2014)
- Dark Souls 3 (2016)
Each subsequent instalment in the franchise increased revenue for the series’ publisher From Software. The creator and directer of the series, Hidetaka Miyazaki, took the opportunity to increase the budget for each iteration. Demon’s Souls, being the predecessor to the Dark Souls games, is often overlooked and is largely considered by many to be the experimental grandfather of the series. In terms of gameplay mechanics, it did not seem to be quite as refined – however carried the foundations of the challenging gameplay that would go on to be notoriously associated with the franchise.
Dark Souls (2011) was also considered to have a rather niche community following, however its notorious reputation soon caught up and the game series began exploding in popularity following the release of Dark Souls II (2014). The third instalment, however, was not directed by Miyazaki, and thus many hardcore fans of the previous two games noted (some quite passionately) that the game did not feature some of the core gameplay mechanics that had come to be associated with the series. Generally speaking, many considered the game to be much ‘easier’ – however that opened the door to more casual players who wanted to try their hand at being killed over and over again without giving up in the first five minutes of play.
By the release of Dark Souls III, the franchise had grown a following of the ‘hardcore’ players from the first two instalments, as well as the more casual following from Dark Souls II, and was quite well-received by both camps. It was praised for being able to succesfully incorporate the best mechanics from both games – by simultaneously returning to a lot of it’s core mechanics from Dark Souls, as well as a few from Dark Souls II. The game retained a harsh difficulty curve, however for newer players it was a lot more welcoming than the earlier releases.
What began as a niche game in the Japanese markets extending to Western indie-level markets became a worldwide phenomenon, retaining its cult following while gaining familiarity amongst even casual gamers – most of which feel obligated to stay very far away from due to its notoriety; or some taking the challenge to see how long they can last before giving up and going back to games that held your hand. In my recent group project, my team and I discussed this in detail.
So we move on to the PvP aspect of the game itself. As stated in my previous blog post on this subject, there are many different aspects to PvP in the game itself. I won’t waste time reiterating that in this post, however feel free to read that entry before continuing onto my observations through my own gameplay experience and participation in Reddit threads.
There are many unique aspects to PvP in the Souls franchise compared to many Western games. When faced with the word multiplayer, a lot of thoughts flicker to party games such as the Mario Party franchises, MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas) such as DotA or LoL, MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) such as World of Warcraft, or FPS (first-person shooters) such as the Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Halo series. In terms of the way online play works in Dark Souls III works, it has become multi-faceted and evolved beyond simply killing other players to achieve a goal. It has born communities and sub-cultures that follow doctrines created by the player base; there are several different codes of conduct for each faction and covenant in the games, each dictating a different player style.
Despite their allegiance to a certain covenant, many players feel committed
to the morals of honor, commitment, and fair play as can be seen in the many forum
discussions on the use of kiting, ganking, and backstabbing. In the context of
this brutally difficult and punishing game, players seem to demand from each other
a sense of honesty, clarity, and straightforwardness. Of course, these kinds of
discussions are held over all kinds of online games, and while in Dark Souls plenty
of players still use these techniques, there is a notorious amount of people on
forums who argue that an unfair style of gameplay devaluates a certain ‘code of
honor,’ such as bowing before and after a fight. (Tom van Nuenen, 2016)
The oft-repeated mantra of “get good” has become synonymous with the player base not only for the game but for those wishing to participate in PvP, or for those who become frustrated with being endlessly slaughtered from invasions while they are trying to progress through the storyline. This was a line I heard a lot myself, especially once I started streaming through twitch. Advertising my streams mostly as a noob (inexperienced player) working on a PvP character drew in a lot of viewers who loved to watch people get angry with the game, and quite a few stuck around to watch me squirm everytime an invasion notification appeared on my screen. It was through my streaming that I was invited into a group of players on Discord who organised a lot of PvP tournaments amongst themselves.
If I were to list from the top of my head the types of communities that I began to see in the Dark Souls III PvP base, here is how I would address it:
- Early game invaders
- There are two types of these. First are those who, at low levels, seek to get a slight boost early in the game by invading other players as soon as they are able to. These players are generally either quite experienced players preying on the inexperienced, or inexperienced players testing out the invasion mechanics.
- The other type of early in game invader is commonly referred to as a “Twink”; these are players who progress through the game at a low level and gain access to late or end game items, weapons and loot, in order to come back and mercilessly slaughter those who are just starting a new file.
- Mid-Game covenant invaders: Player Directed
- There are four different covenants that encourage invasions throughout the game in order to advance through the rankings and gain loot. Two of these are relied upon by the game’s mechanics in order to add an extra challenge to certain areas of the game, and the other two are player-directed.
- The two player-directed covenants are the Mound-Maker’s covenant, who take the form of Mad Purple Phantoms; these players are susceptible to damage by the environment and can choose to help the host – or slaughter them for covenant items. Most choose the latter. The other is the Fingers of Rosaria – the game touts this covenant as the one to join if you should simply wish to wreak havoc on players in other worlds and encouraged by NPCs to pillage as much as they’d like. Those in the Fingers covenant are known to employ as many tactics as necessary, completely forgoing all kind of etiquette.
- Mid-Game covenant invaders: Game Directed
- The other two covenants in this category are those that the game automatically summons into host worlds of ‘trespassers’ as obstacles to slow down and stop hosts from progressing through certain areas as a defense mechanism for that area’s boss, tied to the lore of the game.
- The first of these covenants is the Watchdogs of Farron, which is encountered towards early-mid game progress. From game launch this covenant was considered to be ‘broken’ as the mechanics required for summoning an invader in this section of the game seemed rather unreasonable for the length of time a player would spend in that area. It was largely forgotten about.
- The second of these covenants, and perhaps the most notorious covenant in the game, are those in the Aldritch Faithful. Much of the player base regards these invaders as the scum of the game-world. The area is already overridden with challenging environmental enemies, and the summoning mechanics for this covenant mean that more than one invader can be summoned automatically into a host world. Due to this covenant’s positioning in an essential area of the game, this means a lot of frustrated players.
- Invasion trappers, or “gankers”
- These are players who take it upon themselves to turn the tables and frustrate those who would normally cause grief by invading. This is enabled by the game’s mechanics – the more friendly cooperative players there are in a host world, the chances of an invasion are increased. In conjunction with an item that allows more players into that world, which increases the chance of being invaded once again, invaders are quite often dumped into worlds with groups of up to 4 opposing characters. These players would then ‘farm’ the invaders and reap the rewards.
Trying to gank Watchdogs of Farron – this scumbag gets what she deserves.
- Friendly, cooperative players.
- Once again there are two types of cooperative players. The first are those who you can choose to summon in through in-game items; this enables cooperative play with friends or strangers who are willing to assist players in getting through tough areas. One covenant that is well-known for helping is the Warriors of Sunlight – popularised by the NPC Knight Solaire in the first Dark Souls game – and now affectionately referred to as the ‘sunbros’. Warriors of sunlight appear with an orange glow around them in the game.
- In order to give a moment of reprieve for some players, the other two covenants are designed to assist a player in a world that has been invaded. Those belonging to the Way of the Blue covenant may have a player from the Blue Sentinels or Blades of the Darkmoon summoned in to fight invaders. The Blades of the darkmoon are specifically summoned to fight the Aldritch faithful in the Anor Londo area, as lore dictates they are warring factions. These summons are sent home when their duty is fulfilled, either by successfully defeating the invader, or if the host dies. If the latter happens, there are no rewards gained.
My own experience with a fight club: devastatingly killed by lag. Warning: Swears of salt.
- PvP Arena/Fight Club players
- This is perhaps the most interesting dynamic of player communities to study and in fact can have its very own study as it can be fairly substantial in itself. When I refer to etiquette, rules, and codes of honour, these players are a prime example.
- A fight club is started in an area where many invasion summon signs are placed down, and a host who has not yet defeated the area boss (which prevents summons) will choose 3-4 players to invade their world, willingly, and fight amongst themselves to test their skills against each other. The item rewards here are quite minimal, and is therefore mostly a way for players to dominate others.
- Etiquette rules include not healing during the fight, bowing before a match to show respect, and not attacking uninvolved players or the host of the world. If these rules are broken, other players in the world have a tendency to interrupt the match and kill the offending player before the tournaments are resumed.
- Another recent trend are hosts on streaming sites that invite players into their world to partake in made up games, such as olympics-styled gauntlet runs to compete for a reward.
One such Olympics type setup (warning: very long)
So what did we learn?
I myself tried my hand at a variety of these and found myself personally most drawn to being in the Watchdogs of Farron – it was fun to hunt down the more inexperienced players and kill them, as well has to partake in my very own ‘gank squad’ so as to lure covenant players into my world and kill them over and over again. I guess due to my poor skill in the game, what little power I felt here was quite addictive; I could see why there was a huge draw to those with higher skill who were able to dominate the fight club arenas.
I did participate in the fight club arenas, mostly among my own friends. This however made it all the more rewarding when I was able to get a kill. That thrill was not something I had expected prior to undertaking this project, and made me want to get better at the PvP aspect of the game to further satiate my desire for making someone other than myself wallow in despair. This was something that was intended by Miyazaki – that the challenge of the game would result in elation once an obstacle was surpassed. One cannot ignore that this can be deeply rooted in the Japanese love for perfection in everything they attempt – particularly noted heavily throughout the very popular arcade culture which dates to the very beginning of arcade game’s existence.
I become overwhelmed with joy over getting a very lucky kill on my boyfriend. Warning: swears of happiness
In future I would love to come back to studying more deeply the dynamics of the fight club culture (even if some would say we do not talk about fight club) and study the way the players seem to interact with each other. I thoroughly enjoyed this journey into a world that I was so hesitant about joining – and I have managed to dash my misconceptions of PvP; something that was a complete nuisance to me, that I hated, and have now come to embrace.
- van Neunen, Tom, 2016. Playing the Panopticon: Procedural Surveillance in Dark Souls. Games and Culture 2016, Vol. 11, 521.
- Ellis, C, 2011. Autoethnography: An Overview. Qualitative Social Research, Vol. 12, No. 1