It seems like modern game design has an unwritten rule: Don’t make the player worry about anything unimportant. If the jumping puzzles aren’t important, there’ll be invisible walls around every chasm. Normal enemies usually aren’t a challenge, so that you only have to seriously consider the big, important threats. A large amount of clever game-design wizardry goes into making sure that the player never has to devote a single neuron of brainpower to stairs, teleports or elevators.
Dark Souls, in contrast, has giant gaping pits for elevator shafts. Run in when the elevator isn’t there and you’ll fall to your death. This is because Dark Souls has decided that everything is important.
It’s unintuitive game design at first. Why is it so easy to die to things I never saw coming? Why would you put a shopkeeper right next to a deadly chasm? Why did I just lose all my progress to a freaking elevator shaft? It feels like the designers are just fucking with you for kicks.
What it does, though, is make you pay attention. Even the lowliest enemies take off half your health when they hit, so you can never complacently whittle through them with half your mind on something else. Every corner could lead to a chasm that would kill you instantly; every bit of floor could be a pressure plate activating a deadly trap. Beyond that, the game even has fake walls that dissolve when you hit them to reveal incredible treasures – so now you’re even paying close attention to the wall textures.
It’s a principle that comes straight from Dungeons and Dragons. The whole point of having a living human being act as the computer is that everything can matter. Your socks, a monster’s tongue, some graffiti on the dungeon wall; anything in D&D can and will become absolutely crucial to your success at any given moment.
This leads naturally to the army of ridiculous trick-monsters and traps D&D spawned. Monsters that pretend to be the floor. Monsters that pretend to be the wall. Treasure-chest mimicking monsters that eat you (That old classic made it into Dark Souls). At first it seems like these are just the DM’s way of fucking with you, but what it does – along with hidden treasure- is enforce the “Everything Matters” mentality. When any wall could eat you and any rug could have gems underneath, nothing is flavour text; you can’t take anything for granted.
Compare this philosophy to something like Modern Warfare. Any genre-savvy player knows that all the noise and fury around them is irrelevant: the bombs will always land to the side of you, the tankers will always just miss you, you will always make the jump just in time. The only part of the game that feels real is the enemies you have to shoot. All else is smoke and mirrors that you’ll totally ignore, focusing only on the big yellow “Follow” arrow. Modern Warfare desperately to get you to care about things that don’t affect your success. It fails.
When you enter a new area in Dark Souls you edge forward cautiously. Shield up; sword ready; prepared to die. Every bush and rock looks like it could be concealing hidden treasure or the infinite armies of hell. You shuffle forward; you examine everything; you make a decision. In that moment you are totally, irretrievably engaged. It is, in a word, magnificent.