Friday, January 31, 2014
Will Voice-Chat Ruin Dark Souls II?
The recent demonstrations of Dark Souls II to select members of the press and Souls community members has produced a shocking revelation: Dark Souls II will feature online voice-chat between players. I think this is horrible development. In a moment, I'll explain why. But first, some context:
According to what's being reported by people who attended demonstrations in San Francisco and London held in the last two days, players will have the option to enable (or disable) voice communications. Apparently this feature applies only to co-op, not invasions, but the matter isn't entirely clear at the moment. At any rate, instead of host and summons working together mutely to overcome a boss, they will be able to speak to each other in the game, coordinating moves, making plans, or telling jokes.
So what's wrong with that? Where do I begin? For starters, it undoes one of the most appealing aesthetic dimensions of Dark Souls - it's sense of isolation - and replaces it with mundane chatter. Whereas in Dark Souls it was entirely up to my imagination to flesh out the character of someone playing with me, From has decided to alleviate me of this burden by letting that player's voice come through my TV's speakers. Whoever ends up speaking will never live up to what I would produce myself simply by dwelling on the subject.
Someone might object that you can turn voice-chat off and thus solve the problem. My response is that such a solution is naive and does not think through this shift adequately. Allowing voice-chat will create a new norm and a new set of expectations that come with it. Summoned players/hosts will likely come to expect you to speak to them through the tool. If you have it off, they will probably ask you to turn it on. Going through this rigamarole every time you join with someone will simply become tedious and eventually, you will likely be worn down by it.
Furthermore, turning voice-chat off is essentially imposing a handicap on yourself vis-a-vis other players. No one can think that being able to speak to other players in co-op wouldn't help them take on enemies, bosses, and invaders. So turning it off is deciding to give all the players who use it a distinct advantage over you.
My point here is that those who think that voice-chat is just an individual decision without further repercussions are mistaken. Dark Souls is determined just as much by the choices of the community that plays it as it is by what the individual player does in his or her own game. If something changes in that community, it affects the individual player too.
But what I list above isn't what is worst of all for me. More troubling than anything else, in my view, is what the introduction of voice-chat does to the artistic integrity of the Souls series.
From has opposed the incorporation of direct vocal communication between players since Demon's Souls. This opposition hasn't been easy for them as it has been criticized by numerous players and journalists for just as long.
So what happened? I think it's fairly obvious. From caved to the pressure. And as a consequence, they've lost sight of what set the Souls games apart from so many other products.
You see, unlike practically ever other game designer out there today, with Demon's Souls (and Dark Souls after it) From created works of art. What I mean by this that the Souls games were not designed around what From thought gamers liked or wanted, but what they believed gamers needed. They had a message, a meaning, that they were striving to communicate to us. They wanted the Souls games to reveal something within ourselves that we weren't aware of presently. You can't do this without frustrating the desire of the gamer in some way, because that is the only way to show someone something that he or she didn't already know about him or herself. Many who still complain today that it was all so excessive haven't grasped this point. True art requires bravery and conviction because it challenges the status quo and accepted wisdom. Design by popular decree can never achieve this because it moves in just the opposite direction. Just think what would have happened if Leonardo had used a survey to determine what features should be given to the Mona Lisa.
The lack of voice-chat was an integral part of the artistic expression of the Souls games. It served as a beautiful metaphor for the ghost-like relationships that characterize the digital age in general. So long as From stayed true to that message, it rang clearly through the silence of our collective isolation. Now, it seems that message is about be drowned out by the hubbub of the common rabble.
What do you think?