Dodging and blocking

I really enjoy Iron Pineapple’s “Steam Dumpster Diving” series which covers a variety of obscure “souls-like” games from the indies to solo and student projects. The series naturally raises the question “What is a souls-like?” Generally, a souls-like is any game that is somehow evocative of Dark Souls and its successors. However, the practical consensus among the games in the series, is that a “souls-like” is a game with a dodge roll.

The dodge roll, as popularized by Dark Souls, has two distinct components: An initial moment of invulnerability (i-frames), and a quick repositioning of the character. This can be contrasted with older interpretations of rolling in games–for example in, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the character can roll (or backflip or side-jump), but this does not have initial i-frames, and mainly serves to quickly reposition the character.

Repositioning and i-frames represent two different defensive modes. Repositioning tends to be the more intuitive mode; if an opponent swings a sword, you get out of the way. i-frames tend to be more counterintuitive, because i-frames allow you to roll directly through the sword. In fact, rolling into a sword is usually better than rolling away from it, because it reduces the amount of time you need to be invulnerable to pass through it.

The i-frame defensive mode presents several different challenges. The first challenge is reading the opponent, recognizing wind-up animations and anticipating attacks. The second challenge is quick reaction time, especially for attacks with short wind-ups. The third challenge is precise timing, especially for attacks with long wind-ups.

While i-frames are about maneuvering around time, repositioning is more about maneuvering around space. You have to find safe locations, and locations from which you can launch your own offensive. This may involve strategizing, or timing, or reading opponent’s wind-up animations. Strictly speaking, a game doesn’t need a dodge roll to be about repositioning–you can after all reposition yourself just by walking. If you take repositioning gameplay to its logical conclusion, you might end up with a “bullet hell” game, all about navigating a space full of moving projectiles.

While experts often recognize i-frames as the most powerful defensive option in Dark Souls, it tends to be more challenging for beginners. i-frames are counterintuitive, and it’s difficult to time dodge rolls against attacks that you’ve never seen before. Often the easiest strategy in Dark Souls is instead to position yourself immediately behind your opponent, sidestepping them as fast as they can turn towards you. This strategy becomes less effective in later games, where enemies frequently “snap” to your direction, quickly rotating 90 to 180 degrees immediately before striking. You can’t fully rely on repositioning, you often have to rely on timing.

Luckily, Dark Souls offers a defense option that serves as a gateway into timing-based defense: Blocking.

Souls-like blocking also has a predecessor in Zelda: Ocarina of time. Basically, you press a button to hold up your shield, and you can block nearly every attack. The major weakness of the shield is that you can’t block while you yourself are attacking. So it’s a bit of a timing game, where you have to time your attacks when you don’t need to block.

Dark Souls has a more demanding blocking system. Whenever you block an attack, you spend stamina. Whenever you hold your shield up, you recover stamina more slowly. You also need to spend stamina to attack. So instead of holding up your shield the whole time, it’s better to hold up your shield only when you think you need to.

You can make two kinds of mistakes in this system: failing to block when you ought to, and blocking when you don’t need to. If you fail to block when you ought to, you will get hit. If you block when you don’t need to, you will have difficulty recovering stamina. Running out of stamina may result in your block failing–or else you may simply not have enough stamina to attack. Getting hit is a lot more punishing than running out of stamina, so it’s not so much being between a rock and a hard place, more like a rock and a soft place.

There is also a fourth defensive option in Dark Souls: parrying. As with the dodge roll, parrying requires that you press a button at a precise time. It’s more precise than dodging, to the extent that beginners are advised to ignore the mechanic. Perhaps parrying is beloved by some, but to me it feels mechanically redundant, a strategic red herring.

Dark Souls offers a lot of defensive options (and more besides what I’ve listed), but it’s not exactly a buffet. Every defensive option gets punished under certain conditions. Repositioning is punished by opponents that “snap” to your direction before attacking. Dodge rolls are punished by double attacks–one attack during your i-frames, and the next attack directly after your i-frames are gone. Blocking is punished by heavy attacks that drain a lot of stamina, by elemental attacks that do damage through your shield, and by grab attacks that ignore your shield. Parrying is only possible against certain types of attacks (which ones, I could never figure out). What makes Dark Souls difficult is that you have to choose among your many options, and do it quickly, precisely, and under pressure.

Or perhaps what makes it difficult is that none of this is ever laid out explicitly. Nobody ever tells you to try rolling into the sword, rather than away from it. Nobody tells you that if you’re low on stamina, you ought to hold off on attacking and focus on timing your blocks. Nobody tells you that shields are bad against hammers. You can go through the whole game not knowing this stuff–or only knowing it by instinct.

It probably doesn’t help that your defense options are strongly influenced by your character build. You can look up a guide for a boss, and be told that you ought to just block this and that. What the guide may not know, is that you, not understanding any of the character stats or equipment, accidentally made a character that is not good at blocking, and is only effective at dodging. Or perhaps your character isn’t even good at dodging, and is simply not good at anything.

When the game feels too difficult, is it because it has overly high expectations of your reaction times? Or are you strategizing poorly because you don’t understand the mechanics? Or is it that the character you built sucks? Nobody can ever seem to tell you, because any and all of them could be correct.

“Souls-like” is practically synonymous with difficulty–and arguably it needs to be very punishing to force players to engage with its core mechanic: defense. Over here I’m pro-easy-mode, in that I believe players should be able to play the game without engaging with its core mechanic, if they so choose. On the other hand, the game could also be made a lot easier in a way that actually enables more people to engage with the core mechanic. Reaction times could be made more generous, animations could be made more readable, complexities and exceptions can be introduced much more gradually, and there could be far, far better tutorializing.

Maybe all those souls-like games are right: a souls-like wants to have a dodge roll. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be so difficult and opaque.


  1. invivoMark says

    The perception of difficulty is also affected by how costly failure is. The Dark Souls games aren’t as difficult as 90% of the SNES library I grew up with, by most measures. But Dark Souls punishes dying differently than other previous games. In other games, you either can reload from a save or a checkpoint as many times as you want (not very punishing), or you eventually get a Game Over and have to start from the very beginning (extremely punishing).

    Somehow I think Dark Souls chose a third option that *feels* more punishing than either of the above, by taking all of your currency and giving you one chance to fight your way back and recover it.

    To enjoy Dark Souls you have to be okay with dying a bunch. Consequently, I think that’s why a lot of people who like Dark Souls don’t think it’s actually that difficult.

    I mean, it’s no Super Ghouls and Ghosts.

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