In an entirely unintentional turn of events, I have an addendum to my previous piece about Darksiders II being too long for its own good. I of course appreciate any and all irony surrounding this occurrence, even if the below is not explicitly a continuation of that subject.
There is a ‘wholly optional’ dungeon within DS II called the Soul Arbiter’s Maze, which is essentially a wave-based survival mode wherein the player is tasked with besting an increasingly deadly collection of the game’s foes. What is interesting about the area, like much of the game’s core design, is its juxtaposition of videogame ideas old and new.
While the Soul Arbiter’s lair may be called a maze in name, it doesn’t really resemble the continuous, labyrinthine construct of one’s imagination. It is instead a series of discrete, spatially conservative rooms with four ever-present exits. The player must fight and defeat each room’s group of enemies and then choose a direction of progression from the four points of the compass. This being a videogame, there is a set pattern which must be followed in order that the player is able to progress, lest they be doomed to wander in circles forever.
These very specific directions of course, this being a videogame, are only obtained by the diligent player who consistently scours the rest of the game world for the possibility of well-hidden treasures. I don’t want to sound self-flagellating - it’s nothing to be too proud of really - but some of the clues I found were only sourced after unnecessarily scrutinous levels of exploration. There are twenty such pieces of information, in the form of scrolls, all of which are found in very arbitrary - Arbiter-ary, if you will - ways. Ten of them show you the way out, while the others lead you to hidden treasure. I’d assume that any player entering into this type of repetitive event is after the treasure as well, so you essentially need all twenty to feel like you’ve achieved anything, really.
An emphasis on innumerable collectibles is a pretty modern aspect of videogames, as is - within the applicable genres - the survival mode. They elongate the play experience and imbue games with significantly longer lifespans than could otherwise be expected. Players spend more time interacting with these games, whether that be to discover hidden items or fend of dangerous hoards for a couple of hours. Both options are more economical than traditionally making a game longer, with the former easily slotting into areas designed to accommodate them and the latter allowing relatively small levels be reused an infinite number of times. In this sense, DS II’s Soul Arbiter’s Maze is archetypal on both accounts.
Incongruity, I feel though, again arises from the two ideals of DS II: it attempting to be both modern and referential to the past at the same time. The Maze, while a valid idea to add an extra something to the game, simply doesn’t take into account the way information dissemination has changed since the days of Simon’s Quest, abstract logic and Nintendo Power guides.
The scrolls are scattered throughout over half of the game, leaving a massive scope for their possible hiding places. They can literally be anywhere, which makes finding them more a thing of luck than deduction, thus adding a profound sense of hopelessness to the task. My own hunt threw up seventeen of the scrolls by the end of the game, which is useless in a task as binary as this; the nature of the Maze dictates the player must have all of them to successfully navigate it to its conclusion. This, in my opinion, is the type of unforgiving design which was much more common in the eighties and nineties. It’s a level of harsh “you need to really earn this” design not often seen today, essentially negating all my efforts until the trial is full fully complete. Having already spent time collecting the scrolls I wasn’t about to simply skip out the dungeon altogether, nor was I about to revisit every possible location to re-scour them. I was forced to venture outside of the game to acquire a full set of directions from the Internet. I think that’s a bit of a shame really.
It’s necessary, though, because the design of this challenge is so out of step with how games are - or maybe more accurately, can be - played nowadays. The scrolls don’t act as typical items within the game world that the player must physically collect, as one would a key or other doodad. They are merely pieces of information the game notes down upon their discovery so they can be used later. In this sense they aren’t theoretically constrained by the boundaries of the game at all, therefore players have the option to bypass them entirely and simply seek out their contents by other, more efficient means. This has always been the case, granted, though in the past this type of information was passed on through word of mouth and the print-based walkthrough; two methods of transmission with significantly shorter reaches than the ‘information superhighway’.
Today discussion of games is instantaneous, with players able to gather together to share information whenever they choose. Smart design needs to take this into account and adapt itself to reflect our ability to take anything not nailed down out of a game and blow it all around the world. The Maze is another example of how DS II seemingly understands the disparate aspects of its mechanical design, yet fails to decide how they can all be brought together into one congruous whole. The collectibles are there, the survival mode is there, the compelling hidden items are all there, but it’s entirely superfluous when the mechanics driving the challenge can be circumvented because the information necessary to succeed isn’t inherently tied into the game itself.
DS II is full of niggling little occurrences where parts just never seem to stop chafing, and the Maze is just another example of the difficulties associated with the game’s ‘checklist approach’ to design. I’ve always been of the mind that the two Darksiders strove to be greater than the sum of their parts; grabbing bits of games that worked well and wrapping them all up in that lovely Heavy Metal-inspired aesthetic. And I do think that they are better in practice than they sound on paper; I just wish all those parts could be arranged in a smoother way. As small a part of the game as the Soul Arbiter’s Maze is, it’s disheartening that aspects of its challenge can be entirely bypassed because of some rough design and incompatible ideas. Darksiders II, as I keep discovering, frustrates because - like the cocksure teenager inside all of us - it wants to do so many things while never fully understanding all of them. I think that’s a bit of a shame really, even if it is endearing as anything.