The Dark Souls speedrunning community has found an exploit that pretty much breaks the AI of enemies and, in doing so, cracked the game wide open.
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The tech surrounding the exploit is pretty dense, and YouTube user catalystz has a thorough breakdown of it all in this video. In layperson’s terms, Dark Souls speedrunners have found a way to delay enemy reactions, giving players an opening to strike first and strike hard during typically non-existent openings. Since Dark Souls launched in 2011, speedrunners realized doing certain actions in the game’s equipment menu or swapping weapons would cause a slight delay in enemy AI. In theory, this would be helpful, but in practice, it was often unpredictable. As catalystz points out in the video, certain bosses react differently to the glitch, which makes it difficult to prepare for. In speedruns, preparation is key, so not knowing how a boss would behave was actually a downside to this exploit. Some would do nothing, others would do what was colloquially called “bulldozing,” where they would just run at the player without actually attacking. As such, many speedrunners chose to forgo opening the equipment menu against bosses they might have trouble with.
Through a community effort, Dark Souls speedrunners discovered that switching weapons puts players in a brief, unloaded state. Because of this, simply toggling between two empty weapon slots won’t have the same effect as switching between weapons. This same phenomenon occurs if you open the equipment menu while walking through a fog wall, which occurs before boss fights. As the community looked into this, speedrunner Kahmul discovered through the debug version of the game that Dark Souls keeps an internal list of characters that enemies will target that refreshes every 151 frames. The player will appear on this list if they walk into proximity of an enemy, but if they’re using these exploits, they’ll have brief windows where enemies won’t perceive them, and they won’t be registered as potential targets.
When it came to boss fights this exploit could help with, Gwyndolin came to mind. This fight involves a boss that teleports away from the player and then uses ranged attacks as the player closes in on her new position. If an enemy is in a standby phase before a fight, they will remain in that state until the player is detected, meaning if you’re using the exploit, you can essentially be invisible to an enemy like Gwyndolin for a brief period of time. This is how speedrunners were able to defeat Gwyndolin in this window before she was able to teleport. Now that the speedrunner community has a better understanding of this AI-breaking exploit, they’ve been implementing the tech in other boss fights.
Catalystz’s video breaks down the Gwyndolin encounter frame by frame, so if you really want to get into the specifics on how it all works, be sure to check out their explainer. For the rest of us, the Dark Souls speedrun community is another example of how we’re still learning little nuances to older games. The Mario Kart 64 speedrunning community also had a recent breakthrough on one of its tracks, and that game is nearly 30 years old. Speedrunning is magic, and those with the patience to do it are magicians.