Until very recently, my relationship with Dark Souls has resembled the first act of a romantic comedy—but stretched out over half a decade. Two polar opposites who clash and bicker, yet cast longing glances at one another, fighting their obvious attraction. If I’m the straight-laced, foppish Hugh Grant, Dark Souls is the idiosyncratic manic pixie girl with nose rings and an undisclosed BDSM fetish. I’ve flirted with the series from time to time, even getting quite chummy with it’s younger cousin, Bloodborne—but never taken the time to properly reconsider my preconceptions.
And what exactly were those preconceptions? That Dark Souls is basically a video game equivalent of the habanero pepper challenge: “are you tough enough to survive it!?” That unless you’re the hardest of the hardcore, you might as well rake several hours of your life into a pile and light them on fire. That the lore of Dark Souls was a hodge podge of dusty Beowulf archetypes, celebrated for its rich complexity if only because creator Hidetaka Miyazaki had apparently fed his script through a shredder, then gleefully scattered it around the final game like a demented Easter bunny. That there’s no humour or tranquility to be found in Dark Souls, only cheap cruelty and despair. That the game, ultimately, just wasn’t my cup of tea.
But here’s the thing. For the past month I’ve been diving back into the 2011 original—reappraising it, studying it, and much to my surprise, really really loving it. There’s been a party over in Lordran and I’ve only just stumbled across it, five years too late. As such, everything that could be said about Dark Souls has in fact, already been said. I could wallpaper Anor Londo’s castle with all the existing think pieces and essays, ten times over. The revelations I’m about to share aren’t anything new. But if this were a romantic comedy, and if I am indeed Hugh Grant—then this my third act dash to the airport, this article my grand romantic gesture.
Because I was wrong.
Let me start, however, by doing the mature thing and put the blame somewhere else. You know what stopped me from going back the most? The incredibly obnoxious vocal minority of the Dark Souls fanbase. Those guys are f*cking intolerable—super macho gamers looking to prove their already hardened skills and want you to know about it. Bandai-Namco played into this idea of course, with their marketing slogan “Prepare to Die” (which, though successful in America, actually proved to be something of a turn-off for European players, if early sales data for Dark Souls’ is anything to go by). Then there’re the lore bible bashers, who think you’re stupid if you don’t remember your Gywns from your Gwyndolins—the same kind of people that give dirty looks when you mispronounce “falafel.” I generally tolerated these loudmouths, like fleas or acne, with my most active form of protest being to simply not play Dark Souls.
Then again, these days you’d be tempted to think Dark Souls is a walk in the park. Spend a few minutes browsing the Internet and you’ll find videos of players who’ve ripped through From Software’s dark-fantasy opus using toy guitar peripherals, voice commands, Twitch, or a toaster (probably). If you’re not familiar, guitars are not designed to maneuver a swordsman through terrifying nightmares.Just playing the game normally required spoon-bending levels of concentration I couldn’t provide. Especially as the series made a big splash during an otherwise inflexible time in my gaming life—having a child will do that to you. I would see all of this snotty machismo and just think, “Come back to me when you’ve got an inconsolable baby raising hell at 4am, gushing diarrhea all over your shirt, your hands, somehow your goddamn hair—yeah, then we’ll see who’s a real man.“ What I failed to appreciate, however, is that there was a point in time for every last one of the aforementioned showboaters when they stumbled lost and nervous, getting cut down by even the most hapless ghouls. Which brings me to the first thing I was wrong about:
Dark Souls is just too difficult, man!
Dark Souls can be cruel, yes. It’s unforgiving, yes. It doesn’t f*ck about, sure. The game’s design acquaints you with deprivation and discomfort, taking away the padding so familiar in other adventure games. Poor succour for a poor sucker. Enjoy your stay. But going in as a complete noob—one with not even particularly sharp reflexes—I can say hand on heart that it’s not especially difficult. Certainly not the same way that Super Meat Boy or Enter The Gungeon is difficult , and not frustrating in the same way playing a competitive first-person shooter against a really skilled and experienced team. Most Dark Souls players can name the moment that they broke through ‘the wall’: you need one big, hard-won victory to cement the cycle of effort, exasperation, reward and release that drives people through the game.This cycle also helps you understand the core idea at the heart of Dark Souls’ design: death as education.
We’re always learning in Dark Souls. We never stop learning. We learned where the ambushes lay in wait. We learned the location of the trapdoors and trap chests and arrow traps. We learned when sneaking in Just One More™ attack on a given boss deprived us of the stamina required to somersault away with our skull unperforated. The more good-humoured you are while taking that medicine, however, the more fun you invariably have scaling Mount Mastery. With me, starting with the Deprived class—rendering you completely naked, with all stats at an even 11—forced me to pay attention, to dig deep and properly understand the dance steps of combat. The side effect to all this, is that Dark Souls feels smaller and smaller every time you play it—and I don’t just mean the shortcuts—but in how you come to perceive the difficulty. Just getting to the bonfire in the Undead Burg was an hour’s journey on my first attempt; today it’s a leisurely two-minute stroll. You’re constantly asked to reinterpret the space in Dark Souls’ world as your skills, equipment and shortcut options increase; it always feels new.
Dark Souls doesn’t hold your hand, but it points you in the right direction and says, ‘I’ve given you all the tools you need to survive. Use them wisely’. You go that way, and there are land mines. But Dark Souls gives you a manual for disarming them. But then the manual is in Latin. But Dark Souls also gives you a Latin dictionary. It expects you to listen, and to learn, and to improve. Every death presents an opportunity for reflection and improvement. Even the long run back from the bonfire to the fog-gate before a boss domain offers an opportunity to contemplate where you went wrong last time. Because of the way the game communicates and asks you to learn, anyone can play it as long as they’re willing to persevere and adapt. And when all else fails, you can always climb the scaffolding of communal expertise. Lordran is alive with player messages of support and guidance—not to mention the entire meta-game of its online community (the helpful kind, mind you).
All of this is ignoring the physical component to the Dark Souls experience—the sweating palms, the racing heart, the cold, nauseating dread when you fall victim to a little gang of Hollows on your way back to a bonfire and lose 20,000 souls. Other games are exciting, sure, but I don’t think I’ve ever leaped up and screamed at the television, arms raised in jubilation, whilst playing any other game. My moment of breaking through ‘the wall’, so to speak, was an early encounter with some pesky gargoyles. When those f*ckers finally fell, I was left shaking. That’s not something most video games are capable of eliciting.
And even when they are smacking you in the face with your own incompetence, you get the impression that From’s designers are often doing so with a cheeky smile on their faces rather than a sadistic grimace. Dark Souls’ sense of humour is greatly under-appreciated, actually. Your first weapon is broken-off sword hilt, looking about as menacing as a rubber chicken. If swords are unavoidably phallic with their slender, permanently erect blade and repetitive thrusting, Dark Souls laughs itself hoarse, arming its saviour hero with a blade whose edge appears to be roughly three to four inches in length. And in what other game can you get punched to death by a mushroom?
The difficulty is, disappointingly, often the first thing that comes up when people talk about the game. It was certainly true of me. Dark Souls’ most obvious trait also happens to be its least interesting; fixating on ‘gosh, this game’s hard’ seems a bit obvious when we could be talking about its fascinating game design. Speaking of which…
The world of Dark Souls is still a staggering achievement
Exploring Lordran is one of Dark Souls’ foremost pleasures, and the seamlessness with which its various zones connect offers the gratification you get watching adjoining puzzle pieces fit together. It’s difficult to think of another game in which every brushstroke feels this considered—everything down to the placement of specific pieces of loot and their significance to the lore. This is an expertly crafted, interlocking, vicious world with the sombre tranquility of Firelink Shrine at its heart; a concertina effect, origami-esque world, folding in on itself and unfolding again with each new area visited.
The vast majority of level furniture in RPGs feels like part of a prefabricated set, as if it came out of a Lego box and was artfully snapped together by the designer. A bridge here, a thatched-roof cottage there. Lordran, by contrast, feels organic, hand-crafted. Stone and wood and vegetation loop, weave and curl around each other like a calligrapher’s strokes drawn across three-dimensional space. It’s hard to detect any algorithmic sausage-making at work in the code. As a result, you get a world that doesn’t feel like it was programmed on a computer. I also noticed a recurring theme in From Software’s visual design. Take, for example, the Undead Burg— it maintains a homogeneous veneer. Structures blend into one another—mossy stone facades, mossy stone arches, mossy stone footpaths. Even wooden architectural features like beams and joists receive this same sickly greenish patina. I’m convinced that Souls level designers want to help you lose your way by spacing out potential landmarks by which you might orientate yourself. Just another obstacle to overcome.
All of this forces me to break the usual exploration conventions. I just can’t just blindly follow a blip on a map, collect this, kill that and then follow the next blip. No, I was afforded the opportunity to think for myself, to be treated like an adult. Even the infamously hated Blighttown is quietly remarkable in its own way. (honestly, though, it’s okay to hate Blighttown). Imagine, if you will, a rat maze sketched out on paper by a schoolkid passing time in detention, then built out of rotting scrap lumber by a team of blindfolded, booze-addled construction workers who are forced to work from memory after spending just a few seconds with the original plans (and prohibited from speaking to one another while carrying out the work).
The resulting snarl of wooden planks is then flipped on its side and affixed to the wall of a dim cavern. What you end up with is the wayfinding version of a practical joke. The planks point in a thousand conflicting directions, compounding the lost player’s bafflement about how to progress (all while beasties surround you in the dark, making the kind of noises that make your asshole pucker). But Blighttown also boasts one of the most freeform level geometry I’ve ever witnessed in a video game. By the time you finally reach the bottom, you’ve really earned it. In terms of emotional reward, it’s just as invigorating as seeing the gorgeous Lordran skybox from the highest bell tower, a few hours earlier. I could look down into Blighttown from Firelink, and up from below. Spotting the Demon Ruins from the Tomb. Lower Undead Burg from above. Darkroot Basin from the Forest. The Archive from the Parish. The Parish from Sen’s. The jaw-dropping sight of a sun-bleached Anor Londo for the first time. Over and over I’d find myself looking back at places I’d been, or spying new locations I hadn’t yet traveled.
Dark Souls can feel endless, like there’s always something more behind the curtain, and that’s because—in stark contravention of normal game-design protocol— there’s so much of the game that cannot be seen on a single playthrough. From Software also seems to take great care in pacing out your emotions—it’s not all doom and gloom. The exquisite tranquility of Ash Lake rubs shoulders with the heavy metal stylings of Quelaag’s lair. And just as happening upon bonfires throughout your quest creates tiny islands of rest and optimism, early encounters with Solaire inject humour and lightness into an environment that can otherwise feel oppressive.
In trying to find the answer to why I’ve loved Dark Souls so much, there are echoes of a conversation I’ve been having all my life: why play video games at all? It has to look like the world’s stupidest hobby to somebody who isn’t into it. Are they a waste of time? You bet. It’s a pointless substitute for the real thing, just like candy is a pointless substitute for vegetables, a novel is a pointless substitute for a textbook, sports are a pointless substitute for warfare and recreational sex is a pointless substitute for procreation. I’ve spent a great deal of my adult life trying to articulate why I play video games and have never found a single clear-cut answer. For fun? Sometimes. For edification? Definitely, but not always. For escapism? We all need that, from time to time. But I find myself arriving at a simpler answer: I play video games because of video games like Dark Souls. When an experience this rich comes along, the need for self-justification melts away.
Dark Souls didn’t invent new rules, or set new technological standards, or change the conception of what a video game could be. What it did was make people think differently about how a game could be, and what would resonate with players. Dark Souls proved that people respond well to being treated like adults and trusted to engage voluntarily with a game’s challenges and systems, without having them explained to death beforehand. It proved that, as a game designer, you don’t have to be so worried about scaring people off; that if a game is good enough, players can be trusted to find their way without having their hand held.
I was wrong about Dark Souls, for five years. But my recent experiences will linger for the rest of my life. Now, back to Ornstein & f*cking Smough…