So, here I am, writing about Dark Souls just four days before the release of its sequel on PC. I am not what you might call ‘down with the kids’. Do the kids still say that?
(This will contain spoilers for a game that is three years old and has been the focal point of gaming conversation ever since its conception, and possibly for its newly-released sequel. Sorry.)
– – – – –
The artwork is gorgeous, the story intriguing, and I can appreciate the challenge. I just…I don’t think I like Dark Souls…
— Chris Jennings (@FinalFanatik) March 27, 2014
That was me just a few weeks ago, when I thought that every single other person on the planet was lying about a video game just to make me look like an idiot.
I owned Dark Souls on PS3 before it released on PC. In fact, it was the last game I got on the PlayStation for a long while, because it killed the system stone-dead before I’d even managed to get to the Armoured Boar. My PS3 at the time was one of the 60GB backwards-compatible versions. I never found a cheap replacement, thus all my PS2 and PS Classic games were rendered unplayable. They, along with all my PS3 games including Dark Souls, were sold off on eBay.
This game was proving itself to be a dead-eyed killer and a pain in my ass from the get-go.
In August 2012, Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition released on PC. It had been nearly a year, and I’d forgiven Dark Souls for murdering my console. With the DLC included in the entry fee, it seemed like a nice package to grab, and would mean I could experience the game everyone kept talking about on my (much preferred) computer.
Dark Souls proceeded to hand me my ass. Repeatedly. Without mercy or compassion.
I was expecting it. You know that’s going to happen when you play a Souls game. That’s the whole point of them, and anyone who gets surprised by this must be blind because it says Prepare to Die right there on the title menu in big, scary letters. You work through the grisly deaths until you somehow manage to overcome the foe, and then move on to the next hellish demon-spawn the game demands you face for its own sick amusement. That’s the appeal, apparently.
I bounced right off.
Here’s something you may or may not have picked up on from my writing: I am awful at video games, at least in the sense most people claim to be ‘good’ at them. I have no interest in learning the mathematical systems to build an optimal character in games like League of Legends. My hand-eye coordination is so terrible I could be outmanoeuvred by continental drift, so twitch-reflexes exclude my participation from the arenas of Call of Duty multiplayer and the like.
Here was a game that expected me to combine both fast reflexes and to effectively transform a squishy pile of single digits into a strong character of worthwhile statistics? And on top of that, random people would just appear in my game to cause grief just as I was making progress? It wasn’t happening. A few different character classes and a couple of weeks later, Dark Souls was resigned to the graveyard of my Steam library.
About five or six months later, I was reinstalling the game. I had spent the time watching Dark Souls receive great acclaim from the media and fans alike, and felt that I needed to be part of this experience – the great keystone of gaming that Dark Souls represents. That, and someone said they would help me with some of the bosses.
My brother, as much as I love him, is one of those gamers. The players for whom everything comes so naturally, or at least that’s what they’ll tell you. Unlike I, he finished Dark Souls when he first tried it, and wasn’t afraid to let me know exactly how easy he’d found the experience. I’d get a “lol I beat that first time you suck” when what was probably needed was a “Hey, why don’t you try…?” or something like that. It turns out a lot of Dark Souls players are like that, or at least the more vociferous ones. I was a filthy casual, a child attempting an SAS assault course; I should just give up and leave it to the real men.
(This is a stupid trend that appears in all video game communities, I must say. Telling people who are struggling just how simple you found something is childish, is not helpful in any way, and makes you look like a tool. Stop it.)
So a new character was made. I got all the way to the Capra Demon before hitting the wall this time, so my brother stepped in to lend a hand. It took a couple of attempts, but we managed it. I was feeling pretty OK about this playthrough. Maybe I’d get somewhere?
Then I hit the next boss. According to general online consensus, the Gaping Dragon is supposed to be fairly easy. That’s what my brother told me, after I died the first time to it. He then abandoned me to fend for myself, claiming ‘better things to do’. Instead, he started a new character to see if he could finish the game before I did. He definitely managed it, as I gave up on the game in Blighttown. So many deaths with so little progress, and Dark Souls was back on the ‘Unfinished’ pile.
So, if I’m so terrible at Dark Souls, why do I keep playing? If I’m this bad at all video games, why to I keep buying new ones? There are two main reasons why – story and art design (not to be confused with graphics – the distinction is essential). No matter how badly your control scheme contorts my fingers, I will battle on to see the sights and hear what your NPCs have to tell me. I will squint through muddy textures and clipping to find the next revelation.
Dark Souls has both of these aspects in abundance. The fantastic enemy design, the grimdark landscapes, the majestic vistas that swept before me promising strange and exciting new locations. It’s utterly captivating to my mind, and I’m drawn to it like a moth to a greasy flame. Even though I’d barely seen any of the game, hi-res pictures have decorated my desktop background since. It is gorgeous.
The story is told carefully and expertly. There’s the opening video that tells you about an ancient battle between Light and Dark, but you will get more lore from examining a building or item than you will from character exposition or cutscenes. It works in a way that creates a living world, one that feels ancient, cursed, forgotten and dangerous.
My problem was that all of this doesn’t exist at the start of Dark Souls. I’ve only just discovered all of these wonders. When you arrive on the scene, you get told to ring two bells. You then run through some medieval streets, followed by some sewers (complete with giant rats). That’s all you get for a long, long time.
That is why I couldn’t carry on with Dark Souls – there was nothing there for me, personally, to sink my teeth into. Or so I thought.
I’ve spent the last two weeks watching (the thoroughly excellent and highly-entertaining) MANvsGAME play Dark Souls 2. Having resigned myself to the realisation that I’ll never finish Dark Souls 1, I had no qualms in spoiling the sequel.
Watching MAN excitedly carve his way through Dranleic, I was confused. He was making all these links between the two games, and their predecessor Demon’s Souls. He described epic fights and secret lore and fantastical theories that seemed like they came from a completely different game than the zombie-bashing, sewer-running drudge which I gave up on.
It definitely sounded a lot more like a game I wanted to play.
So I reinstalled Dark Souls, determined to find some of that magic world I had been told about but never experienced. New character in hand, I slogged through the Undead Burg and the Capra Demon and the Depths and the Gaping Dragon. Apparently I’ve developed some sort of conditioned response to these fights – just approaching the arenas filled me with dread and the pre-emptive sting of failure and resignation. I died. I died a lot. I got frustrated and wrote that tweet, feeling vindicated in my dismissal of the game.
Somehow, I pushed on until I got to the bottom of Blighttown. If I’m honest, I was scared at this point – I was going to make progress into an area of the game I’d never seen before. How long until the inevitable rebuttal, until I was forced to resign like I had been in the previous zones? I didn’t want to uninstall again because I knew that it would probably be for the last time.
I beat Quelagg. I rang that second goddamn bell.
I was the fucking King of Dark Souls.
It was an elation unlike anything I’d experienced before in a game. The feeling that all the Dark Souls players kept going on about which I’d thought was total bravado bullshit. They’re right though, you push through the challenges and the challenges after those and eventually you’ll get into the flow, and receive your reward. The Dark Souls Stockholm Syndrome is real.
Since then, the Dark Souls world has opened up to me – I have new areas to explore that aren’t sewers, enemies to fight more interesting than a zombie in a helmet.
I have found a world of which I can be a part.
So, here I am again, playing Dark Souls just four days before the release of its sequel on PC, which I have already spoiled for myself. I’m happy I did that. I breached Sen’s Fortress. I flew to Anor Londo (the reveal of which made my jaw literally drop). I met with the Sun Princess. I escaped imprisonment and slew my captor. I got lost in the deep, deep dark.
I did all of those things myself, and now I’m free to flit around the world, tasting from all it has to offer me. I want to discover every little secret it has.
I don’t enjoy the challenge of Dark Souls. If I get the choice, I’ll usually play on Easy mode. Dark Souls has no Easy mode, only failure or success. But I will suffer through the frustration, the infinite deaths and the depths of my own ineptitude just to find more caverns to explore, more cliffs to scale. More forbidden knowledge and lore to hoard. I do like this game, and I will beat it!
If you’re like me, then take heed – they’re not lying to us. There really is an amazing game to be found, just beyond that second bell, past the rats and the zombies. Stick with it. You’ll be so happy you did.
Just prepare to die to achieve that release.
– – – – –
Note to all of those gamers: I beat Ornstein and Smough.
FIRST. GODDAMN. TIME.