“It’s only smoke and ashes, baby”
– Tracy Chapman
I spent two hours last night dueling other players on the bridge in the Iron Keep, one of Dark Souls II’s more inhospitable locales. At some point I was set upon by three allied players with greatswords and hulking armour, dishonourable opportunists hoping to overwhelm unsuspecting players with their numbers. I picked them off one by one with poison clouds and slowly tracking orbs of darkness until, his two friends defeated, the leader turned tail and ran. I chased him down and gutted him.
No elation followed this victory. I put the controller down then and went to bed feeling exhausted and empty.
I want to say I have finished Dark Souls II; I have followed the threads of its story through to their ambiguous and depressing finale and achieved a mastery of its combat and systems which is now almost unconscious, but there are still secrets lurking in the recesses of the world that elude me. I suspect with this kind of game that will always be the case; like Skyrim it is a game that one can never truly finish, only grow tired of.
Perhaps it would be better to say I am finished with Dark Souls II. I hope that distinction is clear.
Listen: Dark Souls and its successor are videogames.
Released in 2011 to near universal acclaim the first game was heralded as somewhat of a renaissance, many lauded it as a return to a purer form of gaming; notable for its intense difficulty level, lack of instruction and seeming hatred of the player. For my own part I bought the game as soon as it released and hated it and gave it up after a couple of hours.
It has become something of a rite of passage now, the gaming world divided up into people who have dutifully waded through its impenetrable bullshit, and those who have not.
Perhaps you have heard of Skyrim? A game with some aesthetic similarities. Dark Souls is absolutely not that game. In Skyrim the world is your playground, it exists for you. You stroll through it, slaughtering dragons with a few blows, tripping over secrets and artifacts with every step. NPCs practically queue up to explain the land’s lore and send you on the next mission to find X item. It is a land of a thousand quest markers and no mysteries.
Dark Souls barely even acknowledges your existence. Every enemy can and will kill you in seconds if you are slow, or cocky, or stupid. The tutorial, if you can call it that, will likely kill you at least once. The only directions you receive are a few cryptic lines of dialogue spoken by one of the rare non-hostile NPCs, almost as an afterthought.
At its worst Dark Souls is exclusionary: Deliberately hard, frustratingly opaque, a hateful joke of a game. At its best it is a nail-biting, sublime journey into the dark.
These are the facts, I make no effort to sway you either way.
A year after I gave up on Dark Souls and set it aside for friendlier, more welcoming adventures, I went back to it with a renewed determination. This time I prepared; I read up on obscure yet vital stats on the various fan made wikis and began to make steady progress through the game.
That last part is a lie. All my progress was infuriatingly slow, sporadic and hard won.
Some mechanical explanation is due at this point:
Dark Souls’ trick is to make death meaningful in a medium where it is almost without consequence. Die in any other game and you can simply reload to your last checkpoint or save, not so with Dark Souls. The game does not allow reloads and when you die it respawns you back to the last bonfire you rested at but without all of your accrued souls. Souls are everything in this game, you use them as both currency to buy items and as experience points to upgrade your character. Losing all of your souls upon death can literally erase hours of progress. And so you fear death, you genuinely fear it. In a videogame that is a novel experience.
Dark Souls may be hard, but it is fair. Whenever you die it is rarely not your fault, so you learn to be calm and cautious, and to read the world as you progress; on the lookout for traps and distant enemies. It is these first forays into unknown areas when Dark Souls really shines: Advancing into the dark, shield raised, terrified by what may lurk in the gloom ahead, aware of your very real vulnerability and the debilitating consequences, should you fall.
This point, once reached, is where the game begins to snowball. It takes a long goddamn time to get there, a learning process I would liken to repeatedly smashing your face against powdered glass, but once you are competent with the game’s systems you can look beyond its punishing difficulty and really appreciate what a beautiful house of horrors it is.
The lands of Lordran and Drangleic, where the respective games are set, are old, very old, and you begin your quest long after all the important events of history have taken place. The land is ruined and decaying, and chronological inconsistencies hint at a more fundamental ontological calamity. From Software deserve a great deal of praise for how they built this world; you can play the game from start to finish and never see a loading screen, each path seamlessly leading to another, the uninterrupted play further adding to your immersion. There are no maps or guides along the way and you must memorise the twists and turns that will lead you safely through the world. The curious player will be rewarded – if that curiosity is tempered with a little caution – with hidden chambers, shortcuts and portentously placed items, each helping you to sketch a slightly clearer picture of just what the fuck has gone on in this place. The world oozes mystery and the drive to uncover more of the world and its history was what finally got into my head and kept me playing long after I should have given up. You play the role of detective, or perhaps archeologist, piecing together what you can of this thoroughly fucked reality and its delinquent powers. That, right there, is the hook, the loop. That is the stuff that gets into your bones and won’t let you let up until the credits roll.
I think that last point is worth reiterating: I found Dark Souls worth playing in spite of its difficulty, not because of it. I am many things but I am not a masochist, and there is a reason Dark Souls enjoys the success it has had while other Hard Games, which have no discerning features besides their impenetrability, have been forgotten.
That being said, I do not have an entirely healthy relationship with videogames. With Dark Souls it was particularly bad, judging from how much sleep I got during those first days, trying to juggle exhausting 12 hour work shifts and the game, and still be left with enough time to do small human things like shit and piss and eat. I have some work notebooks from that time and, beside the trauma codes and unit callsigns, there are character builds, maps and speculations that I scribbled down frantically in my breaks. Be warned, reader, if yours is an addictive personality, this is not a pact entered into lightly.
Dark Souls is sometimes described as medieval horror, this is appropriate. It is quite difficult to describe, without extensive screenshots, just how disgusting a lot of the environments and enemies are. There is a strong undercurrent of sexual horror that runs through the games, particularly relating to the female body: a giant arachnid with the buxom torso of a woman, a tentacled genderbending prince, interspecies intercourse, demons with the heads of birds and strange elongated female bodies and at least two enemies that resemble huge vagina dentata. In other games these things would seem ridiculous, played for laughs perhaps, but in Dark Souls they only add to the unease. Certainly they are no cause for humour when they loom out of the dark for the first time, towering over the player, bearing death.
And you will die, a lot, if that was not already clear. Dark Souls’ triumph is its embracing of death as a gameplay system, understanding that death no longer has any emotional charge in a medium where murder is the primary mechanic. You fear death, of course. Dark Souls does a very good job of that, but it is a capitalistic fear, not an existential one; you fear the loss of souls, of progress, rather than non-existence. And so death is embraced as a banality, a comma rather than an ending, as it has always been in videogames but never acknowledged openly until now. Dark Souls gives you worse things to be scared of; its true horrors are madness and entropy.
There is no dark lord to slay here, no tired moral absolutism. The cast of characters that populate this world each have their own motives and histories, all of them tragic. You murder a woman who is protecting her dying sister, and slaughter a greatwolf trying to stop you from plundering his master’s grave. These things you do for equally valid reasons but the game has no intention of letting you feel good about it. Over the course of its story your few friendly companions go mad and you are forced to kill them, one by one, until there is just you, alone and with blood on your hands. The threat that hangs over you is the slow heat-death of the universe, against which there is no victory. The only choices you have are to delay the inevitable or to hasten your destruction.
I recognise, of course, in the light of these last few paragraphs, how absurd it seems that anyone should persist in playing this fucking thing at all. I spent hundreds of hours, days even, traipsing through this depressing, nails hard, faux-existential bullshit when I could have been doing shots and listening to Daft Punk, or fucking people, or climbing buildings in the dark, or doing literally anything else.
But no, I decided that the best use of my time was to play this horrible goddamn game, and so did 2.4 million other people. I am still trying to figure out why.
If all that has been said so far seems intimidating and depressing in the extreme then you are absolutely right. There is some comfort however: if you play this game you will not be alone. For all of its tonal and mechanical conservatism, Dark Souls features a very innovative set of multiplayer functions. The most useful of which if the ability to summon other players into your game for a limited time to help out against the dangers of the world. These summoned companions are silent, From Software having decided, astutely, to disable voice communication between players in case some idiot screaming racial epithets should slam a cleaver through the atmosphere and immersion the game sets up.
Anyone can place a sign on the ground anywhere in their gameworld and that sign will appear in the same place in the worlds of anyone else playing the game. Interact with the sign and the player who laid it will be pulled from their world into yours. These interactions foster a kind of anonymous community spirit. Many times I was guided by the patient gestures of a player I had summoned round the game’s many pitfalls, both metaphorical and literal. Dark Souls is a lonely game and these fleeting interactions with another human, even a silent one, are very welcome.
The flip side of this is that players also have the ability to invade your world with the aim of killing you. You learn very quickly to hate these bastards. There is nothing more terrifying than being notified of being invaded, far from a bonfire, with your hands already full with non-player enemies. These invading players are invariably better equipped and know the terrain much better than you. It is unlikely you will survive your tenth invasion, let alone your first.
Later on in the game it is possible to exclusively target these players who have invaded and killed others. I spent a long time then, hunting player-killers through the darkness of Sen’s Fortress, a death trap of narrow bridges, pressure plates and swinging blades. A perfect place to lay in ambush, vengeful catharsis for all the times I had been murdered by their kind.
It is worth noting that although hostile players will absolutely try to kill you there is a strange code of honour that exists across the games. Encounter an invading player and they will likely bow to you and wait for you to bow back before engaging. If you encounter two allied enemy players it will sometimes be the case that one stands aside and will not attack until the other falls. There is some understanding that you have all suffered at the hands of the horrors that the game throws at you. Suffering breeds empathy and Dark Souls deals more than its share.
Less synchronous forms of player to player interactions exist as well. Sometimes you will see the translucent ghosts of other players flicker into being in your world showing you their actions in real time, resting at a bonfire or fighting some unseen foe. You cannot interact with them but it is enough to know that someone, somewhere, is going through this horrible bullshit too.
More direct is the ability to leave messages on the ground and have them appear in the worlds of other players. Again, From Software limits the lexicon to an archaic selection of words and phrases, avoiding the inevitable ASCII dicks that would break the immersion. Most people leave tips directing players to nearby hidden items or advising on the weaknesses of enemies ahead, but some are simply cries of resignation or encouragement, teenage haiku left for readers whom the writer will never meet.
Here are a selection:
Stay calm, keep moving
Hurrah for bravery
Death ahead, then silence
Joy or sorrow?
I can’t take this…
Visions of defeat
Be wary of despair, don’t give up
I like videogames, sometimes. I imagine you have picked up on that. At the very least, I like the idea of them. The reality is a very different beast.
If you were to take a historical materialist approach to these things you might come to the conclusion that videogames, as they exist currently, are highly exclusionary. This not an indefensible position.
Consider the expense of acquiring a console or a computer along with a television capable of playing the latest releases. Consider also the barriers of creation, of expression, in this medium. You could sit down and write a book if you were so inclined, or a play, or a song if you are musical. With some expense you might take photographs or even make a short film.
Could you make a videogame? Would you even know how to begin such a process?
The end result of this is that we end up with a medium populated by a tiny number of dominant voices that come from a narrow slice of society, namely those with the relative wealth and specific education to be able to create and to consume these things. This is an indecent situation, certainly not one that is conducive to a variety of strange and original works.
Add to this the obsession with completion and mastery that pervades game design, not to mention the high skill level required to interact with most mainstream games in any meaningful way. Take a good look at an xbox controller, there are 20 inputs on that fucking thing. I know my way round it like the back of my hand but to someone who has never held one it is understandably frightening. Yet a general competence with a controller is assumed for the vast majority of titles, instantly excluding huge numbers of people.
Now consider Dark Souls and its sequel in this context. I grew up playing games but it still took me hours of research and painful trial and error before I made any headway through them. I like Dark Souls but I am also aware of what it represents: the very worst of this medium’s conservative and exclusionary tendencies.
I got my father to play Proteus recently, a strange whimsical game with no explicit goals. It’s controls are simple, intuitive and slow. You wander around an island and music plays. That’s it, no challenge, no fail or win state, just a space to exist, observe and ruminate. He happily explored unprompted for an hour or so while we talked.
That was an affecting experience. I want more videogames that I can play with my father.
My father could not play Dark Souls, he lacks the skill and the familiarity with its conventions that most gamers take for granted. For these reasons that game holds literally nothing of value for him. To a great deal of people it is a worthless object. Among videogames this is not an exceptional quality.
Perhaps, though, I have been reductive. Just because games in general need to be much more inclusive and accessible does not mean specific games always have to be. Mediums are not uniform. Joyce’s cryptic motherfuckery exists quite happily alongside Orwell’s windowpane prose.
It is hard though, not to read Dark Souls as a relic, a kind of digital manifestation of certain kind of gamer. The kind who laments the perceived dumbing down of games to cater to a broader audience, who regards the female form with a strange mixture of awe and horror, obsessed with the same infantile tropes that pervade this medium: Dragons and knights in shining armour. Witches and warlocks and kings in high castles. Tolkien, Hobb, Martin and all their bullshit.
So it is with some skepticism that I view the various prophetic puff pieces that have emerged of the last few years about how Dark Souls has changed gaming. Dress it up all you will but this is still an experience aimed primarily at well off teenage boys with the parents to buy it for them and the time to stumble through it. I have walked this path before with a different face, as Link, as Geralt, as the Dragonborn, as Hawke and a thousand other heroes with swords in their hands. The world is a little more insidious and the challenges require a little more tenacity and grace but it is the same story, in the end.
I am tired of killing, tired of playing the hero, tired of saving the world. I would like to play some new games now.
I have wasted 3000 words and enough of my time writing about this fucking game. That is perhaps the greatest compliment I can give any work, that it drew enough of my hatred and affection to cause me to examine it in this detail.
Much is made of Dark Souls legendary difficulty; it is a hard game. I cannot overstate this.
I played another hard game recently. It is called Cart Life. You can play it here.
In Cart Life you are a divorcee, fighting for custody of her child whilst trying to survive on the poverty line. To play it is to watch the huge gears of capitalism and government crush a woman and her hope. It is compact, weighty, and real, I would play a hundred games like it if I could.
There are no games like it, not a single one.
There are a thousand games like Dark Souls and, despite its flaws, I suspect it is the best of them.