Demon’s Souls, not only being impossibly difficult to pronounce, also presented a rather substantial challenge to players and, above all else, was a radical cult hit, exceeding all expectations and shipping approximately 720,000 copies (admittedly, there are probably actual cults with more members than this but still). The moment I heard about Demons’ Souls I was instantly intrigued by it – I’d been told very little about it aside from the unforgiving difficulty which is what attracted me the most. However, it passed me by as I was a filthy, jobless student back then (things haven’t changed much) and I didn’t have a PS3.
A few years later though, I had fallen into a menial job which gifted me with enough money to buy a genuine Perpetual Firmware Updates 3 and I was able to wrestle a copy of Demon’s Souls from my flatmate. After a mere thirty hours of getting my ass handed to me by obese wizards wearing top hats, my brain being devoured by hideous octopus men and becoming a little too familiar with a certain Archstone courtesy of Old King Allant, I had bent the game to my will and made it my bitch – the challenge was a welcome one, yes, but as it turned out, it was not the game’s strongest feature.
Demons’ Souls provided an incredibly oppressive and disturbing experience which permeated all aspects of the game, from NPCs and enemy design to environments and item descriptions. In fact, survival horror sweetheart of the year, scratch that, of the decade, Jasper Byrne (go and play Lone Survivor if you haven’t already), is a huge fan Demons’ Souls and Dark Souls and if he loves it, who are you to argue? This game isn’t just a “dark fantasy”, it isn’t just a mercilessly difficult RPG, it is a survival horror experience that will chew you up, spit you out and leave your crumpled, phlegm-covered corpse come crawling back for more.
So yes, I loved Demons’ Souls and so you can probably imagine my delight when I finally got to sink my teeth into Dark Souls and my further climactic joy when Dark Souls II was announced at the Spike Videogame Samuel L. Jackson Advertisements Thing. That being said, it cannot be denied that Dark Souls is by no means perfect – it has its flaws and, they can be pretty glaring flaws at that but the core design values remain solid despite a few technical faults.
This is a game that was built on a lower budget than most but the developers didn’t let that hold it back. From Software was able to create a world with more depth and intrigue than many of its RPG counterparts through a clever use of minimalist plot and a narrative and lore embedded into item descriptions, environments and tangential dialogue. Dark Souls uses its simplicity to create a sense of mystery which gradually unfolds over the course of multiple play-throughs, tantalisingly exposing its secrets to you piece by piece like a high class prostitute unwrapping tiny morsels of a tasty steak.
The oppressive atmosphere coupled with the very low number of friendly NPCs creates a sense of being so helplessly alone. You are whisked away from the decaying Undead Asylum and planted into the last bastion of a long dead civilisation. What is perhaps most haunting about the world of Lordran is how it avoids the cliché of a society ruined by a cataclysmic event which rendered its inhabitants into snarling and grotesque creatures. No, the tale of Lordran is one of genuine tragedy; a world which slowly decayed centuries ago, abandoned by the gods, the denizens are ghoulish beings that have been left to fester as they die a thousand times over until they lose their minds and turn hollow.
Even the developers leave you crying and alone, providing only the most basic instructions and quite happily letting you wonder off in the wrong direction to a quick and unsightly death straight after the “tutorial” level. These elements create the sense of crushing loneliness which Dark Souls revels in and utilises to effectively craft an unforgettable atmosphere which will slip the surly bonds of the game and creep right into your subconscious mind as you are repeatedly scorched, poisoned, stabbed, hacked and crushed to death. The sense of isolation and the intense difficulty create the perfect blend; these aspects become synonymous, ‘the difficulty isn’t a club the designers bash you with, but the palette with which they paint the experience’ (Chris Dahlen, Save the Robot). The difficulty is the core of the game and the environments, characters and art style create the magnificent structure built upon those foundations.
Isolation is the recurrent theme in Dark Souls and no matter what, you will always be alone in Lordran. Yes you can touch the glowing white soapstone which offers a strange sense of warming comfort in the cold, bleak landscape but any relationship you forge with another player will be fleeting as they rapidly fade from existence in the jubilant wake of victory. In this respect, Dark Souls presents somewhat of a paradox in regards to the sense of loneliness – the ghosts of other players haunt the world, illustrating that you are, in fact, not alone and that other people are facing the same trials are you. However, this sense of empathy and cooperation is quickly sundered when YOxXDarkSwagSniper69AssassinXxLO invades your world, subsequently eviscerates you and, as ‘You Died’ slowly melts onto the screen, you feel betrayed and alone once more.
From Software seamlessly merged the multiplayer and single player into one cohesive experience, preying on the inherent malevolence of mankind. As your character dies you go slowly insane along with them as you are both helped and betrayed by your fellow man. Do you trust the promise of ‘phat lutes’ scribbled on the floor in crayon and leap into the darkness? Or do you walk away and risk missing out on all the hot, steamy, treasure action? It wasn’t long until I began to instinctively distrust the glowing orange graffiti that litters Lordran but, every so often, my cynicism would fade and I’d instantly fall prey to the malignant whimsy of another player; the vicious cycle would beginning anew.
Even so, a deceptive message of this sort offers no discernible benefits, except perhaps the approval of other likeminded trolls who would positively vote your message up, granting the author Humanity and the message a semblance of credibility. However, I highly doubt that such an unlikely prospect is what encourages these deceptions; but more a sense of knowing that someone, somewhere, will have fallen for your nefarious scheme. In fact, it was such a thought which would often give me comfort as I ran once again through the mobs towards the Bed of Chaos, or up and over the rooftops of Anor Londo as the Silver Knight archers impaled me from afar with, what I can only assume, were the smuggest of grins upon their faces.
Even the friendly NPCs, like your fellow players, have motives and thought processes which only they can understand and, like you, they are destined to the cruel fate of the undead. As a result, the NPCs of Dark Souls all straddle the boarder of lunatic and friend; the subtle nature of their character manages to create memorable personalities as their jovial asides or nihilistic retorts give you just enough to feel a weird sense of attachment. Some will provide you with services; others come lurching out of the darkness as a Black Phantom, only to reappear just outside the next boss door with a picnic basket and a letter of apology. For the most part, each has their own small story which all too often ends in tragedy.
The jolly and inept Siegmeyer of Catarina has a special place in my heart; his glimmering oblong presence was always a delight. He is an eternal paradox, appearing always one step ahead of you yet perpetually barred from progress by an insignificant obstacle. Be it his husky frame preventing him outrunning some boulders or his sheer lack of foresight leaving him stranded in Blighttown, Siegmeyer’s ineptitude gave me someone to empathise with as we blindly hammered our way through Sens Fortress and beyond. That is why I waved to him upon every chance encounter, why I rejoiced when he appeared at Firelink Shrine and why bowed to him as he faded from my world in Lost Izalith. His few minutes of screen time told me all I needed to know – Siegmeyer, the man, the legend, the onion (don’t tell him I said that).
Returning once more to the environments of Dark Souls, I am continually (and pleasantly) surprised when I look down from a location I’ve visited dozens of times before and I notice a minute detail in the grim landscape that makes it instantly recognisable as somewhere I’ve been before or a place I am soon to visit. The world of Lordran is labyrinthine, each new location offering a new vista of the last or a foreboding preview of what is to come. Perhaps my favourite example of this is whilst en route to Gravelord Nito - you break free of the darkness which clings so closely, you look across the endless chasm shrouded by mist and view the giant, gnarled trees which protrude from the murky depths and it strikes you – the view before you is the perversely bleak yet strikingly beautiful Ash Lake, with its white sands and dark clean water, almost as foreboding as the Abyss itself.
Dark Souls has a continuity of locations unlike any game world I’ve seen – even in Skyrim, as you climb atop the tallest mountain for the most beautiful panorama, that is all you really see, a pleasant surrounding environment of minimal significance. You can’t look back and grin at the challenges you have overcome nor can you gulp down your fear at the sight of what you are soon to face. Lordran is a world that was constructed for its inhabitants, not you. You are merely a visitor to this land, your time spent here will be fleeting and eventually you will put down the controller and leave Lordran for good, but it was never there for you. From the depths of Lost Izalith to the golden heights of Anor Londo, Lordran does not feel like a game world constructed to entertain you but rather a genuine world that was once vibrant with life. Each location feels like it could have once served a purpose other than providing a challenge for you, whether it is a simple parish town or a deadly gauntlet to keep the proletariat from dirtying up Lord Gwyn’s keep, every location in Dark Souls once served a purpose to its now putrid populace.
The sense that Lordran was once a much more than an obstacle is what gives such power to the even the most seemingly insignificant details. The flooding of New Londo is hardly referenced or talked about at any length within the game but you know it was flooded to contain the Darkwraiths and you know that thousands of people died but so what? We’ve seen stuff like this a thousand times in videogames. While the story of New Londo is the same as many others, it is the execution which makes it so visceral.
The ruins themselves are bathed in a calming blue light which is quickly juxtaposed by the hollows in the final stages of insanity and the blood curdling howl of the red eyed Banshees, still clutching desperately to the remains of their drowned children. The descent into New Londo escalates in morbidity after you drain the lower levels and are greeted with the sight of bones piled meters high – it leaves the tragedy of New Londo staring you dead in the eyes as you trudge through the darkness and on towards the Abyss, the cause of all this subterranean misery.
All of the sorrow found within Lordran can be attributed to Gwyn, former Lord of Sunlight and now merely the Lord of Cinder, his fall being an allegory for the decline of his kingdom. The once shining realm now a crumbled wasteland, a realm he sacrificed himself to maintain – a futile gesture in the unforgiving world of Dark Souls. The Kiln of the First Flame his prison and final resting place, the scorched and desolate ruins providing the perfect area for the solemn encounter. As you fade through the fog, the melancholy music seeps through the speakers, and Gwyn glides effortlessly towards you, his dingy cloths marred with the ash of his hubris.
The fight with Gwyn is a true test of your mettle, a gladiatorial duel between two great warriors. Eventually you’ll win, you’re the chosen undead after all, right? It’s your destiny to succeed Gwyn and link the fire once more, to perpetuate the dying age of Light rather than allowing it to subside and the age of Dark, the age of man, come to be. The more you play Dark Souls the more the futility of your actions becomes apparent. You’ve enkindled the flame before and you’ll do it again; you’ll perpetuate the doomed era and the curse of the undead will begin anew soon enough. What exactly are you trying to save? Lordran? Lordran is long dead and nothing you do can save it now. Darkstalker Kaathe tells you that ‘Lord Gwyn trembled at the dark. Clinging to his age of fire and, and in dire fear of humans, and the Dark Lord who would one day be born among them, Lord Gwyn resisted the course of nature.’ Gwyn is now a mindless husk haunting the site of his failure and should you link the flame, this is the fate that awaits you.