[WARNING: This article contains strong/vulgar language that may be offensive to some people. Reader discretion is advised.]
Now that the long-awaited sequel to Dark Souls is finally around the corner and the hype train is choo-choo-choosing to plow other nearby game releases out of the way, many members of the gaming community are starting to play through the original again, in some cases for the first time. People are starting to once again ask “What’s so great about Dark Souls?,” before jumping headlong into the game, dying repeatedly, and then in some cases simply rage-quitting altogether while veterans like me just laugh and remember our own sandpaper-on-eyes level of harsh beginnings.
For the few uninitiated, Dark Souls (DS) is a dark fantasy action-RPG designed to be as painful and unforgiving in its difficulty as possible. The weakest enemies can easily rip you a new asshole if your blocking, dodging, and parries aren’t perfectly timed, each area in the world is saturated with highly imaginary insta-kill traps and scenarios, and every major ‘boss’ has their name prominently displayed so you know exactly who’s about to take a nice, steaming shit on your lifeless corpse. Every aspect of the game and mechanics are bent on making you play as cautiously as possible, including potentially disastrous consequences for dying.
The beginnings of a great journey (proud sniffle).
To save you unnecessary hardship, I’ll tell you upfront that the main reason DS is so great is that beyond the ball-crushing difficulty, the game is top notch in nearly every aspect of its design and mechanics. The world and its lore are all deeply thoughtful and beautiful, the atmosphere is engaging and immersive, and the challenge makes the successes, few and far between as they are, sweeter than almost any other game out there. For people who consider the violently disturbing Irish Epic Cú Chulainn (think Hercules, but much darker) a style of art, DS is the greatest piece of that form to come out in years. So, like any great work of art, the game has a lot to teach the discerning about the harsh realities of life itself, which serve to not only strengthen one as a person, but will hopefully prevent me from dying literally forty times in the first hour when I pick up the second one.
…Oh, who the fuck am I kidding. The sequel is going to take 80 hours of my life just like the first one did.
1. You Are Not A Special Snowflake
Most people come into DS with the exact same mentality: they’ve heard the horror stories of the game’s brutal difficulty, and so they come in extremely cautious, thinking they know what to expect (or at least to expect the unexpected). They walk in cautiously, taking a few baby steps, and once they don’t die immediately they gain a bit of courage, thinking that THEY will be different, that THEY can handle this game. They’ve played REAL games in their time, and as long as they’re careful they can handle whatever this game throws at them with no real problem, right? As long as they know what they’re doing?
I have a friend named ‘The Capra Demon’ who’d like to stab that thought right out of you. Or as I call him, “Mr. Perky”, the excitable sweetheart that will literally eat your heart out.
The thing about DS is that it doesn’t really play like any other game. Sure, you may have played other action-RPGs and action games in general, but guaranteed you don’t know th http:// e exact minutia of weapon swing distances and slippery platforming the game employs – which in DS separate stunning success from heartbreaking failure. You have to learn its rules of physics, its logic, its overall ins and outs, before any of the mechanics will really start to make sense. You have to realize that anything and everything is out to kill you, and that what you might call a ‘cheap death’ is par for the course in this world. And then maybe, just MAYBE, the Gaping Dragon will stop killing you by crushing you with a body straight out of the movie Teeth.
Any ‘Rule 34’ takers? Anybody? Anybody?
DS is shocking in its unforgiving nature because games these days far too often baby their players, who are used to having their hand held through much of a game with the expectation that just trying will mean success – some of whom even live their lives in the exact same way. Why go out and start getting in shape, when your body works just fine? Why write that book when I can just enjoy Netflix? Why eat healthier when the Cheetos are already here in bed next to me?
DS throws this logic out the window by making it so that the bar is so high, radical success is the ONLY form of success. The game plays no favorites and makes no concessions, meaning everybody must start at the same difficult spot no matter who they are, must make the same mistakes and learn the same way. You can’t slack off when even a scrub enemy can effortlessly kill you in two hits, and the game certainly doesn’t care how many other games you’ve beaten. Likewise, whoever you are, there’s no finding great success in life (for most of us) unless you give it your all, learn its workings, and apply them, through much hardship and difficulty.
Need motivation in life? Good. Play Dark Souls.
2. Failure isn’t Necessarily A Setback (Unless You Let it Be)
The largest factor that holds back potential DS completers is how often and regularly they die, which, as sure as I unashamedly (and manfully) love small fluffy creatures, they will do. As stated earlier, every new locale in the game comes complete with its own new pitfalls, traps, enemies, and surprises, all designed to repeatedly kill you as many times as possible. Add on top of this the caveat that every time you die you leave behind your ‘souls’ (a regular drop that works as both currency and experience points in the game), which will disappear forever if you die again before returning to your corpse to pick them up, and things start to look a bit rough, like trying to sit through any recent Adam Sandler movie..
So how do you handle this overwhelming barrage of death? Simple: you redefine your own perspective of success.
Check it. The game is by no means easy, but you must understand that it is very rarely unfair. Every time you die in DS, you leave behind all your ‘souls’, right? Meaning that if you can make it back to that same spot and retrieve them, you’ll get another shot at that same challenge that killed you, but now with twice as many souls as you gained getting there the first time. Jackpot! If instead, you happen to die and lose all those souls, you have nobody to blame but yourself, because the fact you got as far as you did the first time proves that you should honestly be able to handle those same challenges on a second run to reach your corpse. Unless your layers upon layers of incompetence make you forget that midget skeleton placed specifically to surprise you by pushing you off of the nearby cliff. (You can’t even imagine how much this job means to him and his family.)
My point is that every given failure or mistake is an experience you must learn from if you ever hope to not be made a plaything of your foes over and over again. Just like life, the key to getting anywhere is in knowing how to learn from the mistakes made by yourself and others, because nothing is nearly as challenging if you train rigorously to do that exact thing. DS is punishing in that any real deviation from the plan will likely lead to a terrible, terrible death, but doing so in life will still make things more difficult for yourself in various ways, from losing a few bucks all the way up to ACTUALLY killing you.
So the real question is, are you going to memorize and recall the exact jumping point to get over that gap, or are you going to keep playing ‘Salvador Dali’, painting the rocks below with your insides? Or, to put it another way, are you going to stop eating at Taco Bell, or will you keep insisting your rectum can handle another firebombing worse than Dresden?
3. The Best Stories Are Never Just Fed To You
Like any child born of the 80’s, my parents taught me how to read with books like “The Bernstein Bears” and “Clifford the Big Red Menstrual Metaphor” (I think that was the name, it’s honestly been a few years). I would leaf through their pages, lovingly enjoying the colorful artwork, clearly depicting the stories that my Zach Snyder-level mind wasn’t always able to parse from the incredibly simplistic language employed. And I loved every moment I got to spend with those stories.
Then I went straight into college – literally straight into college from there, it was weird – and was introduced to William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
And you know what I realized? Those kid books were garbage.
Except for that one where Clifford gets cancer and they have to put him down using the most adorably giant syringe ever, all told from the perspective of his own deteriorating mind. Shit was intense.
That same Faulkner book, for those familiar with it, is honestly the best literary approximation I can parallel to DS’s storytelling. The game’s world of Lordran is one dripping with history, culture, and enough mythology to… well, base an entire world on, really. Yet the massive backstory is only told piecemeal through blurbs in loading screens, snippets of dialogue with what few other characters there are, and visual portrayals in the haunting domains you’ll travel through. Rush through without taking a moment to really take everything in and you could literally miss the entire story. Not that the average teenager playing really cares, but y’know, they pay even less attention to their ‘required reading’ anyway.
The crazy thing is, DS (again, like a Faulkner book) really opens one’s mind to the stories that we brush against every day. Did you ever really wonder what terrifying psychological disaster got that weird guy who frequents the Quick Stop nearby to wear nothing but leopard print? Maybe he was bit by another one years ago, and they work like werewolves. Or who that other college student was who scratched “DickButt” into the desk you’re sitting in? Maybe he was the world’s next super-genius, driven by crazy success pressures to act out the only way he knew how.
The world around us is rife with bizarre, unique, and untellable stories that we experience tangentially every day. You just need to stop playing with yourself long enough to see them.
4. You Can Always Find Help When You Need It
Quite possibly the most fascinating thing about DS is how the online community aspect works (which is saying something in a stellar game like this). While playing there are three ways in which you will come to interact with other people playing the game: one, they will be using a certain item to invade your game as a ‘dark spirit’ bent on brutally killing you and stealing your souls, because the game never seems to know how to stop insisting that God can’t help you where you are; two, you’ll be reading messages scrawled on the floor by other players with the intention of warning you about nearby traps, giving advice, or just tricking you into jumping off that cliff like a gullible idiot; or three, you will be using the runes left behind by other, more experienced players to summon them into your own world for help in battling the overwhelming hordes, Bat-Signal-style.
In this aspect, the game is once again a huge mirror of our own culture and society. Sure, there are plenty of dicks and assholes who seem to exist solely to fuck you over or shit all over your game to set you back a ways, but if you know where to look there are also plenty of friendly allies willing to embrace you and give you a bit of a psychological leg-up in this harsh world of death. People who’ve beaten the game tend to stick around in the world to help others and engage them in jolly cooperation, empathetically understanding the detritus one has to wade through to really survive in Lordran. They’re always there when you really need it, unless you’re stubborn like me and insist on dying hundreds of times on your own against Sir Artorias, because DAMMIT I CAN DO THIS MYSELF I JUST NEED ONE MORE SHOT.
He’s actually a great guy, he’s just super misunderstood, y’know? (Disregard that thing on his sword.)
I happen to know that people as a general rule are pretty selfish and solipsistic, but even I can’t deny that we’d still be back in the Paleolithic era if mankind hadn’t ever figured out how to cooperate for the greater good. People are social creatures by their nature, and a truly joyful, purposeful life comes from embracing the community around you as an organism in itself, working together to build each other up, offer a hand when someone needs it, and generally learning how to love and care for others to your fullest. Sure, you can push through and find success on your own, maybe even abusing the help of others, but the path will certainly be exponentially harder, and in the end, you will in all likelihood be a far worse person than when you begin that harsh journey. And who could ever stand being a narcissistic monster like that?
[Mr. Popadopoulis writes for the fledgling gaming news site GamingDeath.com under the name Kaleb Medel. You can check his and his friends' other articles and stuff here.]