I'm growing older all the time. It's getting to the point where it's embarrassing.
I think Dark Souls is a work of art that belongs in a museum. The Royal Ontario Museum disagrees, but I think I'm starting to wear them down.
When I was in grade 5 I went to school as Robin for Halloween. The costume was basically a pair of green lady tights and a tunic that had to be Velcroed at the crotch like a baby's onesie. My self esteem never fully recovered.
I believe Alan Wake was criminally under-appreciated. It's unclear if this notion stems from a legitimate love of the game, or my loyalty to any piece of media that is going to include tracks from Nick Cave, Poe, and Depeche Mode.
Some of my stuff has been front-paged. I'm super proud!
When I think about locations in video games, my mind drifts back to the classics. Hyrule. Zebes. Dracula's Castle. Shadow Moses. And now, I think of Lordran.
Lordran is the cursed land of the undead in Dark Souls. A mystical kingdom that was once home to Gods, kings, and a thriving populace. But now the lands have fallen into decay. The Gods have either abandoned the lands or now terrorize them in fits of madness. The Kings have fallen to darkness. All that remains of Lordran's people are spiritless zombies and twisted monsters.
It is a dark, dangerous, and often sad place. A place of disquieted spirits and haunted pasts. And its a place that, to me, has earned a spot among the greatest video game locations I've ever explored.
For all the talk about Dark Souls relentless difficulty and unique multiplayer invasion/cooperation system, its easy to glaze over the wonderful world From Software has created with Lordran. A criminal oversight – all the awesome mechanics in the world would hardly matter if the game world couldn't manage to hold the players attention or interest.
There are a pair of factors that make Lordran so unforgettable in my opinion. The first is tied to the design of the game. The deadly enemies, frequent repetition, and abundance of traps and shortcuts forces the player to become intimately familiar with the territory. Secondly is the quality of the locations and the atmosphere Lordran cultivates as you explore its many facets – the gritty and real harshness of low fantasy contrasted with wonderfully mystic and surreal scenarios.
The first time I really got down and into the Catacombs, I was terrified. I'd been here before, barely. Just at the entrance to be honest where I was greeted by a machete wielding skeleton. He nearly killed me with just two lighting quick movements of his blade. In a panic, I led him back up the stairs and with some VERY cautious sword work, was able to shatter him after a prolonged session of hacking and slashing. I poked my head down the dark spiralling stair case for a little recon when I heard a rattling behind me. The skeleton that was so hard to kill had reassembled himself in perfect condition.
So scarred by that encounter that when I finally felt I was strong enough for the Catacombs, I didn't really want to go down there. Still, armed with a divine blade capable of making those skeletons stay dead, and my only other travel destination being the even less appealing Sen's Fortress, I mustered up the nerve and went grave robbing. Every turn I took, I looked twice and kept my shield up. Every new enemy put a knot in my stomach. Every ledge was treated with suspicion. I nearly wept for joy when I found a bonfire mid-way where I could respawn when I inevitably died.
That was then. Now when I hit the “Cats” I still watch my back, but I don't sweat it. I know how to deal with those pesky skeletons, and their necromancer bosses have long since been banished. I know what pitfalls mean death, and which can be safely jumped for shortcuts. Its not exactly a playtime in the tulip garden, but I don't think of the Catacombs as the death-pit nightmare basement I used to. It's become strangely familiar.
That is the beauty of Lordran's design. To guide the player through incredibly hostile and engaging environments until they know them like it was second-nature.
Part of Dark Souls celebrated difficulty is that there are NO maps or guides to speak of in the game. The player is given some very vague goals at the very start of the game to “ring two bells of awakening” and is left to just muddle through on their own. When a player rolls up that first character, there is simply no choice but to explore and find his or her own way through Lordran. Of course this being Dark Souls, where the school of hard knocks is always in session, this is no easy task. The first time through, you are going to be dying. A lot. The game (not-so) gently guides the player though a path of least resistance. If you are going the right direction, you should be able to just barely keep up with the enemies and obstacles you come across. Stray from the path, and next thing you know you'll be partying with intangible ghosts and face melting demons.
You are always on the razor edge in Dark Souls. One misstep and your Chosen Undead can become just another cautionary bloodstain on the ground. Because everything is so lethal, it forces the player to pay attention. I read an article on Dark Souls design, how in the very first moments you land in Lordran, the game teaches you how to move ahead and check your surroundings. Its very true. You never want to go into a new area blind. It only takes a few nasty surprises to make you cautious and thoughtful in how you walk around.
Be very careful now.
It also makes you sharp. Dying sucks in Dark Souls. Not only do you lose your progress and have to start back at the last bonfire you rested at, but you drop all the souls and humanity you have on you. That stuff is your XP, your currency, and your online pass to Jolly Cooperation all at the same time; you never want to lose any if you don't have to. So the savvy player pays attention and remembers the lay of the land well. Getting jumped by a nasty ambush once sucks. Falling for the same trick twice and having it cost you all of your hard earned souls is enough to make a grown man cry.
Not only are enemy positions essential knowledge, but you need to know the terrain as well. Both the major dangers of the location and the best usage of the geometry. You can always try and use the many traps to your advantage, leading your enemies into them; and there are many hard fights in the game that can be made very simple with a well placed boot near a ledge. You can't afford to miss a trick in Dark Souls, so paying attention to the land is key.
It's this process of learning that makes Lordran so memorable and interesting. Straight repetition is just boring. The fact that the game makes you try the same area a bunch of times isn't necessarily a good thing if its just a matter of luck or persistence to get through. Dark Souls encourages you to play smarter, not harder. It's not that “oh, you die a lot have have to keep coming back to the same place” that makes Lordran exciting. It's “oh, you die a lot, AT FIRST, then once you learn what you are doing you impress yourself with how much better you are at it.” As you play the game and learn, areas that seemed like a horrible life and death trial the first time become easier and easier.
Then there is the way the locations are laid out. Unlike its predecessor Demon Souls which featured a hub system that led to different distinct levels, Lordran is an open world. One location connects naturally to the next and several areas overlap or criss-cross.
Notice on this map of the Undead Burg area how all the locations connect together. This is only the starting area.
But not every location comes with a welcome banner or sweeping establishing shot. No, in fact for many of the areas it almost seems like a matter of sneaking in through the back door. You get to the Undead Burg by crawling through a cistern. The lower burg is accessed from a nondescript door leading to a long ladder and narrow ledge, it feels like coming in through the service hatch. The Tomb of Giants is simply a natural extension of the Catacombs – the further down you go the bigger the coffins get and the thicker the darkness. I snuck into the cathedral of Anor Londo by shimmying up a flying buttress and diving in through a balcony window. Not exactly a hero's triumphant entrance.
Combining these little mouse holes and back doors that lead to new areas with the heavy emphasis on exploration creates a weird sensation. More than a few times through the game I worried that I was sequence breaking or taking on an area ahead of schedule or through the wrong route. It is an odd tension.
But it also makes sense. If there were huge gates or “load bearing bosses” separating every new location it would feel fake – video gamey. The weird little cubby holes and serpentine routes through less than glorious paths makes Lordran feel much more like a real interconnected place rather than a series of set-pieces and levels. It makes the exploration feel more real.
All this talk of alleyways and obscure little paths doesn't mean that Dark Souls can't impress with its locations when it wants to. Far from it. Part of what makes Lordran such an amazing place to visit is its variety of locations and its mix of gritty low fantasy and bigger-than-life scale.
The Golden City of Anor Londo is a great example. You reach the city after a protracted time in a hell hole called Sen's Fortress – a cramped dark dungeon specifically designed to test you. Its filled with classic booby-traps like pendulum blades and Indiana Jones style death boulders. Its narrow hallways, pressure pads, and precarious ledges are extremely confining; you have to watch every step. Then you hit the sun soaked promenades of Anor Londo and everything changes.
Like a fantasy version of Vatican City, Anor Londo is a city of churches and temples which features extremely wide open and brightly lit areas; far more vast and open than any other area you have so far encountered in Lordran. Enemies here are literal giants – golems and gargoyles you can see from a mile off. The architecture reflects this. Archways and gates here are designed for creatures 30 feet taller than you. Those gigantic statues of the Goddess Guinevere? They're made to her actual size.
And there you are – one tiny insignificant undead. Scurrying around in a place meant for Gods and Kings. Its a wonderful change in tone that reminds you of the scope of what you are up against – just in case you were feeling big for defeating Sen's Fortress.
It's the low fantasy that makes the fantastic pop so much. When you trudge through the slums of Lordran and dive into its sewers, it feels absolutely believable. From Software took the plausibility and consistency (shout outs to Knutaf!) of their world building from Demon Souls and expanded on it in Dark Souls. Every place feels real, every place feels connected. So its all the more striking when that grit and harshness gives way to the surreal. The best example of this has to be Ash Lake.
Below the filth of the sewers is a forsaken dumping ground known as Blighttown where only the lowest of the low reside. Outside the walls of the Lordran, all the runoff from the Undead Burg and the depths comes to pool in this fetid pit where degenerate half-men have made a rickety home for themselves over a poison swamp. It's a place that will make your skin crawl. In the very bottom of the swamp, should the player ever make the foolhardy choice to explore it, one can find a massive dead tree. Through a crack in the tree are a series of false walls that lead inside the massive trunk – which is when things get weird.
Inside the tree is an area known as the hollows. And I'll be damned if it wasn't intended as some sort of dark take on Alice in Wonderland. Winding down the inside of the tree are a tangled mess of roots, branches, and thickets that the bold (stupid) can use to climb down. Way down. Keep in mind you got to this place by going through the sewers into the very depths of the kingdom. But it still keeps leading down, past twisted branches and curse inflicting lizards until the dead vines give way to petals and hugely overgrown mushroom tops. Down and through more hollowed branches until you come to... a beach?
When you finally make it out of the unfathomably huge trunk, you find yourself standing on a tiny spit of sand surrounded on all sides by dark waters. In the distance you can see other trees, massive trees that reach up to the clouds above them. Yes, clouds. Underground. The attentive player may recognize them, they are the so-called Arch-Trees of the era before time mentioned only briefly in the opening cinematic. Exploring around offers more weirdness – a Hydra, sparkling giant clams resting in the smooth sand, a handful of mushroom men – and at the end of the beach is one of the great stone Everlasting Dragons, supposedly extinct.
Is Ash Lake actually underground, or have you journeyed back in time or to another world? Who can say.
It's a totally surreal trip and it makes no sense. Very The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe type stuff. Even when I heard about the secret area secondhand after missing it the first time through, I wasn't prepared for the sheer shock of it. The mysticism of the moment floored me and I don't think I'll ever forget my first journey there.
Lordran is at once terrifying and wonderful. It is a world of horrible threats, unforgiving obstacles, and labyrinthine design. But its also home to some of the most breath taking and inspiring locations I've seen in a video game in years. Its a world that you must become intimately familiar with if you want to stand a chance, but also one you will remember fondly.