Please note: The following article contains spoilers for the first Dark Souls. Although I’d argue that having the game explained to you by someone who’s played it more than you is part of the core Dark Souls experience, if you’re trying to play the game without any outside information, I’d recommend you close this tab and go finish the game. It’s phenomenal, and this post will still be here when you get back. Alright? Cool. Now nobody can accuse me of spoiling a game from 2011.
For those of you who don’t know me, I wrote a blog post a couple weeks back about how I don’t like Shadow of the Colossus. If you want to read that, just spin your scroll wheel a couple times and you should end up in the right place. Read that, leave me an angry comment, and meet me back here when you’re ready. Again, this post isn’t going anywhere.
All joking aside, I really enjoyed the discussion that followed from that post. Obviously a lot of people like Shadow of the Colossus, and the comments gave me exactly what I was hoping for: people making well-articulated points in the game’s defense. Do I like Shadow of the Colossus more now? Not really, no. Do I understand why people like it more now? Absolutely. I’m genuinely interested in what people have to say about the game even if I disagree with it, and I appreciate everybody who was willing to engage with my opinion. I also appreciate those of you who wanted me crucified because it made me feel like I took a stance on something people care about, which sound a lot cooler than complaining about mass-market entertainment. So thanks!
But anyway, I felt the best way to offer penance for criticizing a game everyone likes is to praise a game that everyone likes: Dark Souls. The first one, to be clear. I love Dark Souls 3 and Bloodborne as well, and can’t deny that I liked a lot of things about Dark Souls 2, but Dark Souls 1 is the golden child of this franchise.
I mentioned in my SotC blog that Dark Souls is one of my favorite games of the last decade, and being the filthy, socially oblivious, safe space-dependent Generation Zer that I am, the phrase ‘of the last decade’ is pretty interchangeable with the phrase ‘of all time’ for me. So from now on we’ll just say Dark Souls is one of my all-time favorites. Now, the funny thing about Dark Souls being one of my favorite games is that whenever I go back and play it, I frequently find myself questioning why I love it so much. Even the most devoted fan of Dark Souls has to admit that there’s no shortage of valid criticisms to raise against the game. The hitboxes stab me in the back (pun intended) whenever I start to trust them. There are some highlights among the boss fights—shout out to the Artorias DLC for doing a lot of the heavy lifting in this department—but many of the boss fights feel uninspired, and later games would easily top the standard that DS1 set. The game noticeably sags in the second half—the mere thought of Lost Izalith and the freaking Bed of Chaos always makes me drag my feet when it comes to actually finishing the game. And of course, parts of the game tow the line between ‘challenging’ and ‘badly designed to the point of being unfair.’
(unrelated photo of Dark Souls 1 gameplay)
So why do I keep coming back to Dark Souls? Is it the variety of playstyles that the game offers? The genuinely challenging gameplay? My own sense self-loathing?
To a certain extent, the answer to all of these questions is ‘yes.’ These are all things that make me like Dark Souls. But the story and atmosphere are what make me love Dark Souls. There’s something about the world of Dark Souls that feels more organic to me than anything else out there. I get a sense when I’m playing that the world of Dark Souls has been turning since long before I showed up, and will persist long after I’m gone. When I play the game for long enough I get immersed to the point of feeling like I’ve slipped into Narnia as envisioned by Friedrich Nietzsche.
It took me multiple attempted playthroughs to ‘get’ Dark Souls for the first time. Of course I’d hate to reduce falling in love to a single point in time, but the moment that always comes to mind whenever I try to explain why I love the game is the first time I encountered the Hydra. I was minding my own business, exploring the Darkroot Garden and Basin for the first time, and then bam: Hydra chilling out in a pond. Why is it even here in the first place? Am I supposed to try to fight it? Do I need to fight it to move forward?
It’s not even a major event in the game, but that Hydra encounter sticks with me because it was the moment I realized this game could legitimately surprise me. It was also when I realized that I wasn’t going to get the full experience out of Dark Souls unless I fully explored the game world. The thing that I love about FromSoft is that they’re not so insecure that they feel the need to railroad the player into seeing everything that the game has to offer. They’re content to make a game that will give back as much as you put in.
Again, I realize I’m not the next Christopher Columbus because I stumbled across the Hydra in Dark Souls. Now that I’ve played through the game a few more times I realize that the Hydra is actually pretty hard to miss; and besides, my kill count is nowhere near that of Columbus. But that moment is significant for me because it helped me to understand FromSoft’s design philosophy—they didn’t set out to build Fantasy World #4769 and reverse engineer the lore behind it, they drew up a detailed vision of a melancholy, crumbling world and populated it accordingly. The Hydra isn’t just special because it was a surprise, it’s special because it’s indicative of the struggle that permeates Lordran from top to bottom. The Hydra is chilling out in that pond, as I so unscientifically put it, because it has nowhere else to turn.
That depressing thought is as good a segue as any into my main point: the world and atmosphere of Dark Souls convey its overall themes in a way that few games even come close to. This is a game about fighting something that will always be stronger than you are: the passage of time. You can have all the power in the world, but entropy still won’t make an exception for you. By the time the player steps into the game, Lordran has fallen so far from its former glory that the memories of the good times offer little comfort to its remaining inhabitants. Nobody has an easy life in Lordran these days. The lucky ones were far away enough when dung pies started getting intimate with fans that they can still cling to something resembling their old lives. The unlucky ones get to spend the rest of their lives as spiders or living canvasses for occult research. The really unlucky ones ended up in the stomach of an obese man with a hammer.
Dark Souls want the heroes of the world to know that they’re not special. There are plenty of morally ambiguous characters in Lordran, but all of my favorite characters in the game are heroes who fell in the line of duty. Artorias is the embodiment of this idea—he was one of the finest knights in the world, purer in heart than anyone, and he failed. He succumbed to a foe that preyed on the virtue that made him great in the eyes of others. Havel tried to stop Gwyn from giving power to a maniac, and he failed. He was locked away and lost his own mind for ‘the good of the realm.’ If you don’t save Solaire—something that a player of Dark Souls could easily miss—all of his training and his noble spirit goes to waste. Solaire, the one who conquered challenges that pushed you to your limit, smiling all the while, is left a shambling, delusional mess.
Dark Souls has a valuable lesson for today’s participation trophy-wielding youth: sometimes you’ll be the right person doing the right thing and still fail. I’m not encouraging you to make your young children play Dark Souls—unless they’ve been bad—but thematically the game has a lot of depressing lessons to teach them about the world. You’re not guaranteed to win just because you’re doing the right thing. To my mind, that makes doing the right thing all the more noble—is it really a sacrifice if you know your sacrifice will go exactly the way you want it to? Who wouldn’t make a sacrifice if they knew their own success was assured?
(If you are having your kids play Dark Souls, the fight with Sif can teach them a valuable lesson about the mortality of family pets)
It bothers me that the phrase ‘like Dark Souls’ has become industry shorthand for ‘this game is hard.’ Yes, Dark Souls is hard, but that’s not what makes it great. Plenty of things that suck are also hard.
(unrelated photo of Shadow of the Colossus gameplay)
I do like that Dark Souls legitimately pushes the player to ‘git gud,’ as they say, but the difficulty means so much more in the context of the world. The game is hard because Lordran is a hard place to survive. You don’t win your battles in Lordran because you were fated to slay the darkness; you win because you didn’t give up in the face of overwhelming odds. The fallen heroes that you put of their misery testify to the fact that you are earning each and every victory you achieve. You don’t get to be special unless you work for it, and even then you might still fail. But doesn’t that make the success all the more worth it?