So I started playing this game called Dark Souls. For those of you unfamiliar: it’s the spiritual sequel to Demon’s Souls, one of the most notoriously difficult games released in recent years.
Combat—whether wielding a sword and shield or slinging fire and spears of light—is brutally tight, built on timing and precise movement, and often involves multiple enemies. Another game’s fodder, in Dark Souls, can carve out a third of your health bar with one swing. Bonfires provide a safe place to rest, recharge your life-giving Estus Flask, restore your humanity, and save progress, but this respite comes at a price: every bonfire visit resurrects your fallen enemies, and they think it’s adorable you just managed to put one more point into your strength.
They still want to chop you up and wear you like a suit.
Even worse, Dark Souls doesn’t care if you decided to save your souls—both experience and currency—because you’re only a few hundred away from another point, and maybe you’ll check out the next room to beat down a few skeletons and besides, there’s no way you’ll roll off a bridge like some mouth breather who- goddamn it. At death, you lose all the souls you haven’t spent. You get one chance to fight your way back to your grave and claim those sweet souls, but if you roll off that bridge before snagging them they disappear for good.
Dark Souls is a game of immediate and permanent consequences.
The user interface does nothing to shield you from these razor-sharp mechanics. Most games now feature a comprehensive, hand-holding tutorial of some kind (“Use the joystick to move, asshole!”), or at least a map and an arrow to point you in the right direction. When I clawed my way out of an undead prison, the starting area in Dark Souls, I was presented with three paths and no hint as to which way I should venture.
I’ll guess I’ll go down this mountain path, I thought to myself, puffed up with my success in the prison and certain the game’s nefarious quality had been greatly exaggerated. Fool!
I spent my first two hours dying to invulnerable ghosts and only-slightly-less-invincible skeletons, finally despairing ’til I started up again the next day and found the right path almost immediately. Fresh eyes, I guess.
But then, slamming up against the same enemies and getting your ass kicked for hours doesn’t always mean you’re delving in the wrong direction. Sometimes it just means you’re playing Dark Souls!
It’s strange that I enjoy Dark Souls, as it carries few of the virtues I look for in games. It’s punishing and tough to grasp, whereas I play to relax. The multiplayer component enables and even encourages griefing, allowing other players to warp into your game world unannounced and attempt to steal your humanity.
“Hey guy! Are you here to help me fight this boss? No? Oh, you’re splitting me open with a club like two Hondas taped together. Great!”
And yet—and this is where I think the pull is—buried in Dark Souls are moments of sublime satisfaction. Every bonfire I manage to find and light is hard won, representing hours of blind, brave marching into the dark. I spent ten minutes fighting a twelve-foot knight armed with a sword my avatar could fit inside, alternately cowering behind my shield, rolling away from his strikes and leaping forward to strike a quick blow.
It’s rewarding where other games are patronizing. For every twenty encounters that leave me chewing my controller and making a noise in my throat roommates now describe as “Dark Souls rattle,” I’ll get one chance to feel like a god.
I don’t know how long my fascination will hold. Right now I’m trying to find some kind of bell, but I just found something called the Fire Keeper’s Soul that I think someone wants back at the bonfire where my journey began. This means fighting back through scores of undead I’ve already killed once.
But I don’t mind.