Dark Souls or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love FromSoftware
I came to Dark Souls in a rather roundabout way. For the longest time, when video gaming was reverted to a secondary hobby at best, the sort that would see me get the occasional triple A release, a few indie titles here and there, tons of Rock Band and sports games to occupy time that wasn’t taken up by comics or Magic: the Gathering or reviewing movies or planning a wedding or any other sorts of things I would and do get up to, I wasn’t particularly interested in taking on an extreme challenge. I played most games on whatever was the equivalent normal difficulty, and had no compunction dropping that sucker down to easy if I found myself struggling to the point that the fun factor diminished. I was big on narrative games (still am, to be fair), so seeing the story play out was much more important to me than “playing the game the right way” or any other holier-than-thou online gaming pedant would put it if you had the temerity to try to enjoy a game not on the highest possible difficulty. People get different things out of games. Sometimes it’s challenge, sometimes it’s story, sometimes it’s the abject thrill and satisfaction of beating the hell out of a computer opponent in FIFA or Super Mega Baseball.
Different strokes for different folks, as they say.
Because of this ethos, I never even considered the idea of playing a game like Dark Souls. I remember when Demon’s Souls came out and people were talking about taking two dozen deaths to a single boss early in the game, and that didn’t remotely sound like anything resembling fun to me. I grew up in the 8 bit era. We owned games like Ghosts n’ Goblins and Battletoads. We went to arcades and played games designed to empty our pockets of quarters with ruthless efficiency. It was an era that passed. For a reason. Coming back to games like this was like the gaming equivalent of a kid being told to eat broccoli when there are french fries right over there waiting for him. It’s perhaps a bit of a stretch metaphor to call playing Bioshock 2 on easy french fries and Demon’s Souls as broccoli (or insert other perceived disgusting veggie here, which I honestly should have done because hey, I like me some broccoli), but hopefully you catch my drift. Why would I play something so stressful, so harrowing and so frustrating when I’m specifically using gaming as a release, as a source of fun. What’s fun about dying a bunch of times, especially with a game that seems to take particular glee in doing that to me, flashing YOU DIED on the screen in blood-red font every time you receive a killing blow. These games revel in your misery. That’s part of the fun, after all.
I did try my hands at a From Software murder-thon eventually, choosing to pick up Bloodborne shortly after its release in spring 2015. It was a big PS4 exclusive release that had gotten a rapturous response, and the creepy Victorian horror setting was a big bonus for me (I’m not as in to medieval swords and sorcery and dragons and stuff as some may be). I didn’t even know about the cosmic Lovecraftian elements that lurked beneath the surface! And I am a huge sucker for cosmic horror. So I bought it on a whim, tried it, and hated it. It didn’t help that Bloodborne was cursed with absurdly long load times at launch, meaning every time I died I was forced to look at a black screen with "Bloodborne" written in fancy white text for 30 to 45 seconds (or more). And, this being a From Software Souls-style game, I died a lot. It took hours for me to fight my way through the opening section of Central Yharnam, dying to the first enemies in the game (hell, I had to look up on the internet how to get a weapon, because even that wasn’t obvious and I spent an embarrassing time trying to fight with my fists) eventually staggering over to the domain of the Cleric Beast, dying horribly a few times and giving up for good. Clearly I was right. Clearly these games weren’t for me.
Or were they?
Cut to two years later, when I joined Giant Bomb Premium (mostly in order to watch Dan Ryckert and Drew “Blinking White Guy” Scanlon play through all of the core Metal Gear Solid games in an extremely long and extremely excellent series of videos). I was getting back into games in a big way, spending a lot of time on Final Fantasy XV over the intersession holiday, sinking a huge amount of time in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn. I was getting hooked on open world games for the first time. Looking for more Giant Bomb content, I came across the Breaking Brad series, where Brad Shoemaker attempted various difficult video game feats on camera. Specifically, one of the series chronicled his attempt at getting the platinum trophy for Bloodborne. Watching Brad play Bloodborne’s end-game content, rolling and diving away from the inhuman bosses that prowled the game’s Chalice Dungeons. Watching Brad play Bloodborne made it feel more akin to an action puzzle game than the despairing, punishing nightmare I had played two years previously. The push-pull of combat, of dancing on that razor’s edge just beyond a boss’ reach, of getting greedy and getting punished mightily for it, it made a lot more sense. It was an extremely violent and bloody chess game. I seemed to get it a bit more that time.
So I tried again, purchasing Bloodborne a second time (I had sold it off after my first aborted attempt at trying the game) and sitting down with a new sense of patience and determination. And this time, it paid off. I took my time, analyzing every enemy’s attack patterns and making slow, deliberate progress (buoyed by the game’s vastly improved load times thanks to some post-release patching). I killed the Cleric Beast with a bit of extra effort and it felt great, a pure endorphin rush. And from then on, I was hooked, dumping 70 plus hours into the game over the summer, even getting my now-fiance invested in my plight when she came over and watched me eventually take down Martyr Logarius. I beat the game, started doing some chalice dungeon stuff and eventually fell off between moving to a new apartment and the glut of big 2017 fall releases (your Cupheads, your Marios Odyssey, your Wolfensteins 2, your Assassin’s Creed Origins) and my annual movie-watching glut once screener season came around. I didn’t think I was good enough to get the Platinum, but I had gotten a damn sight further than I ever could have imagined in 2015.
But the bug that bit me was not exclusive to Bloodborne. I wanted more. I played Nioh, a sort of samurai Dark Souls set in Feudal Japan from Team Ninja, the original makers of Ninja Gaiden back in the day (another one of those absurdly hard games I used to play when I was a kid). It’s pretty great in its own right, with a much more complicated combat system (in addition to each weapon type having its own upgrade tree and movesets, the game has a stance system that increases the complexity exponentially). I didn’t finish it (and hey, I still might, especially with Nioh 2 announced at E3 for next year), but I did enjoy it quite a bit. Even a game like Cuphead isn’t exactly a direct link from Bloodborne, but that sense of accomplishment that comes from overcoming a difficult challenge is certainly along the same lines. They’re both excellent games in their own right, but they didn’t quite scratch that specific From Software itch. I acquired both Dark Souls 2 and Dark Souls 3 on Steam during sales, but it really made sense for me to start at the beginning of the Dark Souls series. This probably makes a lot more sense given what was coming, but I noticed that the original Dark Souls (the Prepare to Die edition ported to the PC, which has had its fair share of porting issues and required a fan patch to actually be functional) never went on sale like the other Souls games did.
Then Bandai/Namco announced Dark Souls Remastered (on a Nintendo Direct of all places).
This was my opportunity to start at the beginning and really sink my teeth into what makes a Souls game a Souls game. A game that had gasp) shields. And they were important! A game that really did its part to establish what it means to be a From Software game, building and refining on the mechanisms of Demon’s Souls and dragging them outside the Playstation ecosystem. Dark Souls ushered in the giant, seamless interconnected world that would become one of the many trademarks of SoulsBorne games, eschewing Demon’s Souls’ hub world with discrete levels for a labyrinthine map of areas that bleed into one another, riddled with shortcuts and “oh shit, this leads here?!” moments. It can be easy to get lost in Dark Souls because of this; beating a boss doesn’t exactly point a huge arrow toward your next objective, and each location usually has multiple ways to enter and exit it so you can pretty much just go wherever you want and it will likely lead you to somewhere you need to go.
Sure, you might stumble on the Valley of the Drakes too early and get mercked by some very angry dragons, or you might take a left instead of a right at the beginning of the game and find yourself surrounded by immortal skeletons, but this is how you learn in the world of Lordran. Dark Souls is the ultimate example of the Hobbesian paradigm. Life here is by its very nature nasty, brutish and short. You make one wrong move, let off the block button a frame too soon, dodge just a bit too early or too late, and you’ll see that demoralizing YOU DIED faster than you ever could imagine would be possible. Sometimes that’s not so big a deal. Sometimes it represents hours of work flushed down the drain as you wake anew at your last bonfire and know all those enemies you killed are back and ready for more.
Plus, the benefits eventually far outweigh the pain points if you can get over the hump and master the game’s difficulty curve. One day, after dumping souls into stat points and leveling up your gear, you’ll be able to stride triumphantly back into that valley with those drakes and show them what for. It’s immensely satisfying. It helps that FromSoftware is steadfast in its convictions, more than happy to throw you some nasty curveballs right when you make the mistake of deigning to feel comfortable with your skill level.
Dark Souls (and by extension games like Bloodborne, Nioh, The Surge, Salt and Sanctuary and the litany of “Souls-like” games that have come in its wake) is not the game for those seeking instant gratification. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Over the last few days, I’ve been working through Knight Artorias, the second mandatory boss of Dark Souls’ DLC (which was automatically included in the Remastered game). Artorias is a bit of a bastard, wielding a formidable greatsword with both surprising speed and surprising range. He could kill me in just a few hits if I weren’t careful, and his attacks came quickly enough that whenever I would take a swig of my Estus Flask to heal, he would bury his sword in my head and take off the majority of the health I just recovered, if not more. And, for better or worse (I’m going with worse), my weapon only did about 60 damage per swing to a boss with somewhere in the vicinity of 4,000 health. If you combine all of those factors, you get a brutal, long fight with little to no margin for error. Artorias has multiple attacks that can stunlock you and get in multiple hits if you’re not careful, and you can see death coming for you without the ability to do anything to stop it. It can be quite demoralizing
As I beat my head against a wall trying to beat Artorias, Jess (my fiance) got just as engrossed in the process as I was. She coached me through, asking what I could do to become more survivable and how the game’s stamina system works. Eventually, I shifted from a light armor loadout that allowed me to dodge quickly but take more damage to a heavier armor set that was slower (but not “fat roll” slow) with more poise that would allow me to take more hits for less damage and reduced staggering to counteract slowing my dodge capabilities. Maybe that could be the difference between life and death in a stunlocking situation. It made an immediate difference, but I still died thanks to an unfortunate circumstance that involved running out of stamina. So I swapped out my helm for a lower armor one that included some passive extra stamina regeneration. I could stay in close and absorb his strikes, but still have enough stamina to get a hit in and be able to roll away. It seemed like the perfect solution I needed to get through the fight. That didn’t make the battle easy, though. I still had plenty of mistimed blocks and rolls and damage taken and breathless anxiety trying to find a window to heal without opening myself up for the counter swing. The four to five minutes it took to slowly whittle his health down were about as stressful (but not frustrating) as good difficult gaming gets.
That’s the interesting thing. As someone who’s battled with stress and anxiety in my life with varying degrees of intensity, you’d think that I wouldn’t go out of my way to actively inject more stress into my life. But there’s something about the stress of a Dark Souls or a Bloodborne or a Cuphead that’s...different. There’s a compartmentalization to it, but perhaps more importantly also a transience to it. I’d imagine it’s the same way thrillseekers feel when they ride a particularly intense roller coaster or jump out of a plane to do whatever crazy thing they do. If you could not tell, I am not a thrillseeker. I prefer my thrills cordoned off behind the screen of a television where it doesn’t really matter if I make a mistake. All I’m losing is time, and in the grand scheme of things, I’ve got plenty of time.
There’s a moment that often comes whenever you get that close to finishing off a difficult Soulsborne boss, especially a long, pitched fight. You’ve spent so much time and energy on extreme discipline and extreme focus, that it’s easy to become filled with an immediate sense of reckless abandon, the desire to push ahead, swinging your weapon wildly to get those last few hits in before something goes wrong. But, of course, the thing that goes wrong is changing your tactics by pushing ahead while swinging your weapon wildly to get those last few hits in. Inevitably, this change of strategy and rhythm is just the opening the boss needs, and you’re left despairing at a bonfire (or lantern), rueing your shortsightedness and abandonment of your principles. That happened to me against The Shadows of Yharnam (which I wrote about in my 2017 video game wrap-up article posted earlier this year) and Defiled Amygdala in Bloodborne. It happened to me against Chaos Witch Quelaag and Ornstein & Smough (maaaaaaaaaaan, that one hurt) in Dark Souls. And I felt that surge of adrenaline again with three or so hits left in Artorias’ life bar, that desire to just throw everything at the wall, but I steadied myself and took a deep breath, content to continue the ballet of blocking and dodging until I got those last few strikes in. As Artorias dissolved into mist and VICTORY ACHIEVED flashed across the screen, I exhaled for the first time in what felt like an eternity.
I’m nearly reaching the end of my journey through Dark Souls Remastered. I’m down to the final boss in the main campaign and the last two bosses in the DLC. As is always the case in a FromSoftware game, there is a New Game+ mode that will kick off right when I beat Lord Gwyn, but I would expect that I’ll probably be done with the game for the time being.
Besides, I’ve got two more Dark Souls games to play through, and FromSoft just announced at E3 that their next game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, will be coming out early next year. The war never ends, so all you can do is focus on the tiny victories along the way.