Sunday was another “do nothing” day and I spent most of it playing a game called Dark Souls and, in my opinion, it was far from a “do nothing” day.
Dark Souls is an action/adventure game released in 2011 and became a darling in the gaming community for being hard but also being fair. It has many other positive qualities but you will die a lot playing it but the controls are tight (if not a bit quirky) and gameplay consistent enough that you can use what you learn from your last death to avoid dying again … and, in some cases, as tools against the enemies.
With the phrase Prepare to die presented each time you boot up the game, Dark Souls unapologetically challenges you each time you play.
I didn’t pick it Dark Souls in 2011, up until at that time, enjoying games that allowed me to explore the worlds with a modest challenge here and there; games like Fallout and Skyrim. But I love me a good RPG and the dungeon-crawling trope is writ deep into my pleasure centers. So it was that, a couple years ago, I started playing harder games and finding them enjoyable at the same time someone showed me a few minutes of play-time from Dark Souls. My friend was at an early level and ran around the castle parapets a bit, died to a few “hollows” (the entry level enemy of the game), and generally walked me through some of the game basics.
I was hooked.
The art for the game is detailed, looking like an exquisite ink and paper drawing; the variety of the enemies is rich and varied … the aforementioned hollows, which look a bit like skeletons, up to giant dragons … and the level design is intricate; clearly a masterwork. While many people feel lost when playing the game (there’s no map feature, no “go here next” or guide NPC to help you), if you study the game you’ll find the paucity of explicit information about the world is intentional: the backstory and world are all richly designed and developed.
To understand the story, backstory, and objectives you need to read the descriptions on items you find, talk and listen to the NPC characters, and read the information presented during the load screens. Why are the black knights black? Lord Gwynn took his honor guard to the initial kindling! Why was old Londo flooded? To seal in some bad guys. What does it mean to “go hollow”? To give up.
There are deeper questions that can be asked and answered, but I’m hoping to avoid (too many) spoilers: Dark Souls has been out “forever” (in gaming time) but it’s still a wonder to piece together the intricate story, to see the new locations, and immerse yourself in this world.
Prepare to die
While I personally haven’t completely lived by this advice … to go in and discover things myself … the best parts of the game are those I did discover on my own. I’ve watched speed-runs of the game (folks who can play and beat the game in an hour or so), I have a guide book on it, and read the art and design book cover-to-cover. But I still like best those parts that I see for myself for the first time: walking through the ghost ruins of old Londo, finding a seldom found “soul” of a dead hero, and understanding the fighting style of the various enemies.
In one level I continued to die to the Stone Guardians, giant statue-like guards who appear immobile at first but come to life in your presence … and then cut you down. When I found that I could bait them into taking two swipes at me, just staying out of their reach, and then capitalize on their recovery time by getting in a large smash, I was delighted. Same for the Sentinels: another huge guardian. I tried staying just far enough away from these guys to avoid their hits … and typically failed. Then I got in close, circled behind, and was rewarded by more wins against them! All high points.
Compare that to fighting a boss enemy called the Ceaseless Discharge … a massive demon boss who continues to emit lava while alive. For this fight, the CD is trapped in a lava pool and will lash at you with long, tentacle-like arms. You must slash at the arms until you chop away enough of his health to win … all the while avoiding being smashed. Or, you could take advantage of a well-advertised glitch where you run to a spot on the arena, hit him twice (with no chance of being hit yourself), and the fight is over with you winning. If you do that, however, your victory is pretty hollow and doesn’t feel like the rest of the game: you didn’t work at it, didn’t learn anything particular, and just sorta won. Yawn. It’s entirely forgettable which is so different than the rest of the game.
A central premise to the game is being undead. You start the game by being introduced as someone cursed by the “dark sign” and committed to the Undead Asylum. The dark sign keeps you from truly dying and, if you do nothing about your situation, you’ll ultimately “go hollow”, which is equivalent to going insane: you just stop trying or caring or doing anything. If you fight going hollow, you can revive each time you die and continue on.
This is a great metaphor for the game player his/herself: as long as you continue trying and don’t give up, there’s something more out there. You just need to keep trying.
It’s a lovely little hook and, each time I put down the game either for being too challenging, not having enough time, or some other game comes along, I find myself thinking back to Dark Souls and asking myself if I’ve “gone hollow”. And so I keep fighting.
Where am I and what have I seen?
I’m about halfway through the game and I’ve seen a lot.
In the game you start in the Undead Asylum, a tutorial of sorts. You fight a few hollows who will definitely chop you down, get some introductory gear, and face off against the first of many giant bosses: the Undead Asylum Demon. After you manage to beat the AD, you are taken to Firelink Shrine where you learn a bit of lore and are given the best guidance you will get in this part of the game: you need to ring a couple bells to open the gates to the next area.
The first bell takes you through Undead Berg and past another intro boss: the giant Taurus Demon who teaches you to be aggressive fighting these massive creatures. And teaches you to get back after dying. A lot.
All of this is on the parapets of an old, broken down castle with lots of hollows and their various ways to challenge you: swords, bows, and axes. After figuring out how to avoid a dragon guarding a bridge, you come to the Undead Parish and ultimately to the top of a cathedral where you fight what many people consider the first real boss fight in the game: the gargoyles. I will say from experience that it’s exhilarating when you win this one.
From there you are told to find the next bell “below”. And so with a key to the lower area, you start descending.
Moldering dungeons, poison pools, and enemies that will cut you, cause toxin to continually deplete your health, and falls that will instantly kill are all part of this next section.
You fight giant barbarians, learn to avoid the dart-blowing enemies, and dodge fire-breathing dogs. And after a very long slog, you come to the boss Quelaag who is half spider, half human and you re-learn to be aggressive and get in close to these enormous enemies. Or, you die a lot.
But after this you can ring the second bell and Sen’s Fortress opens up and you now have a lot of options: going back to the places you’ve been to continue fighting the respawning enemies, heading into the forests between the various areas to see a green (and equally deadly) side of the Dark Souls world, or head into the trap-laden Sen’s Fortress to further the story.
It’s all up to you.
How is that fair?
The hallmark to a game that’s a good challenge is that, if you play through a section a subsequent time, you should be able to avoid the same fate. Sure, it may take a bit of trying to learn some timing issue, and enemies should be more complex than having a single fighting style … so you may die to the same enemy a couple times as you learn his quirks … but ultimately if you “get good” (a somewhat unhelpful but fair bit of advice given to those asking for help with this game) you will progress further.
But getting good takes time and some areas have multiple ways of killing you. Sen’s Fortress challenged me for a long time. The swinging blades took timing to avoid, the snake-like creatures who would fight me while I ran through the blades were relentless, the pressure plate that fired arrows at me that I kept forgetting was there … well, oops. Add to this additional enemies in alcoves or on balconies, the narrow ledges and bridges you run along, and the massive rolling balls that would barrel over me in the hallways almost contributed to me going hollow.
If you come back, remember what you learned, slowly tease out the enemy so he walks on the pressure plate, so he steps in front of the swinging blade, or he is in the hallway when the boulder comes by … well, the game is the same for both of you. You can even just kick him off the ledge … what kills you will kill them. Mostly … they don’t seem to die to “friendly fire”, which is a bit of a shame.
While some have said the game is too hard and should have a way to make it easier … well, it does: just keep playing. The more you play, the more you’ll increase in skill and your characters will beef up by gaining levels. As you both improve (you and your character), you’ll make smarter choices and be harder to kill. I had avoided a level called The Catacombs for so long … it has a notorious reputation, that by the time I did head through the winding, subterranean crypts and tunnels, I breezed through. The skeletons couldn’t stand against me, the undead mages died with two strong hits, and the wheel skeletons … well, they were tougher but ultimately fell to my brawn.
Another option is to call in either your friends or, prior to most boss fights, you can summon an NPC helper … someone who can both deliver some hits for you as well as distract the boss so you’re not constantly the target. I’ll admit, most bosses I’m calling in the NPC helper. But, for those lacking just a bit more skill than the next person, it’s the way to make it easier, make it a bit more fair.
More to come
Dark Souls is one of a handful of games I’ve played where getting through isn’t my main goal and I think about how I’ll approach it the next time I play, too. This time I’m a hulking warrior wielding a two-handed sword; next time I’ll try magic. The game is challenging and I find it’s a big part of what I like; the other being the depth of the imagined world and the hidden but fascinating backstory behind it.
My advice to those who might want to give it a try: be aggressive, learn from you deaths, and don’t go hollow.