You know when you see somebody treated horribly by their spouse or loved one over and over, and yet you can never quite persuade them to leave the abusive bastard? Well, I have new sympathy for that mindset. You see, I just completed the first Dark Souls, having died so often that I could have made a bridge out of all my old corpses, straight over all the enemies and right to the final boss.
This is normal. This is Dark Souls, it’s what it’s famous for. Christ, the tagline for the game was “You will die,” so I don’t have the right to complain about it being hard. It was warning me about its cruelty before I picked it up, and everybody who played it was telling me that it wasn’t joking around. The number of hours I spent banging my head against the Taurus Demon boss fight, I can safely say that the game was happy to abuse you, like you were a punching bag and Dark Souls was a boxer, one with anger management issues and a stepfather made of padded leather.
But actually, I like that it was difficult. It was an intrinsic part of the game, it contributed to the atmosphere of futility and the integral sense of danger being around every corner, making you feel like something very small and insignificant. Beating the enormous bosses was always tough, but very rewarding when you did, and rarely felt implausible because of the fact that you’d been doing it so much that sooner or later the laws of probability had to be on your side and you’d manage to win through sheer luck.
I’m almost a little disappointed though, because the legendary difficulty of Dark Souls is all that anybody remembers of it, or at least the topic that everybody keeps going back to.
“By the way, I just got to the Four Kings.”
“I remember that. Boy, that was a hard fight.”
“Yeah. I haven’t had this much trouble since the Iron Golem.”
“Ah, now that was a hard one.”
“Yeah, really hard. Not as hard as Quelaag though.”
“Oh, THAT was hard.”
And so on, infinitum. Barely seems worth the effort.
In fact, Dark Souls was a fantastic achievement of gaming that stands firmly in my top ten games, and practically hit the mark on everything it tried to do. For one thing, the level design was varied and interesting, creating vast labyrinths within the world that featured massive castles, verdant forests, terrifying catacombs, and one of the most visually striking cities I’ve seen in a game, that of the beautifully sculpted Anor Londo, which looked like something that would’ve been created if Michaelangelo had been given celestial power and a continent of marble.
All this beauty concealed detailed, non-linear mazes that took the “metroidvania” style and ran with it until its feet caught fire, prevented from being dull and boring by huge amounts of aesthetic variation. Hell, there’s a reason that people leave signs everywhere saying “Gorgeous view.” They’re usually right, and I can only assume that my little undead avatar doesn’t have a camera phone, because otherwise he’d be snapchatting the scenery for hours.
There’s other ways in which the game shines. The story is probably my favourite aspect, because it would be hard to think of another medium besides video games that would bring it across so well. You see, Dark Souls has only one proper cinematic, right at the beginning, featuring gods, monsters, heroes, and even a naked dragon, all fighting each other over the title rights to the next big civilisation. Suddenly the game leaps forward several zillion years to the point where the empire they were all so desperate to lay dibs on is already ending, and those deities that built it have all died or gone absolutely bananas.
In fact, the whole universe seems to be ending, and not for any reason we can do something about – its just aged beyond the point where it can sustain itself. It’s entropy, it’s the final bit of juice in the battery dying out, and this heavy, terrible sense of emptiness and loss fits the game perfectly. I don’t mind that it’s depressing, it’s still a powerful message and tone that I love experiencing.
Meanwhile, every character you saw in that opening cinematic (and about a thousand more besides) has had a long and interesting history during that period, and now you can go and discover it all. Or not. The level of involvement and immersion is completely up to you. There is a reason why there’s an enormous tree in the middle of Hell, but you don’t have to find out if you’re not fussed, they’re cool with it. There is an explanation that tells you why a woman with a spider instead of a pair of legs was hanging out beneath Blighttown, but you don’t have to care, you can just grab your halberd and go mad while she vomits lava like the Human Torch with a stomach bug.
This method of story telling really made sense to me – nobody cares about you here, nobody’s around to do so, and anyway, the joy is in the discovery and guesswork, running through your own little conspiracy theories of how and why it all tied together. It would have felt too easy to have Lord Cliffnote of the Explan Nation show up halfway in and take you carefully through a clear timeline of events. Instead, Dark Souls just sprinkled little jigsaw pieces of info all around the world, and told you that you can grab them if you want or leave them behind, no biggie either way.
And the combat mechanics? Well, they were varied, suitably tricky, had a good core system based around stamina management and supported most playstyles. It could have used some minor balancing – I picked up a special halberd about a third of the way into the game and never needed anything else, because all other weapons were slower or weaker, and faithful Stabsy could hit somebody in the next postcode with a single thrust. But other than that the combat worked well and the enemies distributed between each bonfire checkpoint felt tough but fair, a statement that could’ve also been the game’s tagline.
Dark Souls even managed to do online elements without compromising the lonely, isolated feeling. The mechanic by which players can leave notes on the ground for others only highlighted how alone you were, not to mention watching the misty ghost of some other player in a different game die horribly, in a way you could never prevent. Even assisting other players or invading to kill them still somehow feels empty and sparse, most likely because they still look faded and ethereal, and you can’t communicate with a headset, only with pre-made gestures.
In fact, the Dark Souls community seems weirdly courteous when it comes to interaction. Do you know what the last guy to invade me did before attacking? He bowed. Seriously! I couldn’t believe it! I almost expected him to slap me across the face with a glove and demand me to choose a time and weapon! I can’t imagine a Call Of Duty or GTA V player doing that, most likely because half the audiences of those games tend to be so young that they have to shout insults from the comfort of their mother’s womb. Perhaps that’s part of the good design of Dark Souls – the gameplay has frightened off those who weren’t committed, and tamed those who stayed into good behaviour. Kudos to you, From Software.
But actually, I’ve stumbled onto the problem – people WERE frightened off. You see, the really great pieces of art need to be known, need to be witnessed. We understand this on some very fundamental level, we know that the really phenomenal creations were made to elevate us and the culture they’re part of. The Mona Lisa hangs in a public place, and people would rebel if it were anywhere else. The British museum and the National Gallery are free and open to all who wish to see the masterpieces within them. Well, unless you come from the places where the British Museum stole the artefacts from. Then you have to pay for a plane ticket, but I’m sure you get my point.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m saying that Dark Souls should be given away for free. If any company deserves the money to make games as humbling as this one, it should be From Software. But this is the nub of the matter – Dark Souls was so aggressive, it hurt itself in the process.
I can demonstrate what I mean, and to do so I have a challenge to those of you who have played and loved the game as much as I do. You’ve undoubtedly recommended it to your friends, because this is a story that needs to be told. Now, be honest here – did you encounter resistance? I bet you did, at least once. I know of several people who stated that they would’ve been interested if it weren’t for the crippling difficulty, and that’s what frustrates the hell out of me, more than any Bell Gargoyle ever could.
Dark Souls needed one of two things – either an easier entry to the game, or a difficulty setting at the beginning. Leave the vicious gameplay that we know and love alone, but either make it optional, or try to build up to it. I was almost turned off by the beginning when I first tentatively stepped in, and I know of others who were too, because the difficulty curve practically bends right back round to bite your arse before you’ve left the first area, and people just aren’t used to it. Maybe twenty years ago you could have gotten away with it, but not any more.
And it’s a shame, because the game is at its best later on, when the world opens up like a blooming flower and there are more paths and secrets and challenges than an entire season of The Crystal Maze.
It’s almost ironic, because the game tends to become easier as you progress. Don’t get me wrong, the bosses only get bigger and angrier and covered in more fire as you get further in, but improvements in gear and constant practice make for much easier gameplay. I had more trouble with the first couple of bosses than with the rest of the game combined, because you’re basically working with a butter knife and a plank of wood strapped to your arm, whilst a thirty-foot Mr. Blobby or Godzilla’s Minotaur cousin both sharpen their axes and wait for you to arrive. Sure, the last boss is a lightning super-god who could kill a man with a well-aimed movement of his eyebrow, but you’ve had time to comb the world before that point and you’ve acquired enough magic loot and levels to get your own, equally tough eyebrows with which you can take him on as an equal.
But I digress. The point was that Dark Souls was a game that wasn’t just good – it was genuinely amazing, something new and fresh in every aspect it presented. A new form of story-telling, a new take on multiplayer, a new angle on classic fantasy, and even a new direction when it came to something as basic as gameplay difficulty. Think back to the most recent triple-A games you played. I suspect they were pretty easy. I suspect you had regenerating health, that you often had NPCs with you, that failure meant only a brief penalty, if there was one at all. I didn’t realise how much I missed a game that was willing to challenge me, truly goad me into a tooth-and-nail fight where we both had to give it our all if we wanted to succeed.
And bloody hell, it felt good. Hammering against that final boss, I could feel my teeth gritting, my hands gripping the controller ever tighter, and even my eyes beginning to ache, as I focused so hard on the attack patterns of my foe that if I had been staring any harder my eyeballs would have pushed my glasses off my nose. When I finally won, I actually wooped out loud! I’m one of the most jaded people imaginable, but I felt like my triumph over Dark Souls was an actual victory, something very rare in video games these days. And it is a victory, for me, for those who have played it, and for those who have loved it. But more people need to love it, it deserves that kind of status. That’s why the difficulty options needed tweaking just a little bit…
I’m not saying that designers should cater for every whim, homogenise every game to the point where they’re barely distinguishable from each other, because that’s how we end up with brown military shooters being sold every Christmas. But this is something that people need to experience, and I don’t think those tiny, but oh-so-important changes would have crippled the game. Hell, wouldn’t a basic difficulty option have been fine? To leave the original experience with all its glorious teeth, and to make an entry-level playthrough to hook those who were more cautious, or who weren’t convinced quite yet?
Some might say I’m asking for too much, or that these alterations would irrecoverably alter the game for the worse, but I don’t think so. Could you really say that adjusting the stats on the Asylum Demon would have poisoned everything beyond then? I can’t see it being the case, quite honestly.
Anyway, time to throw myself into Dark Souls 2. After all, we have to get our kicks somehow. I get mine from saving stamina, halberding horrors and praising the sun like a boss. God bless you, From Software. If only I could be so grossly incandescent.