Those of us who are truly into video games, who have been gaming consistently since we were small, all recognize and hold dear a certain nostalgia when remembering the games of yore. There was something special to them, and none of us are quite sure whether it was something intrinsic to the spirit of the game, or whether our perceptions had changed since we were six years old. Only now do I realize that nothing is missing from modern gaming, but rather something has been added. And that something is remorse. Mercy. Today’s games pander to the gamer, ensuring we never experience the undesirable sensation of failure by spelling everything out to us, limiting our movement, showing us the way forward — and, when it all gets too tough, they allow us to lower the difficulty setting and make everything better.
Not so with Dark Souls. Not by a long-shot. Dark Souls’ greatest virtue is turning the conventions of modern gaming on their heads and reviving that nostalgia within every adult gamer. It’s a game that prides itself on defeat, on confusion, on frustration and on every long-forgotten reward that results from overcoming immense obstacles. It succeeds in bringing out in me the sorts of emotions I haven’t experienced in gaming since adolescence: terror and despair, but also triumph and hope. It’s not really the ideal game for a college-casual gamer, but if you’re willing to give it a shot, I highly recommend sitting down with Dark Souls over winter break.
After a brief tutorial (during which I died three times, mind you), the game literally drops you off in the middle of a sprawling world with no company but one cryptic-looking knight who stands, leaning against a wall nearby. Talking to him will give you little information, besides that you have to go to some church and ring some bell. There is no map to assist you — only a world of visual clues, in which you know you can travel to any location within sight but not how to get there or where to start. With a bit of exploration you can safely ascertain that there are three directions you can go in. One of them will take you past some moderately-hard but beatable foes and on toward your far-off first objective. The other two paths? Certain death.
This is the type of game Dark Souls is. It delights in denying you information and letting you figure it out yourself, and it is the core mechanics of the game that make this sort of exploratory gameplay possible. The motto of Dark Souls, prominently displayed on the back of the case in glowing caps, is “Prepare to Die” — and quite appropriately, because death is this game’s primary mechanic. In many ways Dark Souls is your proto-typical Japanese Role Playing Game (JRPG). You earn points as you advance and kill baddies, and you spend these points on improving your character. But whereas in most RPGs death results in you losing your accumulated points (‘souls,’ in DS lingo) and being transported back to the last checkpoint (‘bonfire’) you visited, dying or visiting a bonfire results in this world means being reset and all the generic-but-tough ghouls you’ve defeated respawning, meaning that after you die you need to fight through the same riff-raff all over again. Reach your fallen body (‘bloodstain’) without dying a second time, and reclaim your lost progress.
The resulting game plays out something like an exercise in trial and error. Every time you die, you die for a particular reason — perhaps you were too bold, or you dodged in the wrong direction and fell off a cliff face. The next time you come up against the same challenge, you’ve learned. After completing a section of the game you’ve been through it several times, learning from your mistakes and checking every crevice for something to give you an edge. You feel like a master and ahead is one all-new area with trickier tricks and new challenges.
The emotional triumphs that this sort of system can create are exemplified by the game’s boss-fights. The bosses of Dark Souls are, almost without exception, colossal behemoths decked in gothic awe and intimidating enough to make you gape in anguish even before they stomp you down like the tiny insect that you are. Worry not, though, because with your second try you’ll know to avoid the initial stomp and dodge to the left — only to be stomped by his/her/its other foot. Did I mention that most of these bosses have more than two feet? After several deaths at a boss’s hands, you will have perfected a routine for avoiding sudden death and, eventually, getting to an advantageous position where you can strike at his/her/its weak spots. From here it’s an assiduous dance in which one misstep means death. The moment when you strike the final blow (warcry optional), and your vanquished enemy writhes away before you, is one of pure ecstasy. You’re amazed to find that your heart is pumping away at your ribcage and you check your pulse to verify. It’s a sensation unlike any I can remember a video game producing. It’s a return to the surreal emotional intensity of childhood.
The gameplay’s weight is supported by a heavy medieval knights-and-dragons aesthetic. The world seems to be aged and static, as if it has been there for eons and you are just another ant crawling across its surface. The monumental structures you will climb are only topped by the monumental monsters you will fell, ones with enigmatic and silly-yet-terrifying names such as “Ceaseless Discharge.” The world’s story is one I won’t get into here, but is one which the player will slowly discover on his/her own as they travel through the game, speak to non-hostile characters and read the descriptions on collected items. In essence, the world is yours to discover and to reveal its mysterious would take away one of the game’s major satisfactions.
The game’s major flaw — difficulty aside if you see that as a flaw — is its multiplayer. But I need to qualify this. I’m sure that in the game’s early months, when no one had yet traversed the game and truly mastered it, multiplayer gameplay was fantastic. It’s integrated into the game perfectly in sometimes-subtle and sometimes-jarring ways that add a fantastic new element to routines that may otherwise become monotonous. A short description: by using a resource called humanity, a player can open the game’s multiplayer functions and call in other players to help or join other players’ worlds to help. But entering this mode also opens the world to ‘invaders,’ other players who are out to kill the host, whether for greed or justice. Unfortunately, this system has been more-or-less dominated by advanced players who know how to exploit the system and prey on newbies. At the same time, though, groups of noble gamers have risen up to combat these ‘griefers.’ Nonetheless, when engaging with multiplayer you get the sense that the world has already been figured out, and some of the game’s effect is lost. I recommend waiting until the late-game to dive into the world of multiplayer.
Dark Souls won’t change the nature of modern games. It was released around the same time as Skyrim, which you may remember me reviewing last year. Both games are great for different reasons, but Skyrim ended up overshadowing its competitor and Dark Souls remains in the shadows with a loyal cult following. After playing through it and experiencing it though, I can say that I’m hooked. It’s refreshing to know that some game developers still think in this antiquated way, and still have the guts to put out a game that may offend the sensibilities of modern gamers. I think that the money I spent on Dark Souls was money well-spent, and I think that you should buy it too. If you don’t want to shell out your cash for such a risky game, find me and I’ll let you borrow my copy. We’ll see if it bites onto you like it did me.