You’ll see these words a lot in Dark Souls.
New area? Turn a corner, stabbed, die. Trying to get back to your dropped souls (Dark Souls‘ multi-function money/experience unit)? Fall off an awkward ledge, die. Accidentally try to cast a spell that has no charges left? Look confused at your own incompetence, die.
Eventually you hardly notice the backtracking. You explore 1% of a new area, then you fail. You get back to where you died before with fewer problems, get another 1% farther, then die again. Rinse. Lather. Repeat until you can’t take it anymore. If you’re lucky (it almost always feels like you have to be more lucky than good), you’ll reach a bonfire, one of Dark Souls‘ save/checkpoints. These are nearly always off the beaten path, frustratingly hidden in a little corner nook. A lot of people bought this game. Few will ever beat it, let alone invest the hundreds of hours necessary for that platinum trophy.
You learn to spend your Souls as soon as they are acquired. Never saving for the future, you are a lower middle-class gas station attendant receiving an unexpected inheritance from a distant relative. Easy come; easy go. But the little windfalls add up. Your level increases, quickly at first, then slowly. Your armor becomes thicker. Your sword longer, stronger. Enemies that once challenged every reflex in your body begin to fall easily. You see sights you would never expect out of a grimdark game like Dark Souls. You start to have real, actual fun.
Then you come across an enemy that seems impossible. It’s not even a boss. It’s just another random goon. Why can’t you win? Are you in the wrong area for your level? This is totally possible – Dark Souls‘ open world gameplay lets you die anywhere you want, and as soon as you’d like (especially if you snag that Master Key as your starting loot). But maybe… maybe it’s not even your fault.
When you make your way down the same path to the same boss over and over and over, you start to notice the little graphical and gameplay snags by the fifteenth trip. The lack of textures, both on up-close and faraway objects. The oft-hidden, oft-weird paths that the game expects you to instinctively know how to take (the broken window in Anor Londo? returning to the Undead Asylum via cliff jumping? the path off to the right in Darkroot Garden?). The slow, unstoppable sword swings and Estus Flask (health potion) drinking delays, sometimes full seconds later, guaranteeing that you’ll get stabbed/bit/magicked in the face. Some (many) reviewers claim that the clunkiness is a conscious design decision, and that the hidden save points encourage exploration while you’re trying not to die, losing possibly hours of progress. Maybe that’s true. Maybe they want you to learn to be cautious, and to feel real, actual fear. Or maybe, like I believe, it was merely From Software being lazy, or cutting corners due to budget constraints, or just not having the resources to make Dark Souls the near-perfect experience that – let’s face it – it is.
Let’s start with the bonfires. These checkpoints are the only safe places in the game (there is no pause – possibly the biggest sign that the game doesn’t respect you one bit and wants to cause you pain), and they’re also the only place to refill your life-restoring Estus Flasks. There is no way of knowing how far until you reach the next one, though, and – perhaps to seem legitimately safe? – they are almost always in hidden crannies in the corners of caves. When you’ve just battled through a horde of zombie skeletons and are looking for a place to spend your hard-earned souls, there is no worse feeling than being blindsided by an instant-death boss battle because you walked right past the hidden passageway leading to the bonfire. This isn’t a game being hard smartly. This is artificial difficulty and cruel, malicious game-lengthening.
Next, the constraints. Every once in a while, the world will open up. You’ll exit a claustrophobic cave and fall out into the harsh sunlight, blinking like a newborn. Then you’ll get stabbed. But not before noticing the draw distance. Like a lot of large-scale PS2-era games, Dark Souls is a big fan of using fog in the distance to hide jaggies and low-poly faraway textures. The problem is that the enemies, with their omniscient AI, will still destroy you from behind their cloudy veil while you struggle to even come to grips with where the arrows are flying from. Maybe this is supposed to make you feel more like you’re in a real, dangerous world. Death rains from above and lurks around every corner, and there is no respite, no hope. However, with the lock-on function only working for nearby enemies, and with no way to aim spells (bows are the only weapon that can be manually aimed, and even then, you can’t aim too high or too low), it feels unfair more than anything. I’m level 75. How is this skeleton with a bow made of sticks able to out-snipe me?
When the fog isn’t present, the developers make up for it by dropping the textures. There’s one level in particular, a sandbar along an underground lake, defended by an insurmountable hydra – the sand is as smooth as glass, and so is the water. No waves, no ripples, nothing. The only difference between the safe sturdy ground and the death water is the color.
And then there’s Blighttown. Poison water all over the place, slowing your movement and killing you softly, a single solitary (and hidden) bonfire, and so many enemies that the lag will make this area nigh-unplayable. Remember slowdown? I thought it was a thing of the past, as well. But then you hit the triangle button on your controller a few times, switching between two-handed and one-handed sword styles, watching your shield magically alternate between your back and your hand without even a frame of animation in between, and you realize ah, so that’s why – they gave up on the little details in order to throw this massive world at you with no help, no hope, and no way out.
It’s funny, though. Even with all these little issues, no game has ever sunk its barbs so deeply into my psyche. When I sleep, I dream of rounding a corner and breathing a sigh of relief as a cold bonfire comes into view. I plan boss strategies in my mind while sitting on the toilet, having a quiet moment to myself. When I write, when I work, when I eat, even when I’m playing another game, I wish I was back in this cold, harsh world that Dark Souls has created with so little effort. Every death teaches me something – about the game’s mechanics, about my strategies, about myself. I learn. I grow. Dozens of hours into Dark Souls, and I have only scratched the surface of what the game has to offer. Scanning the numerous online Wikis hoping to offer some small solace to the players living in this dark, unforgiving world, I realize that there is so much I’ve missed, so much yet to do, and I feel that I am not alone.
But the thing about Dark Souls: we’re all alone, and there is no one to rely on but yourself. It is the most real game I’ve ever encountered, and the analogies that can be made with our waking life are boundless. There is no pause button. Every action has a consequence. Sometimes things aren’t as pretty or as easy as you’d like. Sometimes it feels like whoever made this world really had no idea what they were doing. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Photo Credit, I believe, is Josh Archer.