‘If only I could be so grossly incandescent…’
You sit in a cell in the Undead Asylum.
You cannot die, but you can be left to rot.
And so you wait.
You cannot remember who you are or how long you have waited, losing your humanity…
…until someone drops your key to freedom through a hole in the ceiling.
And with that key hope is kindled.
It is hard to be part of the modern video game and media world without being at least familiar with the name of the game Dark Souls. It became particularly popularised in internet circles for its punishing difficulty and the associated catchphrase ‘Git Gud’ which is often the only advice offered to individuals who struggle to progress with the game.
But if a high difficulty were all that made this game notable it would be quickly forgotten. After all a real challenge is presented by many video games out there, and other options can often be more accessible than Dark Souls, offering players difficulty sliders to fit their challenge preferences.
So what sets Dark Souls apart?
There is no simple answer to this question, which I think is part of the game’s beauty, but in this article we can explore some of the threads of this answer that I am more drawn to.
1) Your character is not special
When you start there is nothing spectacular about your player character. You are a husk of a human. You cannot die, but that is true of many in the world you inhabit. It is not a glorious immortality you experience, but a debilitating curse.
You spend the game trying to break this curse, but you are just as well equipped as any other undying human to do this. There are plenty of humans more skilled at fighting than you, better equipped, and you live in a world filled with fantastical beasts and lovecraftian horrors.
At no point in the game does your character become anything close to invincible or overpowered.
You could be strong enough to fight the final boss, and still be quickly killed by enemies in the starting area if you are careless. A fact that many people showcase when they perform runs of the game without levelling up at all.
So what impact does this have on the player experience?
When someone experiences a story they need a character that is their proxy to provide the experiences the reader needs to feel.
This is why you start the Lord of the Rings in Hobbiton with Frodo; you have a character that lives a simple ‘country life’ where events and happenings are a close analogue to our real world. Frodo has little knowledge of the world outside those borders, any of the more fantastical elements of the world. But then Frodo moves out of Hobbiton into the unknown, and as he learns about the complex world he lives in, so do we. Frodo is our proxy.
In Dark Souls we are given that character; unskilled in combat, unknowing about the world, and unprepared for the task that is ahead.
But you get better.
The more you fight the more you learn how to respond to the enemy and how to beat them. Your character does not gain any special abilities to shortcut combat, but you personally get better at the combat that is functionally the same at the beginning of the game as it is at the end of it.
Your characters ability is directly proportional to your personal ability, and if you are not winning in a fight, you can only, generally, win if you personally learn how to be better at fighting in game. This dynamic is what gets commonly reduced to ‘Git Gud’ on forums. There is not a shortcut to success and death is part of the experience.
With that in mind.
2) Failure is part of the journey
You will die in Dark Souls.
If someone says that they have played Dark Souls without dying I would be confident in calling that person a liar.
Because you are meant to die in Dark Souls.
This was a fact I personally struggled with when I first started playing the game, often switching off the console before the death properly registered and autosaved.
It was rage and frustration that led me to do this.
In most games death is a fail state, a sign that you were not good enough to succeed. It is something I have been trained over the years to avoid as much as possible. And the impact of this attitude was obvious when I first played Dark Souls.
I was afraid to progress.
I was afraid of moving away from safe-zones, and areas where I knew the layout of enemies.
Because I was afraid of dying in game.
But the game is more fun when you take the plunge and accept you will die. You still need to be cautious and careful to progress, but if you fear the consequences of failure you will not progress at all.
Death in Dark Souls is part of the story. The game continues after you die. You return to life at the last bonfire you rested at. Items you used before your death are gone, but your experience remains. This is because your death is canon within the game. The thing that sets your character apart from the hollow undead you see scattered around the world is that you keep striving to reach your goal, whilst the hollows stopped trying.
You as the player keep playing, keep trying and keep learning from mistakes of the past.
In doing so you work out how to overcome the challenges you face and if you persevere you will eventually succeed.
You succeed in the same way as your character succeeds. Dying constantly and learning from that experience.
In this the game does something clever. On one level it helps you the player to learn that it is okay to not succeed. Failure is not a permanent state, nor is it a final state. It is just a step that you, and everyone else, must experience in the continued story that is life. Learning that failure is not the end is an important lesson in life, and Dark Souls incorporates this lesson into the heart and soul of the game.
On another level your character reaches their goal by learning that lesson as well. They are a human that is only remarkable in one respect. They persevere. That is the story that Dark Souls tells. An unremarkable individual with no particular talents or abilities will defeat the strongest creatures in the world, because they persevere and do not give up despite the setbacks they face.
3) Your character does not achieve the goal they set out to complete.
This part of the article contains major story spoilers, so if you do not want the ending to this game spoiled before you can play it, I would stop reading now and return once you have played it.
When you first start the game you have no particular goal. You are given a goal by way of a prophesy from the man to rescues you from your cell; to end the curse of undying.
To do this you must ring the bells of awakening.
And so your character sets out, fighting through enemies and monsters. But you never actually manage to end this curse.
It is something beyond you.
You are informed by Kingseeker Frampt, the primordial serpent that is awoken by the bells of awakening, that it is your job to succeed Gwyn, Lord of Cinder.
You must succeed Gwyn and preserve the Age of Fire by linking the first flame.
Which involves burning yourself in the first flame that will feed off the eternal strength of your undying soul.
You are destined to sacrifice yourself to keep the first flame alive and stop the growing darkness. You are told this will cure the curse of undying.
Unless you meet Darkstalker Kaathe before Kingseeker Frampt.
Darkstalker Kaathe is hard to find accidentally in game, but he lets you know the truth, or a kind of truth.
Kingseeker Frampt is not your friend.
He seeks only to keep the fires lit, a failing and ultimately fruitless task.
If you meet the Darkstalker you can instead choose to let the fires die, and you walk off into an uncertain future.
You do not learn what becomes of your character in this ending. All you know is that the light has died and darkness will grow.
So what is important about this choice? Surely the Darkstalker’s plan is evil? Shouldn’t light live on?
Your character is told a story where light is good and dark is evil, and so preservation of the light prevents evil from growing.
But your character is lied to.
At the Kiln of the First Flame you meet Gwyn, Lord of Cinder. A husk of what he once was. A hollow shell, like so many of the undying that you have met before him.
The light is slowly failing and the world is stuck in a strange limbo. People don’t die, much like the fires of the first flame, and the world looks tired.
Maybe, just like how it is natural for people to die, the flames should be allowed to go out.
Maybe there is potential for something new, in a world of ashes than the world of the dying flame.
After all the Age of Fire came after the Age of Ancients, in which nothing changed and everything was stagnant. Gwyn felt this was not good but now fights to preserve his own unchanging age, fighting against the most fundamental of processes in life: change.
Dark Souls plays off of our traditional pre-loaded notions of good and evil.
Humans are naturally phototropic beings, being drawn towards the light.
But the world of Dark Souls is not our own.
And that instinct is being used to manipulate us.
Ultimately your character does not manage, as far as they know, to break the curse of the undying.
They will either let the flame die and usher in the age of darkness, or they will spend the rest of their lives burning, until the Kingseeker finds a new undying to take your place, and an endless cycle continues.
The ‘good’ ending is unknowable.
They are both debatable.
Both have dire consequences. You and your character have no unique insight into the situation.
You lack the full understanding of as to what the consequences of your actions are.
But you must choose to do one or the other, or consign yourself to slowly hollowing, losing what humanity you have left.
These are just 3 aspects of Dark Souls that make it the classic game it is. Much more can be said about the game, which I may touch on at a later article, but for now I will conclude with this.
Dark Souls tells a human story.
An unremarkable human without perfect knowledge sets out to try and help the world.
They face challenges and setbacks, but they grow, and develop as they learn from their mistakes and overcome their challenges.
They reach points in their life where decisions need to be made, but they are uncertain as to what is the best course of action.
They have the power to shape or change the world by their perseverance, but do not know how they actions can affect everything.
And you the player join them through this experience.
You make the choices in imperfect knowledge, build up the skills, test your perseverance, and are left unsure as to whether or not you made the world a better place or a worse one.
You can convince yourself either way.
But you will never know.
This game is a classic because is speaks to those fundamental human drives of overcoming adversity, and finding purpose.
But you do not know what impact your life will have.
And that is all part of the human story.