I’ve owned Dark Souls on my Steam account for about two years now, but barely touched it until recently.
I’ve got several reasons for that. The biggest being that when I first bought the game, I was on a laptop that wasn’t exactly shouldering the full technical burden of the experience. Another was that I didn’t own a 360 controller at the time, and since native PC Dark Souls controls are the worst thing since Windows ME, I mostly relied on a PS3 controller ran through a legally iffy Chinese conversion program. Among other technical flubs, it would often randomly cause buttons to digitally press themselves. In Dark Souls, that’s not exactly optimal.
But honestly, I could have suffered through the iffy looks. I could have even just bought a 360 controller like I eventually did. Instead, the real reason I didn’t play Dark Souls longer is because I was scared.
I had heard…things about the game. The shouts of how difficult it was to be sure, but also whispers of smaller horrors by the name of Blighttown, The Tomb of the Giants and Dragon Slayer Ornestein and Executioner Smough, as well as the terror of interacting with other players either directly or through some sort of troll friendly messaging system.
The details of these things were vague, but the fervor and fear they invoked among those who experienced them first hand were clear, and haunting.
More than any of that, I was afraid of losing my life to this game. I’d seen the hundred hour first run play times, as well as the people who’d invested well over a thousand on subsequent runs. Even with my wonky set-up and complete lack of comprehension as to what the hell was going on, I could tell that there was an appeal to the game that spoke to me in the form of some phantom voice amplified by echoes. Vague and easily dismissible enough, but oddly clear nonetheless.
It all lead to me eventually giving up on the game, and uninstalling it with only a few pangs of regret for the next few days afterwards. Before long, however, I was able to put it out of my mind and move on to other games.
With Dark Souls II approaching, that became much more difficult. Suddenly Dark Souls was everywhere again, and ignoring it was suddenly a much more taxing effort than simply giving in was.
Besides, with my new rig recently built, and a 360 controller clogging up my desk drawer, the only trepidations I had left were mental, and I was damned if I was going to let a game I’d barely played defeat me with its name only.
So one night while playing South Park: Stick of Truth, I let Dark Souls install. I though it’d be nice to finally give it a chance before the sequel came out, and that I could use a break from the easy going style that SoT offered. It was 10 P.M when Dark Souls finally installed, and I thought I’d give it a shot before bed that night.
And that, as they say, was the first mistake.
After that initial all-nighter, I’m now about 50 hours deep into the game, and working my way through Andor Londo. While I’ve got a healthy set of armor to my name, and a +3 Black Knight Sword, I’m mostly cursing myself over the misused fire keeper soul that’s keeping my Estus Flask at a paltry +1. The archers of Andor Londo are eating me alive, making me consider the prospect of entering the painted world as a diversion.
What’s worse, somewhere out there I know that Ornestien and Smough are waiting for me, and that the pain wont truly begin until that moment.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I envy your innocence. Because let me tell you friend, Dark Souls has ruined me for every other game.
I wasn’t aware of this effect at first, until I tried to go back and play Stick of Truth. As much as I loved the flavor of that game before, now it tasted like ash. Why was that? SoT is a great game, that barely relates to Dark Souls in any conceivable way. Why was I making comparisons between the two, and why were those comparisons causing me to upchuck at the notion of playing SoT further?
I think the answer goes back to a statement I heard on Dark Souls long ago that I can now very much relate to.
Dark Souls has been described as one of the most “pure” gaming experiences available. For some time, I took that to mean that it was a return to the roots that gaming was established on, and cut down on the fluff that has cluttered certain aspects of the medium since then. In a way, that’s true. But, in a much more serious way, describing Dark Souls as a pure experience effectively conveys its kindred resemblance to a pure narcotic, and the way that accepting it into your life can send your pleasure center into a downward, narrow spiral.
Once I realized that, I came to understand that SoT, and all other games, do in fact relate to Dark Souls, because Dark Souls is a freebase gaming experience, that taps into the very core of gaming itself.
It tarnished my SoT experience, because SoT has combat, story, items, weapons, characters, levels and so on, and none of those elements gave me the thrill of accomplishment and discovery that they did in Dark Souls. Even though spiritually and mechanically they’re leagues apart, because Dark Souls is like a needle that aims directly for the heart of gaming itself, once you let it hit the mark, any entrant into the medium will draw some kind of inevitable comparison to Dark Souls.
Hey, I hear you. You’re saying “That’s not fair.” Believe me, I’m right there with you. It’s not fair to other games that I would knock them for not being Dark Souls, and its not fair that to me that I’ve now played a game that’s goal was to perfectly execute the fundamental concepts of a video game, and triumphantly succeed at doing so, and that I now have to be burdened with the knowledge of such a game when trying to fairly judge (or even enjoy) any other video game.
In a way, I look at Dark Souls as the video game version of the Project Mayhem movement from Fight Club. Its aim is to set the industry back to zero, and put everyone back on an even level. A level that purges us of many of the superficial burdens that modern society has left us, while at the same time taking the knowledge that we’ve acquired until this point, and using it to skip many of the rough years that come with learning several hard knock lessons along the way.
Also like Project Mayhem, this leads to lots of deaths (player deaths in Dark Souls case). Because, as Tyler Durden said, “You wanna make an omelette, you gotta break some eggs.”
And man, I’m telling you that once you’ve really embraced Dark Souls and let it shown you its vision of the perfect gaming world in full, its hard to go back to the Ikea lifestyle. Instead, its like having that front row seat to the end of the world, and all you can do is hope to reach out, grab the hand of someone who is in the same place you are, and enjoy the simple pleasure of the shared comfort of the experience.
Of course, this being Dark Souls, that person will likely then lead you to jump off a cliff to your death with the promise of a checkpoint. But I digress.
I feel there are two types of people reading this (or, more accurately, two people reading this). One type that’s played Dark Souls, and one that hasn’t.
To those that haven’t, let me just tell you that there is a very good chance that you will play the game and have absolutely no idea what I’m on about. You’ll struggle through the early parts of the game, and just not get the hype whatsoever. Don’t feel like an outsider. Hell, if anything you’re part of the happy masses, and I envy you for that.
But just be warned that there is a chance, no matter how slim, that it will get to you. That what the game is trying to accomplish will resonate with your personality, and affect you to the point where you too will be ruined for every other game, because you now have a prerequisite set of spiritual expectations going into that game that it will most likely not build upon. That you too will now be one of those people who can not shut the hell up about Dark Souls and just move on with your gaming life, because moving on in the sense those people are using the term means forgetting about the game entirely.
And you can’t just forget about something that gets in your blood like that. You can battle against it the rest of your life to suppress it, but it’ll always be there.
Oh, and to those who already know everything I’m telling them, just remember that every time you hear the Undead Church bells ring that you should feel both pity and community, because another soul is now forever lost.