Soapstone Messages: A Letter Series On Dark Souls

In our sophomore entry into our letters seriescontributor Jon Gregory and editor Nick Hahneman examine a favorite game here at CultureMass, From Software’s Dark Souls. We discuss what makes the title unique, from its infamous difficulty to its distinct art style, and ruminate on its long-lasting appeal.

 

Hey Nick,

I’m not sure about you, but my first experience with Dark Souls was pretty short. I spent hours fighting the Asylum Demon before finally beating it, only to put the controller down after getting to Firelink Shrine just a few minutes later. Looking back on that now I can’t help but laugh. I told myself I had grasped what the point of the game was, but I really don’t think I could have been more wrong.

To me, Dark Souls is about more than just being hard, which is what I originally took away from it. The game is hard, sure, but its much more about building skill and knowledge. You get stronger as you learn more about the world, not just as you level. It’s something that felt refreshing in a genre that was almost exclusively the opposite. There are so few RPGS that really put an emphasis on player skill in the same way as the Souls games have.

When you wander the wastelands of Fallout or trod the path of a Final Fantasy game, you are confronting an enemy with random numbers. The power is not so much in the hands of the player as it is the minimum and maximum values of a number generator. That element of chance can make those games fun and tense, but they are almost exclusively games of strategy and resource management. That tension is also easy to subvert. Amass a large stack of potions, grind a few levels, and most RPGs lose their teeth. Even breaking the game in Dark Souls to make yourself powerful only affords you a small advantage though.

I realized just how much Dark Souls has changed my outlook on gaming after revisiting the series in mid August. In one sitting I made my way past the Tarus Demon, and did so without dying to an enemy – I did manage to walk off a ledge like an idiot though. Even confronting the Undead Burg’s Black Knight with my base equipment seemed simple, it was something I didn’t think twice about. If I hadn’t forgotten that the only item worth taking at the start of the game is the skeleton key I would have fought Havel as well. These are all things I struggled with on my first playthrough, but that seem simple now. The realization of a difference in skill level had me examining not just my abilities as a gamer, but how I unconsciously approached games.

After playing Dark Souls all the way through I moved on to an Insanity playthrough of Mass Effect 2, and handled it without much issue. In general, since I went back to Dark Souls I’ve found myself drawn to more challenging games that I would have dismissed without a second thought. I’ve put over 30 hours into Rogue Legacy and a similar amount of time into The Binding Of Isaac. Difficulty in a game, as long as its fairly created, is no longer a deterrent to me. I’m actively looking forward to the first next generation game that will test my skill in a similarly enjoyable manner.

I’m eager to hear about your experience with the game.

Sincerely,

Jon

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Hey Jon,

Dark Souls has always been characterized by a high barrier to entry. I’ve heard many that, like you, had huge difficulties in getting past the Asylum Demon, or the Tarus Demon after that, and walked away.  I can’t entirely blame them. The way the game just drops it in your world, with little to no context and devoid of explanation of some of the key systems in the game, pushing the player to try, die, and learn, is fairly arresting (and initially frustrating) to many. I also partially blame the ‘Prepare to Die’ marketing campaign and how advocates of the game often describe it. People often think the game is just a masochistic exercise in dying over and over again, and when the first few hours of the game seem to conform to those expectations, they throw their hands up in exasperation. Again, a lot of this really is the fault of the developers at From Software, who could have done a lot to make that initial difficulty curve a little more palatable.

The game is difficult, to be sure, but as you mentioned there is so much more going on that to draw players in. The setting, informed by a Japanese art aesthetic based on Western high-fantasy that is devoid of any Tolkien influence to start sets up an enthralling place to inhabit. It feels somewhat familiar, like an old Swords & Sorcery paperback from the ’60’s, and yet something is not quite right, there is a disconcerting feeling permeating the game. It’s not a high-fantasy paint-by-the-numbers RPG like you said. It maintains a lot of the affectations of modern RPGs, but it’s not as much about character sheets or levels or stats as it is careful navigation through the world and precision in combat.

Furthermore unlike most other games, the world of Dark Souls feels uninviting and uncaring. Most games want to help push you along the critical path: any NPC in another RPG will be more than happy to talk to you, a stranger, about the inner workings of their family life, or business, or faction plot against their rival. In many RPGs, waypoints appear on your HUD to direct you to the next quest, generous save systems allow players to experiment with conversation trees, and the general intent of the games is to build the player up to become some demi-god and fulfill that power fantasy. In Dark Souls however, you’re meant to feel the part of an invader, exploring a taboo land that seems largely ambivalent to your existence. You’re mostly alone, vulnerable, and facing unknown dangers at every corner.

There is something special about this game though that keeps us coming back though isn’t there? I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t rewatch movies, doesn’t revisit games or attempt 100% completions, I’m fine walking away from a piece of entertainment once I feel like I’ve taken in what it wants to show me. Dark Souls however keeps me coming back for more, and I return to Lordran regularly just to take in its dank air. While it does feel good to know that I can overpower these enemies who once challenged me for hours and hours, carelessness is still punished severely, and I have embarrassingly died to earlier game enemies on subsequent playthroughs due to my hubris. And while I keep coming back to it, truly what was most memorable about the game for me was the sense of conquering (or more often than not, failing to conquer) the unknown perils it offered in the first few weeks after release. The Dark Souls community was fervently trying to figure out ‘exactly what is this game?’, and participating in that journey into the depths of the game was a singular experience.

I’m not sure that like you I can say that Dark Souls made me a more skilled gamer, that I can take on games that once challenged me with ease now, but it has changed how I view what games are and what they can do. On paper, I would have never expected Dark Souls to be a game that I would enjoy, and yet it has charmed like no other game. It seems like a rare gem of coherent, bold, and genuine game design that I just don’t expect to see any more in AAA titles.

Its sequel is in a difficult position. Whereas Dark Souls felt more like the full realization of the prototype Demon’s Souls, Dark Soul’s 2 seems to be an attempt to capture lighting in a bottle twice. What are your thoughts on the sequel? I’m not sure how well it will capture the same things that made Dark Souls great, and the departure of the creative director Hidetaka Mitazaki’s does concern me a bit. What they’ve shown so far certainly does look promising, but like journeying into Blighttown, I just can’t shake this feeling that something is about to go terribly wrong.

Until next time,

Nick

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