Dark Souls is one of those evergreen titles that continues to be talked about and played years after release. As a veteran of the series who has played since day one, I never cease to take pleasure in seeing new players take the dive into Lordran, overcoming its challenges, and seeing what the game has to offer. After months of cheering him on, my friend Chris Leggett recently finished the game.
In the wake of the sequel’s release last week, we took the opportunity to have a conversation about Dark Souls and our respective experiences with the game, it’s community, and what makes it special.
Nick Hahneman: Chris, when did you first hear about Dark Souls? Given that you have just recently completed it (congratulations by the way), what was it that convinced you to try out the game so long after release?
Chris Leggett: Honestly, it took an Xbox Live sale ($10!) late last year to give me the push that I needed to finally give Dark Souls a chance. I’d been intrigued by the game for a long time; a former coworker regaled me with stories of Demon’s Souls in that game’s heyday. I trusted and valued his tastes, but to me, it sounded kinda hellish. When Dark Souls released, it was hard to ignore the widespread critical acclaim and the obsessive, cult-like fandom that developed around it. Yet at full price, it was difficult to commit to a game that could potentially put me off at an early stage. With hindsight, I now feel like I would have had my money’s worth many times over, even at full price.
How about you, Nick – were you there from day one, or did you take some convincing?
NH: I wasn’t terribly interested in the Demon’s Souls before the launch of Dark Souls. It sounded needlessly hard and grindy, and frankly the older I get the less patience I have for RPGs that take entire days of playtime to get through.
However, IGN’s Casey Lynch and Keza MacDonald did a fantastic championing Dark Souls leading up to its release, and really showcased how the game wasn’t simply about ‘being hard’. Through their 24-hour livestream of the game at launch I got to see them explore the strange environs of the game, watch the joy in their faces as they overcame giant monsters and demons, and feel schadenfreude watching them get destroyed in their Sisyphean fight against Smough and Ornstein dozen and dozens of times over. After their stream ended, I felt I had no choice but to test myself against the game and see what else it had to offer. I played from Saturday morning straight through until Sunday evening that weekend, something that had not done since I was in high school. I was hooked.
Smough and Ornstein didn’t prove as difficult for me, but I had a little help from my SunBros. What about you? Coming in years later, after that cult had developed and and all that hype had become ingrained, what in your experience of Dark Souls diverged from your expectations?
CL: Well, I generally have little patience for games that require repetition of entire sections of gameplay, and this is very much Dark Souls, so I kinda expected to dislike it on that basis. But in a manner that’s hard to pin down, Dark Souls somehow distances itself from other games where this quickly becomes an exercise in tedium. Also, I expected to give up at the first sign of seemingly impossible difficulty, but Dark Souls only served to inspire my determination. And finally, I was surprised by how much community actually played into what is essentially a single-player experience.
I had heard of the soapstone messages placed throughout the game world. But summoning, invasions, and particularly the network of support and feedback from other players on the internet were revelations. In particular, the latter was probably crucial to my persistence with the game and made it seem surmountable. Being an early adopter, did you encounter help from others on social media etc as you made your way through Dark Souls for the first time?
NH: Playing Dark Souls at launch was a fairly singular experience. It was a cool experience, this communal expedition into the dangerous frontier of Lordran. Not everyone made it back from the expedition. Before patch v1.05 Dark Souls was a much more difficult game. I remember being on private chat with a friend while we both played, sharing secrets and offering moral support. One day he got lost in New Londo, and as time went on he was less and less responsive to my queries. After one particularly bad bout of expletives, I asked him what happened and he cut his mic. Less than an hour later he logged out of Xbox Live, and it took him months to get back on the undead horse that is Dark Souls.
I personally almost quit the game after getting double cursed in the Depths, resulting in my maximum health being reduced to a quarter. After some desperate searching, I found another player on a random forum who led me to my salvation, and I in turn shared my strategy for taking on the Capra demon. There was this shared sense of fraternity as we all groped through the darkness together. The game was such an enigma, and there was so much hearsay back then. Rumors that you could save Sif seemed entirely plausible given the example of shooting 60 arrows into the bridge Wyvern’s tail to obtain the Drake Sword. I wish I hadn’t had used that sword though, it ended up being a crutch and eventually I decided to restart and rebuild my character.
CL: I have heard of players who made it through the first time without summoning other players or consulting advice from others. But I feel like I personally wouldn’t have persevered without access to such help. In fact, perhaps the best advice I was given before I delved into Dark Souls was “don’t be afraid to consult help if things get too tough.” It was a difficult to condition myself to be comfortable with this approach given the fact that the vast majority of games can be completed without such.
Eventually, though, I came to realize that From Software likely intended for a community to overcome this mysterious and formidable game as a hivemind. Your anecdote of contributing tips for beating Capra after learning how to remedy your curse woes is a good example of this in action. I discovered Dark Souls at a late stage, and yet people were still exceedingly willing to offer helpful tips and advice to me, even though they were likely done with the game. In fact, I’ve never encountered a community that seems to almost “root” for new players to overcome such difficulty.
NH: There really is a shared camaraderie and fraternity between players of Dark Souls. Some of it is wanting to guide new players to the overcome the same challenges and experience that sweet taste of victory. Some of it simply is wanting to put all that knowledge we accumulate over the 70 or more hours of play to good use after we complete the game.The game itself is very pedagogical, using death as a teaching instrument rather than a punishment, which informs how veteran players talk about the game with neophytes.
For me though, a lot of the reason why I am so excited to help new players, cheering them on and guiding them, is because it’s a game that I’ve never tired of, never stopped enjoying, and I know there’s so much there for anyone who wants to engage with it. While I was happy for you when you beat Smough and Ornstein, or made it through Blighttown, I was most excited when you beat the game and immediately decided to dive right back into new game plus.
That was the moment where I thought ‘he gets it’. For me Dark Souls isn’t simply about overcoming challenges, clawing your way through Lordran and ‘beating’ the game, but is instead a game that I can always come back to and find something new and charming about the game.
CL: Regarding your comment about the shared camaraderie between Dark Souls players, I noticed another pattern. While also generally exceedingly helpful, I noticed that veteran players almost seemed to take pleasure in instilling fear into new players about what they were about to face and hearing about their difficulties. And I began to notice the same thing in myself as I began to pass on my own knowledge to newer players.
After receiving many myself when I began to play, I distinctly remember making my first “Welcome to Dark Souls!” quip to a new player who expressed disbelief at an easy death. Currently, I legitimately enjoy watching a friend and new player stream his first run on Twitch; there’s some genuine pleasure in seeing someone encounter, for the first time, the same horrors you’ve already struggled through. Similarly, though, you sincerely share in their joy once they overcome it because you remember how it felt for you, as you mentioned.
If there’s one thing that bugged me as I played through Dark Souls, it was the feeling that I missed out on the wonder of being among those who first began to uncover its secrets. When I made my way through Lordran, I knew that it was already well mapped out and comprehensive wikis already detailed its every secret. While it was all new to me, if Dark Souls is truly about a community working together to defeat a truly formidable challenge, I felt like I came on board after the community had already won.
I imagine that being there as all these secrets are uncovered and as the wikis begin to populate – perhaps even contributing to these things – must be an incredible feeling, and that’s why I want to be there from the beginning for Dark Souls II. It was the one missing element to my Dark Souls experience, and it was simply impossible to rectify.