Prepare to Try: Playing Dark Souls

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Dark Souls is a game that is famous for its intense difficulty. Yet, many gamers and critics alike seem to have nothing but love and admiration for its impressive game design. It is ‘tough, but fair’, as they say. Even the tagline of the game itself tells us to Prepare To Die. With the lore and opening cutscene that feels more epic than Lord of the Rings, I was intrigued enough that I picked up the game, took a deep breath, and Prepared to Die. I was surprised to find that I didn’t die as much as I expected…

To gamers, it seems that beating Dark Souls is a badge of honour to be worn with pride. One that is earned through pure skill and hard work. Having difficulty with the game? The most common response from fans is to ‘git gud’. Only the most ‘hardcore players’ can beat the game, and those who can’t handle it are ‘noobs’ and ‘filthy casuals’. It seems like something that’s not for gamers like me, (i.e., filthy casuals) whose favourite game in recent memory is Life is Strange, and the most difficult game I played so far was Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

Making progress despite the ‘difficulty’

Upon encountering the very first enemy in the tutorial section, I nearly died while taking way too long to chip away at his health until I finally defeated him. At first, I thought that was my first taste of the pure difficulty of the game…until I realised that I was supposed to equip a better sword which I had picked up earlier. With the right sword in hand, the game suddenly felt so much easier in contrast.

Later in the game, I thought that it was impossible to kill the Stray Demon. It instantly kills me in one shot, and I could never figure out a good strategy. Then a video on Youtube showed me how to stand safely in a corner and slowly poison the demon to death.

This is a common occurrence for me with the game – every time it begins to feel too difficult or impossible, I soon realise that I’m doing something wrong, or there are always workarounds that allow you to still make progress in the game. In that sense, Dark Souls is not actually ‘difficult’ game. It’s just that the ‘difficulty settings’ are dynamic and emergent from within its gameplay systems.

After 60 hours on my current character, I still can’t say that I’m a good player. I still miss parrys more often than not, and always mistime my rolls at great cost to my HP. I didn’t actually defeat Smough and Ornstein myself; I summoned an online player who basically took care of the whole fight while I stood aside uselessly.

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Similarly, when I got into a fight with Lautrec at Firelink Shrine, he was one hit from killing me but he accidentally tripped and fell off a cliff and died. It was hilarious, but I managed to make progress in Dark Souls. In other situations, survived the game not by ‘getting good’, but rather by leveling up and choosing my weapons and armour carefully.

I have a pure dex build with no magic or pyromancy, so I stuck with the Iaito and the winged spear. I found that the latter is especially useful for unskilled players since it has a long reach and you can use it with your shield up at all times. This allows you to stay at a moderately safe distance while poking away at the enemy’s health. Killing enemies takes longer this way, but it’s also much safer. A good advice for any situation is try to engage one enemy at a time, or bottleneck them into a narrow corridor so they don’t surround you.

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Later in the game, I maxed out the upgrades Great Scythe and Queelag’s Furysword. These two weapons carried me comfortably through the rest of the game, including the final boss.

The lore and story of Dark Souls

The way Dark Souls presents its story heavily uses the old writing rule of ‘show, don’t tell’. In books and movies, rules like these exist to make the audience feel more invested and immersed in the story. ‘Telling’ the story through narration or character monologue feels more detached  than letting the audience actually experience the story through a character’s perspective.

In Dark Souls, players know very little about their character and the world when they start the game. Right off the bat, all you know is you play as a ‘Chosen Undead’ (whatever that means), and you’re helped by some unknown knight to escape an Undead Asylum (apparently, some people who are ‘undead’ can’t die, so they get locked away in an asylum for eternity). After defeating a boss and escaping the asylum, I got carried by a crow to a place called Lodran, where I meet a dude who tells me I’m supposed to go ring two bells.

I’m not here to summarise the story, but that was all the information players get once they start the game. We only begin to get a picture of the world and ‘politics’ of the world by exploring the levels, gleaning information by talking to NPCs and studying environmental clues.

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The environment in Dark Souls is always worth studying in detail. Almost every single item/loot drop have very specific story reasons to be located at a particular place in the game. In a church-like building in Anor Londo, I discovered a corpse from which I could pick up a new set of armour. For most other games, we would think of it as a randomly placed item drop just for the player to pick up. But the corpse in Anor Londo turned out to be a character which other NPCs mentioned in other parts of the game – I didn’t make the connection until I watched one of many Dark Souls lore videos in Youtube.

This is one of the other interesting thing about the storytelling in Dark Souls. You would likely  never get the full story just by playing the game. The plot and mythology are clearly thought out carefully by the developers, but they were extremely subtle with its presentation. It seems that a full public documentation of Dark Souls lore was constructed by the online community out of bits and pieces that players found throughout their own playthroughs. Of course, a single, isolated person could theoretically piece together the story, but it would take multiple playthroughs to really get a full picture.

Adrenaline rushes, victories, and gamer types

The impression I got from gamers is that they enjoy Dark Souls because of the satisfying feeling of accomplishment after overcoming an insurmountable challenge. (Especially after defeating a difficult boss.) That, for me, is not the reason why I stuck with the game all the way to the end. I suspect that this is also related to the reason why certain people enjoy adrenaline rushes, while some do not.

Boss fights in Dark Souls are grueling and intense. Dying is costly, because it means you lose a ton of xp, and having to retrace a long journey just to get back for another attempt. Players will naturally feel tense when their health bar dwindles. An epic and bombastic orchestral background music serves only to amplify our tension and fight-or-flight emotions. Furthermore, the boss characters have visual aspects designed to provoke our primal fears – they take ques from trypophobia (Queelag), uncanny valley (Four Kings, Executioner Smough), and perhaps (I might be stretching here,) exploiting our  ingrained subconscious taboo fears of sex and human genitalia (Queelag, Gaping Dragon). Queelag, in particular, could be an example of the sinister seductress trope.

These situations induce an adrenaline rush to the player. Perhaps players with a sensation-seeking personality type would find boss fight exhilarating and fun. But maybe for players like me, I just feel glad that it’s over and I get to progress more through the game. I did experience strong adrenaline rushes through boss fights and did not enjoy them. I was physically sweating and my hands were shaking for minutes afterwards. There were times where I actually felt sick after beating a boss. Some people might find euphoria or catharsis associated with these feelings, but others might not.

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When it comes to games, Mark LeBlanc listed 8 different kinds of fun which we could use as a model to explain why different people enjoy different games. Players who enjoy the difficulty/challenge of Dark Souls are clearly the ‘challenge’ type, while I still enjoyed the game because it also caters to ‘narrative’ and ‘fantasy’ aspects of fun.

The anti-power fantasy

Dark Souls is clearly the opposite of a power fantasy. Almost the entire game consists of the player fighting beings more powerful than themselves. While the underlying mechanics are finely balanced, the game always gives the appearance that the odds are stacked highly against the player. While the player character is ostensibly the ‘Chosen Undead’, evoking the ‘chosen one’ plot trope, you quickly find out that there are many Undeads who are attempting the same quest as you. This implies that you’re just one of many Chosen Undead candidates. There is a prophecy to be fulfilled, but you have to actually prove that our character is actually the person in the prophecy. Otherwise, the world lives on and evolves without taking much notice of you.

Contrast this to the single-player campaigns in Call of Duty. While you play as a soldier in a global conflict, the *entire battle* stops progressing to wait for you to show up at a certain script-initialising point. You are always the soldier where the captain hands the key item to perform a crucial task. You’re the one who enters the deactivation codes to stop a nuclear weapon. You are the one other characters rely on to save the day. In Dark Souls, most characters are unaware of your existence until you really do something worthy of their attention. This is true in both the larger, story/objective standpoint and also the moment-to-moment gameplay around NPCs.

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Final thoughts

It seems impossible to form the right impression of Dark Souls from reading reviews, or watching videos about it. After completing the game myself, I’d say that this game is not exclusively for ‘hardcore gamers’, whatever that means. It is certainly a unique experience that has never been found in other games before.

If you’re a ‘casual gamer’ and is interested in the medieval fantasy world of Dark Souls, do not be intimidated. I am much older than the typical gamer demographic. My reflexes are not as good as they used to be. I tend to do stupid mistakes in games to get myself killed. I make bad decisions at building my character stats. Despite all that, I managed to beat Dark Souls. If a shitty player like me can manage it, then so can you!

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