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(originally published November 2, 2011)
"[Dark Souls is] A digital-fantasy hero-simulation for humans."
You gamble at all times in Dark Souls. Every second is a calculation. Sometimes slow, sometimes instantaneous. There can't be a thoughtless moment. You dip into your life experience, tapping every knowledge font for details that will keep you sharp and alive, always learning, always ready to gamble again. It's not the punch, or even hitting the canvas that hurts, it's getting back up. Every time, you're gambling. You might try to convince yourself otherwise to force yourself to take that next step through an unexplored, and nonthreatening, doorway. In time, you might become arrogant, a giant id-ball, lashing out at enemies that you've seen a hundred times, your intimacy with your Drake Sword's speed and reach climbing to instinctive levels, and you might persuade yourself right then that you're safe. You might think that you've accounted for every detail.
You take things for granted and when that happens one too many times, you're sucker punched. You always have something to lose. The odds were slim, but they were always there, right?
Step 1: Become comfortable with that idea that there is never a sure thing. You'll need to face that not very far in. Real, tangible loss is always one misstep away. Dark Souls takes from you, "the player" -- as an extension of taking from you, "the character," the very avatar you've created and seen through two-story demons, jailbreaks, giant crows, and infinite deaths. You have a lot of dying to do in Dark Souls. And a lot of coming back to life. And a lot of dying again. It's going to hurt. You, the player, are quite literally gambling with your own human time. You could lose hours of progress. Highly-digital, and highly-tangible -- progress. If you don't like that, you can give up. If the rules seem unfair, you don't have to play. If you think this is going to make you too miserable and the despair is too much you, you can walk away. If you think the reward isn't worth the risk, leave.
If you think you can find a similar reward being given out for less effort, go. Before you leave though, ask: What are you really here for?
It's like World of Warcraft if Blizzard wanted to lose money. It isn't cheerful, it's bleak. Nice things to look at are common prizes in Dark Souls. You can't cash them in for armor or regenerating health, but you, human, can enjoy the view. A long time ago, games would occasionally have very good graphics in the first level, then you would move into the middle levels where the artistic drudge live, and then, as a reward, if you can get very far into the game, you'll get to see some pretty insane graphics in the last few levels, especially for the sprites and pixels. This sensation, simply feeling safe for a moment and gawking at some new scenery, returns in Dark Souls after a 20 year hiatus, and you can sigh for a second or two and admire a sunset view over the Anor Londo cathedral. Funny, time doesn't move here. As pretty as it is to you, something is extremely fucking wrong and that's effective audio-visual emotional manipulation. This isn't a fantasy at all. What the fuck were we thinking?
Ah, but there is triumph to be won in this not-a-fantasy world. The spare music reminds you that the apocalypse has most likely already come and gone. The blighting forces that caused the kingdom's fall might have come and gone too. The demonic empires built on the conquered land's corpse have come and gone. Only the most wicked survivors remain. Only the strongest creatures, tested by natural selection, and the meanest scavengers, surviving off of the dead, and the immortal ghosts, haunting every field and castle, remain. You're going into this land and you're going to fight them. You are an undead and you are cursed to keep coming back to life. When you come back to life, you get one chance to get back to where you died to collect the souls you dropped during your previous death. You will have to cut through the revived monsters again to reclaim your body, and if you die on your way back, you will lose it all.
Souls are the only currency in the game and allow you to buy statistical upgrades, spells, keys, and equipment. Be thankful that that's all the game takes from you upon death. Be thankful that the game has woven logical context into your avatar's infinite un-life. It is assumed that you will die and that revival is an even meaner punishment.
You are being encouraged to learn how to die. But what is death in videogames, or in Dark Souls, specifically? And who is really dying? And is that a bad thing? You are getting all of death's benefits and so few of its negatives -- you're basically a dhampir.
In an odd twist, you are bound quite intrinsically to your avatar's emotions because you suffer consequences. When you overcome, ya'll overcome. When you suffer, ya'll suffer. By comparison, in other games, consequences to your actions as a player are only loosely linked to your avatar. In Zelda, if you fall in lava, you lose 1/2 of a heart and are teleported twenty second back in time to the last solid ground you'd been standing on.
That is what lava does.
That is not what lava does!
Zelda lava has ceased to be lava. It has become negative-1/2 heart.
What you see in Dark Souls is what you see.
You see monsters. You see you. You are you in Dark Souls, and you are learning to be a videogame hero. It is a digital-fantasy hero-simulation for humans. It's like Assassin's Creed: The Movie: The Game. If you, person, wandered up a hill and saw a zombie with a sword and a shield, you would be fucking terrified. You, human, would die hundreds of times before gathering the bravery and skill to subdue even the simplest monster. You, human, would not be able to pick up a plasma rifle and start shooting aliens, and therefore, by comparison, nearly every other videogame is a fucking liar. There are things in Dark Souls that are confusing because an Eternal Dragon at the base of an ashen lake would not spin a yarn for an insect like you -- he would accept your unquestioning servitude though. There is mystery surrounding the purpose of the Sunbro covenant for a reason.
Nintendo frequently states that Link is a silent protagonist through which you can enter the kingdom of Hyrule and you ostensibly become Link, boy adventurer on a quest to save the princess. Again, that is a fucking lie. If you were really Link, you would be eaten by child-eating plants two seconds into the Great Deku Tree. You also wouldn't tolerate Ingo abusing Epona. You would wait for night and slit that motherfucker's throat in his sleep. You would also have half of Kakariko Village out to kill you because they too are semi-dead fantasy characters in a medieval setting and people die of starvation and tapeworms every fifteen seconds in medieval settings.
It is the videogame equivalent of the Bubonic Plague, except you keep getting sick and keep coming back to life and everybody hates you for that. Dark Souls is closer to a truly non-fantastic fantasy, if you're interested. Here, fairies don't stop to tell you: "Hey! Listen!" Fairies fuck your soul out!
That is what Dark Souls is. It's the real Legend of Zelda, a Grimm fairy-tale, as read by Stephen King during his cocaine-withdrawal years. Everything has vile definition. Everything that was once just one word, and not scary, is now two words, and out to give you venereal diseases. Dogs are 'Poison Dogs.' Gargoyles are 'Bell Gargoyles.' Dragons are 'Gasping Dragons.' Giants are 'Dung Giants.' Demons are 'Centipede Demons.' Fire-spider Centaur-lady is (fucking) 'Chaos Witch Queelag.' She secretes magma constantly.
Every animal in Dark Souls looks like it was raised on a diet of raw meat and poisonous razorblades.
Look, if God took some time off and backpacked around Europe and smoked a bunch of salvia while studying discarded concept art from an unfilmable, pre-Frighteners Peter Jackson movie, and then decided in a drug-laced miasma that He wanted to make a new planet populated by those irradiated slaughter-animals, you still wouldn't even be close to the stinking, rotting, pestilent evil found in Dark Souls' creatures. No, those animals would first have to go through a thousand years of thermonuclear war and inbred fucking amongst the species, develop complex religion, and then pray to their new, gnarled deity to open a portal to another dark plane, where every living thing's evil counterpart dwells in jealous and hatred. Those mega-malevolent animals, birthed from eggs made of raw dark matter, are the things you'll be fighting in Dark Souls, goatees and all.
There is no map in Dark Souls, no easy teleporting, no pause button, and no excuses for getting in over your head. You'll die because you're stupid. You'll win because you're shrewd. You won't need a map because you'll know every nook in every level -- you'll have run to each one for safety to set up your ambushes. You won't want to teleport because it will deprive you of souls you could be collecting. The game is fair because the rules apply to the monsters the same way they apply to you -- both sides can parry and riposte, get pushed off cliffs, activate traps, and nobody can pause the game.
Desperation is the greatest aphrodisiac -- at any given time, you will be either dead or horny when playing Dark Souls. Slaying a monster after he has killed you a dozen times is the grim satisfaction that accompanies stealth-stabbing an adult grizzly bear that's been guarding an elephant gun on an island ruled by the oppressive Emperor Elephant -- once you have the elephant gun, you want the grizzly bear to be alive again and you also want to find an elephant to shoot. Every challenge in Dark Souls is a new door that you want to kick in. Have you ever kicked in a door? It's almost impossible in this day and age.
Dark Souls does not give a fuck about the years between 2000-2010.
That whole decade never happened. Some people talk about how, "Oh, I always wanted to make my movie about 'Subject: X,' but the technology wasn't there," or, "I wasn't mature enough at that point in my life to do the subject matter justice." With this in mind, somebody quite obviously walked up to the Dark Souls developers at FromSoftware in 1996 and said, "The N64 is going to make 3D games a reality. Also, the Internet's a thing." They'd comply, struck by a golden light emanating from The One True God, and retreat for four years to develop a game on those two tenants and their mid-90's understanding of fantasy role-playing games. Then they descended in a bathysphere into their Swiss bank-insured, crush-depth ocean vault, and they threw the Dark Souls design document inside. There, it waited, and FromSoftware went on to make the maddeningly underachieving Armored Core series, wherein cardboard boxes shaped like mecha throw colorful electric-streamers at one another.
In 2011, they retrieved the design document and made the game exactly how they had always wanted, now that the technology had caught up. They do not care about your post-9/11 Obama administration videogame sensibilities and anxieties. They're as Japanese as fuck-all.
The odder design choices in Dark Souls can be answered by the statement: "Because otherwise you won't learn anything."
Why does it feel like I die in three hits? Why do you take all my money and experience points from me when I die? Why don't you explain what the fuck I'm supposed to do? How do I get around this? Why didn't you tell me that pit was bottomless? Why does my guy move so slow? Why does my guy suddenly move fast? Why does that guy's shortsword swing faster than my claymore? Why are the guys down that way really strong and the guys up that other path are weaker? Would fire be effective against that slime-demon? It's likely that rat will poison me, won't it? I need to get across this lava, who mentioned fire-immunity a while back? Okay, these guys are metallic, they'll be weak to lightning. I'll lure these fire-spitters out, find a bonfire, revert to human, kindle, equip magic-resistant armor, and summon a fellow adventurer from the spirit world (read: Internet) for some help with this boss.
You've arrived. This is your brain. You might have forgotten about it. It'll help you overcome challenges.
Dark Souls is the best survival horror game since Resident Evil 4.
It is the best dungeon-crawl since Diablo II. It is the best RPG since Mass Effect 2. It is not a game about hover-skating over swamplands and fly-swatting werelizards, and therefore it is superior to all of The Elder Scrolls games. It has the bleakest world since The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (the adult-Link part). If it were an ice cream flavor, it'd be Jalapenos n' Clams n' Vodka. It has the best creature design since Final Fantasy IX. It has the most intense boss fights since Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. It's basically the closest we'll ever get to a 3D Castlevania game (pre-Symphony of the Night design-style). It has the most, "Oh, wow, the exit drops me right out here, I know where I am," --moments since Devil May Cry. It has the casual, slow-motion gore of God of War and the blow-for-blow combat of Soulcalibur II. You'll want to run from certain enemies on-sight, just like you did in God Hand. You'll want to take risks and master your fears, just like you did in Twisted Metal II. Dark Souls has the sit-and-stare / beauty-is-its-own-reward feel of Okami and the, "Yeah, well, I didn't give up, and I found a way," sensation that we thought had gone out of us a long time ago.
Only when you're made entirely fucking miserable can you see just what you've got in you. It's a will to win. It's a hatred of losing. Suddenly, you're braver. You're confident. It's not a gamble. You can't lose because you'll always get back up. There's no doubt. The fight won't ever be over, not until you win, and not until you've taken Dark Souls for all he's worth. You don't know how to die.