In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.
My wife is out of the country on a business trip, and I bought Dark Souls to help fill the time I spend waiting for her to come back. It’s been on my radar for at least a couple years, but I’ve put off actually giving it a try due to one factor: every time I gave any thought to it, a companion thought came along and said, “Yeah, but do you really want to suffer that much? It’s like the hardest game of all time.” I beat it in six days, and it is actually not that bad. I’m writing about it here partially because it is fantasy, but mostly because it has dominated my life for the past week.
The main piece of buzz the uninitiated know about the game is its overwhelming difficulty. This is a positive feature – it was probably part of the marketing team’s campaign for the game. The problem is that so many people avoid it because they do not want to be punished in their leisure time. Here’s the thing: Dark Souls is not really that much harder than something like Halo or Halo 2 on Legendary. Sure, I died like 983 times, but that’s not as frustrating as it sounds. Death in this game is like jumping in Mario: it is the protagonist’s defining superpower. You are the Chosen Undead, a zombie selected to play a part in the ending or renewal of the world. When you die, you resurrect at the last checkpoint with all items, abilities, and stats intact (the penalty is that you lose all XP accrued since the last checkpoint). Dying and inexplicably resurrecting is a part of almost every video game. When Harbinger eviscerates Commander Shepard in Mass Effect, nobody explains how he’s alive and well after the next load screen. In Dead Souls, resurrection is a game mechanic. The main character is unkillable and will always resurrect at the last place he rested. From that point, the player can move through the level again and learn to avoid the things that murdered him last time. For example, I was fighting a difficult enemy on a stairwell. I rolled backwards to avoid his swing and fell to my death (the first time I met him, I did not avoid his swing and died immediately). On the third try, I got his attention and ran away until I was on solid, cliffless ground. Modifying my strategy slightly with each new attempt led to success, and that’s how it works with every challenge of this game. Die, die, die, succeed. By the time you’ve made all the necessary incremental adjustments, it’s baffling how you could ever have struggled as much as you did – when you finally move past, it seems like the easiest thing in the world. There were only three points in the game where I felt real despair: a ridiculous final boss of one level (Ornstein and Smough, the bastards), an absurd puzzle dungeon where it took me four hours to learn how to not get knocked into a pit by swinging blades over narrow bridges, and one of the very first levels where two zombies and three rats murdered my dagger-wielding, unleveled sorcerer continuously. The beginning of this game is absolutely brutal: you do not know the rules, you do not know how to move, and you do not have the skill points necessary to keep common vermin from destroying you. The great thing here is that it’s an RPG, so after the first 10 hours of pain, you start getting some real power. There is nothing in an RPG that cannot be solved by more experience points, and it is extremely gratifying when enemies who used to laugh at you as you hit them with a piece of blunt metal start disintegrating with an idle wave of your hand and a flash of blue light.
The thing on the top killed me 23 times straight at the start of the game. Towards the end of the game, I killed the thing on the bottom effortlessly in a giant explosion of ethereal flame.
As far as the fantasy storytelling, I still can’t decide if its brilliant or if the game designers couldn’t be bothered. In the beginning, four Lords came out of the darkness, grabbed the power of the First Flame, and started killing the everlasting dragons. As long as the flame burns, the age lasts. At the beginning of the game, the flame is guttering, the world is ending, and people with the curse of the undead are popping up and being locked away. You escape and go to the world of the gods in order to pursue the power necessary to either save the world or help speed along its end. As far as explicit storytelling, that’s pretty much it, but the designers spend so much time giving weight and texture to every location that the setting ends up telling a lot of the story. It is the end of an age, and everything is rundown and crumbling, so drooping and rusted with age that it’s oppressive. NPC comments, item descriptions, and the setting itself give some hints as to how everything capsized, but mostly you just wander around dealing with the consequences and guessing at the causes. It’s refreshing. In Mario games, you know you have to save the princess. In Mass Effect, you know you need to save the galaxy from terrifying, enslaving ship-bugs. In Dark Souls, the only thing that is clear is that everything is trying to kill you. I finished the game, and I chose the “good” path, but I’m still not sure if I made the right choice. Whose interests did I serve? Was I just a pawn of the gods? Did I really save anything at all, or did I perform what is at best a holding action against the encroaching dark? I still don’t know, but it was a joy to move through that world.
This game is three years old, a lot of people have played it, and a lot of people have avoided it. If you are avoiding it because of the reported difficulty, please give it a chance, especially if you’re the sort of gamer that doesn’t feel like a game is “finished” until you’ve beaten it on the hardest difficulty setting. The difficulty is bad, but it’s not that bad. Besides, in a gaming environment where difficulty is a constantly lowering bar, it is good to see a game that offers a challenge instead of just an experience. The worst gaming of my life was in Fable II when an entire dungeon consisted of hitting a floating, colored ball through a certain pattern. Here’s the twist: it changed colors, and you had to figure out to use an arrow, magic, or a sword to move it to the next location. It was insultingly easy, and it is important to have games like Dark Souls on the other side of the spectrum.
Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.