Drinking from the Flame: A late-comer’s love affair with Dark Souls

Warning: This article contains extensive spoilers for the Dark Souls series, and many terrible Dark Souls puns. I make no apologies.

20160705144310_1Unlike many other recent converts who have been drawn to the primordial flame of Dark Souls, my journey technically began with Demon’s Souls, the PS3 cult classic that spawned the SoulsBorne collection of videogames by From Software. I was like a chosen undead, lost in a world of agony that gave me little reason to push on. The slow and clunky controls of Demon’s Souls made me, a Ninja Gaiden veteran, feel nauseated by the lack of immediacy. The purpose and resolution required to guide and land each blow felt at drastic odds with my preferred play style of wall-jumping magical ninjas. Tonally, the Souls series didn’t appeal. I had no way of seeing that the shanties and ruins occupied by shuffling undead could pave the way for crystal caves and great lakes of lava, or even an entire snow-covered world held inside a guarded painting. All I saw was a pack of gormless zombies, swords, and shields.

I was also nervous of its Japanese origins. I hope I don’t draw too much ire when I say that narrative delivery hasn’t been a strong focal point of the Japanese games industry for some time. The interesting, heart-wrenching, clever plot twists may come thick and fast in JRPGs, but I hadn’t any hope that the nuance and atmosphere required to pull off an old-world fantasy story would present itself in this gritty hack-n-slash, birthed of an Eastern kiln. As Souls fans know, this bullet was dodged by making the lore almost entirely optional. However, it is this hidden lore that has kept me coming back, seemingly against all odds. And of course, the real reason I keep playing: The fashion.

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Enflamed with a passion for fashion

It seems like a strange link to make, but aside from aesthetically, I don’t enjoy role-playing (in videogames). I don’t want to guide a character’s moral arc, or have my own influence decide the fate of the tragic folk that inhabit a world that has been crafted for consumption. Bioware’s library of story-driven role-playing experiences leave me tired and afflicted with analysis paralysis. My favourite RPGs involve almost no RP at all. The quirky, heartrending loveliness of the Mother series leaves no room for choice-consequence mechanics. But if you give me 100 outfits to choose from, I’ll definitely be the prettiest adventurer you’ll ever see.

Dark Souls has spawned a following from fashion-conscious die-hards that love to mix and match armor sets. Making sure the gold trim on the Fire Witch armor matches the leggings, gauntlets, or even the insignia of the shield can be an absolute joy. And thanks to the unconventional multiplayer system, the self-proclaimed “Fashion Police” have chosen to invade, critique, and guide players into becoming their most beautiful selves. This is just one creative use for the random encounter system found in all the SoulsBorne games. Some people play hide-and-seek, or reenact famous battles (within Souls lore) using the reclaimed outfits of heroes deceased. Its unorthodox approach to connecting people has helped me, a particularly timid misanthrope, engage with the greater world. Sometimes it’s as simple as seeing the ghostly apparitions of other players, as the servers recount to me the final moments when another adventurer succumbed to the horrors of an invisible beast, or perhaps when they just didn’t notice how close they were getting to a cliff edge.

Try, and try again

20160616104358_1As I mentioned, my story began and almost ended with Demon’s Souls. A friend gifted me a copy after discovering I owned a PS3, and since he had finished the game and had specifically bought it to play on a friend’s system, he felt like I might be a good target for his evangelism. An hour in and I’d definitively established that this was no Ninja Gaiden game, so it was probably not for me. I never got to discuss this with him. Perhaps he might have persuaded me to persist. Dark Souls arrived for the PC, but with the shaky port from the console version, and with my failed attempts to properly apply the famous DSFix software modification (I couldn’t get the HUD to match the resolution of the gameplay, so my health bar and items were stuck in the top left corner of the screen, instead of framing the entire view), it didn’t seem like I’d return to the claustrophobic holding cells of the Undead Asylum any time soon.

Dark Souls 2 arrived, and it looked more accessible. I played up to the the retired firekeepers’ house, but never made it to the safehaven of Majula. Too many action games were already on my radar, with less obtuse systems, and flashy stories and character designs. I was excited to dive into Shadows of Mordor, and Bayonetta 2. I didn’t have time for depressing and confounding fencing simulators when I could be hunting the Uruk via sneaky political plays, or magically getting naked to fight armies of angels.

The Scholar of the First Sin edition of Dark Souls 2 came out, and for the sake of a complete set I purchased it on sale, with half a hope that I’d one day get into the now-famous Souls series. People were talking about it. People I respected were obsessed with it. I was the BioShock and EarthBound guy. The Souls games were something else altogether, and they remained impenetrable to me until From Software’s third Dark Souls game arrived with a whole lot of changes that would eventually be my foot in the door. Much like when the hand of Manus dragged Marvellous Chester into Oolacile’s past, I had no notion of how deep I’d go, or where I’d end up.

Dark Souls 3 actually makes enemies more challenging in the first area than the tutorial zones of the previous games. The player is compensated by allowing fluid movement, responsive controls, and a beautiful vista or two. Gone is the traipse past cowering undead, green-grey concrete walls, and murky stone caves. A bright, almost heavenly light settles on the stylistically jagged bunches of tombstones. A treacherous, but short cliff path leads past quick-moving, robed grave wardens to a memorable first boss encounter that lets you know that Dark Souls 2’s bevy of guardian knights have returned, but with a twist. This time the battles will be warped by the seeping Pus of Man, and the flailing, chaotic desperation of a mid-battle change of form shows off the influence of Bloodborne’s themes of blood-thirst. Iudex Gundyr the Ashen Judge transforms from unrelenting, but stoic combatant, to a seething chimera of man, serpent, and tendrils of distilled darkness. It’s as memorable as it is harsh.

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Traverse the fog

Aside from a few questions on twitter (should I burn bone shards?), I managed to complete Dark Souls 3 without consulting a walkthrough. I had a few enthusiastic friends who were on hand to respond to any roadblocks I might come across, but by-and-large, I found it could be easily completed by conventional exploration alone. The only time I looked up an answer from the wiki was when I had progressed Siegward of Catarina’s storyline to the point where he was locked up below Irithyll Dungeon, and knowing the fragility of NPC questlines, I made sure I got him out before heading too deep into the Profaned Capital. I’m VERY glad I did. His bittersweet confrontation with his old pal Yhorm was a pleasing conclusion to his almost adorable tale. Siegward, the onion-helmed klutz can finally rest. Siegmeyer, his likely ancestor, has a tragic role to play in the first Dark Souls. It’s another complicated, and sleepy quest of the “OnionBro”. He clung to the idea of offering himself as a grand sacrifice, as he desperately tried to stave off insanity. His knowing daughter kept tabs, as the sad family affair played out. The return of OnionBro for Dark Souls 3 marks a different kind of tragedy. Tasked with killing an old friend according to his wishes, Siegward offers the player soup and beer in return for helping him out of a pickle. He then gives the player the ability to slump into a post-gluttonous coma. A little nap is the only thing to do, really, after a nice toast.

20160616153145_1The appeal of the NPCs wasn’t something I was prepared for. Many of Dark Soul’s voice actors were plucked from the theatres of Britain. The sombre delivery of ominous words of despair is often coupled with almost slapstick displays of humourous ignorance. I’ll never forget the blacksmith and his mineral-selling daughter, as she sits for eons beside his workshop, never speaking to him, and feeling like the familiar gent nearby couldn’t possibly be her father. After all, he wouldn’t follow her out there, would he?

There’s an old-world style of tragedy to the Dark Souls lore. The world’s creation story is tortured and violent. The hierarchies of fantastical beings all stem from mistakes, betrayal, greed, and malice: The accidental birthing of the demon race, the twisted existences of the half-breeds, the eugenics and false religions guiding and curating cities and peoples under the horrifying powers of the royal families. And almost all of these tales play out without so much as a conversation in a cutscene. Emphatically distanced from the JRPG tradition of verbose preambles, the Dark Souls games usually begin with an overview of the climate, and a clear description of your place in this land of horrors. A woman narrates for barely a paragraph in a wry voice, as if she’s well aware of the trials ahead. She even elects to begin mid-sentence.

If you want to hone in on the luscious yet coy storytelling, you’ll have to spend time in your inventory. Item, soul, armour, and weapon descriptions hide stories of god-eaters and heretics, of glory and deceit. The biggest joke of all is that the seemingly nonsensical jargon that sets up the world within the first few minutes of loading up a New Game, is anything but. It’s fully fleshed out with enough tantalising detail scattered through the world, in the positioning of corpses and in the oil paintings on gallery walls, that lore-hunters have dedicated themselves, heart and soul, to uncovering and cataloguing these tales of woe. For the new Souls fan, VaatiVidya’s YouTube channel is a compulsory stopover on their path to enlightenment. And once you’re craving more Souls discussion, I highly recommend You Died: The Dark Souls Companion, penned by two of the journalists tasked with critiquing Dark Souls when review copies were first sent to media outlets. The camaraderie through hardship reached legendary levels, as email chains became necessary to navigate what any person with access to the wiki in its current state can easily traverse. You Died looks at the cultural and personal impact the games have made. It has punchy, often poignant chapters that are never more than a few pages long. It’s a collection of varied essays on many interesting aspects of Dark Souls, from two minds who were initially forced to engage with the material, but found themselves drawn deeper into the world and story… just as ash seeketh ember. Their book does a much better job of explaining many of the reasons for obsession than I could squeeze in an article. But I can tell you when and where my own obsession began. It gripped me tighter than the jaws of Sulyvahn’s Beast on the bridge to Irithyll.

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From drab to fab

I barely glimpsed the visually uninteresting slabs of square rooms that form the Undead Asylum during my first attempt. It seemed a world away from a place I’d want to visit, even in a videogame. I can handle horror, but this felt like boredom. Nothing about the slow swings and limited weapon combos showed me anything other than a dreary, uncomfortable time lay ahead. Was that the much-touted difficulty of Dark Souls? Was overcoming boredom the real challenge?

There’s a well-known section of the original game that I would have never even witnessed had I not been propelled to return thanks to the thrilling experience of Dark Souls 3. The player arrives as a bloody mess atop the hellish torture chamber of Sen’s Fortress. After a short boss encounter, a path opens up to the heavenly city of Anor Londo, courtesy of some ghoulish, flying public transport workers. The clean marble surfaces of a city so divine that every building is a grand cathedral sure seem alien and out of place alongside the decay and hopelessness of the rest of the world. The previous locales presented a world in a continuous state of dying. Anor Londo was that heaven we were promised. The cruel deception of that promise becomes evident, as a gold-plated pair of boss warriors guard the bed chamber of the pornographically designed goddess of sunlight. I’m pleased that the lead director of the Souls series, Miyazaki Hidetaka, felt that her modern and conventionally attractive form was at odds with the game’s aesthetic. The art designer in question was just too pleased with his design that Miyazaki didn’t have the heart to tear him down, so the story goes. My obsession has lead me to read up on Dark Souls’ development history, and beyond. The compulsion doesn’t seem to be letting up.

Those accursed merchants

20160523_112548My house already looks like a toy store. The lounge room, kitchen, and one of the bedrooms are filled with cabinets full of figures. The walls are lined with framed artwork from my favourite game, comic, and anime series. In the age of digital distribution, game boxes are no longer present as decoration, so statues have taken their place on my shelves. I’ve often contemplated getting a Ninja Gaiden statue or two to add to the gaming characters represented in our home, but the juvenile designs of busty, baby-faced bondage warriors and demonic severed limbs didn’t capture what I loved about the games. Bandai Namco’s statue of Yhorm, a Lord of Cinder, was the first collectible that caught my eye. A few hundred dollars and a proxy shipping service later, and the Red Knight, Bloodborne’s Hunter, and Yhorm himself were sharing a shelf in our spare bedroom.

Then came the announcement from First4Figures. Some unholy alliance must have caused this terrible fate to be bestowed on mankind. We’ll be getting ¼ scale Dark Souls figures. At least 5 such monstrosities are set to be released over several years, starting with the Knight Artorias of the Abyss. Heaven help us all. Or perhaps, praise the sun.

Infused with a Chaos Gem

Dark Souls initially seemed like a mess of design flaws to me. The healing, levels, imbuing, NPCs, and combat stats seemed too confusing. The multiplayer was obtuse. The story and character motivations weren’t clearly communicated. The requirements to progress side-quests were at best, well hidden, and at worst, easy to irreversibly mess up. Entire cities could be missed on any given playthrough, even after you’ve seen the credits. One of my favourite areas in Dark Souls 3 requires a particular gesture to be made next to a particular cliff edge, for far longer than one would assume necessary. For an action game with very little in the way of roleplaying, this seems like poor implementation.

Every one of those “flaws” is a chip on the rugged, but beautiful whole. Each one facilitates a purpose, for better or worse. Each crack has shaped the community of players in some way. The lack of hand-holding encourages an attentive ear, or alternatively lets people seek out a communal experience. The online community bands together early in each game’s release to form online repositories of shared knowledge. The requirement that side-quests are meticulously researched means a player will perhaps see the start of a particular character’s story in the world, then seek them out on a second or third playthrough when curiosity has sent them to the wiki. The promise of hidden bosses and exciting items means few players will rest once they’ve beaten the final boss. The theme of doomed cycles playfully entices people towards restarting multiple times, and the New Game+ mode brings tougher enemies, but allows the player to retain their loot and levels as they return to Boletaria, Lordran, Drangleic, Yharnam, or Lothric for another chance to test their mettle.  

Bearer of the curse

20160629151605_1These fabled lands aren’t so much countries to storm with militaristic vigour, but testing grounds akin to Mega Man’s levels. The choice of which direction and boss to tackle, the memorisation of enemy locations, the collecting of “boss weapons”, all of these design choices are shared with that little platform-jumping robot. Our valour and heroism isn’t as assured, even if we do persist beyond the credits. There’s little in the way of Shadow of the Colossus’ melancholia upon felling these giant beasts. They’re often nasty, power-hungry shadows, intent on stopping you in your tracks. Just as often, they’re mindless husks, begging for death, but lacking the words. And yet we’re never sure we’re the true hero. Death is almost always a gift in Dark Souls. We might swear and yell as we lose 50,000 souls (Dark Souls’ currency) because we swung ourselves off a cliff with a mistimed thrust of the Greatsword, but we’ve more than likely been gifted a learning experience in return for the YOU DIED text that appears on the screen. Thematically, too, the desire for eternal rest is ever present. Undead wish they were plain old dead. Hollows (the equivalent of zombie, if zombies could form communities and build structures) have gone mad as their essence is drained each time they exit their graves. Queens task you with killing their husbands. Sometimes it’s the only mercy we have to offer. Occasionally we reunite parent and child, but far more often we deliver a twisted souls to their afterlife. Often the two actions constitute the same act.

This death-delivering can be shared via a poorly signposted multiplayer system. Each game in the series can be played co-operatively after certain items have been found. For many people the discovery of multiplayer occurs when a red phantom sporting a player-created name (Sir Buttsbutts, for example) invades during a play session. After a frantic duel, some players will be pushed to test out the invasion system for themselves. Many people refuse to invade, and others join covenants whose goals are to serve and protect in the online environment. Dueling, complete with an established player etiquette, is very popular. Specific areas are designated for PvP battles, although invasions can be initiated almost anywhere. The shared co-op experience is somewhat limited in the first and third Dark Souls, and regions no longer allow friend summoning once an area boss has been defeated. Dark Souls 2 allows more freedom, but each game still requires players to be within a number of levels of each other, or alternatively to have harvested a comparatively similar number of souls. Dark Souls 3 has a system that allows two players to connect, regardless of comparative stats, using an agreed-upon password. The player being called into the world will have their abilities downgraded to bring them in line with the host. It’s exciting to experience areas in a completely different way. Tactical options are doubled and knowledge is shared.

Seek the Lords of Cinder

The multiplayer components of Dark Souls have facilitated some of the most rewarding multiplayer gaming sessions I’ve ever been a part of. A year ago one of my dear friends departed our sunny Australian shores to take up residence in Silicon Valley. For a few weeks he screen-shared his playthrough of the early levels, while I guided and gave advice. Once he got clear of the Undead Settlement, I jumped on-board to assist him further, my shining golden character at his side. We’re currently diving deep into the Profaned Capital, and it’s a beautiful way to stay in touch and share memorable gaming moments. I often stop to take selfies to commemorate our victories.

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I’m a stay-at-home dad with a toddler who naps like clockwork. There’s a lovely three hour stretch in the afternoons where my daughter sleeps in a sling around my chest. These nap sessions have become important social times for me. I put on my headset, grab a controller, and dive into the world of Dark Souls with a particular friend that I met as part of an online Splatoon/art community. He’s a young gentleman from Ohio, just out of highschool, with a massive heart and endless patience. He singlehandedly pulled me through Dark Souls 1 and 2, and without him I would have given up at my first encounter with the Gargoyles. To make things worse, he plays with a keyboard and mouse, and yet his skill level is miles beyond mine. Dark Souls is less accessible than the later games, and traversing the harsh lands of Lordran has been incredible. I routinely watch as scenarios transition from impossible into improbable, and then again into victory. Very soon we’re off to fight the next titan of the land thanks to my travelling companion’s studies and skill.  He has memorised every enemy placement, the role of every item, and knows every NPC questline. If the finicky online isn’t working as we’d like, he is always able to instruct me on my path without looking, just from memory. He knows how to unlock shortcuts in the most efficient order, revealing illusory walls and hidden loot.

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Happy snaps from a fallen world

Documenting these travels has been one of the most fun parts of the experience. Recently I’ve discovered that many of my friends also like to take time out while gaming to take screenshots of particularly lovely in-game views, or cute character outfits. I’ve got a library of hundreds of images from the Souls games, and I have cultivated Imgur albums ready to share when people make the mistake of asking about my travels. Holidaymakers the worst. We get it. You went somewhere lovely, and I’m glad you had a great time, but I don’t actually want to see your photo album. Regardless, my precious memories are safely stored in the cloud. And I WILL show you.

The emotional response triggered by revisiting scenes from the series is powerful. Dark Souls might make you work for your reward, but the reward is more than worth it. The brevity of any post-battle cutscene, including end-game encounters, offers a reminder that your gift upon completion isn’t a verbose section of concluding dialogue, or even something in the way of a satisfying end to the tale. Futility and cycles is a key theme after all. The short time between the final battle and the credits is a reminder that you did it. You overcame. You won’t be dwelling on story revelations. You, the player, now have a chance to wallow in the hard-earned victory you achieved. That final battle was the reward. You got to see how far you’ve come. You did the impossible. Now do it again.

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A learning experience

I was wrong about the gameplay. It’s not sluggish. It responds with precision to your inputs. Memorising the timing of attacks is key to success. The later games running on the Bloodborne engine have been sped up, so if a flurry of quick attacks is your style, that’s available to you now. I was wrong about the setting. It ranges from dreary, to horrifying, to austere, to peaceful. It can be incredibly beautiful. I was wrong about the kind of people who would enjoy these games. They cater to the lore-hungry, the challenge-driven, and the fashion lovers. These games aren’t necessarily difficult in the traditional sense. You don’t need boundless dexterity, or pin-point accuracy. You just need to listen and watch. If you can read which attacks are coming next based on enemy animation, you’ll always know what to do. Learning these patterns is the primary gameplay loop. It’s addictive and rewarding. But so is the world, the stories, the aesthetics, and the multiplayer experience, for all its quirks. From Software has its bloody talons in me, and I fear I’ll never be free. So instead of resisting, I’ll don my Evangelist Set of armour, complete with hat, robes, trousers, and gloves, and I’ll head into the virtual streets to spread the word. If you look past the gamer-bro culture that chants loudly about Dark Soul’s merit as a yardstick of gamer credibility, you’ll find the real reasons so many people love the series. Those reasons are multitudinous, and different for everyone.

You can find me online at @moststrange on Twitter, and I’m MostStrange on Steam. You’ll probably find me in Lothric Castle, surveying the beautiful decay of a city stuck in an eternal twilight.

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