In an age when when every square inch of a game had been polished to a sheen, pre-release coverage had become equivalent to watching a ‘Let’s Play’ video on YouTube and the sense of discovery was beginning to wane, Dark Souls was a breath of fresh (though likely poison-infused) air.
Throughout the countless hours spent within the relentlessly demanding world of Dark Souls, there was one obsession I couldn’t break. Scattered throughout every level were inanimate items – barrels, chests, vases – all governed by the same physics system that’s such an integral part of the Souls experience. Every time I’d break one, its pieces would fly haphazardly across the room. Whenever an object would catch my eye, its fate was sealed. I had to smash it.
It wasn’t until my time with Dark Souls entered its umpteenth hour that I finally realised why I had become so obsessed with destroying those objects. It was a release. In a world where anything and everything was either trying to kill me or leading me to my death, those barrels, vases and chests were the only objects not to put up a fight. In a world where every victory was a momentous, heart-wrenching success, those satisfyingly crumbling barrels offered the cathartic release I needed. And boy, did I need every single one of them.
Nothing came easily. I would constantly throw myself against a challenge, like waves crashing relentlessly upon an immovable rock face. It was jagged, painful, yet time and time again – with eerie repetition – I would continue in an unnerving yet somehow comforting rhythm. Then, finally, I’d do it. Whether by sheer determination, some smart thinking or just pure dumb luck, I’d overcome the latest hurdle. The boss would fall, my enemies would be defeated, and a whole bevy of new areas and possibilities would open up.
I was running on a natural high, forging onward with new-found enthusiasm. I progressed through unseen lands and took on new, strangely twisted creatures and then stared in awe as each one tore me limb from limb. I thrusted my shield and sword in perfect harmony in what can best be described as the dark evolution of the fabled Z-targeting we first laid eyes on so many years ago.
Enemies began to fall more easily and I would feel almost invincible. As always in Dark Souls, I wasn’t invincible, just overconfident. I’d run headfirst in to a brick wall that would beat me back down to the lowly, worthless, powerless hollowed human I was. And so the cycle began again. It was Groundhog Day in hell. Yet even describing it as such is passing it off too lightly. At least Phil Connors was able to sleep at night. He had some rest, some time to recuperate. Dark Souls? Dark Souls doesn’t even offer the reprieve of a game over screen with an option to continue. It thrust me constantly back against those rocks whether I was ready or not.
The moments when my mortality would come flashing back into existence with blinding clarity were never the game’s fault. Obscure, maybe, though as anyone should know when entering its world, entirely deliberate. It is this obscurity that forced a community stronger than any other to sprout from the tortured souls who’d already made the journey. Not only in-game, but out of game too. Twitter and the internet at large became my only portal to sanity, as I would let out the call for help and hope that someone, somewhere in the abyss would answer back.
The realisation that those dying moments were my fault didn’t always come quickly or easily though. There was always at least a ten second period after my latest defeat where I’d give my console the meanest look I could muster, my hands clenching tighter on the controller and my breathing deep and seething. Yet after those moments, clarity would begin to set in. I’d take a deep breath, suck it up and apologise to my 360 while no one was looking. “I’m sorry Dark Souls. I didn’t mean to get angry. It was all my fault. I should never have blamed you.”
Whenever the game strayed towards a punitive line, its online connectivity would truly shine. The messages that other players left scattered throughout the environment ensured secrets and hidden dangers were brought to my attention. The ability to summon others to help my cause ensured I always had some form of safety net to fall back on. Random sightings of the constantly fading silhouettes of other players would appear at my lowest moments, offering timely reminders that I wasn’t treading this path alone. As always, trust and complacency was something to be wary of. Where one player’s message would offer help, another’s would tell me to fling myself into a bottomless pit for a “secret treasure”.
While summoning fellow players into my world helped, others would invade my world uninvited and destroy any semblance of a plan or progress that I had made. For a game so constantly grinding its sense of loneliness and hopelessness into my gaping wounds, it couldn’t have felt more connected.
Still, in those moments of eerie silence, those where messages were scarce and the sighting of other players was scarcer, fear would grow. I no longer trusted the sound of my own footsteps. They echoed around the vast valleys and dark castle corridors of Dark Souls’ contagious, interconnected world. Was that the the sound of an assailant chasing me? What was chasing me? Nothing, it seemed. Nothing but an ever-present sense of despair. Would I ever escape?
In the end, I did. I peeled back layer after tear filled layer of the Dark Souls onion and drove my sword and spear in to the heart of every enemy who dared fight back. Just as Dark Souls intended, every swing of my blade, every lifting of my shield, every stress-filled moment was carried out with a care and thought befitting the world it had transpired in. I persevered, I learned, and as Dark Souls would say, “I defeated”.
Some will likely find the easy escape route, and the game will see itself on eBay the next day. Others will continue under a sense of obligation and determination. Then there’s those of us who fall in love with it and, despite what we may say, never want to leave.
I know I shouldn’t…a part of my tortured soul screams out against it. My cursor sits invitingly over New Game +. For as much care and thought as I placed in every single button press over my last 87 hours with Dark Souls, this one comes so surprisingly easy. Despite my best efforts, I can never truly escape.