Hating Dark Souls: A Love Story
Dark Souls is great. This isn’t exactly news any more, but I’ve been late to just about every party in my life, and the Dark Souls party hasn’t been an exception. It’s great for all those reasons you’ve heard a thousand times before: challenging, rewarding, a wonderfully dark world rich with hidden lore – no surprises here. But as I battle through my New Game Plus playthrough, and approach my second venture into the notorious Tomb of the Giants, I realise there are plenty of parts in Dark Souls, entire sections in fact, that I utterly despise.
Strangely, I don’t regard how much I hate them as a bad thing at all. I don’t hate the game in these areas so much as I hate the environments, the enemies, and the danger they present. I feel genuine abhorrence for every single skeleton dog in the Tomb, for the mosquitoes in Blighttown, and the absurd walking clam people in Ash Lake. Yet Dark Souls willingly lets you hate these elements, even provokes you to, and it only makes the experience better.
This isn’t to be confused with the joy of overcoming tough difficulty. I hardly feel ecstatic when I kill yet another horde of mosquitoes, because I’m constantly aware that it’s almost certain I’ll be seeing them again shortly. No, instead I can only bathe in the bloodlust of it all, my frustration only burning hotter and hotter, as I become the seasoned, grizzled killer that Dark Souls’ world is so full of. By the time I emerged out of the other side of the Tomb of the Giants, I felt like the Walter White of Dark Souls.
The way my emotions are toyed with reminds me of the feeling I get at the best parts of truly scary games – Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Condemned: Criminal Origins come to mind. At the peak of one’s fear, the euphoric rush hasn’t hit yet, and it’s hard to say you’re so much enjoying the terror as you are simply captured by it. The two aforementioned games are amongst my favourites of all time, not necessarily because I was having a blast whilst paralyzed in fear (although it feels undeniably incredible afterwards), but because their masterful use of suspense, sound and murky visuals made the experience of playing them so tangible and unforgettable. Dark Souls does the same thing, although instead of playing on that creepy feeling of things shuffling around in the dark, it uses pure hatred as a tool. Enemies use cheap shots, mob you, and grind you down until you’ll want them dead more than anything in the world.
I don’t mean that the game is ‘unfair’; in fact, quite the contrary. Dark Souls is probably one of the most ‘fair’ games available. The enemies are given just as fair a chance at killing you as you are them, quite a contrast to the commonly accepted ideal of enemies being ten times as weak as the player character. You might find a weapon that’s a little overpowered or have a brilliantly useful move set; and conversely some enemies are designed to be monstrously hard to hit, or deal massive amounts of damage. It bites back. Conquering it is just a matter of understanding the nature of the beast.
Understanding it takes some time, mind you. With most games, I can’t deny I’d be throwing the controller and snapping the disk by the time an hour had passed. Indeed, my first ever attempt at Dark Souls was doomed for failure when, after finally beating the second boss (and not knowing the elusive easy method) I was killed instantly by a dragon that flew down from the clouds and delivered a hail of fire onto my unsuspecting head. However, it was only after I came back to the game a few months later that I really gave it the time, and went out my way to discover the harsh truths of the world of Lordran. Everything wants you dead, but push back and you’ll be rewarded. Learn the areas through gruelling repetition, get into a ‘rhythm’ in combat, and the playing field begins to level. Dark Souls’ conquest is not fast, it’s a steady learning process. Looking back on what you’ve defeated after an hour’s session is the same feeling of looking down from a hill you’ve just jogged up; complete with runner’s high.
As such, over time I only wanted more and more. When I’m reminded that soon I’ll have to dive back into the hellish darkness of the Tomb of the Giants, I usually exclaim a lengthy selection of expletives as I remember the torment that I’m going to withstand, and that I’m going to have to inflict. But really, it just gives me that familiar feeling of wanting to get right back into ‘the shit’, and really give some back to these heartless monsters.
When I first encountered Seath the Scaleless, an unwinnable fight doomed to take your life and all your souls in one fell swoop, I could do nothing but laugh. ‘You cheeky bastard, Dark Souls’, was all I could think. Dark Souls hated me. I loved Dark Souls back.