How Dark Souls’ Tutorial Communicates More Than Just Controls
I’ve been here before.
Its tricks and traps are notched into my mind and its hidey-holes leap out as if illuminated by spotlights. I’ve stalked these lonely halls with a dozen different avatars and now familiarity is etched into the Undead Asylum’s sodden brickwork. As I trudge through Dark Souls’ foreboding prologue I’m steered by a sense of grim déjà vu. Where I once blundered ham-fistedly, I now carve a bloody trail with flexes of muscle memory and precisely timed ripostes. I’ve grown since I first came here, and escaping the Asylum’s cloying grasp has become effortless: a molehill worn down from a mountain, but it wasn’t always this way.
My first jaunt through the Asylum seems like a hazy memory. It was a pitiful effort, riddled with limp swings and pathetic dodges; I might as well have entrusted the controller to the random flails of a drunken rhesus monkey for all the good I was doing. Even the most humble of enemies sliced me up like a long-lost pet was hidden in my entrails. That fat-arsed demon smashed me into the dirt like a fleshy tent peg, only succumbing with a few well-struck swipes to the undercarriage. ‘Prepare to die’ the game said. If only I’d listened. Instead, I wrote off the tutorial as a premeditated effort to cheat the player out of guidance. A dirty trick employed to heighten the oft-touted difficult. Oh, how wrong I was.
Dark Souls is a game of nuanced subtlety. Its ambient story-line is complemented by a lore that’s shrouded in mystery, primarily delivered through passing dialogue and pithy item descriptions. Its stark themes ring throughout its narrative and are seamlessly linked with the game’s mechanics. The Undead Asylum communicates these themes splendidly, displaying the cruel world of Lordran in microcosm. All that’s required is that you pay a little attention, a lesson that will stand you in good stead when you break into Dark Souls proper.
A recurrent theme in Dark Souls’ is that of facing one’s own destruction. From the outset it’s clear that the world of Lordran is creeping limply towards its doom. The light of absentee gods is dwindling, paving the way for an all-consuming emptiness to snuff out the waning flames. As a “chosen Undead” it’s your charge to jump-start the fading bonfires, granting brief respite from the grim certainty of darkness. Those branded with undeath are irrevocably tied to the bonfires. For them death is a cycle, not a finality. They fall and are reborn from the flames, rising from the pyres to fight another arduous day. In Dark Souls death is not a failure; it’s a lesson, taught anew over countless instances. To succeed you’ll have to face this cycle a thousand times over, until achieving a phoenix-like ascension from a ruthless trial by fire.
The Undead Asylum drives this message home early. Its first bonfire rests near a seemingly innocuous hallway but stumble inside and an enraged Demon descends from the rooftop hungry for undead viscera. At this point the expected reaction is to run, but for a panicked newcomer oblivious to the side-line exit, a swift splattering is the likely outcome. Upon resurrection the player may immediately notice the prompt to flee, or (like me) repeat their fatal assault until concluding that their approach needs tweaking. Either way, this brief encounter, no more than five minutes into the game, aptly demonstrates one of Dark Souls’ core concepts: the death of old approaches, reborn as fresh ideas.
As you march through the murk of Lordran, dispatching throngs of hollow undead, you’ll soon be caught up in an inescapable sense of isolation. Everywhere you look there are signs of abandonment: empty houses, unfilled pews and deserted streets have all been claimed by the hollow. Friendly faces are at a premium in this godforsaken land, so it’s no wonder that the few that emerge have ascended to cult-like status. Summoning fellow players and friendly NPCs may offer occasional bouts of cooperation but the sense of camaraderie will be fleeting, as like the fires of Lordran, their phantoms soon flicker and disappear.
The limited player-to-player communication exists in the form of glowing messages scratched haphazardly into the ground. These ethereal doodles are succinct and built from a list of pre-selected phrases, like some sort of bizarre, trans-dimensional Twitter designed to warn players of impending danger. In theory you’d think they would foster an air of teamwork, but in practice I found myself distrusting those glowing sirens. More than once they’ve led me into the clutches of a deadly trap, and as I resigned myself to disaster, I pictured the malevolent smile of whoever set the bait and felt more isolated than ever.
In the Undead Asylum no players can be summoned to shepherd the uninitiated. Glowing messages litter the floors but were left by developers and lack the soul of fellow players. When you run through the Asylum the focus is very much on crafting a personal accomplishment. You cleared out those enemies and you took down that boss; it’s a subtle prod to convince the player to push on. After all, you bested this place on your own, how hard could the rest be?
In many ways, the Asylum could be considered one of the game’s loneliest areas, up there with the secluded sands of Ash Lake and the deserted highways of Lost Izalith. It’s a crumbling prison where the Undead are locked up for the crime of existence, left to wither and hollow until their very humanity fizzles out. Any semblance that these caged beasts were once human is long-gone. Even your character resembles an emaciated husk, devoid of purpose, devoid of life. Until, that is, hope falls quite literally from the sky. Dropped by the Asylum’s other un-hollowed inmate: Oscar of Astora, the teacher to our first lesson of ‘jolly cooperation’.
Like every character you encounter, Oscar of Astora is an enticing enigma. Based off some unused dialogue, we can assume that Oscar was originally designed to accompany you to Lordran acting as both an ally and a rival, only to be killed by the player towards the tail-end of the game. Alas, when we meet Oscar, battered and bruised towards the end of the Asylum, his light is snuffed out prematurely, his potential wasted on the cutting room floor. Instead he grants us an Estus Flask, a key, and an instruction: “In thine exodus from the Undead Asylum, maketh pilgrimage to the land of ancient Lords, when thou ringeth the bell of awakening the fate of the Undead, thou shalt know”. Initially this was Oscar’s personal charge, but knowing his life was drawing to a close, he passes the torch on to you and perishes ‘with hope in his heart’.
The fatal wounds that dapple Oscar’s figure are something of a mystery, as when we first spot him peering into our cell he seems fairly intact. Therefore, something must have happened in the interim that caused his untimely demise. Thankfully, a few clues are dotted around the Asylum to aid our speculation. When we run into Oscar later in the tutorial we find him crumpled upon a pile of rubble in a room with no obvious entrance. Gaze up from his tumbledown deathbed and you’ll spot rays of sunlight gleaming through a remarkably Oscar-sized hole in the ceiling. From there it doesn’t take the Holmes of Lordran to come to a rational conclusion. But wait, Oscar is an elite knight, no? Surely not so easily vanquished by a mere spill! Rather, I believe he was outdone by another creature seen descending from the rafters: The Asylum Demon.
It’s my view that Oscar engages the Demon prior to your final meeting, leaving it in a weakened state before getting smashed through the roof to perish below. Beneath the Asylum rests the Stray Demon – a tough boss encountered later in the game – which appears almost identical to the Demon fought at the start. This leads me to conclude that the first beast was a far greater threat when faced down by Oscar, but thanks to his rooftop rumble, it was left in a state where the inexperienced player could easily best it.
This is why I love Oscar of Astora. Without his assistance your quest would be impossible: he gifts you a vital healing item and a purpose to flee incarceration, whilst ensuring the Asylum’s guardian won’t seriously hamper your progress. Sadly our time with our saviour is fleeting, as like every other companion, he eventually fades away, begging us to bolt before he turns hollow and aggressive. You’ll cooperate with many characters as you creep through Lordran, but perhaps none is more underappreciated than the first.
Whether or not the Asylum succeeds as an opening ultimately comes down to how you think tutorials should operate. If you’re of the ilk that prefers a large spotlight be thrown on controls and mechanics then you’ll find the Asylum lacking. Rather it adopts a more subtle approach; it exhibits the minimum of text information and allows you to hone your skills organically. Then, once you’ve proven yourself, the real Dark Souls can begin in earnest. The joy of the Undead Asylum is that it achieves something that few tutorials manage. It communicates the overall tone of the game masterfully and lets you know exactly how the rest of the experience is going to feel. The themes prevalent throughout Lordran make up the brick and mortar of the Undead Asylum. In many ways the tutorial represents a copy of Dark Souls CliffsNotes, surmising the game in a brief précis.
These days I rush through the Asylum within the blink of an eye; no longer can its bars impede my progress. Yet, the ultimate irony is that this prison is inescapable. Like the cycle of undeath that haunts my character, the Asylum is caught up within a cycle of its own. When you beat the game the screen fades to black and you awake once more in the Undead Asylum, reborn into New Game+. A new key falls from the sky, dropped by a new Oscar, but that solemn feeling remains…
I’ve been here before.