I’m a huge fan of the Souls series. Having finished all three Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne, I am constantly amazed by the high quality bar set by these games. Whether it be with the tight controls, the precisely tuned encounters or the immersive atmosphere, these games never disappoint. I’d go so far as to call Dark Souls 1 my favorite single player game ever.
No conversation about the game can be had without some mention of it’s excruciatingly high difficulty. I can fully understand why. My first ever experience was with Demon’s Souls, where I died 24 times before reaching the first boss. Unfortunately, the brutal difficulty tends to dominate the discussion and create a very polarized reaction. People sometimes dismiss the game because they feel the high difficult curve is not for them. The issue isn’t helped by the veteran community that can treat the game as a sort of trial by fire, looking down on those who aren’t “hardcore” enough to undergo the challenge. Difficulty is so much a part of the stigma of Dark Souls that “Prepare to die” is an official marketing slogan for the game.
However, it’s important to note that Dark Souls isn’t a good game because it is difficult. It is a good game that happens to be difficult, and it utilizes that difficulty to help weave the player experience and create unique scenarios. If there was an “easy” setting to the game, it would still be impressive both mechanically and visually. However, there are certain feelings and emotions that would not be possible without the adversity the game puts you through. Just as a team forced to overcome obstacles together becomes united through hardship, Dark Souls uses difficulty to create different emotional responses.
For example, while this game isn’t a horror game in the traditional sense (e.g. Silent Hill), there have been multiple points where I have felt pure, unadulterated fear. This wasn’t from some cheap, jump scare or gruesome imagery, but simply because of the game mechanics. In Dark Souls, you gain experience (souls) from killing enemies, but if you die before you return to a checkpoint, you can potentially lose them all. As you make your way through a difficult area accumulating more and more souls, the thought of dying becomes increasingly traumatic. The fear of dying and losing all my progress built up so much tension that a random noise in the game would make me scream out loud in terror.
However, I’m not here to talk about horror, I’m here to talk about beauty. While I could show you screenshots of some awe inspiring scenery and landscapes, the beauty of Dark Souls extends beyond graphics. Just like the difficult game mechanics manifest as terror in the player, they also instill a sense of appreciation and reflection that would not be possible without them. Two events in particular have stuck with me to this very day.
The Real Dark Souls Begins
Let me paint you a picture. Dark Souls begins in a grim, desolate dungeon. You spend the majority of your time killing pitiful, miserable zombies on a quest to ring two bells. The atmosphere is drab and depressing, ranging from an undead parish, a corrupted forest and a diseased, makeshift town. You struggle through these dreary, bleak environments in an attempt to achieve your goal, and when you finally do, the gates to Sen’s Fortress open. This was a victorious moment for me. The ringing of the bell is accompanied with a triumphant cutscene, an appropriate reward for my toils. At this point I had spent many hours playing and felt like I had mastered the game.
As I approached the newly opened gates, I was immediately skewered by a giant, armored lizard wielding a butcher knife. It’s hard to explain in words just how ruthless Sen’s Fortress is. The enemies are relentless and unforgiving, punishing your every mistake. Traps lay in wait around every corner, with treacherous ledges that threaten to claim your life at the first misstep. Sen’s Fortress acts as a hard wall, forcing you to call upon every skill you’ve acquired since the beginning of the game. Traversing this nightmare was easily an order of magnitude more difficult than everything the game had presented beforehand.
Upon reflection, Sen’s Fortress was the hardest point in the entire game for me. Yet, I persevered through it. Little by little I learned to defeat the enemies and navigate through the numerous pitfalls. It took tremendous focus and determination, but eventually I made my way to the summit and defeated the towering Iron Giant who stood in my way. The glory I felt when ringing the bells was a drop in the ocean compared to jubilation from watching this final boss crumple before me.
As I prepared to rest on my laurels, I was presented with this cutscene:
When I first watched this, it blew my fucking mind. I had just overcome an enormous challenge and instead of letting me bask in the glory, the game reveals that this was only the beginning. The entire time I was playing Dark Souls, this looming mountain range has towered over the world. In most games, you would assume this wall of rock is simply background art, a boundary to the world that exists to keep the player on the right path. In reality, it’s been an ominous backdrop, hiding a entirely new civilization, ready to be explored.
The gorgeous horizon and awe inspiring architecture are a visual treat to behold, but the true impact comes from the emotional state of the player when they watch it. The fact that this comes immediately after the hardest point in the game so far is what gives it such a lasting impression. It’s as if the game is saying to you “You thought you were done? That was just the beginning. The real Dark Souls begins now.” This point, when you are first introduced to Anor Londo, is the most memorable moment I have ever had in any game, bar none.
Dark Souls is a game that utilizes vertical height very well. As you progress in the game, each subsequent goal has you climb higher and higher, culminating in a climax at the peak. Humans tend to equate ascension with progress, and simply placing the goal above the player creates incentive for them to continue forward. A great example is what you just saw with Anor Londo, a sprawling kingdom high in the mountains that you gain access to after defeating the strongest enemies in the valley below.
However, Dark Souls also has moments where you instead descend deep into the bowels of the world. These tend to be some of the most dark and depressing moments in the game, where you find nothing but more and more despair. Nothing exemplifies this more than Blighttown, a rickety village built on top of a toxic lake. The entire area is comprised of dilapidated wooden shacks, hastily lashed together with whatever makeshift tools the inhabitants could find. As you pass through, the miserable residents who have made this diseased world their home attempt to fend you off.
At the very bottom of Blighttown, after wading through the noxious swamp, you encounter a hidden wall. Behind this secret lies an enormous, dying tree and a treacherous path down through it’s hollowed trunk. Inside you encounter demonic basilisks that can curse you and bizarre, giant mushroom men that literally crush you with their bodies.
It took me forever to descend through this misery known as the Great Hollow. The aforementioned Basilisks can apply a curse to you, probably the most frustrating mechanic in the entire game. This curse reduces your maximum HP, stacks multiple times and can only be removed by a limited item. Once you run out of that item, you cannot remove the curse, even by dying. As you can imagine, this creates a slippery slope where the more cursed you are, the less HP you have, the harder it is to continue. In addition, the mushroom men are unusually strong for this point in the game, harboring enormous health pools that took multiple minutes to take down.
The most depressing part of all of this is the decent. There is no known goal at the top of the mountain that you can use as motivation. Instead, you are descending forever, moving further and further from the safety of the surface. The layout makes it impossible to see the bottom, so you never know when the struggle will end. The entire atmosphere is a suffocating web of rotting roots and winding branches. Sen’s Fortress was punishingly hard, but this was a completely different type of despair.
After what seemed like an eternity, I finally made my way to the bottom. By this point, I was super depressed, confronted with the drab, dark atmosphere you would expect from being miles underground. Then I exited the base of the tree and saw Ash Lake.
Everything about Ash Lake defies expectations. Vertically, this is the lowest point in Dark Souls, so you would expect something appropriately dark and gloomy. Instead, you are greeted by a vast, open beach with an ocean as far as the eye can see. The non-existent music of the Great Hollow is replaced by a haunting choral arrangement. In the horizon you can glimpse the silhouettes of hundreds of other trees similar to the one you just descended. How is there even light? It’s an incredible juxtaposition from the claustrophobic environment you just exited. When I first saw Ash Lake, all the frustration that had been building up within me melted away into awe.
In a vacuum, the graphics don’t stand out as particularly visually impressive. What really makes it memorable is the path you take to reach it. The tremendous struggle immediately preceding Ash Lake is what amplifies the beauty beyond plain, good looking art. The ironic part of all of this is that Ash Lake is a completely optional part of the game and provides almost no in-game benefits. There’s a few minor crafting items and a huge dragon NPC to talk to, but otherwise there is nothing of significance. No amazing weapon or item to justify the brutal journey. Only a beautiful stretch of beach to sit and reflect upon.
Simply put, the beauty of Dark Souls goes far beyond the actual game. It resonates with you on a deep, emotional level, creating an immersive experience that sticks with you long after you’ve finished playing. It’s a truly fantastic game that anyone who loves games should definitely play.
tldr; If you haven’t played Dark Souls yet you are a noob and need to go play it.