One of the games I was most looking forward to playing once I had a new gaming setup was Dark Souls. I pride myself in my stance on spoilers and overall lack of in-depth knowledge of things I want to watch, read of play, in that I generally don’t have any emotional investment in a checklist of what’s to come. My interest lies more in how it’s come, so even with the constant info dumps on Dark Souls and having witnessed countless arguments on how to best tackle situations or what builds work the best, I’ve shrugged it all of and went into Dark Souls with just the memories of my time with Demon’s Souls.
What’s still left worth saying about Dark Souls after so many people before me have sung its praises? If you remove the people wrongly rating the series high due to its difficulty, probably still a lot. Am I going to be the person actually delivering all of that? No, probably not. I’m not Matthewmatosis, and I’m probably never going to anywhere near as good as explaining videogames as him, but I’m glad I can put my write-up together before his video commentary on the game comes out so I don’t end copying his thoughts whole or get backlash whenever anything I say contradicts something from his videos.
Dark Souls is a hard game to write about because it’s as misunderstood as it’s popular. Ask any pseudo-intellectual on YouTube or any games journalist their opinion of the game, and the first thing to come up is the difficulty. Even a lot of the game’s largest fans will be the first to build up the difficulty of it and then pat themselves on the back for having fought their way through it. Because of this, it’s safe to say that the difficulty of Dark Souls is greatly exaggerated. That doesn’t mean that it’s an easy game by any means, it means that the difficulty isn’t what sets the game apart, at least, not entirely.
There are several kinds of hard games out there. You have games that are hard through bad game design, the Meat Circus of Psychonauts is still remembered for being unfairly difficult, even if later versions of the game have fixed all the problems with it and made it an easy experience. You have games that are hard for the sake of being hard, trying to make you overcome the challenges in-game, Platinum’s games on higher difficulties are a good example of this at work.
A more unconventional approach is thematic difficulty in an uncaring setting. For the first half of Dark Souls, nobody really cares about you. Enemies will turn around and go about their business as if you don’t even exist the second they kill you. Almost all of the NPCs in the game have abandoned all hope, and you generally don’t really change their mind throughout the game. The difficulty in Dark Souls has not much to do with bad design, not mostly anyway, and it’s not there to challenge you for the sake of being challenged either. The difficulty of Dark Souls is part of the central theme of struggling against an uncaring world. All the effort has to come from you, and for the most part, most are more willing to kill you and take your souls than they are to help you. Dark Souls insistence of turning player phantoms into an element that’s part of the story while masking NPCs as an element of it are a good way of establishing that as a harsh reality of the world much better than Demon’s Souls did. Humanity is a scarce but important resource, both in thematically in the story, but also literally as an item you can keep stock of.
This is also why I was so opposed to the second half of the game’s insistence on calling you a Chosen One and saddling you up with teleporting powers while setting you on what’s essentially a mission from a higher being.
Demon’s Souls did this too right from the start of the game, somewhat. But the motives and extent of the Maiden in Black’s influences were a lot more questionable when compared to Gwynevere, the Princess of Sunlight. Gwynevere has gigantic statues in her honor on her way to her and stands tall over you as a giantess. She’s an illusion, but that’s not something that’s apparent in everyone’s playthroughs. Even then, the gravity of the quest you’re saddled with and the new found abilities given to you put you in a place far beyond anything you were ever given in Demon’s Souls and it especially contrasts the Maiden in Black’s position of “tending the flames, and keeping the candles lit.”
I previously mentioned Dark Souls is difficult in the uncaring sense. The game doesn’t help you on your way after the tutorial, and that because of this, large parts of the difficulty of the game is part of the central theme of it. This is especially true of Demon’s Souls. Although you don’t have a bonfire system in place, and have NPCs to fix your equipment and hold your items for you, for the most part, none of the NPCs really direct you or care for you to any capacity. Even once you’ve saved in the past don’t really think you have what it takes to live that much longer, as they’ve seen others reach for whatever they thought could save them and fail. One of the NPCs in the Nexus, the game’s hub world, commits suicide at one point. The only NPCs who have some form of encouragement give it in a form that sounds steeped in resignation.
Stockpile Thomas’s parting words after talking to him each and every time are “You have a heart of gold, don’t let them take it from you.” Afraid that your strength gained from trusting the Maiden in Black will corrupt you, as it is heavily implied most of the demons in the game went insane after absorbing the souls of others for power.
Even the Maiden in Black’s own chant, that you hear each time you level up, isn’t all that optimistic.
Soul of the mind, key to life’s ether
Soul of the lost, withdrawn from its vessel
Let strength be granted so the world might be mended
So the world might be mended
Might being the driving word in the chant. She hopes you will succeed, but even the Maiden in Black doesn’t have full faith you will.
Repeat for emphasis.
The reason I’m going over this is because those are the only words of encouragement you get throughout the entire game. They’re not even really encouragement, they’re closer to prayers that you know what you’re doing and won’t fuck it all up. At no point does the game try to tell you that you are amazing for doing the tasks you are saddled with, but it also tries to downplay the task you are performing all the way up to the conclusion of it because the game doesn’t really put faith in you ever getting there. Not out of ill will, but through sheer uncaring.
A lot of times when the pseudo-intellectual side of game analysts on YouTube try to cover games like Dark Souls and focus on the difficulty, and how it’s “impossible to enjoy it, because it’s a wait for the release you get when you finally succeed” that tends to be code for “I tried to play through something others enjoyed more than me because this is too popular for me to be allowed to dislike it.” It’s not an argument you find with Dark Souls exclusively, TV shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones often get described this way too by balding men in their 20s trying to rationalize their lack of enjoyment without ostracization by their peers while establishing a fake connection between themselves and the audience through mutual media absorbed. Channels like Extra Credits, PBS Game Channel, Errant Signal, and to an extent even Game Theory, all over think simple constructs in a way that make them miss what is right there in front of them. Reviewers tend to do this to, although with them it’s more likely to do with a limited amount of time to push out a review thanks to deadlines that make it impossible to really penetrate a game that requires your time and patience to really soak in what is there beyond the pressing of buttons and fail and win states.
The Souls franchise is wrongly notorious for its difficulty, while only being challenging but fair. Take most major games, remove the constant endorsements of the player’s skill from the text, the HUD cues as to where to go, and give the player a little more agency to find their own way through a mission, and almost every game out there would have a similar sense of challenge to them, but even then you’re not focusing on what it is about the difficulty in the Souls that sets it apart from the rest of the games out there.
Both Dark and Demon’s Souls have a very minimalistic approach at telling their stories.
Music only comes in when it needs to, and their absence sets the tone for the areas just as much as their presence during boss fights. The lack of guidance, caring, and faith in the player is part of the central theme of both stories, because it’s a world where everybody has given up entirely. The few who push you along your way don’t do it because they want what’s best for you, they want something from you. While you have more agency in the games than most “be whoever you want to be!” type games, your struggles are still not your own as you’re fighting in someone else’s name without fully understanding what you’re doing or why.
This is why although I can understand Dark Souls never breeds the sort of familiarity you have with certain NPCs, I still immensely missed lines as Stockpile Thomas’s “You have a heart of gold, don’t let them take it from you.” because if there’s a line that explains what is going on in any of the games, it’s that one on several levels. It’s a plea, not only to avoid being taken advantage of, but also to not give into your frustrations and despair when faced with something you can’t overcome. There are other smaller glimmers of hope scattered through the experience as well, often given by other players, other people on a journey similar to your but not quite the same. Text on the floor, the faint outlines of the phantoms of other people playing right now. You’re all on the same quest, individually, which is a feeling that helps create a bond between so many of the players who not only came out of the Souls games victorious, but went back to better understand it.
All of the above screenshots are from my own playthrough. I played the Prepare To Die edition on Steam, using only the dsfix and “Thanks Obama” mods. I plan to do a second post in the future about my gameplay experiences in contrast of Demon’s Souls soon.