A newbie ventures into the world of murder and rage-quitting that is Dark Souls 3. Armed only with the advice of friends and a colourful arsenal of profanity, the author will face down one of the hardest games in recent memory. Part travelogue, part autopsy, part review… join us for part one of ‘Stranger in a Strange Land: The Many Deaths of a Newbie in Dark Souls.’
I once watched a friend get so frustrated at a video game that he pistol whipped someone with a Duck Hunt gun. The gun exploded in a shower of orange plastic and profanity and somehow summed up an entire generation’s worth of frustration at the laughing dog, mocking siblings, aggravating friends: old video games were hard. They were unforgiving.
But then we got onboard memory.
Suddenly, everything was a save point: opened a door? Save point. Walked through the door? Save point. Paused the game? Save point. It’s still fun, but different.
Then Demon Souls came along.
Demon Souls and its subsequent sequels Dark Souls and Bloodborne are notoriously difficult: games that reward perseverance and punish the player. The highs are high, the lows are low.
And I’ve never played it.
Which brings us to today. Today, I’m setting out on a journey: as a long time gamer who has been leading a cushy life of autosaves, I’m venturing into the grand finale of the world’s most punishing modern game series. A game where even calling for help can get you killed and robbed. And I’m going to die. A lot. The most.
This is going to be part travelogue, part autopsy, and part review as I venture forth into the unknown, armed only with a colourful array of swear words and a couple of good friends, comedian Colin Munch and technician extrordinare Christopher Ross (both veterans of the series). And I hope to share my experience with you, whether you play or not.
I can’t promise you exploding Duck Hunt guns, but I can promise an amusing, frustrating, and hopefully fulfilling read. And maybe an exploding PS4 controller.
We’ll see how we do.
The Epic Quest to Press Start
Booting up Dark Souls was a different experience for me than most games. It’s reputation precedes it. In the opening cinematic, we are shown many monsters, big and small – The Lords of Cinder – bad looking motherfuckers who, in this case, elicit actual fear. I’ve seen lots of cool designs in my time, but I am rarely concerned about them; enough hack-and-slash and stabby-stabby and they all fall down. But I’m not so sure in this case.
The bound giant, in particular looks horrible.
I spent a long time in the character creation screen, because I wanted to be ready. Unlike a game like Fallout where I know I’ll want to be able to really envision a character and gently roleplay them (recently I’ve played as Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road, Doctor Faustus, and most recently Jennifer Lawrence), in Dark Souls it was more of a stall tactic. Like a kid stalling before school, I knew the longer I was in menu, the longer I could forestall my inevitable demise.
I settled on a knight –recommended for beginners and clad in full armour and with a shield to cower behind – calling my character R’hllor, the Lord of Light from Game of Thrones (there’s a lot of talk of fire and darkness, figured it was appropriate as anything).
Reputationally, Dark Souls feels a little like what I’d imagine crouching in a trench and knowing you’re about go over feels like. You know what’s coming and you know it’s going to be bad. You just have to press start.
So fuck it. I did.
What Dark Souls’ reputation often fails to include is just how beautiful the game is. Graphically and musically, it’s a sweeping, epic feel from the title screen forward. It’s a world you want to inhabit, even with all its horrors. R’hllor’s journey –my journey- began with pulling myself out of a grave. You’re called an Unkindled. You don’t know what that means, yet…but that’s a common theme in Dark Souls. The game intentionally gives you little information, which fits nicely with your state: you crawled out of a grave with your weapon. Now learn.
So, you move forward.
The tutorials are scrawled on the ground in red, a mechanic I’ll talk more about later on; you meet some basic enemies. You kill them.
My first death.
My first death arrived as I tried to master countering attacks. It’s less epic than I’d imagined, but at least it takes the edge off. I fail to master counter attacks; it’s not a skill I will use again. When you die, you drop the Souls (the universal in-game currency) you were carrying and have to quest back to your own corpse to recover them. This becomes the central frustration and joy of the game: the risk of losing your earnings raises the stakes of every death. It makes you more fearful, more careful. It also makes you scream and throw things when you die before you can reach them (forfeiting all but what you were carrying when you died the second time).
The Band-Aid is off. I’m ready.
Or, at least I think I am. Because then I see the image at the top of the article, a message scrawled on the ground simply reading: turn back.
“Oh shit.” I mutter.
My wife, reading nearby, looks up.
“Oh shit,” she says. We both stare at the warning for a few moments before she says “Well, that’s terrifying.”
The best part about her statement is that it’s true. It made me nervous. Scared. Anxious. It’s been a long time since a game made me feel that way, particularly because what I feared wasn’t a cheap jump-scare (which a lot of modern games have resorted to). Instead, it was a very classic fear of the unknown. The monsters so far had been skeletal, humanoid, ‘I will show you Christmas-yet-to-come’ motherfuckers, but I had (and still have) no idea what lay down that path. But I knew how it made me feel. So, I turned back. Colin would later tell me that there was loot that way, but I stand by my choice. Already I was feeling the weight and consequence of this style of game and I was true to it. I walked away.
I’m starting to get regular butterflies now. My nerves are on edge. This is fucking great.
My First Boss
“FUCK, WHAT, NO! FUCK!” I added my own soundtrack to the first boss fight. The first boss is a huge dude with a giant pole arm. You get past his defences by rolling toward him and closing the distance. Each hit feels heavy, each block carries weight. Even rolling carries a certain weight, all of which adds to the danger and feel of combat; many games don’t let you feel the hits – weapon strikes and animations are fluid and interesting, but seem to float. With Dark Souls, each hit lands for or against you with a sense of purpose and reality; a mix of great sound mixing, animation, and camera effect.
The boss makes quick work of me, but that was to be expected. I’m both daunted and excited. I later read an article that suggests that Dark Souls should be treated more like a rhythm game such as Rock Band or Guitar Hero than an action game and this fight proves it. You have to –in the heat of the moment- observe patterns and behaviours and learn how your attacks fit into theirs. It takes a different mindset, but it stretches you in an interesting way. Direct assaults almost always lead to death, but by observing the arcs of attacks, I’m able to get in and under.
Victory comes quickly enough that I don’t entirely believe that this was the first boss. I’m proud to learn it was. I plant my sword, creating a bonfire (the save and teleport feature of the game).
So far, I have died three times – once learning to parry and twice on the boss. I’m feeling pretty good.
Then Katanaman shows up and destroys me.
The Sad Fate of Katanaman
I was given a warning; several, in fact. “Strong enemy ahead,” several blood stains (blood stains, when activated, show the death of the previous adventurer) and a big ominous tower. This whole thing screams death.
And then I meet him. Katanaman (his actually name is the Master Swordsman, but fuck that).
He sees me, then he runs. I throw up a guard, but he hacks through it with his eponymous katana. I run, but I don’t get far enough. I decide to leave Katanaman alone.
My next stop is the other big ominous tower. I look in and see a guy staring pensively off into space. He’s heavily armoured…so naturally I run up and stab him in the back. He comes after me, muttering about how we’re both unworthy and deserve death, which he quickly delivers. This happens four more times, until I notice something: he can’t cross the threshold of the tower. I’d like to imagine this has something to do with vampire-invitation rules, but it was actually just a glitch. I could hit him and roll away, but he couldn’t step over the threshold to hit me. We repeat this dance until he dies.
I later learn he was a friendly NPC (The Deserter)…but that’s neither here nor there.
Satisfied with my first glitch kill, I get to thinking about my old friend Katanaman and begin to wonder if he would fall victim to the same glitch from the other side.
So I mercilessly and skill-lessly slaughter him. Poor Katanaman, all he wanted to do was kill me forever with a katana.
I should feel bad about this: this is a game built around skill I’ve just blatantly cheated my way to victory (certainly not for the first-or-last time…after all, my clan and I got our first Crota kill in Destiny by unplugging our modems…) but in a game built around destroying you, I say fuck it. (I confirmed with both Colin and Chris that yes, ‘fuck it.’ Chris admitted to having never learned to beat a boss legitimately in Bloodborne.)
I honour Katanaman by looting his corpse and leaving a note (that sadly goes unheeded): “Try luring out”
We’ll always have your staircase of death, Katanaman.
The Hobo Code
Which brings me around to how messaging works in Dark Souls, one of its most interesting and fun mechanics. Players are able to scrawl a message on the ground in red, but can only use a limited amount of words and phrases. This leads to some pretty inventive innuendo, but also some incredibly helpful tips and warnings.
Upon finding this, I realized what it reminded me of: the hobo code.
The hobo code (as recently re-popularized by an excellent first season episode of Mad Men) was a way drifters could warn each other about the nature of various places they might encounter along the road: a cat signified a ‘nice lady’, a spear denoted the need for a hobo to defend himself, two interlocking circles showed a hobo had been hauled off to jail, etc. These markings were innocuous enough if you didn’t know the meaning, but conveyed important information if you did.
Messages in Dark Souls contain more info, to be sure, but by not allowing full text input, you often have to get creative in the wording but also in the interpretation: ‘Be wary above’ can mean a few things, but once you get attacked from something hanging from the ceiling you get the sense of it. You become used to reading a mix of very practical advice (‘Try attacking hands’) and non-sense (‘Visions of need friends’), but in a game where you are mostly alone, this engenders a sense of companionship and camaraderie I wasn’t expecting. I beat a boss purely based on ‘floor advice’ (amidst the ‘Victory!’ and ‘Sadness’ messages) and have left a few jokes along the way myself.
It’s a wonderful mechanic, and one I have come to trust in.
The Firelink Shrine
Having killed Katanaman and The Deserter, I discover that this large space is my home base. It’s where you can level up, buy new weapons, and gather allies. Like The Deserter. Who I killed. In my home. There’s something vaguely Greek tragedy about the whole thing, but I’m over it. It’s just a fun, lingering memory now and for the rest of the game. I bloodied my home.
It’s a dark world, full of horrors. Of which I am now one.
Praise the sun.
Epilogue – Oh, the humanity!
At the end of my first day of play, I have died 35 times (or, exactly one Hindenburg Disaster’s worth of times.) I am satisfied with my progress and with the game…but at this point I have no idea how deep the game has its hooks into me. And it isn’t until my next session that I finally throw a controller…
But that’s a story for another night.