Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked…Sertan Saral’s World – #57: Dark Souls

In PC, PS3, Xbox 360 on February 21, 2014 at 5:36 am

Title: Dark Souls

Format: PS3, Xbox 360, PC

Released: 30th October, 2011

Dark_Souls_Cover_Art

To talk about Dark Souls, I need to talk about Resident Evil 2, the first game I owned on the original PlayStation. To understand why, you need to understand what the two games represent to me. Before Dark SoulsResident Evil 2  was the last game I played almost purely for the challenge.

The beauty of RE2, the thing that really drew me into its world and invest in its characters and the stakes of the story, was the deliberately clunky control system.

It had zombies and lickers and tyrants. All terrifying things, all things best avoided where possible. But moving Claire Redfield/Leon Kennedy was like trying to drive a car out of a tight parking spot. Enormously frustrating, but! When you encountered a hallway full of monsters and you managed to zigzag through them despite the game’s  awful yet beautiful controls, timing every press of a button down to the microsecond, conserving your ammo and your health and therefore playing the game the way it was meant to be played, it was exhilarating. I finished it multiple times on the highest difficulty level and even perfected my playtime of the mini game, “The Tofu Survivor”, where your player-character is a giant slab of tofu armed with only a knife. It was bliss.

RE2 Tofu

Well why NOT, eh?

Then along came Metal Gear Solid and everything changed. For the next decade and a half, I allowed my brain to turn into mush. I no longer preferred to play games for their challenge – it was all about “story” and how “cinematic” a game was. I was entranced by “cutscenes”. It was a sickness, man. A sad display. I lacked discipline. My play style got flabby. It was all easy mode, every game. I got soft.

And then my little brother, eight years younger, showed me Dark Souls. I refused to play it at first – not daring to succumb to its reputation as a supremely brutal and challenging game – but eventually gave in.

The genius of Resident Evil 2 (and well, all of the chapters in that series that relied on a fixed camera perspective) is that the clunky controls were deliberately designed to make you panic. It put you in the role of the idiot in a zombie film. Once you realised this, once you turned your idiot into someone who could think on his or her feet and scrape past every horror, regardless of its superior size or speed – once you mastered those controls – the game sang to you.

RE2

Dark Souls reminded me of what I lost, and so proved to be an end and a new beginning. I still care about story and character, of course, but now I want my games to make me care about these qualities with their gameplay. Playing an incredibly difficult game isn’t just about the challenge, you see. It’s about the investment of emotion that the challenge draws out, and then channeling all of that into the fully-realised world around your player-character. It raises the emotional stakes for you, not just the characters in the story.

I lost count the number of times “YOU DIED” popped up on my screen a few hours into my first play through. As I read that sentence back to myself, I can see I’m making the game sound like a chore, but it really isn’t. At least not after an hour or so, when you begin to realise what the game is doing. Just like Resident Evil with its deliberately horrible-beautiful control system, Dark Souls redefines the meaning of death in video games.

Dark Souls Fight

When you die in most mainstream games these days, you usually respawn in a spot you were at barely a minute ago. When you die in Dark Souls, you lose the souls (and humanity, another collectible item) you’ve accrued from slaying enemies. Those lost souls are left at the spot where you died, while your body (and more earthly possessions) are returned to the last bonfire you rested at. Because bonfires are the only place you can save progress, your immediate objective is usually to return to the place you died and reclaim the souls you lost. However, if you die before reclaiming those souls, and this will happen often, they are gone forever. Before long, you become attuned to this. In the language of Dark Souls, death is the next increment towards progress.

There is almost zero handholding. Even the tutorial level, in which you will die repeatedly, barely fits that description. If you don’t pay attention, there is also almost zero storytelling, but the game plays so exquisitely that there’s little chance of that happening. Every little bit of progress you make in this game heightens and sustains your senses, and suddenly you’re not just trying to master it – you’re also absorbing all the little details of the world around your player-character. As you build your skills, you build your understanding of the kingdom of Lordran. No cutscenes, precious little dialogue. Just details. And death. Details and death nudge the story along.

Dark Souls Campfire

The first time I finished Dark Souls, I made a vow. If a game was pleasant enough to play, I would only play it on the hardest difficulty. I revisited some of my games. The combat in the original Mass Effect is awful and not in a good Resident Evil sort of way, so I avoided the ‘Insanity’ difficulty with that one. But Mass Effect 2 and especially 3 are wonderful. Playing Mass Effect 3  on ‘Insanity’ was like playing it for the first time. It was no longer possible to smash through a level on Commander Shepard’s abilities alone. I had to utilise my whole team and think tactically on the fly. I had to utilise the whole set of tools the game’s designers offered.

Far Cry 2 became one of my favourite games of all time when I played through it on ‘Infamous’, as did Deus Ex: Human Revolution when I played that on ‘Deus Ex’. Suddenly, and most simply, games were fun again as games, and not vehicles of often-terrible storytelling.

I owe that to Dark Souls. And I suppose my little brother.

Sertan Pic

Sertan wants to be Cyclops live in New York and be a gender and security studies scholar. He tumbles at tomemyxmen.tumblr.com.

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