So, I never touched Demon’s Souls. And it wasn’t because I was scared (okay, maybe I was a little bit scared). It really was that I don’t have access to a Playstation 3.
This was disappointing to me, as I heard all of these stories about the game’s ability to evoke tension and fear because of its punitive nature (death packs a real wallop in the game, real loss). People either hated the game’s punishing nature or spoke about it as if it had the ability to change your life (or at least the way that you see most video games) through its sense of the value of death and its consequence.
So, in that sense, perhaps, I’d already psyched myself up for the arrival of Dark Souls on the Xbox 360. I actually kind of felt nervous about it when I picked up the envelope on my porch and when I slid the disk into my machine. Yeah, I don’t know what it was, and it seems silly. But there it is.
I wasn’t really sure what I was expecting, but the game quietly informed me in three brief screen changes that Bandai Namco had published it, From Software had developed it, and that it would be running on the Havok engine–nothing especially surprising there. Most modern games run through these brief “credits” before a start screen. They had appeared quietly, though, as I said before. There was none of the “WE’RE TEAM FUCKIN’ NINJA KA-BLAMMO” fanfare that some publishers go for.
Then, the next screen came. It was black with just vaguely pulsing white letters, and it simply read: “Dark Souls,” then “Press Start Button.” No music. No intro movie. That was it.
And it filled me with utter dread.
Again, I can’t put a finger on why. Maybe it was that I had psyched myself up for a game that was going to put me in a panic. Maybe it was because I most recently had been playing Dead Island and that game has such a loud and demonstrative intro movie with each start up (the raucous rap song, “Who Do You Voodoo, Bitch,” thumping to life every time that you turned it on), but the starkness, the minimalism of the start screen of Dark Souls felt old school, felt hardcore.
Again, I’m not sure why, as many old console titles for systems like, say, the NES have music accompanying them. And all arcade machines had gameplay samples that played across their screens before you put a quarter in. But maybe it is because lots of the more difficult arcade games had sound disabled until play began. Maybe it was because enough PC titles simply told you the name of the game that you were playing on load up. But this felt old and felt hard without having done anything to me yet.
Honestly, this quiet aesthetic is maintained in the gameplay itself. Character creation is quiet and simple. Tutorial instructions are texts that read simple things like “Hold B while moving left stick to run” or more horrifically just as you enter a room, simply “GET AWAY.” There is only the most minimal of quiet and unassuming sound tracks accompanying what is essentially fairly slow paced, block-and-strike, block-and-strike combat.
If “horror” is evoked by Dark Souls it isn’t in the typical JUMP OUT AND SHOCK YOU kind of way. It simply evokes dread, a slow, lingering dread.
Oh, and weirdly, I kind of like it.
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