Games

Dark Souls

Dark Souls is forged on the idea that the experience of a game is one marked by punishing difficulty, frequent death, and even more importantly, consequential death. And this is why its fans like it. And why you will too.


Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Title: Dark Souls
Price: $59.99
Format: Xbox 360 (reviewed), Playstation 3, PC
Players: 1
ESRB Rating: Mature
Developer: From Software
Release Date: 2011-10-04
URL

It might seem that the phrase “Prepare to Die” might not be the best marketing move. Advertising an expectation of failure, of a fatalistic approach to play, again, not the best move for a game?

Nevertheless, that is exactly what Dark Souls promises the player in its advertising and on the back of the box. It's the selling point, and there it is.

Dark Souls is, of course, the follow up to From Software's 2009 game Demon's Souls (a game that this reviewer has embarrassingly not played, hence my inability to make cogent comparisons between this newest game and its predecessor -- however, I can definitely speak as a player fresh to this kind of experience and what coming to the sequel is like, so those thinking about jumping in at this point will likely be best served by my thoughts on the game). Like Dark Souls's aggressively fatalistic marketing, Demon's Souls's reputation also hinges on the idea that the experience of the game was one of punishing difficulty, frequent death, but even more importantly, consequential death. And this was why its fans liked it.

Now, death, of course, is no alien topic for video games. It has largely come to distinguish between fail states and win states in games. Death usually represents when progress has ceased in a game, though in the era of console gaming with its continues and save systems, it usually serves as only a temporary cessation of play, a mild penalty, and is hardly too consequential in most instances.

The arcade era differed a bit in its presentation of consequential fail states and, thus, consequential death. While Pac-Man had three lives (or essentially three tries at success), nevertheless, the loss of them all meant the game was indeed over. Of course, given that the cost of trying again was a fairly minimal one (just $0.25), it was still a fairly meager consequence.

What both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls bring to the table is death that features not mere cessation of play, but significant loss. As an action role-playing game, Dark Souls is a game about doing battle with monsters of various stripes, gaining experience (in this instance, experience points are called “souls,” which also serve as a currency in the world of Lodran), and through that experience, leveling up to become more powerful.

Unlike most RPGs (barring the notoriously “hardcore” subgenre of the roguelike, a subgenre that some suggest that the two Souls games at least are influenced by), Dark Souls allows death to intrude in a very significant way in this process. When you die, your souls “drop” with your body. In other words, all experience accrued up to the point of death is left as a bloodstain wherever your character has fallen, forcing you to respawn with equipment intact but none of the points that are going to get you that next level. Now, there is a “second chance” in the game. If you can return to the bloodstain without dying again, you can recover the lost souls. But if you die again before you do, well, that's it.

And that is it. This simple mechanic (reminiscent to me of playing the first Diablo in which your precious equipment dropped in a dungeon when you were killed by monsters, forcing an often dangerous, often “naked” -- and thus difficult -- body recovery or the risk of a loss of everything) is really what the whole experience of Dark Souls hinges on.

This simple leverage against the player very simply changes the way that one approaches this game as opposed to countless others. Combats matter, tactics matter, engaging a new creature is always tense, making decisions about which enemies to engage when and where matters very much, and thinking about where the best place to die is of central importance in a game where you could lose it all.

Strangely, this is an amazing experience. As a commenter on one of my previous articles about the game so aptly (I believe) put it: as a result, it is a profoundly meditative experience.

The other elements of the game, its storyline, its music, even its graphics, which are admittedly pretty, are all very stripped down, minimalist, quiet. An opening cinematic tells a bit about the history of the world, but the plot that unfolds tends towards scattered and brief dialogues with the few NPCs one encounters in a rather barren world. The player takes on the role of a character cursed by becoming undead, who is seemingly looking for a way to remove this curse. Who that person is, where they came from is sketchy at best. Instead, NPCs provide simple, vague goals to seemingly get you on your way: two bells need to be rung to proceed on your quest, several specific souls need to be collected to open a path to a new place.

Music is spare, frequently fading out entirely, leaving only the sound of chainmail clattering as you move or the sounds of combat when you engage enemies.

All of this leaves the focus on encounters with your monstrous opposition. Nothing is easy to kill, and combat requires a careful balance of defense and offense, even with the most minor of foes. Thus, most of what the player's mind remains occupied with is tactics, tactics, tactics because those other larger ideas always looms over the proceedings: death, failure, loss.

Essentially, this is a game that is a lesson in taking nothing for granted because there is a thin line between success and “starting over.” As a result, even minor victories feel sweet, major victories with the numerous bosses that, like other games of this sort, loom intimidatingly large when encountered feel even sweeter. This is because unlike other games of this sort, intimidation and “largeness” are not merely evoked by the developer's decision to represent a monster as really, really big. Because you know that failure in a fight with one is potentially extremely costly, their size and difficulty are not illusory at all. These are creatures that can make you pay.

I think that there may be some consensus that a game like Dark Souls is not for everyone. It is for a niche audience of masochistic, hardcore gamers that want to be challenged by sadistic rule sets. However, I kind of think that Dark Souls might just be for everyone. If it sounds daunting to approach, a little terrifying to encounter, it is. But as much as it teaches pain (you will lose it all at some point and that will make you want to throw a controller or invoke your favorite swear words), it teaches an appreciation of challenge, of stakes. Challenge is rewarding here, not so much because the game pays off with amazing cinematics, a compelling story, or innovative mechanics, but because what you do and when you succeed will make you feel accomplished. Beating the first boss in a game isn't usually a big deal. Here, it is. You will know that you didn't lose because, well, you hung on to everything, you didn't suffer loss.

Dark Souls will make you suffer. But you will be the one to end your suffering and survive. It is a good feeling that other games merely allow you to pretend to have. This one makes the stakes much more palpable and your response to winning much more real.

9

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.