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Playing the Pacifist in 'Dark Souls III'

I’ve become some sort of playful anthropologist.

Dark Souls III

Developer: FromSoftware
Release Date: 2016-04-11

I’m about level 40, and I just beat High Lord Wolnir. And by “beat”, I mean watch two sun bros slash the boss to death. I actually sat down and admired the cunning of my fellow players -- from afar of course. To my credit, I did cheer for them when the Dark Souls III skeleton boss was finally vanquished, pulled to his dark grave. My phantom allies must have known what they were getting into the moment that they saw my dual-shield wielding hero. After all, his name is Pacifist Pete.

Now, I did complete Dark Souls III like a normal person first. But when the last lord finally sat his throne, instead of going into New Game Plus, I opted instead to roleplay my way through the game as a pacifist. Save for the single boss that you must kill in order to progress, I promised myself that I would wield no sword and intentionally kill no enemy -- at least by my own hands. I would be a pacifist, the peacenik of Lothric. As a result, I hoped that I would appreciate the game in a new way.

Pacifist Pete, in all his glory.

My pacifist run was actually inspired by other players who took the same challenge in previous Dark Souls iterations. These “challenge runs,” as they’re so called, put some strict limitations on the game. Most challenge runs increase the difficulty in some way, distinct from the scaling health of enemies that you might find in New Game+. You can find a slew of these runs on YouTube, some forbidding shields, others requiring only bows, consumables, or some other type of weapon.

I’m no Dark Souls expert. My pacifist run is actually, in some ways, easier than my first attempt at the game. I’ve traversed Lothric many times before, so I generally know my way towards the next bonfire. Instead of running around aimlessly, I dash past enemies with a specific goal in mind. Since it’s a pacifist run, I’m not bothering to grind out enemies or learn their attack patterns. Likewise, I must rely on the support of summoned phantoms to help me beat the game’s many bosses. I’m not alone in this challenge.

This might seem unappreciative of Dark Souls III, as though I’m blowing past the game casually. On the contrary, being unable to attack forces me to study the system of Dark Souls III in a whole new way. For example, I’ve got a new understanding of and appreciation for enemy detection range. Some enemies are easy to sneak by, or they give up the chase easily. Others pursue more doggedly or must just move more quickly.

I’ve also grown more deeply fond of the game’s level design. Yes, I speed through most areas, but in doing so, I can see the exquisite timing of enemy patrols or the artful placement of the game’s monstrosities, perfectly situated to annihilate a slower, more unsuspecting player. In my haste, I can actually appreciate the way that the levels funnel players along a linear path, then drop them into a few dark and uncertain locales, just to narrow the path again to provide clarity. The world of Dark Souls III feels smaller, but like a scale model of a city, I can see an architectural and intricate beauty from this vantage point.

My own craft has also improved. My shield game is top notch. Now I can actually parry attacks -- at least occasionally -- and I’ve got my own gimmicks too, like luring a Black Knight in the Smouldering Lake out of his hidden room. He fights other demons in the levels, so he can actually be used to clear out other enemies.

Likewise, since I no longer bother with attacking bosses myself, I can sit back and enjoy the diverse artistry with which phantoms dispatch their foes. I especially love watching my summoned allies fighting off invaders while I turtle behind shields. I once had an encounter with an invader who noticed my name and took pity when I refused to fight back. Instead, the invader dropped a pile of ember and a powerful shield before leaving my world of his own accord.

In a way, playing Dark Souls III as a pacifist is a bit like speed running. On the one hand, I’m honing a set of skills that adds to those that the game has already taught me. On the other hand, it also puts me in the role of passive observer. I’ve become some sort of playful anthropologist, admiring the inhabitants of Lothric, player and creatures alike, with immense curiosity.

Honestly, it’s comforting to have a reason to stay in this world with its lovable cast of heroes and monsters. Dark Souls III has stuck with me. I can’t shake it. I suspect this is why challenge runs are so popular among hardcore fans of the series, why you can even find challenge run generators online.

When as Pacifist Pete, I watch someone else defeat the game’s final boss on my behalf, I think that I may dive into Dark Souls III yet again, in search of a new perspective and a reason to linger still.

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