The Soothing Terror of ‘Dark Souls’

Dark Souls teaches us to be relaxed in the face of horror.

With the release of Dark Souls III, there’s been lots of talk about the series as a whole, its history and its impact, including how it’s frightening, how it’s funny, how it’s hard, how it’s not that hard, how it’s communal, how it’s isolationist, how its story is told, how its combat has evolved, how its design has evolved, how its popularity has evolved… lots of talk. But within all that, there’s one thing that I haven’t seen anyone touch on before: how oddly relaxing this type of game can be.

The Souls games are at their core based on repetition. We explore, we die, and we explore the same area again. Enemies and traps and surprises are all exactly where they were before, nothing changes, so we’ll never be surprised by the same ambush twice unless we forget that it’s there. We’re meant to get complacent, bored even. This is baked into the core of the design.

The tense combat alleviates that boredom. Combat is always dangerous, even the weakest enemy can kill us relatively quickly if we’re not careful. If we get overconfident and fight too many at once, it’s easy to get surrounded and hit on all sides — dead in seconds. If we dodge into a wall or get stuck in a corner, it’s easy to lose our bearings — dead in seconds. If we’re trying out a new weapon that’s slower than what we’re accustomed to and we can’t get a hit in — dead in seconds. And the examples go on endlessly. Combat forces us to stay alert and aware.

Yet, even with that danger, the game lulls us into a routine. The repetition encourages us to analyze enemy patterns until we find a strategy that works, and then to repeat that strategy every time. Every enemy begins as a frightening unknown, but eventually ends up being a predictable part of a practiced routine. Just another step in our progress forward.

If there was just one word that I’d use to describe the Souls games, it’s “methodical.” We’re meant to fall into a routine, but to also stay alert. The threat of death encourages us to pay close attention to everything, but the repetition naturally fights that close attention. We’re not just fighting enemies and traps, but our own fading awareness and overconfidence. This creates a push and pull of tension that’s hypnotizing in its rhythm. It is a game that encourages us to play on autopilot while also encouraging us to never go on autopilot, the rote practice of memorization made exciting by a bit sword and sorcery.

It’s this mix, this thrilling presentation of boring repetition, which gives the game its methodical pace: Play it slow, play it carefully, and then play it over again. Even when you know what’s coming, play it slow, play it carefully, and then play it over again. The repetition and predictability make for a calming period, but the combat prevents the calm from ever becoming boring.

Dark Souls is a challenging and tense game that’s also relaxing and cathartic. It is an action game in which we walk everywhere, slowing the action so that it’s never constant, but still a constant possibility. It is a horror game that teaches you to be relaxed in the face of horror.