I have a confession, dear reader. I consider myself fairly “well-read” when it comes to those games that inevitably come up when discussions of “gaming literacy” arise. I’m especially familiar with classics from days of yore, and, as my output here on Rice will doubtless attest, I’ve always had a fondness for the overlooked and the underappreciated. But a big black spot in my knowledge that has been present for many years at this point is Dark Souls and its numerous related games; FromSoftware’s output in general, in fact.
Don’t get me wrong, I have played several FromSoftware games over the years. I bought Demon’s Souls on PS3 when it first came out because I thought the online features sounded interesting. I bought Dark Souls when it first came out on Xbox 360 and PS3 because everyone was talking about it. And I own several copies of the whole Dark Souls trilogy on various platforms, usually acquired through bundles or sales — with my favourite copy being the physical PS4 release I have.
No, I’ve just never really got into them. And I’m not saying that as someone who threw their hands up and went “wah, this is too hard, make an easy mode for me” — I’m saying that as someone who simply has not made the time to give these titles the attention that they deserve. And, with FromSoftware’s Elden Ring presently wowing everyone, I figured now would be the perfect time to start playing a game that first came out eleven years ago and which the rest of the Internet is already intimately familiar with.
Yes, that’s right, I started playing Dark Souls. I went specifically for this one because despite everything I’ve said above, I have actually played a fair bit of Demon’s Souls — relatively recently, in fact. I’m sure that will come up in discussion at various points, but I was specifically interested in exploring Dark Souls because, structurally, that seems a little bit closer to what people think of when they ponder “Soulslikes” these days. That and, despite still owning my PS3 copy of Dark Souls, I still haven’t played it all that much.
I didn’t go into this with any real “goal” in mind. I wasn’t trying to prove anything — I wasn’t trying to “make myself like them” or “prove that they’re better than I thought”, for example. I already knew that these games were great. But what makes them great? As someone who has kind of let the whole “Souls” phenomenon mostly pass him by for the last 11+ years, is it even worth bothering trying to get involved now?
Well, the answer to that latter question is, of course, yes, since Elden Ring has proven to be one of the most popular video games released in recent memory — suggesting that what was once considered to be a rather niche interest series has well and truly hit the mainstream. But I’m more interested in the whys — what keeps people coming back for more, and what has kept this series so healthy over the years, even with the missteps that many people claim it has made with various installments?
My early experience with Dark Souls went the way I suspect many other players’ did. I was annoyed that the game expected me to pay for PlayStation Plus even for the basic online features like messages, so I haven’t signed up for that (yet). I easily hacked and slashed my way through the feeble initial enemies in the Undead Asylum. I died at the first boss. I eventually figured out the best way to deal with the first boss. I ended up at Firelink Shrine. I went the wrong way and got destroyed by skeletons. Then I went the other wrong way and got eaten by ghosts. Then, finally, I went the “right” way.
The idea of a FromSoftware game telling you “you’re going the wrong way” by placing seemingly undefeatable enemies in your path is one I was already familiar with from my time in Demon’s Souls; there’s a sequence early in that game where going one way across a castle battlements puts you in combat with a powerful knight who will, more likely than not, absolutely flatten you, while the other has much more manageable enemies.
Despite being familiar with this way of doing things — and it making a certain amount of sense in a game with a more “open” map rather than a level-based structure — I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, it feels a bit cheap. On the other, it makes for some exciting chase sequences as you realise you’ve got in over your head and have to flee for your life. And on the third eldritch mutant hand sticking out of my chest, I suspect these “illusion of choice” sequences become “actual choices” when you’re better equipped, on a New Game+ run or something like that.
If it’s the latter case, then part of me wants to say “fair enough” — but also I can completely understand why this might cause people to bounce off the games at a sudden apparent difficulty spike. It’s a deliberate creative choice by FromSoftware, and part of their general design language, not just in Dark Souls, but across most of their games. If the game appears to suddenly get really difficult, it’s a sign that you need to be doing something else.
Once you establish this fact in your mind, things become a little more straightforward. Sure, you might still encounter some resistance along the way and you will almost certainly die along the way from making silly mistakes, but you’ll eventually reach a point where you know that deaths are your fault, not the game’s. If there’s one thing FromSoftware is good at, it’s laying out some consistent, clearly defined rules for their game worlds that help you to understand how to interact with them. And these rules make sense.
Try and swing a sword horizontally in a narrow passageway and of course you’re going to have some trouble. Attempt to dodge-roll in heavy armour and of course you’re going to look more like you’re just throwing yourself aggressively at the ground. Try and stab an armoured boar the size of a garden shed in the face and of course you’re not actually going to deal any damage to it. Try something else. Anything else. There are plenty of options available if you just look around.
One of the earliest lessons I learned in appreciating FromSoftware titles is that perception is everything — that is to say, you always need to be watching. You need to look around and notice parts of the environment that might easily be missed at first glance. You need to observe enemy animations and determine how you can interact with them in order to score your own hits while minimising damage. And you need to watch how your own character behaves when you perform various actions so you understand when it might be safe or unsafe to do things.
Some of these things might feel fundamentally different to how things unfold in other types of modern game. But others — the animation thing in particular — have their roots in much older games. Retro games, even. If you go back and play a classic Mega Man or Castlevania, you’ll find yourself watching enemy animations to understand how they attack and when their openings are, just like you do in Dark Souls. And once you get your head into that mindset, things become… well, I hesitate to say easier, but certainly more understandable.
Armed with this admittedly limited initial knowledge I have, in my brief playtime so far, made it as far as the Undead Parish in Dark Souls. Not far in the grand scheme of things, I know — but also further than I’ve ever been into this game. And I’m sure there’s a lot more to discover from hereon. I mean, I’m yet to encounter any of the game’s most iconic bosses, I haven’t changed out of my starting equipment, I have no idea what a Covenant is and I’m still not entirely sure what I’m actually doing other than proceeding forward and killing everything.
I am, at least, having fun, though.
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