How I Accidentally Fell In Love With Dark Souls - Around The Bonfire
As PC gamers start their adventure in Hidetaka Miyazaki’s gruelling, punishing, unforgiving Dark Souls, they are met with three simple words:
PREPARE TO DIE
This first happened to me in late 2013 — two years after the game’s original release — in my attempt to find something reminiscent of Skyrim, the title that, six months before, had kickstarted my love of all things game-related (safe to say, it didn’t fill Skyrim’s void — for reasons now obvious to me, and probably to the rest of the world).
The game arrived in the post, I popped out the disk, and saw these words. I continued — installing (via the now thankfully defunct Games For Windows Live programme), starting it up and proceeding with what would be my inaugural steps into Lordran. The game was atmospheric, haunting, soul crushingly difficult, and — most importantly for me in 2013 — vastly different to Skryim (although the two games aren’t without their similarities). Safe to stay, after a few visits to the Asylum Demon, I was ready to eject Dark Souls from my life forever.
But I didn’t.
In April 2014, From Software released their hotly anticipated follow-up to the 2011 game. To veterans of the series, Dark Souls II promised a return to the magic of its predecessor — to me, it presented a second chance. My rationale at the time must surely have been along the lines of “it must be the game — it can’t be me! Dark Souls II will be completely different, and much easier — just you wait!” The tag-line of the second game was “Go Beyond Death” — I hoped this would be literally true, that the series would be moving past the point of seemingly sadistically killing is player over and over again.
Sadly, all parties were disappointed. For many veteran Souls players, the game is the forgotten, disliked brother of the first — one that, at least in popular opinion, due to the absence of Miyazaki — didn’t have the heart or soul of its older brother. For me, it was equally, if not more, difficult. I remember watching various reviews, and being dismayed at the reveal of various reasons why the game would be harder than its predecessor, the ominous box art visible in the corner of my eye.
So, I was wrong. Dark Souls II was no easier, no less brutal, no more accessible than the first game. I would never be able to love this series because I wasn’t good enough for it. I could never be accepted as one of the band of elitist players because I would never be good enough to join them in PREPARING TO DIE or “gitting gud”. I was disappointed, and I was beaten. Dark Souls had bested ne yet again, just as it did, and continues to do for so many people.
I left all thought of the Souls games, and ever playing them ever again, behind. I had been trodden down for the last time.
But, if Dark Souls teaches us anything, it’s that no matter how many times you’re defeated, there’ll always be another bonfire to rise up from; there’ll always be another chance, if you choose to take it.
In the wake of the death of a family member, I chose to try and relax through watching and listening to podcasts. This was when I found IGN’s Prepare To Try series.
I remember watching with glee as Rory Powers was “ambushed” by the Asylum Demon, just as I had been. I watched as he was knocked down by the boulder that opens the way to Oscar of Astora, just as I had been. I remember watching him try again and again to parry, just as I had done and suddenly, finally, I felt as though I wasn’t alone in my struggle against Dark Souls. It was OK to be bad at the game, it was OK to die, it was OK to feel as though you were getting worse rather than better, because that’s what all Dark Souls players go through.
I watched Rory and Daniel Krupa and Gav Murphy travel from the Northern Undead Asylum all the way to Anor Londo, all the way to face the Lord Of Cinder himself. I saw the highs, lows and everything in between, and I suddenly realised that it was OK to be bad at Dark Souls, because you can get better and you should get better and, most importantly, you will get better. The genius of the game is not that its difficult, it’s that — through difficulty — it weeds out the people who don’t want to or can’t commit to learning its ins and outs: and this let’s play series helped me realise that.
Suddenly, it was OK if I died over and over and over again. It didn’t matter whether I was prepared to die, as long as I was at least prepared to try not to.
Immediately, I was back down the Dark Souls spiral. Returning to the original, I made fairly rapid progress: besting bosses one after the other, getting to areas I had previously thought unconquerable.
A small part of me does think the way I’ve been playing is cheating: I saw the pay-off of the game — its incredible lore and story, and wonderful characters — without having to get through the gruellingly difficult sections of pain.
But I also think knowing what I was working towards helped push me on, want to get further, learn the systems and try to comprehend this mad game that has captured the hearts of the world. Yes, I had seen it second-hand, but now I wanted to experience it for myself. Of course, knowing what I was working towards perhaps ruins some of the Dark Souls magic: that reveal of the beauty of Anor Londo after hours spent in dark, dingy caverns with traps left and right being possibly the example with the least spoilers.
I read Jason Killingsworth and Keza MacDonald’s fantastic book “You Died” — a story about both the creation of Dark Souls, and the fans around the world who play it and enjoy it to this day.
What both Prepare To Try and You Died managed to do was to show me that Dark Souls was more than difficult. It was more than this cult game that weeded the unworthy out: this was a game worth playing because it tells one of gaming’s greatest tales, gives us one of its very best post-apocalyptic, dystopian worlds, and some of its premier characters.
So many people, I’m sure, have picked up Dark Souls at some point or another and been beaten by it. They’ve heard the tales of Knight Solaire and Gwyn and his mighty army and been attracted, then pushed away. Dark Souls’ barrier to entry isn’t that it’s tough, rather that it’s tough to learn. Watch more recent Prepare To Try and you’ll see Rory absolutely beast (almost) anything that comes in his path, because he’s taken the time to learn the game, and that is the key to unlocking the excellence of Dark Souls, that’s what you need as a player more than any suit of armour or sword or ring.
In between more recent games and everything else, I’ll occasionally take a trip back to Lordran. I’m playing Dark Souls the craziest way possible, and taking breaks of a few months in between play sessions. But, I’m safe in the knowledge that, one day, when I do have the time, I can beat it. I will be able to beat it. Even if it kills me.
Which, let’s be honest, it probably will. A lot.