Dark Souls is a game and a franchise and even a genre that I have mixed feelings about. I am fascinated by every scrap of lore and mythology that From Software constructs around their games, whether it is the magnificent renaissance decay of Lordran, the claustrophobic and Gothic Yharnam, or the brilliantly recreated landscapes of 16th century Japan. The unfortunate bit is that I am terrible at these games.
From Software asks the player to be diligent in mastering its systems, vigilant towards their surroundings, and possess saintlike patience in traversing their worlds. As much as I enjoy honing a skill in games, it is brutal to make a player trek the same area a dozen times, killing the same enemies, only to die to the boss at the end and have to repeat the process. The stretch from bonfire to boss is as if Sisyphus eternally pushed a boulder up the hill because he felt like it, and had paid $60 for the pleasure.
While Dark Souls might not love me, I do ultimately love it. Every once in awhile I get the idea that I might be able to push past where the game last stopped me, if only I try again. I can spend hours watching video essays and speedruns and let’s plays of better players. Spurn me as they might, I don’t have it in me to give up completely. And that’s weird, right? When a game is so openly unwelcoming as Dark Souls, it doesn’t make sense that it has this kind of draw, and that’s why I have to pick it apart.
Or I would, because while brainstorming this essay, it dawned on me why I and so many people love a game that wants to punish its fans as much as possible. Nostalgia is one of the biggest driving forces in gaming and marketing in general, and Dark Souls just happens to be the perfect kids’ game.
Now what do I mean by that, exactly? I would never want a child to experience Dark Souls, between the psychological anguish guaranteed to them, or the depressing and despair-ridden settings of pretty much all of From Software’s games. They are a little bit too nihilistic for your average pre-teen or younger.
But when I was a kid, I remember how important the act of participating in a community was to gaming. It might be trading your Haunter to get a Gengar in Pokemon with the help of a classmate, or seeking assistance from the neighbor kid on how to solve Ocarina of Time’s obtuse puzzles. The creative team behind the Souls series has perfectly replicated the scenarios in which players have to communicate with one another in order to succeed. All they needed to do was make an extraordinarily difficult game, and give a player the option to leave messages behind for anyone who came after.
Every game has walkthroughs and forums where you can go out and solicit advice from other people, but Dark Souls has a built-in system in which players can help or deceive you, often in equal measure. I remember being told on the schoolgrounds that if the truck in Vermilion City had a Pokeball containing Mew underneath it, and all I had to do to move it was use the Strength HM. The people who spread that rumor later went on to write messages in Dark Souls that there was totally a secret item you could get by jumping off this cliff.
Communication has always been an important aspect in gaming, but it has never thrived like the early days of internet culture. Genuinely helpful advice and absurd bald-faced lies were just two sides of the coin when you were stumped by a game, and From Software has woven that into the substance of their games.
Much has been made of Dark Souls’ difficulty, even earlier in this essay, as well as all over the internet. The sense of supreme accomplishment is the fuel to which every Souls player feeds upon. No other franchise makes a point of fighting the player at every step like Soulsborne games do, and overcoming the bosses here is deeply cathartic.
However, it is not an experience I am unfamiliar with, I’ve felt it plenty of times before. Technically, I’ve played very few games as hard as a Souls game, and even fewer if we discount the ones that were directly influenced by Dark Souls. Nowadays, it’s a challenge in itself just finding a difficult game, especially in the age where nearly every game has at least three difficulty settings, but that wasn’t always the case. The challenge of Dark Souls is comparable to two things; the difficulty of early console gaming, and the struggles of being video game illiterate.
The first one is pretty easy to explain. Games used to be designed to be as hard and frustrating as possible because games used to be contained in arcade machines where the owners of said machines got more money the more often the player failed and had to pay for another try. After gaming made a move to the home console market, that stuck for awhile, especially as developers tried to artificially inflate time needed to beat a game to prove that they were worth the hefty investment of both the console and a variety of cartridges.
But oh, it was nothing like being a kid and having to contend with the great antagonist in all of gaming; how unbelievably stupid you were. I don’t know how, but I managed to get stumped by the puzzles in a Pokemon game, and it’s a miracle that my IQ scraped the triple digits after that. Every boss fight was an incredible challenge, and there was nothing like conquering those challenges. Sure, the Elite Four and King Dodongo were pushovers when I have the benefit of hindsight, but to a dumb kid, that was as daunting a foe as I could hope for.
By designing bosses and enemies that resist my efforts as far more experienced gamer, From Software has also successfully recreated the feeling of triumph I felt as a kid. Killing the Moonlight Butterfly manages to be every bit as satisfying as plunging the Master Sword into Ganon in the crumbling ruins of Hyrule Castle, even without that same level of time commitment.
Dark Souls might have the community and challenge of gaming in childhood, but they also manage to recapture the worldbuilding that enraptured me as a child. The worlds of Lordran, Lothric, Yharnam, and more are all vividly imagined and intricately detailed. None of the games do this quite as well as the first Dark Souls, though, in the way that this multi-leveled world is built like an interconnected puzzle made up of player-made shortcuts.
Each of these settings are worlds in decay, doomed to inevitable decline, and the only hope of circumventing that fate is vested in the protagonist, but even that is merely extended the dimming light a few moments longer. The mythologies, people, and cultures in each of these games are as colorful and bright as the worlds they take place in are dull and bleak. In the Souls games rests an incredibly poignant question whether stagnation and prolonging of the inevitable is preferable to plunging headlong into the dark unknown, and giving the choice to the player is an advantage that can only be claimed by an interactive medium like video games.
One of the most memorable parts of gaming as a kid was being able to get lost in any world as soon as you left the title screen. The polygons and pixels of the N64 and Gamecube might not look impressive to me now, but they were the so real at the time that I could live and breathe the different quadrants of Clocktown or the haunted depths of Luigi’s mansion. Dark Souls and its peers might not present the bright and cheerful landscapes common to kids’ games, but they contain a wealth of rich worldbuilding that I felt existed in every game I played as a kid.
Calling Dark Souls the perfect kids’ game is not just an excellent form of clickbait, but it really cuts to the heart of what both of these types of games are trying to do. It is why, despite being resisted at literally every opportunity, I have not been able to move on from this most inhospitable of franchises. Its ability to create a community, a genuine sense of accomplishment in its players, and a vast world begging to be explored is unparalleled.
Would I let a kid play Dark Souls? Only if I were trying to teach them that life is painful and unfair. They’ll have to wait a couple years before Dark Souls manages to strike that same sensation as their earliest memories of gaming, but it will come as inevitably as that banner reading, “YOU DIED”.
If you enjoyed this essay, go ahead and like it, every one helps. You can also follow the Otaku Exhibition to get updates on more essays about anime and maybe more on gaming, depending on how my love letter to both gaming and my childhood does. You could even follow me on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, where the only challenge greater than Dark Souls is not getting canceled.