I had heard people talk about this game, seen it all over Reddit, and so on, for some time, but had not gotten around to playing it. That is not to say that it looked bad to me, it looked, from the outside, like it was, in this cultural moment, very much like what Diablo was back in its time. Released initially in 2011, the game became a phenom and has since then generated two sequels, as well as a PlayStation-exclusive sibling; Bloodborne (2015).
When you start Dark Souls you will not see much, initially, that will set it apart from the competition. If you look at the trailers, you will get the same impression. At first, it seems to be a 3rd person hack-n-slash action game with RPG elements, with Gothic knights and all the markers of a Japanese console title. It seems forgettable. Its initial tone is epic, but the opening cinematic is already cryptic. The game is confusing. The initial tutorial is reminiscent of a classic action RPG in that it explains little to you, the stat screen for your character seems to be overflowing and makes few, if any, concessions to the ease of understanding for a new player. You cannot pause, and because of that even basic tasks of character customization leave you feeling naked and vulnerable to ambush. From the outset the levels double back on themselves and play tricks that you must think through for your self. There is no map, and no quest log. Nothing helps you find your way or track what you must do. Other than explore it is never clear what you are trying to achieve, and if you ever get an inkling of what you must do, the game certainly will not make it easy to ascertain where you must go to complete your quest.
The opening cinematic isn’t all the is crytpic: every character is too. The world of Dark Souls seems to be full of only the undead and the mad, but you quickly learn that it is incorrect — there is absolutely no one at all who is not mad and no one who is not undead except the odd demon or perhaps a god, but the gods are rare and almost dead. There are the undead who look more like humans, and who eerily lack any urgency about their lifeless condition, and then there are undead monsters. Living humans are oddly naught to be found. Friends are rare, and when you find them they speak in riddles. The world is misty, labyrinthine, and seems not to obey basic Euclidian tenets. A straight corridor doesn’t end up where you expect it to, that is, straight ahead. The game doesn’t lean on the cheap jump scares of a horror game: instead it is surreal and uncanny.
The game, in many ways, is a throwback to the classics of the ’80s and ’90s. It often feels like it arrived in the present through some kind of time warp, and most of the time the challenge and chaos feels vintage, in a good way, more than it feels unrefined or outdated. It doesn’t hold your hand or waste your time with throwaway enemies. It isn’t artful about making sure you always know what to do. Quite the contrary; it feels like From Software want Dark Souls to be like one of those old games where, for lack of access to voice over, the developers put not just the instructions but also the plot in the technical manual that came in the box, on the assumption that you read before you played, but with Dark Souls they threw away the manual, if they ever bothered writing it. The game never tells you which way you should be going, every direction always has enemies, every enemy is a threat, and enemy after enemy grinds you down until you have no more life and must turn back. Every step down every corridor is troubling. The fear of death, because death in Dark Souls is frequent and punished, compounds on top of the chronic and sustained confusion and atmospheric twists and turns of its spatially-distorted world.
Dark Souls is set in a kingdom called Lordran, but it in no way feels like a simulation of a kingdom. It feels like a labyrinth, possibly one of the most ambitious labyrinths constructed by man. It is a massive, psychologically affecting labyrinth where up is down and down is up and where charging boars are made of iron and where you take long, rickety chain elevators to massive flooded cities below, and where treasure chests that you attempt to open sprout arms and legs and massive, filthy tongues and howl and cluck and kick you to death and eat you whole.
Your camaraderie in this labyrinthe will come from the fact that other players can leave you notes, so as you travel you will find advice from other players, sometimes to warn you of a trap, other times to remind you to “praise the sun,” sometimes they will be intentionally misleading. You can team up with those players and play together. Mostly, if you see them, they are invading your game and are now hunting you in your own labyrinth, so that even if you have mastered the challenges of the game itself, other players and their attempts to stop you from winning the game push the challenge of completing Dark Souls into the next bracket of difficulty beyond what it achieves using merely its punishing enemies, frequent traps, painful deaths and all consuming confusion and trickery.
Dark Souls is reminiscent Borges’ city of the immortals with its troglodytes and its cisterns and its stairwells to nowhere in that it feels fundamentally perverted, like some ancient and great mind made a depraved facsimile of a human city that violates the laws of nature just through its design. All videogames are labyrinths and they are all uncanny. They mostly try to hide it. Too often what they try offer you is escapism. “Pretend to do this thing that is better than real life and tries to feel more real than reality.” Dark Souls offers you no such thing. It offers you the eerie and the strange. It revels in the fact that it is a perverse facsimile. It doesn’t try to make you feel like a hero going on a great adventure or, even worse, feel at home. It wants to intrigue you, challenge you, repulse you, and fill you with dread.
The artifice of the game is, at times, flawed. The controls can be clunky and have an unresponsive action queue. Frame pacing issues can be annoying, hit-detection issues more so, particularly in a game that demands effort and punishes mistakes. Frustrating and unfair deaths are not that uncommon. The PC port is one of the worst in memory, an afterthought that only exists as the result of a petition, showing the amount of attention paid the PC by BandaiNamco. The game has some bad levels, particularly in its bloated and overlong second half. However, these issues do not cause the game to founder. Instead, they contribute to the impression that this is a shambolic masterpiece just as flawed as it is brilliant. What it lacks in polish and consistency it makes up for with respect to the classics of past decades, ambitious scope, perverse imagination, and sometimes with unadulterated genius in its design. It may not always be fun, and at times you will speak to the game, alone in your room, to let Dark Souls know how much you despise it, as you die another time or you arrive at a pit with a bridge and a dozen bladed pendulums, you won’t be able to help but put down the controller to lift both your middle fingers to the screen, but still it never loses your attention, and is anything but forgettable.
note bene: PC players are practically required to purchase a controller or gamepad of some type, and many find it advantageous or even necessary to install 3rd party modifications to fix or improve the port.