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Learning to Praise the Sun

No one would argue that Dark Souls is an easy game, but difficulty is just scratching the surface. In other words, it's time to issue a formal apology to Dark Souls.

There are two people that require an apology. First, I want to apologize to myself. Patrick, you should have played Dark Souls sooner, and I'm sorry I didn't give you that opportunity. Second, I'd like to apologize to Dark Souls. More specifically, apologize for how I've been talking about Dark Souls.

Pretty happy that I never, ever have to fight this jerk again.
Pretty happy that I never, ever have to fight this jerk again.

A few weeks ago, had someone asked me to describe Dark Souls in a single word, that word would have been "difficult." Having now linked the fire and watched the credits roll on Dark Souls, I'd say that description is both a truth...and a lie. Okay, disingenuous might be more apt. To merely say Dark Souls is "difficult" sells the game, and what it does to the player who decides to partake in its dance, terribly short.

There are countless reasons, reasons now much clearer, why the Souls games have connected with people. It's partially the both gorgeous and depressing art. It's partially the subtle but evocative narrative. It's partially the sense of community derived from solving a master-level puzzle. It's partially the sense of accomplishment. Beating Dark Souls feels like an achievement for a resume, one I can brag about because so many haven't done it.

It's easy to get wrapped up in the word "difficult," thanks to the arc of modern game design. Dark Souls is more "difficult" than your average game, but the average game also expects much less from you. The average game is more concerned with making sure you see everything the designers have been working on for the past few years. They've been working really, really hard on it! It cost lots of money, and it'd be a waste if it went unseen! In your average video game, a standard playthrough might result in missing a few collectibles. In Dark Souls, it could mean missing out on whole areas of the game, sections that might take hours to complete. It's even possible to miss the downloadable content you paid extra money for, as the game never makes accessing these other worlds clear. They basically require a FAQ.

You get what you give from Dark Souls. When you push, it pushes back. But if you push back with enough force, the right kind of force, the game moves out of the way. There is a reason people do "naked runs" in Dark Souls, trying to finish the game without any clothing and often without leveling up. It's possible. Everything in Dark Souls is avoidable, though much comes through trial-and-error. But once you know, it's all up to you. Patience is a valued virtue in Dark Souls, and a player's most powerful asset. And that's where the tug-of-war between player behavior and the game world begin to intertwine. At first, Dark Souls feels like an immoveable, impenetrable object. But as it turns out, you were trying to move it from the wrong side. At the right angle, it nudges. Soon, the nudge causes it to tilt. Then, it falls over.

But I can already feel myself falling into the word trap that originally turned me off to Dark Souls. Since playing Dark Souls was so tremendously rewarding, I've built up the story of my journey in my mind. The personal narrative of playing Dark Souls, in which one graduates from peasant to lord, makes the act of playing Dark Souls sound impossibly difficult. It's a hard game, but it is not impossible. It's overstated.

If you turned on the game right now, taking my word for it, you might come back and curse me for it. "Patrick, Dark Souls is super hard." And you'd be right, but you'd only be right because you've played an hour of the game. Maybe a few. Playing Dark Souls alongside Spelunky has reminded me a few things about how I play games these days. I mostly play them for the story, a casual observer to worlds that I'm making a brief stay in. The design of most games today both accepts and encourages this behavior. By the end of most games, you may have achieved basic competency of the game mechanics, but mastery is a long ways away. But the game doesn't ask you to achieve mastery, so why would you? Dark Souls and Spelunky begin with this design premise: watch and learn. If you don't watch, you're punished. If you don't learn, you're punished. But if you do both, you're rewarded with mastery, and Dark Souls bends to mastery. Not only does it bend, it buckles and breaks, respecting the player's ability to learn its rules.

Dark Souls hardly ever feels unfair. The one time it's truly trying to trick you, the trap-laden area known as Sen's Fortress, you know what you're getting into. It's meant to be a house of horrors. Just about anything else in the game can be avoided by being very cautious. (And that's true of Sen's Fortress, if you have my kind of ridiculous luck!) Reckless abandon will get you nowhere, though I did find the game benefited from a healthy dose of aggression, a tactic that allowed me to dance around animations.

Spelunky, like Dark Souls, respects and rewards players willing to listen what it's trying to say and learns from it.
Spelunky, like Dark Souls, respects and rewards players willing to listen what it's trying to say and learns from it.

Finishing Dark Souls feels like I've joined a club, albeit one that comes with some caveats. During my streams, I would roll my eyes at some folks who downplayed my victories with comments like "oh, god, he is just so OP [over powered]." This insinuates that because I was not playing with a weaker build, purposely making the game more difficult, I was not getting the true Dark Souls experience. These responses became conspiratorial in nature, too. "Oh, he must have watched a lot of streams before playing." (I watched one episode of Vinny playing, that's it.) "Oh, he must have looked up the optimal build to break the game." (I used a guide to figure out the upgrade system, but, hell, I stuck with the first axe the game gives you for my first 10 hours or so.) These comments never really got under my skin, especially after downing one of the game's most notorious boss duos, Ornstein and Smough, without summoning another player--and on my second try. With those jerks under my belt, I surmised that, hey, maybe I'm just pretty good.

But these people had a point.

Playing Dark Souls when it released would have been far different. Besides patches altering soul drops and DLC that inflates the player's stats ahead of the endgame, so much of Dark Souls is known. This is big. It's is a game that is constantly throwing curve balls. By playing in early 2014, I avoided some of that. This is both a blessing and a curse, and it depends on your perspective. The hardcore Dark Souls players who have been with the series from the beginning, the players frustrated that someone is coming to the series so late and finally seeing the light, have reason to be peeved the experience is not as genuine.

But I'd argue there's never been a better time to jump in and play Dark Souls, and learn what all the fuss is about. If you're stuck, look at a FAQ, ask for help on a message board, or watch some professionals playing on Twitch and YouTube. Your experience may be less "pure," but what's far worse is writing off a game--and a series--because it's too intimidating. The walls have been weakened around Dark Souls, but it's still a hell of a climb. I'm much happier to sit here and say "I've beaten Dark Souls" than not.

Try to think about the last game you finished. When the credits appeared, how'd you react? Did you pump your fist? Did it feel like a genuine accomplishment? Did you feel so excited about the moment, you simply had to share it with others? Not every game has to produce these feelings, but few do. The Souls games are not just very good games, they're interactive adventures that remind one they're alive.

And until Dark Souls II, we have these memories. So many memories.

No Caption Provided
No Caption Provided

Patrick Klepek on Google+