Yup, that’s right, it’s time to talk about Dark Souls again. The game recently hit its ten year milestone, having originally released on September 22nd, 2011. I’ve gone back to Dark Souls for the millionth time just recently, for two reasons: the first being that I’ve let my trophy list sit at 97% for years. I’ve simply been too lazy to complete my run of NG+2, in order to forge the final two weapons I needed for the Knights Honor trophy (own every weapon in the game). I’ve stuck to the remaster of the game since it came out, and haven’t gone back to the PS3 version.
The second reason I went back to Dark Souls is because I’ve been feeling, well, kind of depressed lately. I’ve temporarily deactivated most of my social media platforms, just to take a bit of a break and improve my mood – but wait, why would playing Dark Souls make you feel better, you might be asking? I can think of a few things that might feel better than playing Dark Souls for a lot of people, like beating your head against a wall, or maybe going to the dentist. Dark Souls isn’t necessarily an uplifting experience (in fact, its often the opposite).
I’ve already talked a lot about Dark Souls on this blog before, about why I first played, and how I learned to enjoy it. But here, I’m going to be talking about the game more generally; I’m focusing on some of my favourite aspects, what they mean to me personally, and why I think it helps when I’m feeling low.
Dark Souls is about community
Here’s the real tea about Dark Souls – it’s about community, jolly co-operation if you will. Sorry turbo-chads, with your Soul level 1 runs, naked and afraid, with only your Broken Straight Sword for company. Though many have come to treat Dark Souls as a symbol of personal accomplishment, a badge of honour that solidifies your legendary skill as a gamer, it’s never been about that – not really. When Dark Souls first released, and players were slogging through the experience without the benefit of internet guides to help them, their only means of becoming unstuck was by communicating with each other. Sharing information and tips. Just look at the way the online features function – you can leave messages around the world to help other players, by pointing out traps, illusory walls, and hidden secrets. You can summon each other for help (it pains me that this has become a symbol of scrub-dom) and take on the world together.
Helping other players is honestly one of my favourite aspects of Dark Souls. Though I prefer to play through the game on my own, I love putting down my summon sign and being called to other worlds to assist. I used to do this for hours on the PS3, especially in Anor Londo. Tons of players summon in this area, for help with the notoriously annoying duo of Ornstein and Smough. I received a ton of grateful messages afterward from my co-op buddies, many of which I still have in my inbox. One particular one I always remember – after beating O&S, my summoner sent me a message saying, “I’ve been stuck on that boss for 2 months, thank you so much!!” It’s such a gratifying experience to be able to help other players continue on with their journey. Dark Souls is about community. Warriors of Sunlight for life!
Dark Souls is about learning
Free time is a precious resource, and I completely respect players who would rather not play a game where they feel like progress is limited – playing through the same area, or fighting the same boss for hours on end isn’t for everyone. However, this is one of my favourite aspects of Dark Souls. Sure, progress might be slow, but its a learning process, and I have yet to play a game that teaches its players in such a unique way. It’s not just about combat either, though learning attack patterns is a critical element of the gameplay (especially for the bosses). Having the confidence to traverse new areas is just as crucial. Dark Souls’ level design teaches its players to pay attention to their surroundings – after dying to one or two of those arrow traps in Sens Fortress, you’ll learn to watch for the pressure plates on the ground. Items are placed in specific locations to draw your attention to certain areas, or clue you in to a future ambush. For example, in the Depths, picking up a carefully placed item will put you in a position to see a Butcher waiting to drop down and attack you in a nearby hallway. Dying is also a teaching tool, and once you become more comfortable with the loss, playing becomes a lot less stressful.
While death and loss of progress (and souls) feels like a punishment, its not really. Its a way to improve, and learn from your mistakes. Its about the small steps, making it just a little bit further than you did before, or conquering that enemy that’s been kicking your ass. I like feeling like my determination is the only thing carrying me through this world, and my willingness to adapt to the lessons the game is trying to teach me. Like many players, I used to struggle through Blighttown – the enemies that inflict toxic, the darkness, and the absolute warren of wooden walkways always overwhelmed me. But eventually, I learned to adapt – to use the Spider Shield from the previous area to block toxic darts, to follow the carefully placed torches to find the path forward, and most importantly, to take my time. Sure, I still die sometimes (mostly by falling off precarious ledges or trying to skip ladders) but it doesn’t stress me out the way it used to. Instead, I simply carry on. Souls come and souls go. Dark Souls is about learning.
Dark Souls is about perseverance
This is probably the most important element of Dark Souls – finding the will to continue. It goes hand in hand with learning. When I first played the game, I walked away from it several times, mostly out of frustration. I know a lot of people share that experience. The difficulty of Dark Souls is infamous, but it was never intended to be its primary draw, according to director Hidetaka Miyazaki:
The main concept behind the death system is trial and error. The difficulty is high, but always achievable. Everyone can achieve without all that much technique – all you need to do is learn, from your deaths, how to overcome the difficulties. Overcoming challenges by learning something in a game is a very rewarding feeling, and that’s what I wanted to prioritize in Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls.
So you may die over and over again, but letting go of the feeling of failure is important. The choice to continue is what matters. Getting up from that bonfire and trying again. It can be frustrating, but I came to learn that, with enough practice, I could overcome any challenge that the game threw at me. Blighttown, Ornstein and Smough, the darkness of the Tomb of the Giants, or the Lord of Sunlight himself. If I kept going, I knew I would get there. Dark Souls is about perseverance.
Dark Souls is about trying
These three aspects of Dark Souls are my favourites, and they’re the aspects I think about the most when I’m feeling low. Helping fellow players, learning more about the game with each playthrough, and knowing that if I push myself, I can overcome any obstacle are all things I’ve learned from this game. And I’m not the only one who relates these Dark Souls lessons to depression, either – there’s a multitude of videos and articles on this exact topic. Apparently we’re all seeing a pattern of hope, even in the most grim of narratives.
I find the fact that you’re a nobody immensely appealing; you’re the “Chosen Undead” just like the thousands of other Chosen Undeads who came before you. You’re not special, or powerful. You are, however, exactly as much as you choose to be. Your determination to continue in the face of overwhelming odds is the only thing carrying you forward – but it will take you exactly as far as you need to go. Those small steps between each and every death, those triumphant moments of progress – that is exactly why Dark Souls feels like a comfort to me. It’s not a promise of light at the end of the tunnel, but that simply being prepared to try is enough; progress can’t only be measured in victories. To engage, to learn, to persevere – those are the key takeaways from Dark Souls for me. And, you know, taking the occasional breather at a bonfire along the way is cool too.
If you’ve made it this far into my rambling, thanks for reading! Feel free to share your thoughts, or let me know what your “comfort” games are in the comments!