You’re filthy. You’re wounded. You haven’t seen the sun in days, and you can’t remember the last time you saw another human being. You’ve seen demons. Dozens of them, and as you reach the top of the stone steps you see another. It looks vaguely human, except it’s hunched over and most of its skin has flaked away. It lunges at you with a rusty dagger, but you bash it away with your shield and smash it across the head with your mace. Again and again until you’re covered in its blood.
There was a time when your goal was to save this rotting world. But now you just want vengeance on these demons for everything they’ve done to you. You enter the fog and see a demonic giant with a goat’s head. You ready your weapon and prepare for battle.
And then you’re mauled by the goat’s pet dogs and horribly killed with one swing of its axe. Was that fun? Maybe not. Dark Souls doesn’t have to be fun. It’s art.
I believe very strongly that games can be art. It’s unfortunate that we call them games, because it traps people into thinking that games have to be fun. But not all good movies are fun to watch. Not all good books are fun to read. Why should all games be fun to play?
Dark Souls is a hero simulation. You play as someone who gives up everything in order to take on evil. The game will punish you for playing it. It’s a long and difficult journey. The beauty in Dark Souls is hard to find, but it’s there, hidden in a world of darkness and despair. The beauty is in the hopelessness.
Stay with me.
It’s often said that Dark Souls is a difficult game. I wouldn’t call it that. I’d call it unforgiving. If you’re careful, move slowly and stay ready, you can typically avoid dying. But any mistakes will be punished severely. When people say that Dark Souls is difficult, this is what they mean. It’s not hard for the sake of being hard. Instead, the game has a lasting tension that makes every second matter. Any mistakes could mean death. The difficulty makes it exciting.
Dark Soul’s biggest proverbial kick to the crotch is its experience system. Every time you kill a monster, you get experience for it that the game calls souls. These souls can be used to level up when you get enough of them. If and when you die, you’ll appear at the last checkpoint and all of your experience is lost. If you can get back to the area that you died, you can retrieve it, but if you die on route you lose everything. Checkpoints are rare, so you’ll often have far to travel to the point where you died. One mistake can cost an hour’s progress. It’s brutal.
There’s always a tension, because death could be around any corner. Any second you could lose everything. There are virtually no throwaway enemies, as any demon could kill you if you’re not careful. It’s not so much hard as it is terrifying. There’s demons everywhere, and the few actual living persons have gone mad to cope with the brutally they’ve seen. It’s dark fantasy at its darkest, a post-apocalyptic game with swords and magic.
Fun is difficult to define, but this constant tension is at least interesting. In most games you’re simply going through the motions. Dark Souls is scary in a very real sense, because death is punished so severely. Only in a game like this do you actually feel what it’s like to be the hero. Failure has weight to it. It’s like a movie where you really don’t know if the hero can make it. Evil really might prevail. The hero might give up, because you’re the hero. The feeling is unlike any game I’ve ever played.
There is a point in the hero’s journey where the hero wants to give up, when everything goes to hell and things seem so bleak and impossible. Dark Souls is filled with these. A boss will kill you within three seconds several times in a row. It’ll seem impossible, like nothing you could ever do could ever defeat this boss. But you’ll learn from past mistakes, and suddenly you’ll prevail. It’s an incredible feeling, and no game delivers it quite like Dark Souls. You’ll feel like you triumphed over something that you never thought possible.
All of the hopelessness magnifies the triumphs. Seeing the sun in game means so much more when you’ve spent the last several hours lost in a dimly lit sewer filled with demonic frog things, thinking you’ll never find your way out of there.
Art allows us to feel emotions that we don’t normally feel. To see points of view we don’t normally see. Dark Souls has a bleak, pessimistic vision to be sure. Agree with it or not, it says something about the nature of mankind in the face of suffering. Dark Souls makes you think a little bit. That’s all I ask from art.
I’m Robert Green, a fantasy novelist and video game journalist. Here at Gaming Bolt I write Campfire Gaming, a weekly feature of game journals.
Read more of my work at my personal website, RobertGreenStories.com
Email me: Robert at RobertGreenStories dot com