Dark Souls Impressions

This post should be a quick one; I just wanted to jot down a few thoughts about finally completing Dark Souls, in case I need to come back to it some day.

Choke points. I think what I’ll really remember about the game–and this isn’t really a positive point–are the moments where I ran into a wall. On my first playthrough, it was Sens’ Fortress, where my PC (and my hands) just weren’t up for the rendering speed/dexterity necessary to pass through the platform maneuvering the swinging scythes required. This time around, it was twofold: the two knights with dragonbone bows in Andor Lando, and the Four Kings boss. In all three cases, there was a bonfire almost immediately after the area, so I appreciate the game itself acknowledged the difficulty of those points, but mostly, I’ll remember them as moments where the game’s lauded difficulty felt personally unfair.

Narrative. The Dark Souls franchise is famously minimalist in terms of its story, and much of the background needs to be pieced together from oblique comments and item descriptions.  I was aware enough of the plot that I didn’t have any problem with the basic premise, that there are two factions, one wanting to perpetuate the boom-bust cycle of the world and one wanting to cut off the existing status quo; the flame and the dark, respectively. And that the flame side is being somewhat deceptive, promising you reward as a great saviour figure. I followed all that, and even found it a little underwhelming at times. And yet, I don’t know if I would even have ever known about the second faction if I hadn’t been following online wikis–there’s so much game between getting the lordvessel and finding the second serpent. I very easily could have gone to the game’s end thinking that the slightly overblown Hero’s Journey was all there was. And even knowing about the two sides, I still wound up picking the ending by accident–I wandered too far away from the fire pit after killing the end boss, and got the “Dark Lord” ending by default. So either way, I’m left feeling a little underwhelmed. On the other hand, I imagine that if I had stumbled on the Dark faction by accident, I would have been blown away. There’s a lot to like about this understated narrative choice, even if it falls away a bit in practice.

I think what I really liked about the narrative was the way relationships came up between the NPCs you find. Here, I fell back and forth between wiki following and just stumbling my way through, with the consequence that I actually wound up leading quite a lot of them to their deaths. It was terribly depressing by game’s end, how the Firelink bonfire went from this unpopulated place to this group of unlikelys that I’d thrown together, to empty again, as they met their respective fates. The idea that you’re affecting these people’s fates, but that you’re doing so in ways that create unintended, unwanted side effects, really got to me. Granted, I played through Demon Souls and Dark Souls 2, so I knew what I was getting into, but that didn’t make the empty campfire less empty.

Getting By With A Little Help From My Friends. One of the signature elements of the Dark Souls series, for the unaware (although if you’re unaware, you probably gave up a few paragraphs ago at my unexplained terminology), is that, when Human, you can summon in other players to help you, or be invaded by other players. As the games in the series age, long time players tend to fall towards these support or invading roles–which basically means, for a first playthrough,if you’re summoning someone in or getting invaded, you’re encountering someone who is much, much better at the game than you. The invasions were uniformly frustrating and terrible, but I made much more use of the summoning than ever before in the series, and it was eye-opening how much that created a sense of gratitude in me, for both the players and the game. It really felt like we were doing something together.  I know this sentiment is hardly a new one in regards to critical writing about the series, but it’s the first time I really experienced it.

It’s a Nice Place to Visit. The last thing I did before spending a half dozen or so hours on mastering parrying so I could fight the Lord of Cinders was visit the depths of Ash Lake. It reminded me of something I learned earlier when I fought Sif much later in the game than I was supposed to–in a game where so much of its rhetoric, in game and out of game, is about how difficult it is, it’s really, really satisfying to go to an area when you’re overpowered and just lay waste to everything. My trip to Ash Lake was a much easier descent than the first time through (being able to warp back this time helped too), and fighting the Hydra went fairly simply. Besides the hydra, there aren’t many enemies there either, and that sparsity really allows you to appreciate the majesty of the area. Many areas of Dark Souls are aesthetically amazing (also ruins, generally) but none of them struck me quite like running across a narrow sand dune at the bottom of the world.

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