Dark Souls is a unique game. Simultaneously planting one foot in the checkered video game past, and the other so far in the future that you will find yourself lost as you try to keep up. There is something truly special at work here. Even if you don’t enjoy the experience, it is impossible to deny admiration for the boldness of its conviction. It is truly a work inspired by a unbending philosophy and a belief that games can and should offer different experiences.
There is a certain ambivalence to Dark Souls; it gives you back what you put into it. Its bold text acknowledges victory in the same way that it recognizes failure. It wants you to succeed, but it refuses the temptation to bend to your will. It neither praises your successes nor gloats upon your failures. It never changes. It simply is. If Tom Bissell was right to guess that games are more like a mirror than a window, Dark Souls may be the most reflective game I have ever seen.
I will admit, Dark Souls isn’t for everyone. The game is not fun in any typical sense of the word. The intrinsic reward that you get from victory is all there really is. If you do not find the challenge of mastery that it presents to be compelling, then it’s true value will never reveal itself.
Dark Souls is like cocaine. It doesn’t come to you, you have to come to it.
To excel at Dark Souls, Parry and Riposte must become as second nature to you as walking. The game teaches like a strict Buddhist, smacking you with a board and commanding you to focus. It forces you out of your cognitive slumber. You will be reprimanded for the tiniest mistaken impulse. If you do not prove yourself, you will be punished. Those who are easily frustrated by failure will find no solace in it’s tradition.
It expects you to ignore your phone calls.
It doesn’t let you pause.
Fittingly, there is a dark side to Souls. Something about the game drags the worst of your qualities into the light. You will find yourself cursing audibly when you lose 2000 souls to a simple skeleton. You will scream at and hurt your pets. You will let your girlfriend’s phone call ring wildly while you cower behind your shield, surrounded by the hordes of the undead. You will think about pain. You will cry. In your transformation, you will realize that you are as deeply insecure as a child.
But like or unlike meditation, the surprising thing about Dark Souls is that is isn’t, in fact, masochistic. Yes, you will die quite often, but mastery gives you such an intense satisfaction that it all feels worth it. In this way, it is unlike any game I have ever played. You genuinely feel accomplished when you skillfully defeat a boss who had crushed you so many times before. You can’t resist the urge to smile as you stand glorious in your victory, content that you will never have to face your tormentor again. It is in these moments, that the world of Lordran is at once both haunting and beautiful.