Warning: Contains spoilers for Dark Souls 3 ending and Dark Souls 1 locations. I have highlighted where the DS3 spoilers are so feel free to read until then
I’ve been playing games since the late 80s, longer than some of my friends have been alive. Over time, it’s become a bigger part of my identity than it really should; I’ve worked in game stores, run events and my (so far) only tattoo has Ico and Yorda running across my right shoulder blade. Events of the last handful of years though have pushed me away from the gaming community, I feel disconnected from a hobby that once defined me. What this is basically saying is, I played Dark Souls so that people would like me.
If we are going to split gaming into casual and hardcore, I’m definitely on the casual side. I play Skyrim on easy, most of my teenage years were spent face-first down the JRPG rabbit hole and I have more hours logged in Bejeweled 3 than is sensible. I have never understood the trend towards “hard games like the old days!”. For a start, games were hard in the 80s because we were children, control inputs were awful and game design was something new and we were trying everything. So you come to me and say “here’s the game and it’s really hard”, and I’m just going to boot up Sonic Dash on my phone.
Dark Souls has become this odd cultural touchpoint in recent gaming culture, and I was feeling left out of all these discussions because I’d played it for like 10 hours and given up. I was feeling like I wanted to reconnect to the community but I couldn’t because I wasn’t gushing over the fandom darling.
So why stick with it? First off, I have friends who don’t shut up about it oh my god. Second, I’m currently unemployed and that means I have time and it needs filling. Third, my partner bought me a Sif t-shirt for my birthday and how can I show my face wearing a shirt of a boss I never met. I think mostly though, it was Firelink Shrine and how every time I came back to it, it was like coming home from the rain.
I love everything about Firelink Shrine. I love how it’s a hub in more ways than “start here, go there”. For the first third of the game, everything loops round to it like it have gravity. You rescue people and then find them there later, like you’re creating this home for everyone. You know it’s safe, it’s green and the music is gorgeous. It reminds me a lot of the couch save points in Ico, a deep breath before the next plunge.
My abandoned playthrough was a Pyromancer, but I restarted as a Sorcerer for the playthrough I actually finished. The magic class is as close to an easy mode as this game gets. It is fun as hell though, and I recommend giving it a go if you’re like me. My end impression of the game though it still that it’s alright. 7/10 maybe. The last half is mostly boring as hell. All the wonderful linking up of geography falls away, some areas are very obviously phoned in and my ability to kill bosses without thinking killed the challenge to a point that even casual scrubs would be disappointed. My favourite part though came while I was stuck on Seath the Scaleless. I was so annoyed with being stuck that my character and I just went for a walk. We went back to the beginning areas to clear out skipped mini-bosses, we went to hang out with NPCs ( and by hang out I mean buy all their stuff so they’d go mad and we could murder them for their stuff ) and we went down to Ash Lake where a hydra destroyed us while our jaws were dropping from how beautiful it is. As a game I’m still not sure, but as a world there are very few things that can beat it. If I had to pick one moment, it’s near the end where the sad little guy who’s been hanging out at Firelink the whole game goes hollow and you kill him. Now, when I go back and see that empty space, I wonder if I’m saving the world or ending it. If I wasn’t there, would it all have turned out alright in the end?
I want to take this moment to say something about Gwyndolin. I ended up down the rabbit hole of “is he a trans woman or not” for one afternoon. He’s a god, but is raised female because he is of the moon, not the sun. The moon has always been linked with femininity in real life, a pale reflection of the life-giving masculine sun. I have many, many non-binary feels about Gwyndolin though. The other characters use he/him and so will I. There is an item in DS3 that speaks of him “dreaming of a pale girl in hiding”. There’s lots of discussion about who this girl is, but as someone who often dreams of their inner boy in hiding, I can’t help but feel affinity for him.
So now I’m invested. I bought Dark Souls 3 the day it came out. Again, I have an abandoned playthrough because it turns out magic is a giant bag of wank in this game. So I start again as a standard sword and board because I probably should learn how melee works. ( Fun fact: turns out in every Souls game, my first character is a female caster with green hair. Wish fulfilment? Also all my melee characters are guys so hello sexism! ) I get surprisingly far before I hit the wall of “fuck this”. The learning curve is actually quite soft which is nice, until you find the part where the game has expected you to have learnt to play by now, and you realised that luck and R1 spam has lured you into a false sense of security. I can’t say at this point that I liked Dark Souls 3 either. All the areas so far are quite dull. It’s hard to figure the shape of the world, and I’m sure I’m missing out on some side quests because NPCs show up for 2 minutes and are never seen again.
At this point, I want to sidetrack and talk about Reddit. I’ve never used it really, much as I never used Digg before it. The Dark Souls subreddits though are something I could almost write a paper about. The DS1 subreddit is lovely. I’ve only lurked, but they seem so cool. Even now, people are popping up posts about killing bosses, even the early game ones, and people are there to congratulate them and help them on their way. People are still talking about the lore, especially with some of the clarifications and retcons of DS3. By contrast, the DS3 subreddit has some weird kind of field where the probability of bitching about a) poise or b) endgame PVP approaches 1, no matter the topic. It’s also the worst of the 3 for the “git gud” mentality. DS3 is too easy, scrubs don’t understand our weird unspoken PVP rules, “fuck the meta”, the odd shift from “Miyasaki will save us all” to “what a fraud, how dare he working in gaming because this sword is broken”. Hero worship of figures in the industry is an entirely different topic, but this series is just weird.
I actually enjoyed playing Dark Souls 2. It’s the black sheep really. I never would have finished 3 without playing it though. I played a cleric this time (more easy-mode, being able to heal? What a scrub). It’s annoyingly hard for the sake of being hard. The combat one-on-one is wonderful, and I enjoyed nearly all the boss fights, but the trash fights seem to be designed around the idea that if one mob is hard, fighting 10 must be harder! 90% of my external dialogue during Iron Keep was “where the fuck are all of you coming from”. It taught me to fight though, finally I get the whole “roll, don’t block” thing. I’m the kind of person who plays Super Mario like it’s Sonic the Hedgehog, thinking ahead isn’t really my thing. DS2 won’t let you do that, at all. In general it’s all a bit uninspired, but the gameplay is actually ace.
Dark Souls 3 ending spoilers below
I finished DS3 on Saturday. 2 moments really stand out. I picked the end of fire ending. The whole game leads up to you linking the fire, but if you find a item you can tell the Firekeeper that instead you’re going to walk away. You’re going to betray her, and the world. She is invested in you and so she agrees. But you’ve hurt her. And then the music in Firelink Shrine changes and it felt like my heart had broken. It’s so well done. The last boss is also amazing. The music change in the second phase got me killed because I was so in awe of it. It destroys my stamina bar, but I always run down to meet them as they run up because it’s more epic that way. It’s fun, it’s so hard but it’s the best kind of boss, it’s like a final exam where you fight every style. The scenery. The fucking eclipse.
Final thoughts then. The last few months in the real world have been hard. The rise of the right, the crumbling of tolerance. I am scared for the future. In this space, it feels odd to play a series of games also about the slow burn end of the world. I have nightmares about the future, and I have nightmares about Dark Souls. In the end though, I think I have found comfort in an apocalypse where I have agency. I ended the world. It was my choice. In some ways though it’s still a world that can’t be saved and like real life maybe my actions matter little. I feel an emptiness in my heart, but for a while I could fill it with dragons and sunsets.