Why Dark Souls is the friendliest, most benevolent game of its generation

Important fact about Dark Souls that no-one’s telling you: You need to stop worrying about all that hyperbolic talk of its difficulty. Another important fact: Dark Souls is not about intimidation or fear, nor is it a game that delights in beating the crap out of its players.

I understand why these revelations might surprise you. I understand why you may be one of the many people who is aware of Dark Souls but has no intention of ever playing it. One of those standing on the outside, looking in, with skewed, cock-eyed, disbelieving fascination at those of us masochistic enough to play such a horribly malicious game. You’ve read the previews. You’ve read the soundbites and news snippets. You know the game by reputation, by all the “Dark Souls is hard LOL” headlines and “You died” editorial tropes.

But I'll let you into a little secret. All of that broad-strokes discussion you’ve read, all of that lazy, quick-fix writing that, over the last couple of years, has given you the impression that Dark Souls is a game to be played only as a comedically hard, dick-waving personal challenge, all of it is utter bullshit. It doesn’t describe, explain or particularly relate to the real Dark Souls. It doesn’t even try to. Not only that, but it gives you entirely the opposite impression that any talk about Dark Souls should. Because the true Dark Souls is the friendliest, most benevolent, most enriching game I’ve played in many, many years. Ever, in all likelihood.

Dark Souls is not a sadistic, unforgiving taskmaster. It’s more akin to an extremely liberal but entirely benevolent parent, one who wants to let their child explore the world and learn from their own mistakes, but will always be there as a safety net when things go wrong.

It’s a game of multitudinous, nuanced victories and pleasures, many of which take prolonged play to really understand. That’s probably why so much discussion about the game remains in the safe shallows. Dark Souls is a deeply intelligent game that truly understands the psychology of the player experience. Every one of its vast array of interlocking systems is designed with gratifying, enriching, long-term play at heart, but it all starts with the genius of one core gameplay loop.

That loop, for the uninitiated, is thus. You explore a new area. The area will follow a largely linear, but branching structure. The area is almost invariably filled with new enemies and challenges that you won’t initially know how to tackle. Some of those enemies may be a great deal more challenging than anything you’ve faced before. You will probably die at some point.

Each enemy you kill will furnish you with a set number of souls. Souls are the game’s combined currency and XP system. You can safely bank them by buying things with them--at designated merchant or blacksmith areas--or by levelling up individual character stats, thereby also increasing your overall XP level. When you die, you will leave the souls you were carrying where you fell, and will be revived at the last bonfire you rested at. Bonfires generally appear once per area, and are entirely safe zones. They are also the only place where levelling can happen. You can retrieve your dropped souls after a death, but whenever you revive or rest at a bonfire, all of the area’s non-boss and non-miniboss enemies will respawn. If you die again while trying to retrieve your souls, they’re gone.

On paper, it sounds brutal. In practice, it’s sublime. With less care paid to the game elements around it, Dark Souls’ loop could have been the punishing exercise in brutality that many believe it to be. In reality, it is only an engine for enrichment and real, player-led empowerment, driven by little more than increased understanding. The reason that Dark Souls is hard--the only reason that Dark Souls is hard--is because it has to be in order for its central mechanism to work. Without a challenge and a sense of risk, its engine would lack the fuel it needs in order create a truly meaningful player experience.

The potential loss of souls is an obvious catalyst that inspires careful play. That forces you to slow down and respect your surroundings and potential opposition. The combined upshot of this is that you inevitably become deeply analytical. And then, for the first time of many, you start to understand new things. The aware, thoughtful mindset that Dark Souls’ challenge and risk cultivates makes you notice things more clearly than you would otherwise. It makes you notice everything.

Lines of sight. Subtleties of enemy attack properties. Intricacies of AI trigger states. How different weapons and different types of strike, block and evasion work in relation to different shapes and sizes of environment, and different levels of elevation. An almost transcendent level of spatial awareness at all times, in all places. In short, it makes you aware of total game design, in a way that no other game does.

But crucially, this process isn’t about you finding cheats and exploits out of fear of an unfair game. What’s actually happening is that Dark Souls is showing you the answers. It’s laying everything right out for you, by putting you in a mindset that leads you to the way. It’s handing you the keys to the kingdom from the off and hoping, like the aforementioned parent, that you realise what’s happening and take them from its hand. Because if Dark Souls doesn’t directly tell you the way to mastery, if it instead just puts it down in front of you and lets you find it, then like the tottering child of the aforementioned parent, the eventual victory will be experienced as yours and yours alone, delivered by your own, self-discovered understanding. And that will make you much stronger going forward than any amount of help or artificial empowerment ever will.

I’ve written before, when discussing online multiplayer, about the difference between player-driven improvement and game-delivered improvement. I’ve criticised the now almost-default system of XP-driven unlocks as being detrimental to player skill and development. If success comes not necessarily by learning a game and developing real-world skills, but by hanging around long enough to be handed a game-world improvement by way of a better gun, then what’s the incentive to improve? And without the incentive to improve, where’s the deep, personal satisfaction that comes from self-improvement?

Dark Souls is the antithesis of that model. Dark Souls wants you to do well. Dark Souls always, always wants the best for you. But by nature of truly wanting the best for you, rather than simply wanting to furnish the most immediate victory or the easiest route to gratification, it wants you to attain those victories alongside the kind of enlightenment that will help you elsewhere. There is always a way in Dark Souls. However bad things look, there is always a way, and Dark Souls wants you to find it. Because it knows that the finding is even more important than the getting.

Let’s look at that core gameplay loop again, knowing all of this. Let’s think about how the above philosophy shapes and informs it. Let’s think about what those repeat runs to rescue your dropped souls are really about. Rather than forcing immediate, high-pressure situations, they’re about giving you the breathing space to explore and learn about new adversities at your own pace. The recovery of souls is almost a MacGuffin, giving you a tangible, valuable reason to go straight back into the fray rather than becoming intimidated into giving up or trying somewhere else. It ensures that you will go back, more cautious, more aware, and eventually--yes!--more understanding.

It ensures that you will repeatedly expose yourself to your fears until you, sometimes without realising it, learn to overcome them. Then it sugar-coats that already-sweet moment of victory with the return of your hard-earned bounty. Hell, if you’ve taken repeat attempts at a particular run, reclaiming your souls before dying again--a staple eventuality of boss fights, and standard play once you discover the techniques of exploring safely--then upon finally overcoming the odds you’ll realise that the multiple return trips have accumulated a soul stash many times over what you initially lost. You see? You see what Dark Souls is doing here?

And those things that challenged you earlier on? Those enemies and situations that seemed impossible to overcome? You’ll go back and carve through them like a samurai, not because you have better gear, but because you now know how to carve through them like a samurai. And although those methods with be radically different to those required to defeat your later challengers, the mind-set you gained while discovering them, your awareness of Dark Souls’ world, its workings, and its many creative opportunities--and more than that, your awareness that you can learn these things--will empower you to tackle the bigger boys harder and faster than you ever could have imagined beforehand.

Not just a high-risk, semi-roguelike kamikaze-run any more, is it? It’s a combined classroom, training dojo, and victory podium. Through it, you ride your wobbly bike, Dark Souls running behind you, silently, hopefully holding onto the saddle, waiting for the moment that it can let it go, unannounced, and watch you make it on your own. At some point--at many points, in fact--you’ll look over your shoulder, panic, and fall off. But you’ll get back up knowing that for a brief period you were doing it. And then you’ll realise that you were doing it because you can do it. And then you will.

Dark Souls. It bloody loves you. Don’t fear it. Run up to it, trust it, and give it a big hug. I guarantee it will hug you back.

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.