If you haven’t played Dark Souls (and I mean really played, to the degree that you understand the utter folly of my even using the word ‘played’ in this paragraph, when I should actually be terming the experience ‘utterly, obsessively lived in’), then the chances are you have an entirely false impression of the greatest game of all time. You’re probably ‘aware’ of a monstrous brute. A blunt, unswerving, cruel, unfair bully of a game, all brawn, misanthropy, and torment. The video game equivalent of that kid who spends all summer pulling the legs off insects, only in Dark Souls’ case, the kid is a 40 foot dragon, and the legs are your self-esteem.
Dark Souls is not that. Dark Souls is the opposite of that. Dark Souls is a warm, benevolent, enriching, and deeply, deeply gratifying experience. Yes, it will demand things of you. Things that, when you first start out, will feel impossible. But here’s the thing. Dark Souls does not make those demands out of cruelty or spite. Dark Souls, like all the best teachers and parents, knows that achieving the impossible is one of the most important and positively affecting things a human being can be encouraged to do.
And Dark Souls is all about encouragement. Of course, it won’t patronise you with hand-holding, or tool-tip suggestions, or easy, slow-mo introductions of its enemy types in relatively safe, contained combat situations. It will throw you literally and figuratively in at the deep end, tasking you initially with escaping the bowels of dark, decaying dungeon full of unknown and seemingly unknowable horrors and plights, with no prior knowledge or warnings. And from then on, it will continue to deprive you of any explicit help. But ‘explicit’ is the key word, because Dark Souls is, in truth, giving you the tools to triumph every step of the way.
I’ve written at length about the benevolent power of Dark Souls’ core gameplay loop, so I’ll spare you the full lecture here. But know that it is a system of both elegant – yet deeply thoughtful - simplicity and boundless importance. You explore, eking out a little more knowledge of your environment and the immense dangers it holds each time. You gain XP-furnishing souls along the way. You die, and you lose those souls. And then you fight back to the point where you fell, mandatorily clinging to every scrap of knowledge you garnered the first time, in order to do better and reclaim your bounty before you die again.
Harsh? Possibly. But the important part is that bit about clinging to knowledge. Simply, with so much on the line, and so little overt assistance given, Dark Souls forces you into a mentality of pure, true learning. Not that edge-softened, insulting, pseudo-learning that games so often throw your way, tarnished as it is with tutorials, and the brazen delivery of vital information so that you don’t have to go to the trouble of discovering it for yourself. This is learning as you do in the real world, fuelled by personal experience, by trial and error, and accelerated by curiosity and the desire to understand and master. Only when you play Dark Souls do you realise how rare that is in video games. Only then do you realise how different, how personal, and genuinely empowering it feels when your journey is truly your own.
And ye gods, what a journey. Dark Souls’ peerless personalisation of experience only really begins at combat empowerment. While I can’t stress enough how well the fundamental nuts and bolts of battling through Lordran are designed, as deep, nuanced, precise, yet utterly open to player interpretation as those found in any fully-fledged fighting game – it’s no coincidence that, over the years, I’ve found that a great many Street Fighter players are Souls fans, and vice versa – beyond that, every moment and experience is immaculately designed to make it truly yours.
While this seems an initially cold, indifferent world, obscure, arcane, and closed off from the player in its lore and inner workings, those willing to pay attention and truly submerse themselves will discover one of the richest, most involving narrative environments in all of gaming. The truth is everywhere. It’s in seemingly innocuous snatches of dialogue. It’s in stories – historical and current – obliquely hinted at in item descriptions, and quietly built throughout subsequent texts. It’s in the names of environments, and bosses, and weapons, and it’s all held together and strengthened by the none-more powerful connective tissue of the silences in between.
By allowing space for ideas, concepts, and glimpsed narrative to grow in the player’s mind, Dark Souls gives its lore immensely more scale and life than it ever could with a more explicit, but ultimately smaller, more traditionally related story. Again, in the same way that its immediate exploration works, Dark Souls’ narrative operates just as the real world’s does.
World history and events do not exist for the benefit of any one person, delivered directly, in conveniently complete chunks. You explore Dark Souls as you explore life, initially clueless, but learning – and empowering yourself – with more knowledge every step of the way. And just like in life, curiosity is rewarded, and those rewards bait further curiosity. It’s all an endless process, encouraging ongoing personal growth. You might level up in cold, hard numbers as you go, but in all elements of Dark Souls, from exploration, to combat, to understanding your own place within its world, you do just as much - and arguably more meaningful - levelling up inside of yourself.
There’s so much more to talk about. So much that Dark Souls’ design could easily warrant its own coffee table book (someone get on that, please). There’s the physical structure of Lordran, which takes as its starting point a highly abstracted version of The Legend of Zelda’s self-contained, themed dungeons, but blows the walls of the entire concept by making its areas not closed off, individual labyrinths, but organically flowing, interconnected elements of one complete world. Nothing here is background detail. No distant vista or structure a mere piece of empty set dressing, but rather a future component of Lordran’s twisting, folding, but ultimately logical geography.
If you can see it, you’ll go there eventually, your arrival often revealed with enigmatic wit, drama, and at times no small sense of humour, as briefly glimpsed, half forgotten bridges, streets and ledges identify themselves by surprising you with sweeping visions of where you’ve been, where you were – physically, mentally, and emotionally - when you first saw them. Don’t think for a second that these moments are anything less that Dark Souls’ very deliberate, deeply reassuring nature at play, compounding how far you’ve come, what you’ve conquered, and how you’ve grown, with its trademark wordless warmth.
And then there’s the fantastically realised co-op and PvP, by way of player summons and invasions. The former forges a genuinely chivalrous, knightly culture of support, honour, and even brotherhood, through mutual understanding and shared hardship. The latter is yet another proving ground, subtly focusing both, probably terrified, players on what they’ve grown into, what they’ve become capable of, and where they can improve yet further.
As I said in my entry for Dark Souls in our 2015 top 100 games of all time feature, From Software’s creation represents everything that is important to video games in the modern era, from polished, core gameplay mechanics, to player agency, to narrative involvement, to world design, to the many, many emotional peaks and troughs of an expertly paced, but organically delivered journey. But it does them better than any other. It delivers them with thought, wisdom, and insight, and never as individual elements, but always an inseparable facets of a holistic, total game design. And that’s why Dark Souls is the greatest game ever made.