Gameplay screenshotted by Stephen Holko
Art is an entirely subjective experience, one that is rather difficult to explain without having all parties involved witness it firsthand. How does one explain the mysterious smile of the Mona Lisa to someone who’s never seen it? How do you elaborate on the entrancing swirls of the night sky in Starry Night, to someone who’s never heard of it?
The answer is simple, you can’t. Not enough to do the original piece justice, you may give the person a general idea, but the more complex the piece, the greater the challenge. Another particular difficulty is if the medium the art is presented in is of questionable validity. Up until the last century, art was only expressed through two mediums: paintings and sculptures. With the invention of the radio, television, movies, games and all of the other miracles of the last century, slowly over time, they too have become ways to express art.
Not everything produced is art, of course, however, if it is the creator’s intention, then there’s no reason to disregard it. Dark Souls is a game like this.
Dark Souls released to massive critical acclaim in 2011, while it was overshadowed shortly afterward by the release of Skyrim. It still rekindled an interest in genuinely challenging games to wider audiences, spawning a whole series based on the success of the first title alone. The marketing campaign hammered home the difficulty of the title, trying to show it off as its main selling point, to the point of calling the game of the year edition the “Prepare To Die” edition.
Before delving into my experience, this is the creation myth of the universe, shown to the audience in a cutscene right as they begin a new game.
In the Age of Ancients, the world was unformed, shrouded by fog. A land of gray crags, Arch Trees and Everlasting Dragons. But then there was Fire and with fire came disparity. Heat and cold, life and death, and of course, light and dark. Then from the dark, They came and found the Souls of Lords within the flame. Nito, the First of the Dead, The Witch of Izalith and her Daughters of Chaos, Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight, and his faithful knights. And the Furtive Pygmy, so easily forgotten.
With the strength of Lords, they challenged the Dragons. Gwyn’s mighty bolts peeled apart their stone scales. The Witches weaved great firestorms. Nito unleashed a miasma of death and disease. And Seath the Scaleless betrayed his own, and the Dragons were no more.
Thus began the Age of Fire. But soon the flames will fade and only Dark will remain. Even now there are only embers, and man sees not light, but only endless nights. And amongst the living are seen, carriers of the accursed Darksign.
Yes, indeed. The Darksign brands the Undead. And in this land, the Undead are corralled and led to the north, where they are locked away, to await the end of the world… This is your fate.
Only, in the ancient legends it is stated, that one day an undead shall be chosen to leave the undead asylum, in pilgrimage, to the land of ancient lords, Lordran.
That was the general knowledge I had going into the game and was what I encountered for the first few hours, immense difficulty was ever present, but it wasn’t an unfair challenge; I just wasn’t good at the game yet. That sounds like an excuse, but it genuinely isn’t, Dark Souls’ combat is unique for its genre; Once you hit a button, whether it be attacking, dodging, or using an item, you are doing that action. That sounds simple, but in most other games, say you accidentally hit the wrong button, you can cancel out of the action by either hitting another button or simply moving. Dark Souls doesn’t give you that wiggle room, and if you accidentally heal when it isn’t safe, you will get hit, and possibly killed for that single miscalculation. That minor difference is one of the main reasons the game is so difficult. While it sounds like a minor change, it’s massive when you actually pick up the controller and play– especially since I had just come off the heel of another character action game, Devil May Cry 5, where canceling out of moves is not only possible– but encouraged.
Death is a major component of the game, both in lore and actual gameplay. Death isn’t just “Oopsie! Respawn and try again,” it’s presented to be a learning experience. The reasoning in the universe as to why the player character can just die and respawn is Gwyn (who is essentially Zeus but cooler), put a curse over all of humanity, literally making all of them immortal by proxy of if one dies they are rejuvenated at the nearest bonfire. Gwyn’s goal; was in order for the age of fire to continue, humans would have to continuously burn their humanity, a side effect of burning makes them unintentionally go hollow. Another punishment of death is dropping your main currency, Souls (What else would it be?), thankfully all you have to do to get them back is run over to the spot you died and pick them back up. The tricky part is if you die on the way to retrieve them, they’re gone. It’s the games way of punishing you for making the same mistake twice, not learning your lesson, while it’s harsh at first, once you know this, you play even more cautiously, trying your best not to make those fatal errors.
Once you get into this flow of progression, your goal is to ring the bells of awakening. The first is located through the undead burg that’s full of hollows, a dragon, a minotaur, and a guy who really likes the sun at the top of a guard tower. The Boss guarding the first bell is two Gargoyles, the second only joins about halfway through the fight and takes significantly more damage than his peer, making it clear to the player that, if you are cautious, the second opponent should be no trouble. After an attempt or two to learn the patterns of the boss, they’re defeated. You climb to the top of the tower behind where they stood, and ring the first bell of awakening, something heard throughout other players worlds who are in the area, (you probably heard others ringing their bells on the way up as well).
The second bell of awakening is significantly more difficult to get to, as it lies at the bottom of a sewer, right in between it and a literal hellscape, so you better get walking. The sound of your own two feet and the clanks of your armor become your friend rather quickly, outside of bosses and four select areas, the game has NO ambient music. *Clunk Clunk Clunk Clunk* for minutes at a time, you can’t fast travel until late in the game, it’s a privilege to be earned, after all, so walking back through the cleared out burg in silence for minutes on end is a calming experience, despite not traveling that far, be the time you make it back to Firelink Shrine, you feel like you’ve accomplished something major.
Once you’ve obtained your bearings, you need to go down, past the Ruins of New Londo, a city overtaken by Dark, flooded to keep in the abyss, down yet even more until you arrive at the… well, it’s not a door… tunnel? The tunnel that leads to Blighttown, a shambling wooden superstructure full of giant fiery insects, poison, and a dog running in a wheel. If you manage to descend to the bottom of the scaffolding you should be waist deep in brown fluid, across the way is the final boss between you and that second bell. Imagine a female centaur, but instead of the bottom being a horse, it’s a giant, mutant, spider that spits lava at you.
While more complicated than the previous fights, and being mindful of the lava. Beating Quelaag rewards you with the second bell, unlocking Sven’s Fortress, the next area of progression.
Svens Fortress is a massive multilevel castle with a maze-like layout, and the only way forward is across bridges merely a foot long, while archers are shooting at you from both sides, giant snake men are rushing you from around every corner, boulders come flying at you and giant cartoonish axes swing back and forth, right in your path. This area will likely take the average person several hours to get through.
Once you somehow get to the top of the castle, a giant Iron Golem awaits you, you can beat him traditionally of course, or you can do this… Regardless of how you defeat the golem, once you do, a circle of light appears in the middle of the boss arena, touching it will cause several furies to swoop down and pick you up, flying you higher and higher until you finally ascend over the wall that you’ve been looking up at for the whole game. A sprawling golden city lays before you, Anor Londo, the city of the gods.
One thought crosses your mind as soon as the furies put you down on the ground, “It’s so… Clean!” By this point, you’ve waded in feces, seen death and decay everywhere, moss, overgrowth, and every kind of ruin. Seeing something so perfect and clean…. It’s as if it isn’t real.
Bearings gathered, you descend into the city; the enemies present, while dangerous, are mostly passive, you make your way through the city, defeating those in your way until you make it to the grand cathedral. Inside you find Ornstein and Smough, often recognized as the hardest boss in the game outside of it’s DLC, genuinely these two are one of the hardest challenges in all of gaming.
Ornstein is a small and lighting fast knight, gliding across the arena to quickly attack the player, Smough is a giant brute with a massive hammer, slowly chasing after the player and Ornstein’s dance across the arena, if he does catch up, be ready for the hammer, it isn’t just for show. Their health pools are massive, and your’s is minuscule by comparison. Yet, it’s fair, challenging, and exciting. The arena is a perfect size, their fighting style complement each other immensely, and the music makes it all the more intense.
Once you defeat one, the other powers up, taking on a trait of the fallen, Smough takes Ornstein’s lightning boosted attacks, and Ornstein acquires Smough’s massive size. Beat the second warrior and you’ve beaten the best challenge the game has to offer. Past the arena is Gwynevere’s chamber, The first daughter of Gwyn. She gives you the Lordvessel, an item that allows you to fast travel between bonfires.
The music in the chamber, the pride you feel for beating the two writers, and the genuine reward for progressing that far into the game, there’s one issue, none of it is real. Gwynevere, Ornstein, every enemy in Anor Londo you fought on the way to where you stand, isn’t real. The city of the gods is an illusion, created by Gwyn’s son, Gwyndolyn, in order to further convince undead to link the fire. If one knew the true nature of the city, why would they want to save it and the age of the gods? If they already knew the gods had long abandoned the world. There are two ways to break the illusion; either shoot an arrow at Gwynevere or destroy an illusionary wall in Gwyn’s tomb. Once the illusion is broken, you see the city for what it truly is, dark and empty.
This is the point where the game’s plot deserves some thought for the audience. Your goal thus far has been to link the fire to restore the dying world, Anor Londo is the pinnacle of that world, the literal golden city of gods. So what kind of message does it send when its true state is empty and hollow? Still, now that you have the Lordvessel, you press on, back to Firelink. Two routes await you, though they lead to the same result. You can either head straight to Firelink and speak the primordial serpent Kingseeker Frampt, who encourages you to link the fire, saying you will be the great hero of the age. Or, you can return to the flooded city of New Londo, and unflood it, descend into the Abyss itself, and fight the four kings. Beings who were gifted part of Gwyn’s soul, but turned away from fire, and let the abyss consume the city of New Londo for power.
Once you walk past the abominations of the abyss, and the former denizens of New Londo, who had drowned when the city was flooded, you find yourself in front of a hole, that seems to go down forever. If you have the Abysswalker ring, an item obtained by killing another boss, you can descend into the void, and fight the kings in the abyss itself. If you manage to beat them, as it is a gank fight, Another serpent appears, Darkseeker Kaathe. He’ll tell you for-going the age of fire is how the age of man begins and that you will become the new god of the dark age if you allow it to begin. It’s notable that if you go to Frampt, Kaathe will not appear after you defeat the kings, so it remained undiscovered for a few months after the game’s release, due to the complicated timing and process it takes to fight the kings at that specific point in the game.
Regardless of the serpent you side with, your goal is the same; gather the souls of the great lords. Nito and the Witches still have their souls, while Gwyn split his to several people to grant them power. They were The four kings and Seath the Scaleless. You travel back around the map and quite literally overthrow this worlds hierarchy of gods, you can do them in any order, though you’ll suffer just as much either way. Progression in Souls is arbitrary, you can increase your level and stats, though that also levels the bosses, and all other enemies, around you. This is to prevent the game from becoming too easy, though that’s never really an issue to begin with.
You carry on to push through Nito, who is simple yet damaging. Slay Seath, who casts massive spells that cover the ground in ice spikes and then you face The bed of Chaos. The great chaos is usually one of the last bosses you face in the game, it’s terrible. First, you have to walk through a literal lake of lava to get to it, run past 50 Lovecraftian horrors then slide down an admittedly fun slide to get to it. What is The bed of Chaos? A big tree, what does it do? It slides you into holes that kill you instantly. There’s nothing you can really do to stop it, so you just have to run in, hope for the best, and fall into the holes. Out of every boss in the game, this one took me the longest, 7 hours. I hate that slide with every fiber of my being. The worst part about it is, IF you manage to get past the sweep of wood, it dies in one hit. So, it’s not even a real fight, just a glorified puzzle with no solution and a 10-minute walk back as a punishment for failure.
If you don’t smash the disk before you beat it, congratulations! Besides a few optional bosses (and the DLC) you have one boss left to go! Cooler Zeus himself, Gwyn. You head back down to where you put the Lordvessel and feed it the souls. The door behind it opens, and behind it, The Kiln of the First Flame. You descend down a staircase surrounded by a white void, at the bottom, the Kiln resides. Despite your accomplishment, the walk into the Kiln feels, somber, quiet. The landscape is covered in ash. This is when I had recalled that Gwyn linked the fire too, perhaps this was the result?
You proceed along what little path there is, facing what’s left of Gwyn’s surviving guard, by this point you’ve faced plenty of them, but even to the last man, they defend their fallen god.
You enter the final Foggate, and there he is, Gwyn, The Lord of Cinder.
And despite everything leading up to this, hyping Gwyn up, placing him at the very top of every facet of this reality, he’s gone hollow. Gwyn isn’t a challenge, unlike every other boss in the game, he can be parried. And he goes down quickly, there is no heroic music, no triumphant horns… Only a sad piano, as you face the former God in his tomb. Gwyn is not evil, he literally sacrificed himself to save his world, to prevent it from moving past the era of prosperity he created, and after you place the killing blow, you’re left with the silent choice of what comes next; To follow in his footsteps, and become the next sacrifice so the world can continue? Or turn around and walk out, allowing the world to descend into the dark, with you as its prophet. Two separate ideologies, Sacrifice vs Self-Preservation. After the quiet loneliness this world carried you through, what would you choose?
And they say games aren’t art.