I probably don’t need to tell you this, but the gatekeeping around difficult games is fucking stupid. This vestige of bro-gamer culture tries to dictate not only what games are important but what makes players deserve validation. The badge of honor that a difficult game rewards with you is taken externally and projected onto others who haven’t gone through the same experience. The “Get Good” mantra even moves to cover how difficult games should be played, what games options can be accessed for a “true” video game experience. Games are meant to be played utilizing any of the utilities they include, whether that’s “cheap” abilities or lower difficulty settings. People are valid regardless of the games they play and should be rightfully encouraged when they attempt something outside of their wheelhouse. Even if they don’t like the game it doesn’t matter! It all doesn’t matter in the end. This culture kept me from playing Dark Souls. The image this community projects is that it’s a meat grinder, a hellish experience matching it’s dark fantasy aesthetic. That the game is so arcane and punishing that only “hardcore” players can get through it. I’m here to say that that descriptor is really off the mark and kept me from enjoying an extraordinary game. Dark Souls’ reputation doesn’t come from nowhere, but it is taken to a larger extreme that obfuscates some of the best parts of the game.
That’s not to say that the game doesn’t require you to really understand it to progress. It’s an action game through and through meaning that you have to attune yourself to its movement and combat mechanics to beat enemies and bosses. Bosses deal big damage but even regular enemies can catch you off guard and kill you. The movement and attacks are also very deliberate; your character is not speedy as hell and takes time to wind up and attack (about the opposite of the previous “Get Good” franchise, Ninja Gaiden). You also have to manage a stamina meter, which governs dodges and attacks and depletes with each move. The moveset is a big part of the difficult reputation, but I would argue it just takes a bit longer to understand. Gita Jackson from Motherboard put it really succinctly on twitter:
Perseverance is a great adjective for Dark Souls. It requires perseverance to understand how to navigate an area, how to engage in combat and how to overcome a boss. You will die repeatedly and there’s some minor penalties for dying, mainly the currency of the game “Souls” which you can use to level up and purchase items. But you keep any other items you found and earning Souls back is surprisingly easy. There’s plenty of enemies for you to engage with and items that earn you Souls for consuming them. Plan B can always be to grind enemies in a given area, repeatedly killing them over and over to earn your count back. You also have a chance when you die to earn your Souls back by revisiting the location where you died before. If you die again before you reach that spot you lose them for good, but as I mentioned it’s not the complete end of the world. When I first started the game I panicked when I lost those Souls but found that that anxiety was exaggerated.
The die and repeat loop ends up being a lot more forgiving than I was expecting. Dying isn’t fun but you learn something every time you do. The forgiving nature of it allows you to experiment with weapons and see what combat approach works best for you. I was able to try massive two handers, one hand and shield and ranged options against enemies. I fine tuned, I died alot, and eventually found that curved swords are pretty fucking great. Letting go of being perfect and just throwing spaghetti at the wall rarely locks you out from progressing. I came in really trepidatious about misspending points, exploring wrong, and performing badly in combat. If you don’t mind doing a bit of work to set yourself up this will rarely impact you in the long run.
The best part though; perseverance pays off. It feels great when everything finally clicks into place and when you have a good handle on how you want to experience combat. Combat is a muscle that requires you to work to understand how you move and how your enemies move. Understanding spacing between an enemy’s swing and yours, knowing when to dodge and block and when to get in and attack makes the combat sing. Dark Souls makes you feel so accomplished when squaring up in an encounter and coming out on top. Regardless of the dark setting, deaths become really really silly. There’s something hilarious about accidentally triggering a trap or wandering in a room and being bombarded by a horde of enemies. The levels themselves can offer plenty of hilarious deaths. This morning I had a skeleton charge at me only to be absorbed into the wall; I only knew they died when I received the souls as a reward. Plenty of high paths mean that you and the enemies can plummet to your death. One particularly memorable one had me stuck behind a large enemy only to be flung off the ledge when it turned. Dark Souls is pretty generous where it places your soul’s retrieval point so it’s easy to laugh it off and get back to traversing.
The best part of Dark Souls is the exploration. I didn’t realize before playing that the entire map is connected so you’re essentially playing in an open world. You’ll travel up into castles and walled cities and go down to dank pits and forgotten villages. You rarely load between sections and unlock shortcuts (and eventually limited fast travel) as you traverse. Exploration, just like combat, also requires some understanding in order to progress. Between deaths you’ll come to understand how each of the areas connect and what points you’re trying to reach. The loop thus becomes even better when you realize what path you need to take to reach the next safe point or boss battle. Repeated runs, slicing through enemies and learning what path to take is just as rewarding as combat. Overcoming the given challenges in an area and reaching a Bonfire, designated safe point where you’ll heal and respawn, feels so gratifying. The perseverance of the combat meets the knowledge of a given area in a way that few games demand. I feel accomplished completing an area and gaining an in-depth understanding of its winding pathways.
Really Dark Souls is all about working with other players, whether it’s asynchronous or online multiplayer. Dark Souls’ environment can be pretty tricky to navigate so the game allows players to drop text at specific locations to help other players. This can be a hidden secret (“Fake Wall”), a warning of an upcoming trap or a direction that lets others know a bonfire is coming up. It’s a clever twist that takes some of the sting of figuring out all the nooks and crannies of the environment. Dark Souls also has a cooperative function allowing players to call others into their game to help them out. This comes especially handy when facing off against a tough boss and having another player there opens up boss fights significantly. This is where some of the “hardcore” gamer ethos tends to focus their conversation around. You’ll find that a lot of these diehards swear that summoning players isn’t the “true” experience, that you should only play this singleplayer. Not only are they trying to pretend a core gameplay function doesn’t exist, they’re also ignoring that the series is literally marketed with multiplayer. It’s an easy way for them to gatekeep and prevent people from being seen as equal to them. Optional gameplay functionality is an easy target for them to harass and discredit people. How else are they supposed to feel they “got good” if so many other people accomplish the same feats as them?
Regardless, I hate that the series’ reputation kept me away from it. It’s so so fun and I’m having a great time making my way through it. I plan on playing as many of them before Elden Ring launches in January, but I’ll probably want to jump straight into that! Don’t let Dark Souls’ gatekeeping community keep you from playing.