Wednesday, July 13, 2016

I apologise for my earlier comments about Dark Souls

Honestly, this dragon can suck it

18 months ago I posted about my formal resignation from Dark Souls. After one week and making it as far as the first bonfire in the Undead Burg, I ragequit the game. It was too frustrating, too absurdly, deliberately difficult. I couldn’t take plowing into gigantic enemies with unblockable attacks and dying the same way, over and over again. I couldn’t handle repetitive, maddening sight of my character expiring on the mossy flagstones of some god-forsaken hellcastle only inches from retrieving the souls that would allow me to level up. I could not – as the cool kids say – “git gud”.

I am here to tell you I was wrong.

When Dark Souls 3 came out I read a few articles and was drawn to it in the same way I was drawn to the first (Dark not Demon’s) Souls game. The creepy, bleak fantasy aesthetic, the bizarre and menacing enemy design, the sense of achievement – all of those things appealed very much to me. I decided to give Dark Souls one last college try, and see if I couldn’t wring some enjoyment out of it after all.

Doing this necessitated a complete change in the way I played the game. My first time around I didn’t understand how Dark Souls was meant to played. I treated it like Skyrim at best, or at worst like Golden Axe. I ran in, mace in hand, and inevitably ended up a red stain on the floor. I didn’t even use the lock-on mechanic, which probably didn’t help. Hell, I didn’t even bother to block half the time. I completely failed to appreciate the timing aspect of combat – that for every enemy there is one moment they are vulnerable to attack. I didn’t understand that it’s better to draw the enemies to you and engage them one at a time than rush headlong into an unwinnable melee.

This is basic Souls play. I could have learned this easily just by reading a few articles online. But my transformation from ardent Souls-denier to the Zen master of being repeatedly murdered did not happen easily. Nor did it happen while I was playing the game. Rather, before stepping back into Dark Souls I had to tackle the assumptions I had about gaming in general. I had to examine the very concept of what a video game was meant to be.

As a child, I had an Atari ST, and I played a lot of platform games. Dizzy. Bubble Bobble. All innocent enough stuff, but these were games it was possible to lose. Three lives, maybe more, if you’re lucky enough to get an extra one. After that, it’s all over. You need to start again. Compared to this cutthroat arrangement, Souls’ die and die and live again ethos was going easy, surely. That’s what I told myself, anyway. The memory I kept going back to was playing Ghouls N’ Ghosts in the arcade, and later on the Sega Megadrive. In many ways Dark Souls is retread of this old classic – they share the same dark aesthetic, the same sense of fear and bleakness, the same punishing learning curve. I only once or twice managed to get onto the second stage of this game, but to this day one of my fondest gaming memories is guiding a limping, semi-naked Knight Arthur out of that creepy graveyard after finally killing that headless giant, before immediately perishing of course BUT THAT’S NOT THE POINT. I’ve always wondered what lay beyond. Now, I supposed, I will never find out.

I did not want to have that same experience with Dark Souls.

And so I loaded it up again, and was reunited with Cuthbert, a nebbish level 9 cleric with a ginger bowlcut and a face like Freddy Krueger fell asleep on a radial sander. I was drawn to a goody-two-shoes cleric as my character for Souls because I like a good holy fool and thought if I’m going to spend the next 300+ hours torturing someone it should at least be someone who I’ll enjoy watching being brought low.

Two things had precipitated my resignation: my inability to kill a Black Knight, and being absolutely destroyed after five seconds when I finally made it up to the Taurus Demon in the Undead Burg.

I decided to take these two problems separately. First I would deal with the knight. To do this, I changed my tactics entirely. Realising at this point in the game I was hilariously underpowered, I did something I am loathe to do – grinding. Or “soul farming” as it is known in Dark Souls lingo. I ran up and down the same stretch of dungeon, killing the puniest enemies I could find, relearning how to fight, before buying a bow, a bucketload of arrows, and the ugliest suit of chainmail I have ever seen. Again, I hate grinding and in order for me to do this, I had to completely change my idea of what I was doing. Instead of replaying the same dungeon, grinding for souls, I was going hunting. The Undead Burg became my hunting grounds, and the common undead within my prey. I would run up down the familiar areas of the map, killing over and over again. I learned to savour these moments when I was the most dangerous thing on the screen.

Finally, when I was ready, I coaxed the knight out into the open, waited on a roof and dishonourably arrowed it to death from the top of a ladder it was unable to climb. That was my first lesson: honour is overrated. Winning is better.

After levelling up a few times and dabbing the blade of my estoc with whatever that lightning stuff is, the Taurus Demon was a cinch. I was honestly shocked at how easy it went down. It was simply a case of noticing a ladder, climbing said ladder, and jumping the thing’s head until it died. I couldn’t even believe it.

That’s when I realised that there’s always an easy way in every fight: when I was getting obliterated by the Bell Gargoyles, it was because I hadn’t thought to summon an ally. Once I did this I was able to easily dispatch both gargoyles without taking much damage. Even the ones that are currently eluding me, I’m fairly certain that if I level up a bit more and come back with some better gear, I’ll be able to take them out fairly easy. And since I just spent a month grinding to get the Lightning Spear miracle, I’ll be going back to see if can do just that.

Sometimes it takes an unconventional solution to defeat a particular boss. I was having trouble against Havel the Rock, a particularly annoying knight brandishing a gigantic dragon tooth that kills with one hit. He’s easy enough to dodge but I wasn’t doing enough damage to him with my attacks, and as a result I was inevitably mistiming my rolls and getting taken out. So, I reasoned, if my heavy armour isn’t helping in this fight, I guess I’ll just take it off so I can roll faster. So that’s how I ended up dueling Havel the Rock in my underwear, dashing from one end of the room to the other and smiting him with Lightning Spear until he gave up the ghost.

Dark Souls is turning into an obsession. It's more than a game. It's a crusade that becomes maddeningly personal. It’s the closest to understanding an epic quest mentality I’ve even had in gaming. Skyrim is fun, but you never feel connected to the quests that you undertake. Victory seems inevitable, expected. In Dark Souls – to pilfer a phrase from elsewhere – you have to lose upward. To understand Dark Souls is to redefine what winning is. Yes, I may die this time, big evil monster, but I spotted a way to take you out. Maybe I didn’t make it to the next save point, but I found this new piece of gear that will make it easier to get back to where I died the next time. Sometimes winning is as little as spotting a ladder or unlocking a gate which will allow you to take a short cut next time. Every death is an investment. More and more I’ve found myself actually turning back rather than pushing forward, banking my souls rather than risk losing them in some fool attempt I’m not ready for. It is a different kind of game, to be sure.

And old Cuthbert is looking a lot more hopeful these days. I mean, he still looks like a sundried tomato got in a car accident (most of the time, I’m using humanity a lot more now since I realised the benefits of summoning), but he’s got a new sense of resolve about him – not to mention a shiny new set of armour and hat made out of a Bell Gargoyle’s skull. That still doesn't stop him getting pounded to death by prowling demons in the Catacombs, though, not to mention losing 9,000 souls and five humanities NOT THAT I'M BITTER.

It seems weird to take about faith in regards to a videogame. But then, I'm playing as a faith build, and that's somehow become symbolic of the whole struggle. I could get mad at Dark Souls, throw the control pad away and pass the game to a friend like some cursed monkey paw. Or I could smile, turn the other cheek, let the machete-wielding goat demon have his day and go run down some other corridor for a while. At this moment, I have enough faith in my ability to win that dying doesn't seem so bad. It just means I need to try a new tactic. At some point, perhaps I’ll lose my faith. But I believe I have what it takes to get back up, dust myself off and get back into the fray.

I'll let you know how that goes.