Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
The Dark Souls games aren’t exactly known as cooperative games. For the most part, the discourse around them centers on individuals personally overcoming the big bosses and giant obstacles that make up some of the most memorable parts of the game. Some people take a lot of pride in memorizing the movements and attacks of the deadliest creatures, and those people hold onto making their way through the game as a point of pride. You know what I’m talking about; it’s what Patrick Klepek is honing in on when he talks about chasing his original “scream of ecstasy” from defeating the Bell Gargoyles for the first time.
During the recent holiday season, I decided to pick up Dark Souls Remastered and Dark Souls 3 while they were on sale so that I could play through them both again at a leisurely pace (Scholar of the First Sin was full price, so I did not get it). When I reached the Bell Gargoyles, those complicated characters that Patrick hollered about all those years ago, I decided that I wouldn’t plow right through them. Instead, I plopped down my summon sign right outside the door to the chapel, thinking I’d help one or two people through the fight before doing it myself and moving on.
I ended up spending a full hour helping stranger after stranger take down those freaky bell boys.
And it was great. While I’ve definitely done cooperative play in a Souls game before, it was always generally within some fairly delimited modes. I’ve helped friends with Bloodborne bosses and been helped in turn. I’ve grabbed a summon sign here or there when they show up, and I remember fondly the first time I defeated the infamous Ornstein and Smough with the help of a friendly onion knight named Sando. This time, though, I caught the bug of cooperation, and it sent me down a path of playing both Remastered and the third game by focusing on cooperative play, unlocking a whole other side of the experience.
Generally the play of a Dark Souls game moves with a slow fumbling. You go forward into a level you don’t know (or in my case, half-remember), slowly figuring out where the enemies are and how to best take them down. You unlock shortcuts along the way. In doing both of these things, your explorations net you lots of items and give you an understanding of how the space fits together. Eventually you find the next boss, route out how to most efficiently get from the last bonfire to their door, and then repeat that trip until you take them down.
Playing with an eye for cooperation changes that entire dynamic. As soon as a I get to a bonfire in a new area, I plop down my summon sign, put the controller down, and wait for someone to grab me. Once I appear as a phantom in their world, there is an entire formal process we have to go through in order to acknowledge each other. Sometimes that’s through the bow gesture, or maybe a comical flop of relief. Other times it is through the ritualistic tapping of the block button, which induces a weird character wobbling that can only mean “hello” in the wordless language of the Souls game.
This is immediately followed by figuring out what exactly these people need from me. Have they cleared the way to the boss and we’re just here to mop up, like so many of the people I helped with the Bell Gargoyles or Pontiff Sulyvahn? Or is this more of a full-clear operation where we’re going to wander through every nook and cranny of the level so that this person can get all the items and find all the enemies with the safety of a buddy? It could be the dreaded third option: I’m being summoned to help with an invader, who will invariably kick my ass and the ass of my newfound friend because I am terrible at PVP.
And, again, this is all happening wordlessly, each of us trying to use the gestures and movements available to us to signal where each of us think we need to go. Something like 80% of the 50 hours I spent playing these two games was in some for of co-op, whether I was summoning someone or they were summoning me, and I quickly developed my own ways of drawing attention to ladders my hosts should kick or weird pathways they should take. I learned where I should run ahead and “take the hit” of powerful enemies so that my wards would be protected, and I discovered how to let them take the lead in places where I was in a better position to protect them from enemies ambushing from behind.
A solo playthrough of the Souls games really demands mastery on the part of the player: mastery of controls; mastery of patterns; mastery of decision trees of when to cut losses, when to fight, when to struggle. A cooperative playthrough could focus on that, I guess, if you were just interested in hammering through someone else’s game for them.
But what I discovered was a whole other game that centered on an implicit responsibility. If I am summoned into someone else’s world, they’re placing a lot of trust in me. They are looking for help and guidance, and they hope that I won’t waste their time by leading them into a trap or letting them die in a moment of duress (which, sadly, I had happen a few times, with my summons clearly taking joy in it). This is the kind of openness that you have to have when you play online in these games, which Dia Lacina writes about so well in her own meditation on the virtues of online Souls.
The people who want to summon help are asking for expertise. They’re facing something difficult, and they have more than likely reached out to other players as a last resort rather than a first one. Like Patrick, who “succumbed” to summoning at the end of The Ringed City DLC, these players are asking for help because they genuinely need it and are frustrated with a boss or an area to the point where they have no other options.
I don’t feel the thrill that other people have when they beat a Dark Souls boss. Unlike Patrick, I have never experienced paroxysms of joy after hacking on some gargoyles. For the most part, I just glad it is over so I can see the next cool, weird thing. While I have almost zero pride in my Dark Souls gaming accomplishments, after playing through Remastered and Dark Souls 3, I can say that I got a glimmer of that for the first time. I had a lot of pride in helping other people get through their deadlock. I was perfectly happy to distract the Capra Demon for just a few moments while they sipped their delicious drink. I was always willing to dodge roll around Aldrich, making his worm body wiggle, which my newfound friend regained stamina and pelted him with magic missiles. Over the course of my playthroughs, I took responsibility for others as seriously as I did those implicit tenets of mastery that come with the game and its public discourse.
People like to refer to game designer Hidetaki Miyazaki’s story about an icy evening when talking about the Souls games’ multiplayer design. Without communicating, people saved each other from being stuck on an icy road by bumping cars, and could not stop to say thank you for fear of being stuck again. This experience eventually developed into the summoning system. And yet that story never does it for me, because that isn’t how it works in these games. Instead of meeting by chance, someone offers help and another person takes that offer. Summoning someone is more like asking a stranger walking down the street to help change your tire. Being trusted in that way and being able to deliver? That’s a better feeling than defeating any boss.