I'm standing beside a bonfire in the Undead Parish area of Dark Souls. An endless, infuriating tapping echoes around the ancient brickwork – somewhere beneath me, a blacksmith is pounding hammer against anvil, over and over. There's something rather more deadly down there, too – a Titanite Demon. I've tried to kill it countless times, and cannot. I only know its name because I consulted one of the game's wikis, and even then I was lost for half an hour. I truly do not know where I am going in FromSoftware's devilish action-RPG, or where I've been. Or why I'm bothering, really.
I've no idea what my level is supposed to be right now, compared to my gaming progress. I don't completely understand my stats, or what anything means when it comes to attributes on armour, weapons or shields. I'm basically hoping that the bigger these numbers are, the better I'm doing, the stronger my equipment. I've become trapped within the warped mind of Dark Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki, almost against my will. I chose to come here, of course I did. Nobody made me play this game. But Dark Souls is a title that people in my position, games journalists, are supposed to "get". It's Edge's greatest game of all time, according to the magazine's top 100 list published in late 2015. It's one of the 21 games of VICE's lifetime you "really should have played". The critical praise of my peers run through my head, likewise words of encouragement: "Praise the Sun," and so forth. But, I just can't. I can't do this.
Being a writer, there are certain things that I'm predisposed to: self-deprecation, mental self-flagellation and a wandering mind that takes me to fantastical places. So in theory I should love Dark Souls – and I am keen to stress that I don't dislike this game. I've come to terms with its unforgiving difficulty, its complete lack of regard for gaming convention, and I've turned a mostly blind eye to its performance woes having been playing it on an Xbox 360.
Those words spin around my head, etching themselves in to my brain between the blacksmith's strikes, like the red-orange scratches scattered around the floors of this gaming world. "Praise the Sun," they so often tell me – except the more the sentiment is repeated, the less it means to me. When Keza MacDonald reviewed this game for IGN, she awarded it a 9.0 and wrote: "this is one of the most thrilling, most fascinating and most completely absorbing experiences in gaming." I respect her opinions, and want to see the game that she's been privy to – such is her affection for the game that she's co-authored a book on it, coming out later this year. Twitch Streamer Zisteau's "The Essence of Dark Souls" is full of great humour, albeit derived from 2014's Dark Souls II. So I know that there's fun here, somewhere within the endless cycle of death I'm caught in. Many others have attained the higher level of appreciation needed in order to access this game's pleasures. I remind myself that this is what I want, too.
Yet the more I play, the more I conclude that this game isn't about having a good time. Anything but. Possibly naively, I hoped that I would have fun once I got used to the tactics and controls. That I might feel that exhilaration of relief that comes from defeating a boss that's been fought repeatedly to no previous avail. But in truth I feel mentally exhausted by it, utterly drained of interest, and I'm now questioning any kind of ability I possess as a gamer because I'm utterly unable to access what Keza and numerous other games journalists, fans and admirers are experiencing with this game and its series. I am not absorbed in anything other than desperation at my inability.
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In a way, it's a bit like the adventuring lure that American novelist Jack London inspired in his 1903 short story, The Call of the Wild. Inspired, readers went out into the Alaskan wild, to see if they could stand up to its harshness and, in some way, better themselves. Gamers hear about the wonderful, rewarding challenge of Dark Souls and rise to meet it themselves. And that is what the game does for many, many of its players.
I'm no Jack London. I'm alienated by reports of fascination with this game, because they don't match my experiences. I look back to my comfort zone, and how I normally approach games. I look for lore in role-playing, but in Dark Souls, that only reveals itself through exploration, through progress. As I can't connect to this world, I never feel a part of it, and as a result it feels like this isn't my adventure at all, and it never was. The story behind this questing is fractured, and tough to piece together. However many hours I spend staring at my avatar, ambling around the Undead Parish and beyond, doing whatever they can to avoid another death, I come no closer to engaging with the lore that's buried beneath these stone floors, these grimy paths, these broken bodies. NPCs are impassive, useless; the glowing messages from other players read more like trolling than useful tactical advice. All I know for sure is that I definitely shouldn't "go hollow".
So I pause. I stop progressing, and just drink in the gruesome splendour of this place I've found myself in. So much work has gone into the art and atmosphere of Dark Souls. Its world is a delight for the senses – that infernal blacksmith aside. I climb to a high point and just enjoy the view for a while. Here, without any need to swing a sword or open my life-preserving Estus Flask, I do feel at one with this game, I get it, and think there's something here for me. Something more than repeatedly dying at the hands of a bastard demon firing lightning at my fragile form.
But it's not enough. I have to stop. I've been toying with this piece for weeks, after slamming against the game for what feels like forever, because I need to make it clear that I'm not being negative about Dark Souls. It continues to draw plaudits and possibly always will, and will receive a second sequel, Dark Souls III, in March. I know the kind of comments that come easy to an article like this one: "git gud", "you suck", "give up", or anything else to that effect. Perhaps I've come at this game entirely wrongly, robbing myself of an easier path to its secrets, to whatever qualifies it as a classic to thousands of players. Then again, I wonder if I'd have found it penetrable whichever way I went at it. So many hours lost, so many "You Died" screens on from when I created my character, all I am is depressed.
Leaving Dark Souls isn't easy for me. On three separate occasions I have tried, and failed, to discover that eureka moment. And admitting defeat isn't something I enjoy doing, especially when its core to my work. But others can keep this game for themselves. Its Alaska is theirs. I've come to terms with my failures, and I know they don't make me "less" of a gamer. Merely someone whose adventuring in Blighttown, the Depths, Royal Wood and Firelink Shrine is at an end – before, even, it really got started.
Dark Souls III is released in Japan on March 24th, and worldwide on April 12th. You can expect to see more coverage of it and the Souls series in the coming weeks.
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