Playing ‘Dark Souls III’ with Peter Serafinowicz
I just couldn't click with the Souls series at all, until the actor and comedian invited me over for a little guidance.
Dark Souls III is in my PS4. This is A Big Thing, because back in February, on this very site, I declared that I was totally done with the Souls series. I received both slurs and sympathy as a result, and ultimately decided to attempt to "git gud", for a fourth time.
Bloodborne helped, a little. I began FromSoftware's spiritual brother of all things Dark Souls, inspired somewhat by VideoGamer.com's Simon Miller live-streaming his own progress on the game, a campaign that began with him hating the series. But I just wasn't clicking with it, and that was putting me off my return to Dark Souls with its second true sequel. Then, suddenly, an unexpected party offered a challenge. They wanted to make me appreciate the game that they loved.
Actor, comedian, writer and Dark Souls fan Peter Serafinowicz invited me to his London studio to play Dark Souls III, and we inevitably got talking about his love for the Souls series. Actually, calling Peter a "fan" is probably too weak a word, judging by the signed FromSoftware poster in his office and various other pieces of merchandise on display. Peter also played a character in Dark Souls II, Mild-Mannered Pate, and that's him providing the grunts as your character dodges many swords, flaming arrows and man-eating chests in the 2014 title.
Before we meet, we speak on the phone to find some common ground: me, the man who must be turned; and Peter, the advocate whose personal history of gaming is not too dissimilar from my own. But it wasn't until we physically sit down together in Kensington that we find our first connection, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
"It's one of my top three games," Peter tells me. "That was a game that me and my now wife – we'd been together about a year then, and she wasn't a gamer – that was a game that we played together. It realised that thing of a game being like a cartoon that you could control. When I was a kid, about 10, there was Dragon's Lair, the one by Don Bluth, the ex-Disney animator. It was in the arcades and it looked like a cartoon that you could control. But it wasn't, at all. It was many little video sequences that were triggered by yes/no choices on a joystick; it was the most disappointing thing. But Wind Waker, that was a staggering achievement, it was unbelievable. And then we also played Resident Evil 4. It's the perfect Resident Evil game, and my theory is that all the Souls games are like Zelda crossed with Resident Evil 4."
This connected with me, because one of the games I really enjoyed when I was younger was Alone in the Dark. In it, you (as Edward Carnby) explored a house filled with supernatural danger around every corner and jump scares aplenty, surrounded all the time by a wholly strange environment. Everything in Alone in the Dark and the Resident Evil games is out to get you. And I discovered that I like that idea in Dark Souls, too. Wherever you turn, you're never safe. One wrong step and that's it. It really allows the tension to boil to the surface.
As we sit, a controller in my hands, I really want to get to the bottom of why Peter feels so passionately about this franchise. I've read countless testimonials, but actually being in the company of someone who loves this game, and being gently guided thorough its unwelcoming world, is a revelation. It's incredibly intimate, and I'm quickly finding things that I do enjoy about this experience. We create our character, Viceroy (yes, it's a little play on words), a mature knight who doesn't dabble in magic, leaving his axe alone to destroy hollows. As the game's tutorial-style first area plays out, Peter recalls his first encounter with the games.
"I can't even remember why I bought it. In the original Dark Souls (released in 2011) you were in this castle with these weak-powered zombies who are just shambling around. And you're thinking, 'I'm in this dilapidated castle, blah de blah.' But then suddenly there's this massive boss who is about 50 feet tall with a massive axe and he fucking kills you in a second. So I thought this game was way too hard for me and I put it away for like two months. Then my friend and brother-in-law Graham Linehan asked, 'Have you been playing Dark Souls?' I said yeah, but that I couldn't get past this particular boss. And he said, 'Oh no? It's really easy.' He explained how, when you first see the boss, you're on a ledge. So you jump on him and attack, and that's a third of his health gone. Then you just move around him and take pot shots when you can, and he's actually quite easy. And then, these creatures take you to Firelink Shrine, and that's where the real Dark Souls begins."
Just before we come upon the first boss in Dark Souls III (discounting that crystal dragon beast), we pause at what Peter affectionately calls a "bonnie", a bonfire, to top up our health-restoring Estus Flasks. This safe space is atop a cliff, and I can't help but stop to admire the view. A mountainous vista spreads across the screen; just beyond the bonfire is a castle-like structure, and it's in there that we'll fight Iudex Gundyr, a fast-moving, player-dwarfing enemy who'll only explode into life when you remove a sword from his prone, bowed form. And just like that, after three games across two generations of gaming consoles, I get it. And Peter is more than happy to oblige my fascination with the game's visual splendour.
"One of the things (Dark Souls III director) Hidetaka Miyazaki says is that if you can see something, like that castle, you can go there. It's one of the things that used to bug him as a kid, that he couldn't go there. He's influenced by English fantasy books, and as a Japanese kid he learned rudimentary English; so you have this medieval, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston thing. It's that fantasy, that English fantasy world, sort of filtered through all that Japanese culture."
I agree with Peter, wholeheartedly. I offer: you do look at these things, and write them off as high fantasy, but they're not. You've got this deep tradition from English literature, like the Greek legends, like Pan, and how they relate to the fantasy genre. So much of The Lord of the Rings is pastoral; it's so much about the love of everything around it. Studio Ghibli, for example, has so many films that visually are, well, not rejecting modern Japan, but looking at and accepting the beauty around it. And in this case, with Dark Souls, it doesn't matter if it's horrible or brilliant, so long as there is beauty.
I turn once again to the view. It really is a beautiful, inviting and mysterious world. You see it and you think: this is where I want to be; this is what I want to do with the spare time I have for the next ten years.
Iudex falls, quickly, and we open the doors that lead us to Firelink Shrine, a place that Peter knows very, very well. "I've said this before," he tells me, "but sometimes, if I can't sleep, I'll imagine that I'm going around Firelink Shrine." We take the coiled sword that we have earned for our battle and stab it into the ground, creating a new bonfire, at which we use our 7,000-or-so souls (the game's form of currency, effectively) that we've collected to level up. And then it dawns on us both. Peter has been guiding me with bits of advice on dodging and when to smash, as any player does when they see someone else play a game, but we both realise that I haven't died yet. Not once.
Before meeting Peter, I watch a video where Iudex falls to a guy who's simply punching him. I've read reports that this game has already been beaten by a speedrunner in Japan in one hour, 42 minutes and 10 seconds. I've been playing Bloodborne, of course, but beside Peter it becomes apparent that I'm actually rather good at this game. Better than either of us was expecting. I ask Peter about the difficulty of the game, and these outrageous completion times.
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"I'm not, like, a super amazing gamer, and I'm not someone who plays competitively. I'm terrible at playing Call of Duty with mates, or with my brother who's just on a prestige loop the whole time. I'm just ridiculous. I get fucking compassionate discharge. I'm just ridiculously poor at it.
"I'm not a speed run guy, either. It's not something that interests me, other than as a curiosity. I like to enjoy the game. With Dark Souls, there's a mechanic whereby if you die you go back to the last checkpoint, and you lose all the souls, which you've collected up to that point. You can go back to where you died and collect them; however, there's also another thing that has happened to me where my save has corrupted. In that instance, I have been a little disappointed but I think, 'Oh fuck it, I'll start again.' It's that enjoyable for me to start again."
We search around Firelink Shrine, a much bigger and rather-more-in-one-piece place compared to the ruin seen in the first game. I hear a banging. The tap, tap, tapping of my eternal distraction, the fucking blacksmith. There he is, the smug bastard, hammering away, not knowing the way his constant noise was a constant feature of my playing the first game, as explained in my previous article. Peter and I have a laugh at this and, despite not being able to do anything with the blacksmith yet, we still have to talk to him. "I admit, I had a little tear when I saw that he was back for this game," Peter says. "He's great, I love him." Having played a role in Dark Souls II, Peter is well positioned to comment on the ambiguous nature of the characters. "I like the cryptic way in which the characters speak. There are so many things that are oblique. Not even I know, truly, what Pate's intentions were."
I get distracted, as I often do, by more scenery. This time it's a tree outside of an arch of the Shrine, and I feel Peter senses my admiration for the game growing. I tell him that, as a writer, I would look at this picture and say: that's the story I want to write. The tree isn't just scenery though, as Peter explains.
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"That tree there, if you look at it, it's got a hollow face. This is called a Seed of a Tree of Giants. Sometimes it'll have this thing, like a big fucking walnut, and you can take it. Like, what the fuck does that mean? I don't understand it fully now, but I love the strangeness of it.
"I'm friends with (screenwriter and director) Alex Garland. I've been a fan of his for years and I became friends with him recently because of Dark Souls. That was the thing that bonded us, because he is just a huge Dark Souls fan. So we played Bloodborne together and we loved the old Victorian look about it, but a thing that Alex said is that Bloodborne isn't as strange as Dark Souls. In the original Dark Souls, once you've rung the second bell and you're at Firelink Shrine with the flooded, ruined acropolis... I looked at the pool in the flood, and I heard this grumbling sound, and then this big serpent that looked like Eraserhead came out. And you think, 'What the fucking hell is that?' It's like you're so used to this place and it's your home in the game, and suddenly there's this big thing. You try to attack it but it's just this big friendly thing with what sounds to me like Patrick Stewart's voice, and that was wonderful for me."
We move on out, to the High Wall of Lothric, and Peter carries on with his recollections of the first game after killing the Asylum Demon – the boss that can be attacked from above – and travelling to Firelink Shrine.
"I killed this boss and I'm there and I'm like wow, great. So I go one way and there's a graveyard and loads of skeletons, and they kill me in a second, and I'm like, 'Shit, this game'. Then there's this path that meanders up the hill and zombie soldiers that are reasonably hard, and I decided of the five ways I could go, this is the way that I should go now with my character because I'm not too powerful. You kind of hack and slash your way through there. So I go up the hill, and I try this for about a week. It takes me that long to learn that I can lock onto enemies. I was playing with my friend, (actor) Benedict Wong, and I remember making that lock-on discovery with him. So, you carry on and you fight a boss or two and your character gets a bit stronger and then you come to a bit of an impasse and you think, 'Shit, I can't get past this particular bit, like the ghosts. So you decide to go back down the skeleton graveyard and suddenly you realise: 'Shit! Good. I can kill these now.'"
Maybe I get complacent, or perhaps I overreach my ability, but after 52 minutes of playing the game, talking about our experiences and also discussing the similarities between the movie Edge of Tomorrow and Dark Souls, I come upon a zombie that mutates into something that, as Peter puts it, looks like "a big black dick with a mouth". And it's here that I encounter my first death. But for the first time in playing these games, I'm not disappointed. I'm not upset, or depressed, or angry, or ambivalent or anything. I realise that it was my fault, respawn at the bonnie and I carry on, killing the "dick" in question and avoiding being "dick slapped", in order to recover my lost souls. Soon, a dragon's in my way, and I spend a good five minutes admiring the sound design of the guttural churning of the beast. It's a terrifying sound that elevates the creature out of the television fiction we've experienced in the past years, particularly in Game of Thrones.
Peter and I play Dark Souls III for an hour and a half before we have to go our separate ways, but we really could have sat there all day. I look to my interview notes and on the top, in capitals and underlined many times, is a sentiment that I've had from the start of my Dark Souls adventure: "I WANT TO LIKE THIS". And, finally, I do. Peter's infectious enthusiasm for everything around the game spread through me as efficiently as the common cold. This wasn't about reams of tweets calling me a scrub or telling me to "git gud"; this wasn't someone telling me that I'm "not good enough" to play this game. It was real assistance, given in a personal way, and I've benefitted massively from it.
Ninety minutes of Dark Souls III is enough to feel like you need a break – but I've found my way into the game now, and I'm not about to stop. "The doors that you should be scared of in this game are the open ones," Peter tells me, as a final piece of advice. It might have taken me longer than most, but consider my own door into Dark Souls well and truly unlocked.
Dark Souls III is released for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on April 12th, worldwide (the game is out now in Japan). For more information, head to the game's official website. Thanks to Peter for freeing up time to speak to us.
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