The Real Dark Souls Was Finding the Right Community to Help Me Beat It
With spite and finally, with an open mind, I made it through.
All images courtesy Namco Bandai
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
My first real experience in a Soulsborne game was all about spite. Soulsborne, if you don't know, refers to games within a very specific gameplay framework developed by FromSoftware, as seen in the namesakes of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. Spite, if you're not familiar, is a deeply negative emotion. The combination of the two things should only lead to ruin.
I played Bloodborne back then, in that moment of spite. I wanted to test all of the assumptions, the arguments, and the (to me) strange claims that these games, above all others, were to be understood as somehow more important or more engaging than the cinematic first-person shooters and role-playing games that I enjoy. I wanted to go deep into the game so that I could come out armed with the disciplined education that Soulsborne fans love to valorize; and then I wanted to tear it down.
After that game, I realized that I hadn't been irked at the games themselves. I wasn't being spiteful toward Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team of developers who were creating these engaging experiences within truly wonderful worlds. And, most importantly, Bloodborne wasn't promoting the aggressive and infuriating "git gud" arguments that so many of the fans were pushing as the value of the Soulsborne games. It demanded attention. It wanted the play to be deliberate. It didn't want me to be a profound expert in games, and it was generally forgiving about different play styles and ways of fighting enemies. I decided that it wasn't the games that made any of these arguments, but rather it was the community that had formed around them. I decided that I was over the Soulsborne community.
Fast forward quite a long time. I'm having a conversation about the a series I'm involved in creating about rating each enemy in the original Dark Souls. My friend tells me that he's really getting into it, and he's asking if I've ever finished the game. I haven't, so I bite the bullet. I decide to get in there and just start digging around.
Playing Dark Souls seriously for the first time is daunting. It's a difficult game on a mechanical level. There are a lot of buttons on a controller, and figuring out how to kick or how to jump requires a form of manual dexterity that isn't, to put it lightly, intuitive. Beyond those controls, there is a huge wealth of information that the game demands that just isn't accessible or intuitive to a player who isn't digging into online forums, fan guides, or official strategy sources. What stats should you ignore? Is magic good? Is my weapon awful?
I started playing Dark Souls exclusively on Twitch. I didn't just play it when I had a spare moment; I would only play when my friend could get online and walk me through the game. In this way, I made a deliberate choice to avoid as many of the celebrated qualities of the game as possible. There was no exploration for the sake of it. There was no delving down into the bottom of the world to figure out the pathways and their twists and turns. I depended on the near-expert knowledge of someone who was playing the game two steps ahead of me to guide me through it.
We also had an astounding group of viewers who consistently showed up to guide me through the experience. They would offer tips for helping me complete bosses, and when my spear and shield build finally stopped working about halfway through the game, they were supportive and enthusiastic as I created a powerful, demonic scimitar. They would pitch in with lore explanations that we didn't know, and they would often explain boss strategies that neither me nor my friend had encountered before.
My experience of the game isn't wholly unlike the experiences that the original players of Dark Souls, the journalists with pre-release review copies, had during their first playthroughs of the game. In their book You Died, Jason Killingsworth and Keza McDonald devote an entire chapter to the small email-based community that appeared during the review period for Dark Souls. It was there that they crowd-sourced how to get rid of curses, figured out the best order to play the game, and developed the specific spatial literacy that Dark Souls requires for you to play it.
Like those journalists, I was able to build my experience of the game from a tight-knit, informal community that had no interest in proving who was better than who else. No one ever came into the Twitch chat to tell me that I should just learn how to play the game better, and no one seemed particularly invested in proving that I was doing something wrong or telling me that I wasn't appreciating the game the right way (even when I was being deeply critical of the experience). To be clear, these are things that happen basically any time I mention Dark Souls in any context other than this one, so it is, in fact, surprising.
When the final stream rolled around, I was relying almost entirely on the charitable souls on the stream. I couldn't dodge Gwyn very well, so someone suggested that I try to parry him. Everyone watched as I learned to parry on the Black Knights that littered the path from the bonfire to Gwyn, and then they waited for me to learn the pattern. On another recommendation, I put on some stone armor, which made sure that I would be able to take a few hits from the Lord of Cinder as I tried to heal myself between parrys. In the end, dear reader, I defeated him.
My headlong commitment into actually playing through Dark Souls out of curiosity (rather than spite) opened me up to a community of like-minded players who just wanted to see me succeed. Hardcore enthusiasts weren't interested in my clunky ways of playing the game, and it allowed me to dodge the aggressive parts of the community that, until now, I assumed dominated it. No one tried to explain to me how I was playing the game wrong or not appreciating it in the correct way. The creation of a micro-community, with different priorities than the major community that formed around the game, actually allowed me to enjoy the game (and, currently, the sequel).
Completing Dark Souls has made me appreciate the relationship between games and communities more than any other game has before. It drove home, for me, that a community can warp a game's image so much through their interactions with others that a game can be obscured entirely behind it. Now, more than before, I am interested and invested in piercing the fog wall between these games and my experience, and I've only got that micro-community of Twitch viewers to thank for that.
Editor's note: Austin Walker would only allow this headline if I agreed to note his protest.
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