With the first leg of my playthrough of legendary RPG Dark Souls under my belt, I’m about to get my first real taste of its infamous difficulty curve. It’s a good opportunity to ponder Dark Souls’ approach to challenge and the non-traditional ways in which it lets players circumvent that difficulty. As things get spookier in the Depths, it’s time to start thinking outside the box.
After defeating the gargoyles and ringing the first Bell of Awakening, I take a cue from my new friend Solaire and bask for a moment in the crepuscular sunlight that pokes through the cloud cover. It’s the last I’ll see for a while: the next leg of my journey will be increasingly dark and dank. The sun of which Solaire speaks so warmly fades as I descend into Lower Undead Burg, only to be obscured completely when I unlock the door that leads into the Depths.
Alongside the suffocating darkness, there’s a sharp uptick in difficulty. With the notable exceptions of the balder knights patrolling the Parish, most of my enemies so far have been listless hollows who shamble toward me half-heartedly before finally committing to a fight. Things are different in the grubby alleyways below: immediately upon arriving in Lower Undead Burg, I’m attacked by three vicious dogs, then set upon by a gang of hooded rogues armed with poison blades.
This trek is where the going gets rough. There’s the dispiriting fight with the Capra Demon, of course, but the darkness is what really wears on my nerves. After seeing some of the tricks Dark Souls is willing to pull in broad daylight, my head’s on a swivel as I explore the Depths. A carnivorous slime that drops from the ceiling, narrowly missing me as I creep through a sewer passage, confirms and heightens my paranoia.
It’s at this point, too, where the path through Dark Souls becomes more obviously convoluted. I could have investigated the passageway behind Blacksmith Andre up in Undead Parish, or perhaps explored the graveyard tucked away behind Firelink Shrine. I’ve picked up more gear, had it enhanced, and leveled my character up a few times – all without knowing for sure how most of this works. That big zero up by my health bar will sometimes change to a one, bonfires can be ‘kindled’, and each weapon I find has confusing letter grades assigned to icons that correspond with my character’s stats. It’s not just the darkness that thickens as I progress; a deepening fog of uncertainty compounds my stress and alienation as I inch, step by step, into the tunnels beneath Lordran.
The precise degree to which this is purposeful is still an open question, ten years later. Creator Hidetaka Miyazaki has explained that some of the inspiration for Dark Souls came from his experiences growing up poor and checking out library books that were often beyond his reading level. Dark Souls certainly feels like that: it’s a partially alien thing in my hands, and while it clearly has its own internal logic, piercing the shroud that surrounds that logic is the real challenge confronting newcomers.
The combined pressure with which the darkness and the game’s inscrutability bear down on me is what sends me searching for outside help. Dark Souls lets players write notes and hints for each other to find, which are displayed as bits of glowing script on the floor. The built-in tutorial messages in Undead Asylum are displayed exactly the same way, which establishes the notion that the help you get from other players is just as important as the developers’ instructions.
In the gloom of the Depths, I leave a note of my own to mark the entrance to a passageway behind a large butcher, which provides a shortcut to a room containing a giant rat. Normally, there’s a treacherous maze of sewer passages to get through, risking a fall down one of several drains that lead to an area filled with cursed, bug-eyed basilisks. The way I’ve found spits me out on a catwalk above the rat, circumventing the maze and providing me with another chance to get the drop on a tough enemy from overhead.
The exit from the Depths is guarded by the Gaping Dragon, one of the most grotesque and flat-out metal interpretations of the familiar fantasy beast. When I enter its lair, it emerges from a chasm on the far side, a small python-like head poking up from the dark below. A six-armed, winged monstrosity follows behind as it charges forward. It rears back to roar, revealing a chest that unzips like an eldritch fleece vest.
Fortunately, I’ve brought along some backup: Solaire’s available to join the fight, as is Knight Lautrec, who I released from a prison cell on the upper floor of the Undead Church. Calling for help increases the boss’s health points, but my friends make up for that by drawing its attention away from me as I hack away at its tail.
The darkness deepens even further as I descend into Blighttown. It’s a settlement inhabited by scrawny, ghoulish beings, built on the rickety scaffolding that surrounds the ancient pillars that hold up all of Undead Burg high above. Thanks to the remastered version I’m playing, Blighttown is no longer the choppy, miserable experience it was when Dark Souls initially released, and the increased draw distances in this modern edition reveal dramatic connections: from the foetid swamp at the very bottom, I can look up and see the undersides of the tree canopies in Darkroot Garden, which I’ll visit after I’ve rung the second Bell of Awakening.
To do that, I need to deal with Chaos Witch Quelaag. She appears as a woman whose legs have been fused with the body of an enormous demonic spider, and attacks with devastating torrents of fire and molten lava. Once again, help is available: I reverse my hollowing to become human and summon Maneater Mildred, another NPC I’ve encountered while exploring the swamp. Near the entrance to Quelaag’s lair, another summon sign appears – this one for a human player who wants to offer their assistance.
I ring the second Bell of Awakening after defeating Quelaag, and (while casting a brief and nervous glance in the direction of the Demon Ruins) make my way up a rickety water-powered elevator, on a new path. It’s one that leads me directly back to the melancholy but welcome sunshine of Firelink Shrine.
Looking back up the trail to Undead Burg, the world seems simultaneously smaller and larger. Smaller, because of how my long journey through the dark has brought me right back to where I started; and larger, thanks to the glimpse I’ve gotten at the frightening strangeness that lurks beneath the surface of the world. But as my enemies have gotten more dangerous, I’ve had more tools at my disposal – and now I know that I don’t have to face every challenge alone.