Editor’s note: the following is the second in a series of guest articles from the esteemed James Verbalist, inane games journalist, in which he selects unsung treasures of our format. Catch up with part one, Bioshock, here.
The verdant grass of Lothric sways verdantly. In the distance, a spire. A thin dagger of Backsteingotik striking violently against the foreboding, menacing, ominous, gloomy sky. Beside me a bonfire crackles, ominously.
Somewhere behind that razor-sharp protrusion on the horizon lies the Dancer of the Boreal Valley, a nightmare of protracted limbs and warped blades. One of the daughters in the royal family of Irithyll, she was ordered by Pontiff Sulyvahn to become a dancer, then a legioneer. A fate equal to exile. Her torment is manifested physically in her dual blades, at once ablaze with searing, flaming fire and blackness of the blackest black.
Darkness. The only word that adequately describes the media coverage of the superlative Dark Souls series. A media blackout. Dark Souls games are really great, and yet follow a bunch of games writers on Twitter and you’d never know it. It must really irk From Software not to have any recognition from an army of protective action-RPG fanboys whom they know are out there in droves, but can’t seem to engage with because they’re all too busy playing Soda Dungeon and then writing books about its lore.
It’s a pure pleasure, losing yourself in a videogame such as this. A medium with restorative powers like no other; a ticket to an imaginary place; a medicine with empowering and immersive properties; a guided meditation through faraway lands; a string of codes that build worlds as real as the one we live in; a huge collection of art assets, animations, audio and dialogue fed into a game engine that interprets and manipulates that data into an interactive form which is iterated on over a period of months and years to provide a user experience in line with similar titles that have achieved desirable sales figures.
Lothric is the perfect place to lose oneself. It’s a place where one picks oneself up and dusts oneself off a great deal. And every time one does that, one learns something. One returns to the fight better prepared. The failures one had to endure in the past allow one to succeed in the future. It’s a bit like life, if one really thinks about it.
At first, Darks Souls III seems unplayable. It seems like there must have been some mistake dropped in the code somewhere, and as a result a skeleton swordsman can now kill you in three blows, a frankly preposterous way to go about a videogame.
And I mean, I’m no greenhorn when it comes to difficult games. Ever played Super Meat Boy? That game is the Soda Dungeon of platformers, and yet I was easily able to complete all five of its introductory missions with very few restarts. The same goes for Limbo – it was difficult, yes, but after really applying myself, building up my skills, watching other people complete the sections I was stuck on in YouTube videos and trying over and over and over again, I reached the halfway point in absolutely no doubt I now had the skills to complete the rest of the game, and thus had nothing more to prove and uninstalled it.
After the 20-hour mark of Dark Souls III, though, as you clear the opening area and meet the first NPC there’s a revelation: it’s meant to be this hard. From Software actually intended it to play like this, even though it’s absolutely no fun. What you learn over the course of the Dark Souls games is that fun is for babies, and whatever else it is you’re having instead as a massive knight kicks you to death is far superior for reasons you can’t quite put into words.
There’s more to it than there first appears, too. Of the remarkably few games journalists who’ve ever written about Dark Souls, the common theme is that there’s nothing below the surface, no story to speak of, and nothing interesting about the game world. How wrong they are.
Because there is a story here, really there is. It’s obvious the second you enter the inventory screen, start reading item descriptions, amble around the world for hours looking for things you thought might have been referenced in those item descriptions, minimise the game, find the Wikia page, read an astonishingly fleshed-out story about an undead monarch whose name sort of rings a bell because you picked up a pike with their name on it once but dropped it again because it was shit, find out exactly where you need to go to discover the secret of that urn you’ve been carrying around, visit a particular wall, and just about make out a mural on it. Environmental storytelling at its absolute best.
The Dancer of the Boreal Valley is, like all Outrider Knights, fated to turn into a beast. Unlike the warrior who seeks her out, she can’t escape her fate. Her armour is bound to her hide, like someone who can’t escape their fate.
The theme here is that Dark Souls requires effort and patience. From Software must have needed plenty of that too while persevering with a series of three action games that simply can’t garner a foothold in the industry. If you ask me it’s a crime that there are so many articles out there about how Soda Dungeon helped someone deal with being administered a temporary ban on Twitter, and how they learned how to be resilient after they left their vape on the train thanks to FIFA 17 – and yet none about Dark Souls. Dark Souls could help you through a tough time if you let it. I’m sure all manner of editors would commission articles about that exact thing, if only someone would pitch it.
The unnamed warrior, beside that bonfire, knows they’ll grow stronger. They know that every time they visit the Dancer and dance her syncopated, torturous rhythms, their hips will loosen up/combat skills will increase. Every round of her violent tango will melt her heart/diminish her health bar slightly more than it did the previous time. Eventually, the warrior is destined to prevail. Because to pick oneself up and dust oneself off, all one really needs is soul/souls.