I don’t want to sound like a cane-waving baby boomer, but when I was a kid, games were hard. Playing Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, Halo Combat Evolved and Super Mario Sunshine was not a relaxing pastime; it was a tense, challenging and often infuriating affair. From the hoods of Grove Street to the ferocious fauna of Pianta Village, games were full of stuff that made many a preteen boy throw their controller across the room in a rage.
Fast forward a couple years, and things were a bit different. Things were still very similar, but there were small, nigh-imperceptible changes being made to games that lowered the difficulty. Autosaves, adjustable difficulties and hand-holding level designs all became more commonplace as the market shifted to cater to a more casual audience.
Don’t get me wrong; I was, at the time, as happy as anyone else to see the departure of the artificial legacy-era difficulties. It was nice to be able to do missions, complete quests and beat levels without white knuckling my controller the whole time knowing that if I died I’d be sent back to square one. Unbeknownst to me however, I was about to discover a series that would inspire a newfound love of difficult games.
In 2012, I had finally saved up enough money to buy a second-hand PS3. It was in rough shape, covered in scratches and stained with nicotine residue, but to me it was a portal to another world. Alongside the console, the previous owner also generously gave me two games: Modern Warfare 2 and Dark Souls 1.
Wait… that’s not fair!
Upon arriving home, I could hardly contain my excitement. I hastily connected my newly acquired console to the TV, pressed the power button and then paused momentarily. I had heard of the infamous No Russian level in Modern Warfare 2, and I wasn’t particularly keen on the prospect of sitting through a lecture from my mom about how video games cause violence.
After I had loaded up Dark Souls (the only other game I had at the time), my excitement started to rise. After selecting new game, it was time to create my character. Choosing stats and tailoring my character didn’t take long; I chose the knight class, with black firebombs as my starting gift. Eyes gleaming with anticipation, it was all I could do to stop myself from skipping the intro cinematic.
Once the game actually started, however, it began to dawn on me what kind of game I was playing. Almost immediately after spawning in, I was trapped in a room with a towering, intimidating demon wielding a hammer bigger than my character. With no weapons besides the black firebombs that I still had no idea how to use, I could do little but watch as the Asylum Demon effortlessly reduced my puny knight to a fine paste.
The initial difficulty spike
Taken aback, I was now sent back to a new area. After cautiously navigating the ruins of what I could only imagine was some sort of prison, I gradually collected a number of new weapons and tools. A sword, a shield, a bow, some arrows. There were hostile NPCs here too, mind you, but they were slow and relatively easy to dispatch.
After working my way up through the corridors and various enemies of the Asylum, I eventually found myself facing a door obscured by fog. Accepting the prompt to “traverse the fog”, my character stepped through the door only to once again be greeted by the towering Asylum demon. Only this time, I was on a small ledge above him. The only clue as to what I was a message on the ground that read “jump + R2 for plunging attack”.
With no other visible course of action, I accepted the direction. Let’s see… jump forward, press the right trigger. My character plummeted towards the ground and I was sure that I would momentarily respawn at the bonfire, but no! To my pleasant surprise, the attack drained nearly a third of the boss’ health. With my new found sword and shield, I made short work of the clumsy beast, subsequently exiting the area in the talons of a huge crow. How about that!
Like learning to ride a bike
This was hardly the end, however. In the next few areas the game threw enemy after unforgiving enemy at me in quick succession. With the estus flask I received from a crestfallen knight on the brink of death, I was able to recover some of my lost health if I managed to stay alive, but only a limited number of times. If I died, I was promptly sent back to the last bonfire I had rested at, losing all of the souls I had in an instant.
At first it was incredibly frustrating. “How in the world am I supposed to get past this?” would echo through my head endlessly as I hit roadblock after hurdle after roadblock in my quest to… well, I wasn’t really sure of that either. Apart from the occasional friendly NPC rambling about bells of awakening and the age of fire, I hadn’t the slightest clue what was going on in this fascinating but infuriatingly uncertain world.
It was difficult, sure, but it caught me hook line and sinker. I would find myself replaying areas over and over and over until I finally got through. I gradually realized that most enemies, areas and bosses had weak spots and vulnerabilities. The taurus demon hits hard, but he’s also slow. If you learn to evade his attacks and follow up with one of your own, he’s toast. I got better at dodging, and stopped hiding behind my shield so much. In fewer words, I got gud.
As I progressed through the game, I started to piece together the story too. There were few cutscenes, but I gradually came to realize that I was on a quest to prevent the age of dark by linking the first flame and prolonging the age of fire. I began looking for clues about enemies and bosses, trying to figure out their stories. Things became clearer, and I began to appreciate the beauty, tragedy and irony of a story I didn’t even know existed when I started playing.
The beauty of a beastly game
The process of learning how Dark Souls worked was full of trial and error as I painstakingly made my way through the game. There was no hand holding here, no forgettable cutscenes or throwaway characters. Every discovery I made about the story was my own, and every minor victory felt like I had just beaten the final boss.
After a while, there wasn’t so much trial and error anymore. I could beat some bosses on my first try, as I intuitively dodged attacks and exploited weaknesses made apparent by the level and character design. I wasn’t a Dark Souls savant or anything, but I genuinely felt like I had earned the progress I had made.
Tens of hours into the game, I had finally reached the final boss. Surrounded by eerie scenery and silent, ghostly specters in the Kiln of the First Flame, I entered the boss arena and was met by one of the most memorable moments I’ve ever experienced in a game. Flaming sword in hand, a towering figure in the shape of a man stared me down: as a hauntingly beautiful melody played, I realized I had done it. I had reached Gwyn, the Last Lord of Cinder.
Beating Gwyn was a challenge; a god king who had harnessed the power of lighting to defeat the everlasting dragons could hardly be expected to go down without a fight. After putting on my learning hat one more time to learn how to parry, I bested the boss and completed the game. I was elated to be sure, but I was also left with a lingering sense of something akin to sadness, I think from knowing that I would never experience this for the first time ever again.
Dark Souls was my first Souls game, but it wasn’t my last by a long shot. When Dark Souls 2 came out I played through it at the first opportunity I had. When the third entry in the series was released, I made it my top priority to buy a computer that could run it. This series may have kicked my ass more times than I can count, but I still love it to death.
If you’ve never played Dark Souls, I’d like to end this article by encouraging you to do yourself a favor and pick up a copy when you get the chance. Even if you don’t consider yourself a gaming enthusiast, this title is incredible. From the incredible soundtrack to the excellent writing and beautiful world building, it’s something everyone should experience at least once. If I get at least one person to pick up this game, I’ll call that mission accomplished!