Tiring of following floating objective markers and press X to win “end of the world” scenarios, my passion for gaming had dwindled. Incessantly reused stories, copy and pasted gameplay, and open worlds devoid of life and character can only hold my attention for so long. But then there was Dark Souls 3. Dark Souls is from another time. A time when games were great. Dark Souls, for me, saved gaming.
I was hesitant, I admit. Having just played through Bloodborne, and mere months before that Dark Souls 2, and a year before that Dark Souls 1. Franchise fatigue was setting in, and these games, while great, are tiring. They demand unfaltering attention and punish you when it’s lost. I wasn’t sure that I yet had it in me for another 40 hour trial.
*mild early game spoilers ahead*
Pressing “New Game” dropped me straight into the game world. A vague video provided me with something of a backstory. More questions than answers and the overwhelming sensation that I had already missed something. I rose from a grave, sliding back the lid of my stone sarcophagus and stepped into a new land. There was no map. There was no objective. No direction, no NPC giving me orders. The world around me was falling apart. Graves tipped over, trees were rotting, the path broken and twisted. This world was not a world that invited me here. I was invading. I was not welcome there, and I was alone. Ahead, a glowing message scrawled onto the ground. R1 to attack. Another message, L1 to block. Another. B to roll. And then I was on my own. Games have taught me to move forward, so I did.
Stepping forward I found my first enemy, back turned, and I attacked. He fell easily enough. Again, moving forward, I found not an enemy, but options. The game suddenly sprawled off into three directions. One straight ahead, open and without cover. Another to the left, climbing a hill into crumbling walkways, restricted and claustrophobic. Finally, a branch to the right with unknown features lying around the corner. This was when it started to sink in. I was confused. I didn’t know where to go. What was the correct direction? Did they all lead to the same place? There were no clues, no objectives. I had to guess. I headed right, mostly out of instinct. Several enemies, laying on the ground. They seemed lifeless, but that wouldn’t make sense. Uncertain of the situation, I dashed in and attacked, and they persisted. Suddenly angry, full of life, and with an eagerness to remove me from their pained existent, they sprung to life and fought back with an audacity and an energy that was staggering. I was overwhelmed, under powered, and suddenly my life was on the line. I survived, but barely, and with little health.
Another message on the earth, “press X to heal”. I replenished my health as I deplenished my only healing aid. I should have felt better, for my life bar was full, but I felt worse. The realization that these enemies, in the first few moments of the game could end me, was sudden and weighted. The fact that I had already used up my reserves only solidified the notion that this world did not want me here. Dizzied, more confused, and with the sinking feeling that I was already lost, another corner revealed my final message. “Turn back”. I paused, thought, trembled, and persisted forward.
Dark Souls 3 allowed me to be confused. Dark Souls wants me to feel uncertainty, to wade in a sense of insecurity and weakness. But, in doing so Dark Souls allowed me to find myself within the game. Instead of force feeding me objectives, telling me what to do, and tirelessly holding me hand through the experience like a child, Dark Souls trusted me to learn the incredibly deep mechanics of the game, to discover my objective for myself, and to unravel the mysteries of the world. Experience, experiments, and ultimately exploring are the objectives here, and it’s beautiful.
The world is open, winding, and wraps in and around itself, filled with opposing forces, and through this the game gains life. It gains character, innocents in it’s murdering, and in the end an overwhelming sense of wonder.
The game punished me for mistakes. Repeatedly hammering my fallen body into the earth when I was inpatient or impractical. When my skills failed me, so did my life. “You Died” strewn across the screen a it presented impossible tasks, enemies that owned and dominated the landscapes, quandaries twisted in death . It posed questions, riddles, unsolvable dilemmas, and never backed down on it’s stance of being unapologetic in doing so. Through this punishment came, however, reward. Victories earned, not gifted lay in wait for those vigorous enough to attain them. Through defeat, the player learns, becomes smarter, and uses wits and skills to survive. Finally overcoming and defeating a boss seemingly insurmountable at first or to find that shortcut back to the checkpoint, to discover a secret buried so deep that others may never see it, that’s true reward. It’s the pulse pounding, adrenaline filled endorphin boost as the opposition falls to your feel with a sliver of health remaining that keeps one coming back.
Dark Souls 3 trusted me, as a gamer and as an intelligent and capable human being, to overcome it’s forceful objection. To push through, to persist, and to unravel knotted ropes of lore. This provided me with purpose, exhilaration, and in doing so reminded me of what a game can be. It can be more than a game, it can be an journey, filled with new experiences that can only be attained through trials.
I am rekindled, tinged with strength, steeped in vigor, and with a new found love for gaming.