Dark Souls Ate My Brain

Posted on February 7, 2012 by psu

Dark Souls ate my brain. I don’t understand how it happened. I started December a normal, older, jaded gamer who has not seen anything worth playing in most of a year. I ended it about half way through this game and already planning a second run to see if “tuning” my character build would make things better. But here is the worst part. If you write down what people say about this video game it reads like a set of requirements for building a game that I will hate.


  1. Insane difficulty and repetition: check.

  2. Boss fights: check.

  3. Obscure and non-obvious game paths: check.

  4. Emphasis on combat and/or physical dexterity: check.

  5. Unforgiving failure conditions: check.

  6. Ludicrous amounts of useless and tedious expository dia… oh wait. I got mixed up for a second and forgot that I’m not writing about a Bioware or Bethesda game. Never mind. There is hardly any NPC dialog at all and they don’t even try to do lip sync, so they can’t do that badly either. Kudos.

Like Demon’s Souls before it Dark Souls is the whole psu-hating package. Every time you turn around in this game there is more evidence that the developer hates you and wants you to die in a fire. Here are a few basically non-spoilery examples:

  1. Levels with lots of cliffs and narrow ledges that you must navigate in the dark.

  2. Combat on said cliffs.

  3. The one hit kill tutorial boss.

  4. Enemies that re-spawn every time you save and regenerate.

  5. Forced navigation through areas that will poison/curse/cripple you or set you on fire.

  6. Friendly NPCs who are gigantic reptiles. And eat you without warning.

  7. Areas with enemies that you not only cannot kill, you can’t even hit them and you have to ask someone, or a walkthrough, why.

I could go on all night, but I’d rather stop and go back downstairs and play some more.

The second to last time I was this confused about a game was when, on the strength of a Penny Arcade cartoon I picked up Shadow Hearts: Covenant on a whim. Here was as hard core J a JRPC as they came and I should have hated it, but it tickled some part of my fancy and I played it all the way to the end.

The last time I was this confused about a video game was when I got into Resident Evil 4. Here was a game where you must shoot zombies with a character who can’t walk and hold a gun at the same time. And yet I played the game through a half dozen times on multiple platforms.

After 50 or 60 hours of Dark Souls I finally figured that what I like about the game is what it has in common from these two previous inscrutable favorites.

From Resident Evil 4 you get both the hordes of hostile undead and a combat system that takes a few simple tactics and forces you to apply them with absolute focus over and over again. Although Dark Souls has multiple spell casting systems, the juicy, meaty center of its combat system is the hand to hand fighting. You will inevitably need to engage enemies at close range and you will find that unless you follow a few very important tactical rules exactly and perfectly, you will be dead. Here is my short list of the rules:

  1. Never engage more than one enemy at once unless they are all in front of you.

  2. Preserve and regenerate your stamina bar (green) at all costs. Stamina lets you attack. More importantly stamina allows you to block enemy attacks.

  3. Don’t spam attack. Patiently wait for the enemy to try and hit you and only then when they are open and vulnerable should you go after them. This is especially true with slower weapons.

  4. Go in to new areas cautiously and with enough healing resources. Be careful of the white fog. Of course, since it’s impossible to always follow the rules exactly and perfectly, you will be dead a lot. This, combined with the fact that the game re-spawns most enemies when you die or otherwise rest provides a good justification for the game’s reputation for unforgiving difficulty.

But, there is more to it than that.

Like most video games, there are a variety of enemies that try to kill you in a variety of ways. The creativity in the enemy design is actually one of the pleasures of the game. There are small ones, big ones, flying ones, running ones, slow ones, fast ones and others that just defy explanation. The design of the enemy A.I. is fascinating in what it does not do. There is no real attempt to simulate a smart enemy. Instead most fight in relatively fixed and predictable patterns. Since you will die a lot and since the enemies will respawn every time you die, you will see any given set of enemies a lot and you will learn how to beat them. Herein is the brilliant conceit of the game:

  1. You get better at killing the enemies in real life because you kill them over and over again.

  2. You get better at killing the enemies in the game because you increase R and level up.

This is one of the few video games where learning the various skills the game wants you to learn actually feels rewarding instead of like busywork that you need to do so you can beat the next cheap boss fight. The fact that it is also loosely coupled with your virtual progression through the character building system is a neat feedback loop.

So yes, the game is unforgiving and sadistic the first few times through an area. But it gets easier each time you go back through not only because you now have a +8 sword of blenderkilling, but also because you know exactly how to beat every enemy in the place.

This would all be for nothing if the combat itself did not hold up under extreme repetition. But for me it does. It becomes familiar and comfortable. And then you zone out and the 20 foot tall knight crushes you under his shield, and you wake up and start concentrating again.

The connection between RE4 and Dark Souls is, at least to me, fairly direct. The connection to Shadow Hearts is more spiritual than anything else. Both games make great use of their settings to communicate a certain mood and overall design sensibility to the player. What Shadow Hearts says to you is “we are batshit insane!”. What Dark Souls communicates is a sense of being completely alone in a hostile environment, and also that “our creature designers are batshit insane!”.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Dark Souls world is the sheer variety of locales and how they are all tied together. The game has prisons, sewers, prison sewers, ruined castles, gleaming castle cities, gardens, forests, lava pits, stone caves and a godforsaken poison swamp. But all of these disparate locations are connected. In the game’s map they are connected because you can and need to walk from one to the other to progress in the game. This aspect of the level design is actually brilliant because with only a few exceptions all of the connections make spatial sense. You will trek from the opening area up a hill and into a ruined city full of the undead. In this city you will fight your way to a small room with a bonfire in it where you can rest. From there you fight through more of the city and then to the top of a tower and across a long bridge. Under this bridge will be a room with a ladder in it and after you kick ladder out of the wall and climb down, you are back at the fire. Taking the short cut back up to the bridge, you eventually make your way into a church. In the church is an elevator that takes you … back to the original opening area.

When you remap this all out in your head, you realize that both the original routes and the short cuts really do fit together. It’s a tour de force of maze design.

But, the game’s world is also connected in a second, more important way. A lot of video games like to give lip service to a “sense of place” or a singular design sense. But to my mind Dark Souls really delivers. And it delivers not in a shallow way, but in that way where no matter where you are standing in the game, your location is obviously of the game. You could be sitting in a fetid and poisonous sewer full of gigantic frogs that breath cursed gas on you, or you could be strolling down a pristine hallway in a marble castle. All of the locales really feel like they are from a single world, or at least from the vision of a single world designer. Or maybe it’s all in my head. You spend so much time running through the world that it becomes burned into your brain. I’ve never memorized a map to this extent.

Finally, I can’t let the game go without repeating: the creature designers are batshit insane! I’ll avoid specific examples because you should find out for yourself. You can even do this on youtube if you’d rather not spend the time to play through. So, to summarize:

  1. Insane difficulty: yes, but for once learning how to be good at the game is actually worth it.

  2. Boss fights: yes, but none that are too obtuse. Also, you can use the multiplayer system (which I have not described) to get other players to help you with bosses. There is no boss that is hard when you are three on one.

  3. Obscure and non-obvious game paths: yes, but that’s what youtube walkthroughs are for. Also the multiplayer system gives you hints.

  4. Emphasis on combat and/or physical dexterity: yes, but not too much and also see (1).

  5. Unforgiving failure conditions: yes, but for some reason in this case it all works.

  6. Ludicrous amounts of useless and tedious expository dia… oh wait. I got mixed up for a second and forgot that I’m not writing about a Bioware or Bethesda game. Never mind. There is hardly any NPC dialog at all and they don’t even try to do lip sync, so they can’t do that badly either. Kudos.

I had to say number (6) over again, because it’s important. The lack of useless narrative is a feature. Video game narrative mostly sucks anyway, you won’t miss it.

Anyway, I should stop now because the only place to go from here would be to make a gratuitous connection between Dark Souls and Madden. If you know me well you can already predict how that would go. I’ll spare you.


A few links to similar thoughts about Dark Souls:

Tom Bissell; also here

The Brainy Gamer

Gamers with Jobs