Dark Souls: “I am Doing it Wrong.”

05Jul13

dark-souls-1

For those who’ve never heard of it, Dark Souls is a Japanese action / RPG video game created by developer From Software, available for the X-box 360, PS3, and PC. A spiritual sequel to the earlier game Demon Souls, Dark Souls is a Gothic, high fantasy tale that is light on exposition and heavy on atmosphere. It plunges the unsuspecting player into a world of relentless danger and moral ambiguity. The player assumes the role of one of the Undead, an accursed human branded with the mysterious Darksign, and ventures to the land of Lordran in search of their destiny. The actions you take in-game may save the world or destroy it.

Heavy stuff, right? Too bad I’m doing it wrong.

Dark Souls is a game designed to frustrate and murder its players. The difficulty is scaled in such a manner that even a weak enemy can still surprise an experienced player, and there is no shortage of steep cliffs and bottomless pits to prove that gravity is a fickle mistress. Playing Dark Souls means being prepared to die frequently and often. The PC version of the game is even subtitled as the “Prepare to Die Edition”. The game includes a clever mechanic that explains why death is not the end for your character: the Darksign you bear contains a perverse and enigmatic power. Instead of shuffling off your mortal coil permanently, death forces you to respawn at your last checkpoint, but in the process you lose all of the souls and Humanity (the game’s equivalent of monetary resources) that you’ve accumulated. You must then stumble around as a hideous, shambling corpse until you can retrieve them. It’s all very somber and grim, but again, I’m doing it wrong.

This is because the character creation systems in Dark Souls provide the player with a blank slate. You can pick a character class (knight, barbarian, cleric, thief, etc.) that determines your starting equipment and base statistics, and you can customize your character’s gender and appearance as well. As you level up, you determine how your character advances. For example, you can pour points into Strength to create a mighty melee fighter or you can purchase Sorcery spells to sling magic from afar. But the true freedom resides in the ability to completely define your character’s personality. In Dark Souls your character is a silent protagonist, which means the player has to assign them with personality traits, quirks, hopes, fears, dreams, and goals. Through your actions – and in some cases, inactions – you tell your character’s story.

So how am I doing it wrong?

In a word: laughter.

My characters are a jocular and humorous lot. Confronted with the never-ending horrors of a cursed existence in a realm overrun with monstrosities and freaks, they laugh. Tasked with being the hero that saves the world or the tyrant who destroys it, they opt for neither option and instead spend the game slacking off and hitting on the NPCs.

It’s no secret that in Dark Souls, the character you control is not some beautiful and unique snowflake who owns entirely the role of protagonist. The game implies that dozens – perhaps hundreds – of other Undead are mucking about in Lordran. All of them have similar quests, similar duties, similar obligations to save the world, to salvage the dwindling flames that keep the Darkness at bay, to prolong the Age of Fire and solve the mystery of the Undead.

And to this knowledge, my characters respond with a giggle and a shake of the head and a quiet murmuring of: “Nuts to that.” They laugh in the face of danger and sneer at the idea of destiny. They won’t let a dark world get them down.

My characters have role-models for this behavior:

siegmeyerMeet Siegmeyer of Catarina, once a noble knight, now just another Undead who made the trek to Lordran. Siegmeyer is a colossal coward who masks his utter terror under a facade of false bravado. Beneath his jovial demeanor is the understanding that if he dies, he might eventually resurrect as a mindless zombie to terrorize the living, so he hides his fear behind a chuckle and a boast. His story is filled with tragedy, but also with bittersweet humor.

solaire

And then there’s Solaire of Astora, a self-proclaimed warrior of the Sun. Cheerful, gregarious, and slightly deranged, Solaire is the standard-bearer of hope in a land where hope is meaningless. He gladly volunteers to lend his sword to any who need his help, engaging in “jolly cooperation” in his quest to shine as bright as the miasma of incandescent plasma that he worships. Who cares if the world is a dark and scary place? Praise the Sun!

By shirking my responsibilities, by emulating Siegmeyer and Solaire, by meeting each messy and painful demise with a grin, I am doing Dark Souls wrong.

And that’s perfectly within the spirit of the game. Dark Souls gives the players near total freedom to create their own story within the framework of a larger narrative, to make as many mistakes as they desire, to celebrate their failures as well as their successes. It is this sense of freedom, this feeling of agency, that inspires me to return to the game again and again.

Advertisements


%d bloggers like this: