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1/18/2013

Reflections: Dark Souls


After months and years of thinking and contemplating, I finally took the plunge and picked up Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition, probably one of the biggest leap of faith I've ever taken as a gamer. Dark Souls to me is controversial in many ways and that too at a personal level, nothing tragic or melodramatic mind you, but enough to always make it something that's always eluded me and divided people around me. At some point I had to stop listening to everyone and try the damn thing for myself. The months and months of nagging from a close friend may have contributed a little...

Don't get me wrong, but a big part of me always knew Dark Souls would be something I would have enjoyed, the way the game is designed is something that I knew would resonate with me. For many reasons, I always worried that the game was elitist in nature, and I mean in a way where it only spoke to a very specific and dedicated crowd and no other gamer outside that. The marketing and PR hype for it focused so very heavily on how impossibly difficult the game was, I mean they decide to call the expansion Prepare to Die in the West instead of the more creative Japanese title Artorias of the Abyss. It's cheap and pretentious promotion of a game that is so much more than just difficulty.


I'm far from being good at games, hell it's not like I even try to get good at them and take them seriously competitively. Video games mean something else to me entirely, they're about immersing yourself in a very personal interactive experience, and experiencing a story through action. I love fighting games for example, a very popular genre in the competitive scene, but to me personally they're all about experiencing a story through action, in this case the battles tell a story with big dramatic moves, compelling back and forth action, all combined with gorgeous aesthetics and complementary music. Live for the battle as I always say, not for the victory.

I masochistically enjoy rogue-like role playing games, they're difficult without a doubt, simply because they are so insanely volatile and unpredictable, so much so that you can never ever be truly prepared for the unscripted journey ahead. Games like that bring everything down to luck, and the price of failure is the heaviest you'll ever experience in gaming. In games like Shiren the Wanderer, facing defeat means you literally lose everything you gained on your journey, but for some reason you're compelled to get right back up and hope the next one is going to be a little better, each journey teaching you something new and making you wiser. I suppose it's an ironic depiction of life, you soldier on hoping that tomorrow will be better than yesterday. Maybe that's what compelled me about these brutal rogue-like RPGs, they were always about the journey, not the destination.


Going back to Dark Souls, at some point I was convinced that I would enjoy it (much thanks to the aforementioned friend who did a sales pitch every conversation). However, he sold me aspects of the game that the reviewers, publishers, and PR hype machines were not telling me about, and based on that I took the plunge. My initial false assumptions regarding Dark Souls were based on rogue-like RPGs, Dark Souls is nothing like them, it's actually far more forgiving. Those reviewers and marketers should probably play some Shiren the Wanderer to understand what Prepare to Die really means...

Dark Souls appears as a daunting role playing epic in similar mold to Elder Scrolls, I mean sure you are presented with a open world that you can tackle as you please, but on a truly fundamental level it's an action game driven by instinctive mechanical nuances. You tackle on very well defined areas, take on bosses that have clever and interesting patterns to them, if anything playing Dark Souls felt like playing a traditional Castlevania title from the 80s and early 90s.


Still it would be slack to not call it a role playing game, because it does present a truly immersible and fully realized game world. The game design is so subtle and organic, yet never vague or misleading, as it forces you to really pay attention to whats around you and learn on your own. It's the kind of game design that is largely absent today, a design that lets you really learn and experience the game world through action. What's more is that Dark Souls doesn't force any set pattern or path on the player, it's very much adaptive to how you play. If anything it's highly player driven with the game being about your character and his/her journey, however you wish to define it. Dark Souls would probably offer very distinct and personal experiences to different players.

I suppose the question is, is it really that hard? honestly speaking it doesn't feel that way. For one thing dying doesn't carry much of a penalty as everyone would like you to think, and while I have tasted death many a time in my play-through so far, it hasn't discouraged me one bit because the game is appropriately designed around it. If anything Dark Souls is a lot more forgiving than you think, trust me there are far harsher gaming experiences out there. Dark Souls presents a kind of challenge where it becomes easily apparent that you very well can overcome it, even the seemingly impossible is easily doable with a little patience and foresight. To sum up, it's not that bad at all, and coming from someone who generally gets very angry at cheaply difficult games, you can trust that is the case. If anything, Dark Souls is pleasing and satisfying, amply rewarding you for the experience and wisdom you garner, in a way that feels natural.


Dark Souls, for the lack of a better term, is a video game in the purest most traditional sense. That alone is what makes it an experience that I find tremendously relaxing, one that allows me to achieve escapism. It presents you with a world that feels alive, and yet doesn't force anyone's vision or direction upon you, instead it ends up being what you make of it. Also allowing you experience gameplay in its most unadulterated form, the kind of gameplay that adapts to the player instead of the other way round.

In an ever changing gaming landscape and industry, a game like Dark Souls is, despite the elitist and pretentious hype machine, perhaps the most sincere and down to earth video game you will find today. In a gaming scene where political and social stances constantly venture into a medium that is meant to be a form of escape from the convoluted pretentiousness of reality, Dark Souls needs to be welcomed warmly by all self-respecting gamers regardless of their perceived skill or taste for challenge. It won't instill any reaction from angry parents, horse-visioned politicians, or jaded feminist groups, nor will it try to draw connections to the real world in any sense, instead it joins the increasingly rare breed of video games which possess the intangible and true spirit of video games that prevailed during the 80s and 90s.


Dark Souls exists in a world of its own, and if you're tired of the hustle and bustle of the modern gaming scene that has become increasingly social and intertwined with real world chaos, then there is a good chance that you'll find much peace and solace in Dark Souls, even if you die 10 times in a row. I'm truly glad it exists, may the pure soul of gaming never extinguish. 

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