I swore off ever playing this game again. Twice.
First, it was against Seath the Scaleless—a towering, frustrating boss with mass area attacks and devastating physical strikes. Then, it was against the Bed of Chaos, a scripted battle against a foe that grew stronger as you dealt it damage, until the very floor beneath you collapsed.
I called Dark Souls frustrating, unintuitive, and broken. I challenged From Software's sanity, questioned their ability to develop a coherent storyline and gameplay mechanics, and ranted and raved about my wasted time and effort.
Taking a break, I focused on other things in my leisure time: reading, retro games, other PS3 titles. It was good to get away from the nihilistic bleakness, the broken beauty, and the demanding discipline of Dark Souls. A few days went by. Weeks. Months. Never again, I said, wondering how much trade-in value the game would get me.
It was in those darkest moments of despair that I realized: I wanted to go on. If nothing else, to prove that it could be overcome, even if players shouldn't waste their time with it.
Instead of whining about it's not fair and the game doesn't tell you what to do, I joined the community: conversation with local players, and the online wikis and guides. There, in conversations and search engine results, I discovered that it was okay to get help, to receive encouragement. In fact, it was expected—a throwback to old school conversations about 8- and 16-bit games on the playground.
Enlightenment dawned on me. Praise the sun!
I began to realize that I had been going about the game all wrong. Instead of looking for satisfaction in victory, I should have been looking for comfort in defeat, and in death. The You Died message and droning music wasn't simply a punishment; it was a teaching tool. A merciless, zero-sum evaluation of your progress. You are good enough, or you're not.
And if you're not, well, you best start to un-fuck yourself, Chosen Undead, because it only gets harder from here. Figure it out, dummy.
Dark Souls doesn't hand you a gold star for participation. It doesn't tell you what to do. It expects you to die, and die again, until you embrace its ethos of despair and failure. Dark Souls, like real life, doesn't have a coherent message of follow-the-waypoint.
It teaches by death. It rewards by survival and progress, one blood-stained inch at a time.
It helps that the game has air-tight controls, some of the most beautiful environmental graphics I've ever seen, a rabidly-loyal (but also welcoming and helpful) online community, deep, deep replayability, postmodern story structure, high-end challenge, and the most exhilarating effort-to-reward balance I've ever experienced in a video game.
My conversion to a From Software disciple is not total and unquestioning. There are significant problems with the game. It's hard to access a good portion of the game's content without a guide, the game doesn't explain any of its nuances, the camera lock-on system has caused my death on numerous occasions, its difficulty spikes often, PvP is unbalanced, and it's entirely possible for a new player to waste 20+ hours with an ineffective build. Don't get me started on Blighttown—its framerate is a trainwreck on the PS3.
But, in the end, the good outweighs the bad. For every ten frustrating defeats, there was one unmatchable, endorphin-pumping victory; for every secret missed on the first playthrough, a vibrant community directs you along a new path; for every screwed-up character build, there's the joy of choice in stats and equipment; for every confusing (or non-existent) plot point, there's half a dozen theories to stimulate the imagination; for every few bloody invasions by vindictive players, there's the joy of Jolly Co-operation with your fellow travelers.
The graphics are some of the best on its generation. Your avatar wears armor and weapons that are intricately detailed and varied. Enemies are well-animated and fearsome. Environments routinely inspire moments of ponderous self-reflection and awe. The sound design is integral to your survival, as you creep forward and stop to listen to the chittering of ravenous monsters hiding in the dark. The music is haunting, soothing, or disconcerting. The load menu music and Firelink Shrine theme imply both rest and a sense of impending loss.
Combat is fluid and refined, forcing the player to be considerate of tactics and equipment choices. The boss fights are simply the most epic encounters you may ever find. You will die against these bosses—and die a lot—but an adjustment of approach, or the help of a friendly phantom, will often win you a taste of sweet, fleeting victory before another trek through horror and fear.
Dark Souls is a revolution disguised as a game. It has the audacity to be difficult, to be unintuitive, to be cryptic, to be niche. It's not perfect, and, much like the hollowing undead that populate the expanses of ruined beauty of Lordran, can sometimes suffer from aimlessness, confusion, and grinding frustration. It's for the player to overcome the challenges—and yes, even the design flaws—and reap the rewards of a journey through a dark and fantastic twisted mirror image of what we've come to expect from RPGs and videogames in general.
The two endings of the game invite controversy for their brevity and lack of definitive resolution. I applaud their subtlety. It's about the journey.
And that journey is long and difficult.