Death in video games has always signified that we failed at whatever task we were presented with. If you die, you respawn at an earlier point, knowing a little more of what you’ve gotten yourself into. With each successive attempt, you’re likely to get a little further, and eventually, you’ll conquer whatever stands before you. Over time, death in video games evolved to a point where it had no real consequence. You die, you respawn to the previous respawn point, and continue on your merry way, as if nothing ever happened. Lives don’t figure in as much anymore, and whatever was dead the first time around is very likely still dead. Through this, you push through the game and are given that sense of satisfaction that comes with success, even if it was easily earned. This is a common thread with most first person shooters, though other genres are not immune to it. The current generation of gamers are used to this, even expecting it. A game that forces you to actually have consequence for your failure to succeed has become something of a boon in the industry. It all links back into the idea that video games have become this giant Skinner box experiment, but that really is a discussion for another day.
Dark Souls came out in October of 2011. I bought it during the week it released, having just recently bought a PS3, and wanted something truly “new” to play on it. I had experimented with Demon’s Souls, but I had never really given it a proper try. I made it a point to jump into Dark Souls head on. I bought the very useful Future Press hardcover guide for the game, and I was ready to push myself into this world that I quickly learned didn’t want me there. It took days to make any sort of headway at all. I made it through the tutorial okay, but making it through the Undead Burg was a great challenge. My goal was to ring the bell in the church. It wasn’t even that far ahead of me, but numerous obstacles stood in my way. At the time I really had no idea how I should be building my character, and I wasn’t at all patient, something I quickly learned that this sort of game demands. I looked at the game as very challenging, even unfair. After a crushing defeat while trying to open a castle gate, I quickly decided that this game wasn’t for me. I shut it off, and put it on my shelf, thinking that maybe someday I’d return to it.
Many months later, the idea was pushed around for a PC version of the game, and a petition quickly reached 100,000 signatures. A PC port was going to happen, and fans were elated. I kept it in my sights, and I told myself that when I had access to this version, I would give the game another try. When the PC version was finally released, it had a myriad of problems. The resolution and framerate were locked, and graphical options hadn’t really been considered. From Software admitted that they really didn’t know what they were doing with a PC port, and it showed. Shortly after launch, a NeoGAF forum user named Durante issued a fix for the game that not only unlocked the framerate, but it allowed the game to render at much higher resolutions. With its temporary exclusivity on new content, and the ability to run at a steady 60 frames per second, Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition was now the definitive version of this brutally challenging game. I jumped in during an Amazon sale, and now it was time to give this game the time it deserved.
Over the last month or so, I had read up on the game a little more. I wanted to learn how it worked so I could better survive in this horrible world. While still initially frustrated, I came into it with a greater sense of patience. Amazingly enough, that actually made the game a lot easier to digest. I now understood that if I died, it was probably because I wasn’t careful. Death in the Souls games come with a high price: the enemies respawn, and you lose the souls you had collected along the way. Of course you can get them back, that is, if you can make it back to your corpse. The problem is that if you die once, you’re going to get impatient, and you’re going to try and rush back to where you died. It’s quite possible, and very likely that you’ll die before you make it back, and lose those souls forever. This isn’t a game about make erratic decisions — it’s about planning ahead and not being afraid to take it slow. For me, it quickly became the most dedicated relationship I could ever hope for. This game and I were fated to be together, even though both of us made it incredibly difficult.
When I finally made it to the point where I had quit in the PS3 version, I already knew I was having a much better time with the game. Before long, I had opened that horrible gate, allowing me a quicker shortcut to get into the church. I faced off against the bell gargoyles on the roof, and I rang the first bell. The first true obstacle of the game had been achieved. Afterward, I knew where I was supposed to go. Having rang the first bell, I knew the second bell lie in a place called Blighttown. Because of choices I had made while building my character, I could bypass at least a couple hours of gameplay, but I was prepared to push through the way it was intended. The lower section of the Undead Burg lay before me, and beyond that lay the Depths, a nefarious sewer under the rotting town. What stood in my way was my greatest challenge thus far: the Capra Demon.
I already knew that this was a very difficult point in the early hours of the game. This is a boss that truly tests your determination and your patience. It was challenging right out the door. Right when you run into his room, he’ll run at you with a very hard hitting attack that can kill you in seconds. To make things worse, not only do you have to deal with the Capra Demon, but you also have to deal with a pair of poisonous attack dogs, which makes avoiding attacks even worse. For a few straight hours, I kept running into the room, only to die, over and over again. I was beyond frustrated. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I was following the general strategies offered to me from the Internet, but it just wasn’t helping. If I got lucky, I could take care of the attack dogs, but more often than not, it was near instant death. Of course I got frustrated. I knew going into it that this was a difficult boss.
Finally, I realized something I hadn’t even considered before: removing my armor. I was wearing fairly heavy protective gear, and I hadn’t though that it was impairing my movement at all. Sure enough, after a few tries, I managed to get into a decent rotation, and could adequately avoid the attacks. Defeating the attack dogs was easy. Now I was left with the challenge of disarming the Capra Demon. Every major battle in this game is designed to get the heart racing. One false move, and you’re dead. I was already well aware of this, but eventually I finally persevered. By the end of it, I was a mess. I was shaking horribly and I was very on edge. My heart raced as I nervously planned every single move a couple steps in advance. When I won, I felt like I was the king of the world. I was beyond relieved. I had accomplished something. What I learned from this fight was how every meticulous detail of this game is important. I won because removing my heavy armor gave me far greater mobility at my lower level. The increased mobility gave me a few extra frames of invincibility while rolling out of the way of attacks. In reality, if I got hit at all in a boss fight, it was likely I was going to die anyway. Removing the armor was of very little consequence due to the shield I was carrying. I could manage to block the attacks at the cost of my stamina, but my mobility was far more important than any extra defense could offer me at this point. Regardless, I had the key to the Depths, so it was time to move forward.
No more than five minutes after the Capra Demon success story, I was viciously murdered by a butcher in the early areas of the sewers. My pride had gotten the better of me. Thankfully, my early death in the Depths only resulted in a couple minutes worth of setbacks. Death was currently of low consequence, so I could afford to screw up a little bit. Within a few tries, I had pushed further into the Depths, and had found a giant rat standing in my way. While the room where it stood was larger than the room guarded by the Capra Demon, its sheer size made fighting it in the open an absolute hassle, especially as a melee focused character. I took the cowardly way out, continually luring it to the doorway where I could attack it every once and a while. It took a while, but I wore it down and managed to finish it off. It was time to head into the lower areas of the Depths, toward my next great challenge: the Gaping Dragon.
In comparison to my last few battles, the Gaping Dragon was decidedly easy. Its attacks were easily predictable, and after a couple attempts to learn the tells, I vanquished the dragon and claimed the key to Blighttown. I was ready to head further down and push my way to the second bell. Along with the Capra Demon, this area was notorious for being rough, namely because nearly everything down there was poisonous. I prepared for this, and bought a ring to greatly increase my poison resistance. I was ready to take this place by the horns.
The early descent into Blighttown wasn’t all that bad. I planned my battles carefully, attacking enemies at range where possible. The area was full of annoyances, like giant mosquitoes and blow dart snipers. Truthfully, by this point I was getting used to it, and I guess it didn’t really phase me. I pushed farther down, and made it down into the Blighttown Swamp. I quickly made it to the bonfire, and set out to explore my surroundings a little bit before I headed towards the boss chamber. The swamp itself is dangerous, namely because the murky sludge you have to wade through is very poisonous. Heading away from the bonfire was scary no matter which way I went, but it was necessary. I had come too far to give up now. After spending a few hours down here, learning my surroundings, and dying many times, I started realizing where a lot of my own dread came from: I could no longer see the sun. It was dark down here, yes, but I could barely glimpse the blue sky far above me. It made the whole zone more terrifying.
It took a few attempts, but I finally managed to vanquish the boss: a giant half spider, half sorceress that I had affectionately named “Spidertits.” Her name was Quelaag, but “Spidertits” felt far more fitting. Thanks to the help of a non player character summon, I conquered yet another challenge that stood before me. I rang the second bell, and opened the gate to my next destination: Sen’s Fortress. Right now I only had one true desire: I needed to make it back above ground. Being in the dark for so long was starting to drive me mad. I needed the constant element that the sun gave me. A lot of the messages left on the floor by other players have some small bit of information about what lay ahead, but more often than not, I perpetually saw the message “Praise the sun!” I was finally starting to understand what that truly meant.
When the gates for Sen’s Fortress opened, I realized something: I was now playing the actual game. While the tutorial level with the Asylum Demon taught me the basic mechanics of the game, these first few hours had instilled far more about how the world around me works. Sen’s Fortress is where the game actually begins, and is where I currently stand. When I finally emerged from the depths of the Blighttown Swamp, more than anything, I was elated to see the sun. I had never been more relieved, even though I knew a far more dangerous world stood ahead of me.
This isn’t the last I have to say about it, but I can safely say that I think I’ve fallen in love.