How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Souls

It took years for Dark Souls trilogy to finally click with me. I have been enamored with its setting and aesthetic since the very release of Prepare to Die Edition on PC. The port was poor, though, and it scared me away. By the time when modders fixed it, the ‘difficulty discourse’ caught up on me, and I didn’t bother. I didn’t want to ‘git good’ to enjoy the game and didn’t want to suffer—why should I waste time on that if there are plenty of instantly enjoyable games?

Then the dark times came. I was pretty depressed, and for some unexplainable reason, suffering through some hardcore unfair videogame became a far more acceptable idea. 2017 was the year when I finished Dark Souls I. It was accompanied by lots of suffering, cursing, panicking, and dying. Even with the ‘tank’ build—focus on strength and HP, Havel armor, etc. I still didn’t get it. I’ve tried playing Dark Souls II several times for the next five years—every time dropping the game out of pure frustration. A couple of Dark Souls III test runs ended with the same result.
Something has changed since then. I killed Aldia, Scholar of the First Sin couple of weeks ago and now getting through Dark Souls III twenty hours in. Some of dying here and there, a little bit of cursing, almost no panicking. Zero suffering. I’m enjoying every second. It took me ten years to finally stop worrying and enjoy the fucking game.

It would be totally inaccurate to blame others for my mistakes, but the discourse around the franchise indeed has poisoned the waters. From dozens of reviews and hundreds of online comments about the Dark Souls games, it’s pretty easy to receive one distinct message: you can’t play these games while not suffering during the process. The ‘suffering by design’ myth has formed around the franchise and served not only as a marketing tool (Prepare to Die Edition sounds quite reassuring) but also as a gruesomely toxic mind worm that narrows the understanding of the player’s experience. Constantly dying in similar circumstances is often a clear sign that the player does something wrong in any other game. But in Dark Souls, it is not clear precisely because of the idea that has been hammered into the player’s brain by the mass of misguided comments online—that these games are about sadness and suffering through and through.

‘Git gud’ gatekeeping adds more fuel to the flame. «You die because you’re not skillful enough. Just admit it, you suck. Stop sucking, and you’ll win. That’s that simple.» Both of these ideas can’t be farther from the truth.

There is such thing as suffering by design. You can find it in so-called ‘masocore’ games like I Wanna Be The Guy and Syobon Action. Here’s the twist, though—Dark Souls games are not ‘masocore.’ ‘Masocore’ games are designed around the idea of pissing off the player; their goal is to humiliate and outrage. I Wanna Be The Guy kills the player relentlessly without giving any chance to avoid death, limits the amount of save points throughout the game, and changes the word ‘save’ to ‘wuss’ on the lowest difficulty. The opposite is true for Dark Souls—gameplay encourages caution, and you can avoid lots of nasty surprises if you keep your head cold and both eyes open. Players mostly die because of their carelessness rather than the game being a dick to them.

Dark Souls games have many helpful mechanics that are meant to be exploited to beat the challenges. It’s pretty obvious if you think about it—that’s how games actually work. You have dozens of tools at your disposal—choose and use them! Melee approach not paying out? Try bow, magic, throwing stuff. Not enough damage? Upgrade the weapon, buff the stat, infuse the blade. Dangerous to go alone? Take someone with you. All of the Dark Souls games are generous with tools and options—the last thing that those games want to do is to limit your opportunities. And there won’t be any shaming for taking the easier way. Not from the game, at least.

The community, though, is a different aspect. As always, in gaming, there is a toxic bunch of gatekeepers. They will ‘git gud’ you ad nauseam, condemning whole mechanics as invalid for a ‘proper’ walkthrough of the game. As always, it’s important to ignore them. It’s a real shame that this kind of voice is one of the dominant ones, especially in the Dark Souls community. They say that grinding through pain and suffering is the true meaning of the Dark Souls series, and they are so utterly misguided, those poor bastards.

Each Dark Souls game puts you on the path destined to bring a change to the miserable world, break the eternal loop of suffering, or begin it anew—there are multiple endings in every game. The emphasis here is on choice. Players are empowered with lots of options and decisions that truly matter. They matter to the NPCs, the game world, the gameplay, and most importantly, to the players themselves—to how they will perceive the experience of playing the game. Dark Souls games encourage you to go and try stuff, always leaving backup options available. There is no real punishment for wrong choices.

It may seem different at first—Dark Souls II, for example, degrades the player’s overall amount of health points after each death. Although the penalty stops at 50% health, and more importantly, the thing that is the less meaningful in Dark Souls games are the actual stats. Leveling up statistics is helpful, no doubt about that, but it is not really important in the grand scheme of things. Higher stats help you survive a little longer or hit a little harder, shortening your exposure to danger. But in practice, it doesn’t matter whether you have a full health bar or the one cut down to a half capacity—if you become careless, you’ll die nevertheless.

But death is not a punishment. It’s a reminder that you should be more careful, focused, and thoughtful regarding your decisions. If you die too often—there’s time to change something. Understanding this sign and trying different approaches is imperative for enjoying Dark Souls games, so fuck all those gatekeeping pricks that try to limit your options.

An additional mental distortion that may scare away many players from Dark Souls as it scared me away is a certain approach that has been formed towards modern big-budget action\RPGs. Players have gotten accustomed to the games tightly holding their hands and explicitly stating how to overcome challenges. Most modern games begin with an overlong tutorial that presents all of the tools in the player’s possession and points to when and how the player has to use them. This approach rarely leaves the place for exploration of systems, and players get accustomed to not experimenting with gameplay mechanics.

Exploration per se has become an aspect of plot and worldbuilding and not of the technical gameplay. And that’s something that was not typical to games of the past. Old school RPGs have always encouraged experimentation with their mechanics. I’ve said earlier that this is how games mean to work—placing players in front of various challenges, offering them a plethora of tools to overcome said challenges, and giving them the right to choose. Unfortunately, this simple truth remained strong mainly in the indie games scene and across more niche genres like 4X strategies and tactical games.

As for modern so-called AAA action\RPGs, they often are just a mishmash of various trendy systems and mechanics smashed together, most of which are never really useful during the gameplay. It is like a thoughtless checklist of stuff considered ‘cool’ and ‘fun’ by billionaires who have never played anything in their lives.

Dark Souls games are not from this bunch. They actively encourage the player to embrace the spirit of genuine exploration and experimentation.

Those fundamental misconceptions about the Dark Souls trilogy are not only a blight on players but also are easy for developers to fall victim to. That’s why many so-called Souls-like games fail to compare themselves to their source of inspiration. They often emphasize the difficulty of challenges without giving enough thought to the arsenal of tools to overcome them. Such an approach limits the player’s choice and systematically narrows the field of options to a specific skill. It results in mechanically closer games to what the ‘git gud’ bunch of gamers rave about than the Dark Souls games themselves. Unsurprisingly, such games don’t achieve nearly the same amount of success.

That’s all because the Dark Souls trilogy is not about difficulty, sadness, suffering, and ‘git-gudness.’ It’s about hope, exploration, experimentation, and probably a bit of humbleness. It’s so wild that I’ve understood this just recently, but it’s never too late. I hope these ramblings will encourage somebody who wants to try Dark Souls but remains a victim of said misconceptions to dispose of the redundant baggage of myths and toxicity. Just go out there, stop worrying, and have fun however you please.

In the hub area of each of the Dark Souls games, there is an incredibly pessimistic and even depressive NPC. They are just sitting there, sad and miserable, never even trying to do something outside of the safety of the hub area. Every new player should consider them as a precaution—this is not how you’re having fun in these games.

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