The Zen of Dark Souls

I played a lot of Dark Souls this summer.

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I was staying in the basement of my in-laws. My own house had been torn apart by hammers and crowbars, in preparation for a renovation that would last many months. So I had my Xbox and little 26 inch flat screen in the corner of the basement, facing a grungy blue lazy boy. Water pipes gurgled overhead. The bathroom was two flights of stairs up, so I’d often resort to stepping out the back exit of the house to piss out into the yard under towering oaks.

But back to Dark Souls.

It’s considered by many to be the hardest video game of this generation. It’s a fantasy RPG, which means you kill bad guys and get experience points and then spend those points on making your own avatar more powerful. You get weapons and armor which help you kill enemies and monstrous bosses more efficiently.

Most RPG games are a long grind of clicking a few buttons, decimating waves of enemies, and spending your time comparing the attack benefits of a magic long sword + 5 versus a flaming battle axe of ownage +3. You still do that kind of thing in dark souls, but it’s far less of the appeal.

You see, the heart of dark souls lies in single combat between the player and an enemy. The world is grimly dark, some bastardized hybrid of fantasy tropes with ancient mythology. The ancient world is dying and the gods have abandoned the world to fall into darkness blah blah blah. So most of the baddies you fight are undead: zombies, skeletons, liches, etc. Your avatar are also undead, your smiling human face sucked in, leering out of dead eyes. Your armor hangs loosely off your skinny limbs.

And so most of the time, it’s you, a skeleton knight, faced off against another skeleton knight. You both have shields and swords. You circle each other. The enemy may lunge with his weapon. At this point, you can keep your shield up and block, but the force will throw you off balance. You can also roll to dodge or – even more difficult – parry his attack. Once the enemy gives you an opening, you can attack, but the enemy also can block, dodge or parry.

So there’s this rock-paper-scissors match going on for every battle with nameless yard trash (to say nothing of the boss encounters).

The bottom line is you die. A lot. Dying becomes this sort of Zen experience in Dark souls. Every time you perish, the screen fades into a sort of soothing gray, an ambient whoosh oozes from the speakers, and big red letters proclaim: You Died.

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At this point, you lose all your accumulated experience – called souls – represented as a green glowing orb, somewhat similar to Sonic the Hedgehog, spilling all his golden rings.

You have a single change to recover the souls before they are gone forever. Often, you’ll run back to the spot you died, pound the A button to collect the souls, and just die once again from the same threat that took you out originally.

There are sections of the game I played for many hours, getting nowhere. I’d learn patterns to defeat or avoid the enemies, only to have a sweaty finger slip off the controller and send me caroming off a cliff. Or I’d mistime a parry and get impaled instead. Or I’d drink a health potion (named Estus Flask) without running far enough from an enemy, and as my player performed the painfully sluggish drinking animation, I’d get beaten down with swords or arrows or falling boulders.

But the fact was I was stuck in that basement. I had nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. The fridge was so packed with leftovers and 15 varieties of fruit juice I didn’t have any room for a six pack, so I’d take swigs from a brown bagged bottle of Wild Turkey 101.

And so I learned to drop down on the Taurus Demon from above, after applying Pine Resin. I learned how to run through Blighttown, blocking the toxic blowdarts with the Spider Shield. I learned how to aggro the Fire Drake and cut off his tail for the Drake sword, running under the portcullis and into Undead Parish. I memorized the attack pattern of Chaos Witch Quelaag, who I nicknamed Spider Bitchqueen, the animation signaling she was about to breath fire: grabbing the grotesque spider head sticking out of her abdomen and gently urging it to vomit forth magma.

All of these moments eked out with clenched jaw and sweaty controller, usually a few drinks in, a few deaths in, by this point standing up from the sunken lazy boy, not only to concentrate, but to get a brighter view on the LCD TV, which rendered the game incredibly dark when viewed at an upward angle.

Then Ormstein and Smough, biggie and smalls, big guy and ass hole, or just O and Smo. These guys were my reality for a long weekend. I perfected the run-through from the bonfire to their arena. I traded out equipment till I was at the perfect combination of mobility, lightning resists, damage dealing, and defense. And then I dueled with them for many hours.

The thing about Dark Souls is it doesn’t change. The AI doesn’t really include any randomness. Everything is hardcoded to react exactly the same to the player’s actions. The game is deterministic. It’s a system you can observe and memorize. And once you do that, it’s just down to performance. You play the game like the scientific method, coming up with theories and hypothesis, running experiments, almost always fatal, and then coming up with conclusions. The world is unforgiving enough that you can’t really fly by seat of your pants. You have to approach every situation with a plan and exacting will.

And the thing is you can’t just let your hands do the playing. Lots of similarly hard videogames – Super Meat Boy, bullet hell shooters, move too fast to let your brain get in the way. You just have to react on muscle memory. Dark Souls is actually a pretty slow video game. Every animation plays out in full, deliberately. The bosses telegraph their moves with big windups, deep breaths, angry demonic roars. You know what they are going to do before they do it. So you have that split second chance to apply your knowledge of the proper response: block, parry, roll, counter.

I eventually beat Ormstein and Smough, back pedaling through the arena, using the broken pillars as speed bumps. Throwing pyromancies at O until he succumbed, then pounding on Smogh when he was winded from his huge hammer swings. In the end it was easy, played out without any mistakes, hardly any damage.

It was an exhilarating finish to see the big fatty dissolve, my soul count increment by 60000, a new bonfire unlocked. But it felt like some sort of saga had ended. Some endless struggle, some purgatory that was standing in for my own purgatorial stay in the basement, was over.

I went on and beat the whole game in a few more days. None of the other bosses or zones were anywhere near as hard. A couple of the later bosses (Four Kings, Gwyn, Saeth), I beat on the first try. None of that scientific method stuff, just powering through on instincts. The mystique of the game – as this super hard unbeatable thing, that could be conquered by only the most dedicated video game players – was broken. It was over, and all that was left were fun little diversions, alts and speedruns.

My house is still under construction, I’m still in the basement of my in-laws, playing through GTAV.

One day I’ll get out of here, and be back to some sort of normalcy. But the endless waiting doesn’t seem so bad now. I’m making progress, baby steps. I beat Dark Souls, how hard could it be?

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