There’s a feeling common to a lot of first-time players of Dark Souls, and it’s possibly not what you’d expect for such a universally acclaimed game. It’s this: I regret buying Dark Souls.
The intro doesn’t help, given that it’s what could politely be described as a concentrated burst of intriguingly oblique backstory, and less politely described as a baffling five-minute payload of generic fantasy guff. Then there’s the character creation, where you can stare at a big list of numbers, select a meaningless character type, and choose from a selection of faces and wigs that look like you passed out on a barber’s floor after a heavy night on the glue.
Follow this up with a tutorial-cum-opening level that takes a University of Life approach to teaching you the game, and it’s easy to feel a nagging sense of regret. Seventy hours and one New Game+ later, that feeling has slipped away – but it never quite completely fades. Dark Souls takes that sense of of loss and kindles it, makes it a part of the game’s mechanics.
While at heart it’s a Tolkien-ish action-RPG that embraces some of the genre’s baggage with a zealot’s passion, like crumbling kingdoms, grids of numbers and grinding, Dark Souls discards others, like inns, parties, NPC romances – and, most unusually of all, steady progress. In most RPGs, the deal is that you give the game your time, and in return it increments some stat or other. Progress is strictly one-way, a simple equation of percent completion over time. Not here. In a world where most games take great pains to never let the player make any irrevocable decisions, Dark Souls seems to go out of its way to let you make big mistakes.
Take weapon crafting for example. Like an adult setting a toddler loose on the engineer’s menu of an expensive TV, the game lets you tinker unsupervised with its weaponry – with predictably disastrous results. Upgrading a weapon to crystal status sounds like a deal with no downsides – crystals are lovely, and the stats on offer are among the few times raw numbers can be beautiful outside of a mathematician’s head – but it’s an expensive, irreversible way of turning that beautiful, glass-sharp sword into an unrepairable glass-brittle display ornament.
Similarly, it’s possible for players to kill vital NPCs, or to blunder into areas that are next-to-impossible to escape from. Not all players will reach the bottom of the Great Hollow – a thousand-foot pit of rail-less walkways, inhabited by a race of homicidal mushroom people that look like cheery Belgian cartoon food mascots and hit you like a metal fist attached to the front of an articulated lorry – but those who did without the necessary item to warp out again should probably just quietly give up.
And of course, there are the souls at the heart of the game. Part XP, part currency, accumulating with every kill and yet impossible to bank, the rules governing them are simple – if you die you drop them, and if you die again you lose them forever. If most RPGs have grinding as the equivalent of treasury bonds – steady, riskless accumulation – then Dark Souls’s grinding is day trading penny shares on one screen, while multi-tabling high-stakes poker on the other.
After all, what’s triumph without the pain of loss? What’s a comeback without some low to come back from? All players will have a story about losing their entire soul stash through either personal idiocy or design malevolence, and as the game progresses, the magnitude of that loss will seem to scale with your level. At first, you’ll bite the carpet after dropping a few hundred souls. By the time you’re in New Game+, you’ll be haunted by Black Soulsday – the moment when 100,000 souls slipped between your fingers.
But the continuous sense of regret doesn’t discourage the player. Not permanently anyway – regret is not just the knowledge that you’ve made a mistake, but crucially the desire to do better next time. Each death in Dark Souls will cost you, as does each stat you level up incorrectly and each weapon you ineptly upgrade, but nearly any mistake can be put right – for the right, often painful, price – and every resurrection is an opportunity to re-live and remake the decisions that haunt you. All those failures, all those setbacks, cumulatively and paradoxically add up to eventual success. Your quest – given to you by a dying man begging you to succeed where he failed – is to repair a broken, decaying world, to undo not only your own mistakes but everyone else’s. Along the way, you’ll fail a thousand times until you eventually triumph, and because each failure is a small-but-genuine loss that final victory feels both well-earned and utterly real.