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To say Dark Souls is a cruel game is to do its design a disservice. The atmosphere is agonizingly tense, and there’s this bizarre synthesis of dread and exhilaration knowing that each step in the world moves you through and ever-deepening gloom. It's an RPG that contains elements of survival horror demanding that you make use very limited resources in a world where you’re over-matched. It's a game in which death is not so much a punishment as it is a learning tool, a digital koan to meditate on to better prepare yourself for trials ahead. A deft player can fight his/her way through almost any real challenge because the combat, however difficult, is rarely (if ever) unfair. It's an exceptional masterpiece.
It also scares me—I mean genuinely scares me so much that at one point I had to re-think the time I spent with it. There’s something at the heart of that game that I find more than unsettling. Dark Souls operates outside the bounds of our average concept of horror that reaches a level on par with some of the deepest existential terrors glimpsed through Cormac McCarthy's elegiac nihilism and H. P. Lovecraft’s mythic cycles. Deep in the recesses of that digital world, something stirs…and waits.
I played its predecessor, Demon’s Souls, but after two serious tries, I found that the game required more time to put into it than I actually had to give. Dark Souls' open world and disturbing beauty, however, drew me to it. The player's character, a nameless undead, wanders through landscape ripped straight from someone's darkest, depraved nightmare. Beginning at a place called the "Undead Asylum," the player journeys beyond the walls of his/her prison to fulfill some prophecy to repair a sundered world. That's about all you get if you don't go to great lengths to find out the story. I have no idea why my character must do what he does, and the game gives little to no direction (so much so that an internet community has grown up around trying to help newcomers and experts alike). Narrative, it seems, is far too comforting for a game like Dark Souls. It forces through a demonic hellscape without the safety net of a clear goal or a readily visible point in digital space to reach. The game doesn’t care if you want story; it doesn’t care about you at all. It just stares at your actions with lidless, reptilian eyes.
This tone of utter hopelessness is compounded with the game’s vast array of demonic creatures and terrifying bosses that leave the player literally shaking after a narrow victory. These eldritch monsters attack with ground-shaking power, and they outmatch the player at every turn, if he/she is not careful. Not merely content with providing a borderline insurmountable challenge, the developers designed the character models to be visually revolting and intimidating. One look at the Gaping Dragon guarding the key to Blighttown is enough to turn the stomach of any seasoned player.
The monster plays off the player's initial disgust at the creature as it emerges slowly from an abyss, and, before the player's shock at seeing the demon subsides, it advances with devastating attacks, leaving the player helpless. Another ungodly creature is the Butcher, a large masculine-looking creature, which the player finds out via an NPC is actually a female. She carries a giant cleaver--a Freudian symbol for castration if ever there were one--and a burlap sack obscures her face. This faceless giant is reminiscent of Silent Hill 2's Pyramid Head, largely believed to be the most horrific video game monster ever created (likely due to his own status as a metaphor for perverted masculinity). These are just two examples of the horrors created to unnerve and terrify visually as well as mechanically; everything wants nothing more than to eviscerate the player in the most brutal fashion possible.
The game is so alienating, in fact, that its multiplayer component (a complex system of entering others' game worlds for good or ill, cryptic messages, seeing ghostly apparitions of other players, and replaying the last moments of another player's in-game by touching bloodstains left on the ground) is only hinted at through NPCs and item descriptions. Since player is almost always alone, seeing the specter of another player reminds the player that others share his/her fate--but they remain separated by some force that has sundered the world. The ultimate payoff is that the player must evaluate what it means to play with someone online.
The connection online gameplay provides is only fleeting and superficial, but when strangers team up to take down an impressively difficult boss, the feeling of gratification is on par with beating an entire game. Players blink in and out of each other’s worlds, and as well, each other’s' lives, inviting a metatextual pondering of existence and connection in a world of abject despair. The game asks if we really know the people we play with and answers that we can’t, that they are just hollowed shells of people projected on a screen--bodies turned into ghosts made of ones and zeroes. These interactions, nevertheless, are meaningful in that they help us traverse some virtual wasteland, and maybe that's all we can ever ask for in online interaction.
It is here in which the true horror of Dark Souls writhes, opens its fetid maw, and screams. Whereas most horror games choose to keep the elements of horror within the game itself, Dark Souls dares to reach out and infect the player's psyche. Should one choose to play the game, he/she will inevitably ask the question, "Why the bleeding hell do I keep playing?" And then it strikes. The player no longer plays because it's enjoyable; he/she plays because success after repeated failure is an addiction. Gaming becomes compulsion, not unlike gambling, except the player constantly bets hours instead of chips. The player willingly undergoes the constant threat of failure in a world where respite is a luxury not often afforded.
Even the rhetoric of the game’s mechanics provokes something of existential terror. You collect “Humanity” to revert to human form, and only when human can you summon aid from undead (or “Hollowed”) players. Through some perverse game coded witchcraft, the developers turn failure into progress, an uncomfortable inversion of what we assume video games should do, coldly stripping from our characters that singular thing that separates them (and players) from the shambling horrors that haunt this damned world. Death and punishment serves as the game's central pedagogy while turning the player into an inhuman student of this dilapidated and beautiful hell.
It hit me long after I powered down my PS3, and I stopped playing in order to read some of T. S. Eliot’s poetry to prepare for a meeting with my adviser. I read until I settled on ‘The Hollow Men,’ probably not through coincidence. The poem imagines a bleak Limbo inhabited by “Those who have crossed / With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom.” The first stanza ends with a plea from the pitiful damned souls to “Remember us -- if at all -- not as lost / Violent souls, but only / As the hollow men.” As I read, I felt drawn back into Dark Souls’ twisted world where, much like in Eliot’s poetry the whispers of the restless dead are given uncanny life. I did not play long before I returned to my books, but I couldn't help but think of new strategies to bypass the traps that left me and my character so broken and hollowed. I realized then that I hadn't stopped playing the game, that part of its design is to never wander too far from the player's thoughts. I became aware that the game wouldn't let me leave, just like that poor soul I helped escape from the Undead Asylum. That's a level of meta-horror this medium can so brilliantly achieve, as elegant as it is disturbing.
Dark Souls is a journey into a Nietzschean abyss that doesn't just stare back. It rends the player with claw and fang and leaves him/her with questions as to why he/she continues to spiral downward into a world of unspeakable horror, only to claw back out again. The game is Poe’s “Raven” staring disinterestedly at the wailing madman trying to elicit meaning from it. It’s a Lovecraftian monster that slumbers until someone disturbs it. It’s a Dantean Inferno, a biblical apocalypse, a Conradian terror. Dark Souls scares me because I’m never not playing it, even when the game is turned off, even though the game is no longer in my possession. I know I’ll return to it--I haven’t deleted my save file. Still, I wonder how the developers slept soundly, knowing they created such a monstrous thing. Sometimes, when I couldn't sleep at night, I played Dark Souls.
So have you played Dark Souls? What are your impressions of it? Could you see it as a horror game or just an amazing RPG?
David is working on his PhD and currently writes for awesomeoutof10.com, where this article was originally published. Follow his hilarious acts of academic vigilantism on twitter and please feel free to ask questions and offer criticism!