The lights are on
Power Member - Level 9
We first met at the Boletarian Palace. The crumbling parapets looked solemnly down when your phantom materialized from the ether. I hadn’t prepared for our encounter, and, to be honest, I was more surprised than intimidated. You ran, greatsword held aloft by two hands, straight at me as I fumbled with my controller. Our fight, if it could be so called, lasted only seconds before you slew my character and left him slumped and broken on the cold stone steps. Your phantom disappeared into the black, and I arose elsewhere to recover what was left. In those moments, I hated you and how you humiliated me, robbed me of my time and effort. But you taught me a valuable lesson. I would not be caught off guard again.
I’ve always found it disappointing that discussions of the Souls series more often highlight the games’ difficulty in favor of their brilliant multiplayer components. Seeing the ghosts of other players blink in and out of existence brought a much welcome sense of shared misery, a connection only deepened during moments of direct interaction. The world I explored was one of many, linked tenuously to other games. It was, at times, a boon when I could summon someone as a blue phantom to my realm to help me overcome a particularly difficult area or boss. But keeping such a connection open also meant that others, red phantoms, could cross over to take from me everything I fought so hard to earn. Therein lies an unexpected poetry to the connections we form with other players online, and in world where the transmigration of souls plays a significant thematic part, a former enemy could become a valued ally. Across digital planes, I could see you in every player that sought to kill me.
It was after I’d been summoned to another world to help someone kill a powerful demon that I met you a second time. Your name had changed, you fought with speed instead of strength, but I knew it was you. We dueled near the Altar of Storms, the sky and its enormous beasts mirroring our energetic dance in the arena below. This time, I had a stronger grasp of the mechanics. I kept just enough space between us to avoid your swings. I knew when to back off, when to pounce, when to heal, and for the first time, I beat you. I celebrated loudly but briefly (there’s little room for such indulgences in the game). But it was my first victory over another player, and I was more than glad it was you.
I never completed Demon’s Souls. The game wanted more time than I could devote to it, and every encounter in that game lacked the drama of our fight on those steps. I tired of the game rather quickly, and, to be honest, I almost forgot about you and our rivalry—until From Software announced a spiritual sequel in 2011’s Dark Souls. The game, set in the decaying world of Lordran, boasted a more intricate multiplayer suite with newly-added Covenants, factions of players devoted to different tasks in the world to either help or hinder fellow pilgrims.
According the game's lore, my character sought to fulfill some prophecy about saving Lordran from falling into miserable decay, but I had a different quest to pursue. I played to find you. I died frequently in the early stages of my journey, often at the hands of other players far more experienced than I. An unfortunate side effect of the game’s punishing design, invaders with impressive equipment could enter the worlds of players just starting out, and I regularly wound up skewered by someone armed with weapons and clad in armor I wouldn’t see until much later in the game.
Even worse was the fact that, after a defeat, the screen lingers on the defeated player's corpse just long enough for the victor to perform one of several scripted gestures, usually a crude, arrogant pose meant to antagonize or insult. Strangely enough, these gestures act as some of the only ways players can communicate, since talking via microphones is not allowed. A bizarre culture of manners formed where players, when summoned to provide assistance or to duel in specified arenas, make their avatars bow or show some similar sign of respect to one another before proceeding. I decided that if I ever found you, we would observe such formalities. You never struck me as one to boast, so I never did. I figured I owed you that much.
I traveled deeper in Dark Souls’ strange world, eventually joining the Forest Hunters, a covenant tasked with guarding a sacred grove that all players must eventually traverse. As a Hunter, I wanderedr the woods until I was summoned to defend the hallowed ground from trespassers, assured each time you would be the transgressor. Ultimately, my time spent praying you’d cross the forest proved in vain. Those interlopers I killed had none of your skill, and those who killed me had none of your tact and grace.
I left the forest to seek you elsewhere in the twilit land of Anor Londo. The long-abandoned city staood as a lasting reminder of the great lords who had left the world behind. Under the vaulted arches of an ancient cathedral, I found my progress halted as each time I called for aid from fellow players, invaders crossed into my realm to challenge me. I welcomed them, assuming you would be among their ranks, but you never showed.
I decided to take a more active approach to finding my rival. In Anor Londo I sought out the Blades of the Darkmoon, those who pledged to hunt the guilty, in hopes they could lead me to you. In my quest to join them, I unfortunately offended their leader by accident and incurred the wrath of his disciples. They hunted me as I hunted you, and I couldn’t help but smirk at the poetic symmetry of such an emergent turn of events.
I turned to darker methods to find you. I broke my code only to help other players and vowed to invade other players' worlds across Lordran. I killed a knight errant in the poisonous bog below Blighttown and left his corpse to sink in the mire. I slew a cleric inside the chapel in the Undead Burg at the foot of an altar built to honor some absent deity. Deep in the ruins of Lost Izalith, I hunted a sorcerer who proved my better and sent me back to my world with less than when I left it. Each opponent could have been you, but none felt right. Every life I took offered no vindication, and every failure lacked moralistic weight. I thought my search had come to a disappointing end.
Then, in the towering libraries of the Duke’s Archives, you came for me. I left my character resting at a bonfire on a balcony outside foolishly thinking that I couldn’t be invaded. Bonfires seemed to offer a small respite from the horrors of Lordran, so surely it would act as a makeshift pause function. I left my chair to check my laundry, to get the mail, to perform some other mundane task that would take no longer than five minutes, but, when I returned to the game, I found an unsettling and unfamiliar sight. My character was no longer sitting at the bonfire but standing, his health depleted but for the slightest sliver. My television screen bore a message to tell me what transpired: “Phantom has returned home.”
I didn’t recognize your name, but it had to be you. I’d killed countless invaders, and I’d been killed by even more. But none of them would have left someone like that, weakened to point of the death yet still alive. Why didn't you just kill me? Was it some sort of message? Did you carefully choose your attacks to leave just enough life simply to show that you could? Perhaps you assaulted my immobile avatar only to tire of his lack of response, and you left out of sheer boredom. Or did you, as I suspect, attempt my assassination but stop when you noticed I was not there to defend myself, finding no honor or reward in killing a static target? That’s what I’d like to believe, that you sought me out as ruthlessly as I hunted you and scoured the world for our eventual meeting. Maybe you wanted to shame me by leaving me alive, but I choose to think that mercy, not cruelty, stayed your hand.
I stopped looking for you after that. I devoted the rest of time in Dark Souls to completing the game. As I approached the final fight in the Kiln of the First Flame, I was invaded by another player one last time. I saw the blue phantom emerge across the remnants of the crumbling shrine, one of the Blades seeking vengeance for the death of their leader at my hands. We fought briefly but intensely, until a well-timed parry and riposte sent my foe flailing into a seemingly bottomless pit of ash. It was the last bit of interaction I had with another player in Dark Souls. I walked alone through the fog barricade to kill the game’s ultimate enemy, and I left the last vestiges of that world and the shared experiences it offered behind, all my trials and tribulations coalescing into pile of cinders.
I haven't returned to Dark Souls, and I don't intend to any time soon. I must confess, though, I wonder if you're still there, wandering around and invading worlds of hapless player. I sincerely hope you are. If not for you, my experience in the twisted lands of the Souls series would have lacked a palpable richness. You and I wove together a narrative of revenge and redemption, one of metempsychosis and self-reflection. Your specter haunted, inspired, and infuriated me, compelling me to my character's own apocalyptic end. All other games I play that seek to tell stories must now contend with the one we etched in digital blood and stone across multiple worlds.
So, as I begin my journey in Dark Souls II, finding my way across another damned place alongside damned souls, I look for you, eagerly awaiting that moment when we can continue our tale. Perhaps we'll meet as allies, or, more likely, once again locked in immortal combat. Either way, I'm searching for you. I wonder if you're looking for me, too.
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!