Today is Dark Souls III day. Millions of people are going to go to their local game store, pick up Dark Souls III and spend hours exploring, fighting, and yes, dying.
The last of those three is what people most associate the Souls Series with. I don’t blame them for feeling this way. Namco-Bandai has marketed the games made by FromSoftware almost exclusively on how difficult they are. The “Prepare to Die” marketing slogan for the original Dark Souls is ingrained in the essence of those games and its spinoff series, Bloodborne.
Note: Any collected reference to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, or Bloodborne will be called a “Souls Series” or “FromSoftware” game from this point forward.
I question the “Prepare to Die” ethos that surrounds the Souls Series. If these games are as ruthlessly hard as people make them out to be, how have they become so beloved? Are Souls players just masochistic? I don’t think that is true at all. Namco’s marketing team came up with a snappy, memetic catchphrase that greatly reduces what FromSoftware games are about.
FromSoftware games aren’t about Preparing to Die. They are about Preparing to Live.
Originally, the marketing scared me off. I thought the games were too far above my skill level and I would never have the time or patience to master them. “From games are for the hardest of the hardcore,” I thought. “I will never be that hardcore.”
I ended up getting into Souls games through Bloodborne, mostly drawn to it by its beautifully bleak Gothic atmosphere. I loved it. I have since went back and beat the original Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. They are all I really want to play at the moment because I love the process of playing them.
Process is a key word, because all of these games are strongly process oriented. Basic navigation of the world requires mindfulness, an eye for subtle visual cues, and the willingness to experiment. It is easy to spend hours wandering around one area before you find the path to get to an item or even the next boss. There are “optimal” boss orders that fans have come up with, but that doesn’t match the experience of getting lost in the world and learning for yourself.
Fighting enemies is less about twitch reflexes and more about balancing caution with opportunity. Most enemies in Souls titles can be bested with pretty basic tactics: Be safe, be alert, and don’t be too greedy. There are other more skill intensive ways to deal with fights (and yes, ways to cheese those fights), but by and large, treating enemies with respect will get you a long way.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not making a “Dark Souls is actually easy” post. FromSoftware games will still fuck you up.
What separates them from other action games is that they punish you for being complacent or sloppy with those tactics. Enemies hit incredibly hard, even the rank and file mooks. Running towards a group of four or five guys and expecting things to go well is a sure fire way to get yourself killed. Wildly attacking a monster type that you haven’t seen before is practically asking to become a bloodstain on the floor.
They also punish you for thinking with your heart instead of your head. Even when you are hours deep in a game, you can still be surprised by a particularly intimidating foe. For example, early on in Bloodborne, it is possible to stumble upon a large and alarmingly fast ax wielding guy who can kill you with one overhead attack. The first time I saw him, I panicked and was easily killed.
Later, after I had beaten a boss and gotten comfortable with the parry mechanic, I learned that his attacks have massive windows for countering. How did I learn about parries? By experimenting with the gun mechanic and my own positioning in fights. The game encourages you to analyze enemies and find ways to get them to fight on your terms.
Originally, new areas filled me with dread. Now, they fill me with hope and the promise of discovery. I know that every area brings with it the opportunity for challenging fights, new enemies, new shortcuts, and new loot. Every moment in the world is a moment that you are either succeeding or learning from your mistakes. I love the process of exploring the worlds that From creates, and that is a massive accomplishment in game design.
We can’t talk about the process of playing From games without talking about those harrowing bosses. The series’ most infamous monsters all have a stark, brutal intimidation factor. They are often big, scary, and can dispose of you in a handful of hits. How am I supposed to deal with the twin punch of Dark Souls’ Ornstein and Smoug? What about Bloodborne’s Martyr Logarius, an undead king who can summon hundreds of swords to kill you from the sky? It always seems impossible initially, but eventually, you will be victorious.
And these victories feel GLORIOUS. Beating a Souls boss feels great because it is the culmination of hours of work. Hours that you have spent learning about the environment, becoming stronger and more skilled, and successfully applying that work to your goal. You will die a lot in the process, but the moment you have defeated a boss and you are standing there simply living? That is the high that Souls players are always chasing.
If the Souls games are about anything, it isn’t constantly throwing yourself at an impassable foe, only to die. It is about the desire to live and overcome. Once you learn how to live in the world of Dark Souls, it becomes practically zen.
In addition to writing random things about games, I stream them. Check out twitch.tv/omegaredpanda to watch me fail at Dark Souls III. Follow me on Twitter @OmegaRedPanda.