The first and sometimes the only thing people say about Dark Souls is that it’s hard—really hard, migraine hard, ready-to-shoot-yourself challenging. The players say it (“I can’t take this!”). The people who are scared to play it, say it: “Wait, that’s the one that’s really hard, right?”
I’m as guilty as anyone of defining this game by its difficulty level, when there are actually a hundred other things I’d rather celebrate. But I want to tackle the “difficulty” thing head-on, because the difficulty is key to the experience of this game—but not in the macho, “tough it out” sense you might expect. In Dark Souls, the difficulty isn’t a club the designers bash you with, but the palette with which they paint the experience.
Let’s take an example: the section named Sen’s Fortress. (Spoiler warning: we’re going to be talking about Sen’s Fortress.) Jayson Gegner praised it on Twitter as “Dark Souls’ gameplay design & level design in microcosm,” and he’s right: almost every design decision that makes Dark Souls great can be seen in this sequence.
And you won’t even see it coming. You may look straight at Sen’s Fortress a hundred times before you learn what it’s for or even what it’s called. Dark Souls has an “open world,” although you’d be better to call it a semi-open world. It is not like Bethesda’s contemperanous Skyrim, where you can start walking in any direction and find something to do; instead, you have a handful of choices at any one time, and you have to figure out which one is best.
Your first big choice in the game is to go up, or down. Nobody points you to the trailheads: you just realize after poking around that these are your options. Which is better? Nobody tells you. There is a guy sitting nearby who tells you that your job is to ring two bells, but he doesn’t say much more. From here, you’re on your own.
Now, it won’t take long to figure out that going up is easier than down. Following the path of less resistance will bring faster progress, while going down will take you to encounters that range from painful to impossible. (You could also go across, through the graveyard, which would be a really bad idea.) Technically, you could be stubborn and ring the down bell before the easier up bell. But I’m sure that almost everybody hits them in the order the designers expect.
Why would the designers give us these options when all but one of them leads to disaster? Because if we make the decision, we own the consequences. When we talk about “open world” games, we think of words like “discovery” and “freedom,” and sometimes we conflate the terms: if we can discover the world on our own, then we must be free. But there’s no freedom in Dark Souls. The designers let us experience the place on our own, while hooking us on an invisible leash to keep us more or less on task. Yet we still feel like we’ve conquered this space, because we put it together ourselves—unlocking our own shortcuts, discovering how the levels connect, and making our mental maps of the entire world. (Here’s one simple way From Software could have ruined the whole game: by giving us an on-screen mini-map.)
So, you start with a simple goal: ring the two bells. Get that done, and you’ll open the gate to Sen’s Fortress. By now, you’ve definitely seen the place: it’s a big, imposing building at the end of a walkway leading from Undead Parish. The front gate’s open. Let’s check it out!
The first section of Sen’s Fortress is the most challenging. It acts as a kind of overture, introducing all of the elements that will give you grief: pressure plates in the floor that trigger traps in the wall; tough, fast lizard men; snipers that shoot lightning bolts at you from the darkness; and platforming sections, that force you to thread your way across narrow catwalks between giant swinging axeblades. Fall off the catwalk and you end up in a mucky pit where your movement is restricted and demons lurk in the darkness, waiting to clock you. Get stuck there once and you’ll be even more nervous the next time you run that gauntlet, which just makes executing your moves even harder.
If you’re a so-so player like me, you may run through this opening section a dozen times before you’re comfortable with it, and you’ll still screw up every third or fourth time thereafter. So let’s stop here and ask: why is this damn game so hard? Are the designers mean people? Are they superhumanly good at videogames? Did they, at the inception of the franchise, do some market research and conclude, “Well, you know, there are already plenty of easy RPGs on the market?”
I can’t speak for the designers—truth be told, I’d be scared to be alone in a room with them. But the challenge accomplishes a few things. First and most obviously, it forces you to pay attention. Play any other recent action RPG—Fable III, say—and the dungeons fly by in a whirl of similar rooms, easy encounters, and piles of devalued loot. It’s rare to go through any piece of real estate more than once, and in Fable III, I remember running through several beautiful dungeons and fortresses and paying almost no attention along the way. By contrast, Dark Souls shoves your nose against every inch of the game.
Because you repeat each section of the game so many times, and commit it so firmly to memory, you build up certain tricks and patterns. You achieve mastery, which is satisfying, and yet you always feel like something could go wrong, which is exciting. It’s not like memorizing a tricky cadenza on piano; in Dark Souls, your timing (well, my timing) is never perfect. Take Undead Burg, in the sequence right after the first bonfire. You run across a catwalk into a room. The first skeleton will rush at you, but let’s say you’re a split-second too slow as you dash across the catwalk; he may have his shield up in time to block your swing. While you stop to deal with him, another skeleton has time to throw a firebomb at you. And because you were probably cocky going in, you were probably a little careless, and now you’re mobbed. You could get killed on your twentieth time through this room, or even your fiftieth.
This is why the same handful of skellys by a catwalk can keep you entertained for hours, and it probably has the level designers on Fable III—and the producers who set their budgets—crying in their pints. And while I hate to boil this down to quality versus quantity, it is odd and maybe terrifying to think that so many AAA games—with teams in the hundreds and budgets in the tens of millions—are built to deliver content that the player experiences only once, if at all. That’s some “fall of the Roman Empire” stuff right there.
But more than anything, the game’s difficulty level leads to a dynamic and exciting experience. While the game is consistently difficult, it’s difficult in very different ways, and this gives each level its own challenge, its own tempo, and its own intensity.
In Sen’s Fortress, once you run the gauntlet of the first two catwalks, things start to calm down. You can take your time exploring the next rooms, and at this point, the game will even start dropping sight gags. Right after the opening section, you’ll come to a room where a lizard man is leaning against the wall, taking a snooze. After struggling with three of these guys on the way in, you’ve found one who’s stone cold asleep!
Dark Souls doesn’t get enough credit for its sense of humor, which largely falls under what Anna Anthropy calls “masocore.” For example, in Sen’s Fortress, you’ll run into an eye-popping number of treasure chests. This place is a land of plenty compared to the rest of the game, where loot of any kind is scarce. By the fourth or fifth chest, you’ll be so greedy that you’ll run right up and open it—and then suddenly, two arms spring out of the sides and pull your head inside, where a giant pair of jaws chews you up. The designers knew you were going to walk up to that chest without a care in the world, so they decided to have some fun and throw in a Mimic.
Then there are the traps. Sen’s Fortress has three types, stating with a pressure plate/lethal dart thing that that you step on just a few feet inside the entrance. (After a few tries you’ll probably notice that you can lure the lizard men out right in time to catch them in this trap, and if you do it just right, you’ll take one of them out and make the fight much easier. I pull that off about three-fourths of the time.) The flying darts appear a few more times in the Fortress, and they get easier every time: after all, you’ve got the whole map memorized, so barring a distraction or mistake, it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll fall for the same trap twice. In that way, the floor plate traps feel like a missed opportunity. It’s clever the first time, but in Dark Souls, repeatability is more important than first impressions.
The boulders are better. The first time I saw one, I was watching a lizard gurad as he turned to face me, and just as he started walking, BAM!—a giant boulder smacked him down and rolled him away. Peering carefully out the door, I found a grooved track where the boulders were rolling by, every eight or so seconds like clockwork, giving me a narrow window to run up the track and look for an exit. (Naturally, I found one.)
As you go deeper, you’ll discover there are four tracks for the boulders to roll down, and you can even find—and rotate—the mechanism that lines them up with each chute. When I discovered that I could reroute the boulders myself, I wondered if this was a puzzle—say, I would have to send the boulders down the chutes in a certain order to unlock the next path. But that wasn’t the case. While the boulders will knock through a couple of walls to open secret rooms, figuring that out is strictly optional. I’m sure it was tempting for the designers, who are smart and devious people, to gate our progress until we work through this puzzle. But they didn’t, and for a good reason: that’s not the type of game Dark Souls is.
To stick a new kind of puzzle in the middle of this game would be disruptive. Even the players who like that kind of puzzle would have to change their frame of reference and dust off a set of skills that nothing else in the game has used. See for example the inventory puzzle in the middle of Portal 2: the player has to grab a turret and drop it into a scanner in a weapons factory, in order to trick the assembly line. This puzzle is so incongruous that the voiceover almost immediately gives away the answer, to keep the player from stalling out. Portal 2 may be a puzzle game—but it’s not that kind of puzzle game.
In any case, the boulders aren’t your chief headache: the axes are. Keep climbing through the fortress and you’ll face two more catwalks defended by swinging axes. The fourth and last set swings over the narrowest catwalk, in the highest point in the fortress, with the worst angle to check out how much space you have between the blades. Strangely, I’ve never failed to get through, but I’ve always been terrified, because the thought of getting knocked off and falling down and losing all of my hard-earned progress is excruciating. It would be about as bad as dropping your ice cream cone on a summer day.
The traps in Sen’s Fortress—the darts, the boulders, the axes—reinforce something you knew from the beginning of the game: the very ground you walk on is treacherous. This is something you don’t see in, say, BioWare RPGs, where the space you walk through is mainly there to pace out the encounters. In Dark Souls, you have to pay attention to the floor. You can fall off the edges of cliffs, or shimmy along a narrow ledge to a treasure. Without going as far as Prince of Persia, Sen’s Fortress makes you aware of the physical space you’re in by making it treacherous—and it’s treacherous in a different way than the cliffs up to Undead Burg, or the shaky platforms of Blighttown, or the invisible pathways of the Crystal Cave, or the tree roots of the Great Hollow (where falling can be the easiest way down). In Anor Londo, you can stroll across grand, flat, wide-open bridges, but it also forces you to shimmy up flying buttresses and sneak around narrow ledges—which tells you that this place is magnificent, and that you don’t belong here. In the same way, the traps and catwalks of Sen’s Fortress give the environment its own character, and brings a new texture to your experience.
When you get to the roof, you’re supposed to feel nervous as hell. In fact, when you first set foot up there, you’ll see a metal giant. If you’re like me, you will stand dead still to see if he’s going to attack you—yes, he’s maybe a hundred feet away, but who knows? But he ignores you, and once you’re at ease, you can creep around the rooftop, fighting knights (who are tough but familiar), sneaking around corners, and the whole time feeling torn between two impulses: the urge to explore what’s up here, and the fear that you’ll get killed and have to start over.
The designers know that right now, you’ll be looking for a bonfire. In Dead Souls, the bonfires are your checkpoint system. When you rest at a bonfire, it becomes your homebase; if you get killed, you wake up back at your last bonfire and head out to try again. Right now, your last bonfire is all the way back outside the Fortress, which means you desparately want to know: Where’s the next one?
Bonfires usually appear out in the open, with the consistency of highway rest stops. But once in a while, the designers decide to hide a bonfire, or block it off with a gate. In Sen’s Fortress, you have to look for a gap in the wall on the rooftop that lets you drop down a few feet and land in a balcony, where you’ll find the level’s only bonfire. You might miss it at first because, for one thing, the gap is hard to see from where you’re standing, and for another, the first time you reach that part of the roof, a grenade drops right in your face and sets you on fire, making you scramble as you try to figure out where it came from and how to escape.
That’s a good joke! The first giant you see on the roof will startle you, but he won’t hurt you. But there’s a second one who makes his presence known by throwing those grenades that burn off most of your health. Once you get a handle on where he’s aiming, he becomes predictable and easy to evade—but he’s still a nuisance. You can make your way up to his tower and try to kill him, but if you haven’t found the bonfire yet, this is a dicey proposition: it usually takes two or three runs to beat a mini-boss, and if you whiff it on this one, you’ll have to take on the whole fortress before you can try again.
But like I said, find the bonfire, and the entire dynamic changes. Now you have a waypoint at the edge of the roof. You’re gotten past the hardest parts of the region. You don’t have to mess around with swinging axes or dark tunnels or lizard men. You finally have time to explore.
Dark Souls has been praised for its backstory—or as Tom Bissell put it, for not telling you what the backstory is. To a limited extent, Dark Souls practices environmental storytelling. The game takes place in a ruined civilization—you can see that just by looking at the buildings. The few characters you can talk to are faded ghosts from a better time; that’s why they seem helpless and in fact, rarely even move around. The few bits of backstory you pick up come from quick dialogues and from the loading screens, where objects flash by with a few breadcrumbs of exposition attached. Big Hat Logan? Anor Londo? You only have a dim idea of what these mean.
Dark Souls is one of the most engrossing games I’ve ever played. No matter what I’m doing, I feel “in the moment.” I imagine this is how a feral cat feels, prowling the same neighborhood night after night, looking for fights—and like the feral cat, I don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about how it all came to be. Where most RPGs try to pile on history to give their stories weight, Dark Souls—for all the evidence of its history—keeps you focused on the here and now, rarely giving you a reason to reflect.
Dark Souls may be a hard game to play, but it’s an easy one to spectate. Big guys are tougher to fight than little ones. Heavy weapons take longer to swing than light ones. Fast, clumsy, strong, agile—we can see what these creatures are and what they can do, and the numbers floating over their heads just affirm our instincts. And the monsters aren’t just big, they’re weird. A wolf that fights by gripping a sword in its mouth? A giant bulbous demon that vomits lava? A topless woman attached to a spider? You don’t need much lore to prop up stuff like that.
Meanwhile, the guideposts through your journey have basic, humble descriptions. You have to ring the bell. You have to light the bonfires, and then kindle them. Everything is called what it is, and even the levels have short, simple names. Slapping ornate names onto everything—say, the Bell of Qualla’goggooo, the Bonfire of Shamalama—would, in trying to layer on meaning, merely slop on too much and disturb the beauty of what’s in front of you.
From Software is more concerned about “theming” than “storytelling,” and they are very, very good at it. Take the bonfire. In gameplay terms, this is your checkpoint, the place where you save your progress and recover your health—one of the oldest mechanics in gaming. Dark Souls represents the safety and comfort in this idea by using one of our oldest symbols of warmth and protection. You know without being told that if you sit by the bonfire, you’re safe.
Now look at the gesture a character makes when they make an offering to the bonfire. The pose is humble and pious: the character is on bended knee, hand on heart, as it reaches into the fire and makes an offering, or a pledge. The gesture isn’t cast as a “power-up” but as a kind of restoration. Your character is damaged and “hollow,” but by performing this rite, it recovers some of its humanity—reinforcing that this is a place to rest, to heal, to get back what you’ve lost. This is really, really well done.
Dark Souls‘ approach wouldn’t work for every game. “Something bad happened here” is not exactly the greatest story ever told, and what you learn about the specific characters and specific events is not as striking as the raw imagery of the fire, the undead, the sun. The NPC quest chains are brittle, and key encounters with the handful of NPCs are easy to miss. When you find someone to talk with, the overt exposition ranges from mediocre to bad. Half the exchanges end with a “ha ha ha ha” or “heh heh heh heh,” and sometimes, the dialogue doesn’t even understand the gameplay. When a character first warned me that Sen’s Fortress is a treacherous place where many have gone but none have returned, I wanted to ask: “Didn’t you tell them about the bonfire?”
Still, there is a story here, and I counted two pieces of lore in Sen’s Fortress. First is the name: Who is Sen? I have no idea. So far, I haven’t found another reference to him anywhere. (Though Reddit has some theories.) More compelling is an archer who we find on the rooftop, guarding a tower. When you approach him, he doesn’t stand out from the other knights and guards you run into up here. But if you close in and engage him, you’ll notice he has a few more tricks up his sleeves than the average bad guy: he can jump and roll, he’s tougher to kill, and his armor’s really shiny. The real tell comes when you kill him and loot the body. He’s carrying a weapon named Ricard’s Rapier, and this is how you learn his name.
Even on the Internet, I can’t find much lore about Ricard. But I’m fascinated enough by where he ended up, out here by himself, guarding some tower, with nobody but a few ghouls and lizards to keep him company. It expands the story just that little bit more: “Something bad happened here—and here’s a guy who suffered.”
The boss fight that ends the region is, counterintuitively, the easiest thing you’ll encounter. The Iron Golem that guards the exit may look tough, and he has a few tricks: if you get too close to his hand, he might pick you up and throw you right over the side of the building. But as with most of the bosses in the game, there’s a simple way to beat him: hide behind his legs and whack at his ankles until he’s dead. Once you’ve tackled the rest of this place, the boss is just an encore.
When you beat him, you’re done. Sen’s Fortress has changed from an out-of-the-way building, to the next step in your quest, to a nigh-insurmountable challenge, to an old friend. You’ll probably still remember every nook and cranny of the map, but now you’ll have a shortcut—a prison cage that acts as an elevator—that lets you skip all the challenges in between. There may still be a few corners and secrets you haven’t checked out: the chutes at the end of a few hallways that drop you down to the bottom, or the pit where that creepy headless Titanite demon hops around. You can tackle that at your leisure.
But I’ll wrap up this runthrough with the image that to me, makes sense of the entire fortress and maybe, the entire game. I still remember the first time I walked out on the rooftop and saw that metal giant, just like the one who opened the gate in the first place.
When I caught sight of him I backed up and raised my shield: was he going to attack me? Then I noticed what he was doing: he was hard at work throwing boulders down a hole. I had seen the device that caught the boulders, the tracks they rolled down, the holes where they broke through the walls, the lizards they crushed. I knew that the tracks ran through the entire Fortress, and now I could see the giant creature that kept the boulders rolling, moving like clockwork: lift, turn, drop, lift, turn, drop. He’s the coldly beating heart of this puzzle box, the engine that drives the entire machine, the creature that just keeps dropping rocks on your head to see if you’ll quit. He’s the most obvious metaphor for a game designer you’ll ever find. Is he making your life miserable—or richer, and more exciting? That’s for you to decade.
/ / /
So you may still be wondering, “That’s great, but why is the game so difficult?” That’s a good question. It’s a question I’ve asked dozens of times, whenever the difficulty spikes—or should I say, lurches ahead of me. Because for all I can say about the wonders of this game, the difficulty is still what makes the biggest impression. And honestly, it doesn’t always work. The last stretch of the game is a slog. It grinds you through one miserable boss fight after another—some of them coming within minutes of each other—and by the time you’re done you may just feel a kind of achey relief.
We tend to fixate on challenge because it’s that’s how we cope with it: we try to measure it and gauge it, we wonder if we can handle it, and then we slowly prepare to confront it. We lower our expectations and, at the same time, raise our skills through practice, until finally the mountain that looked so high from the base seems kind of small and cozy once we’re at the top. Things are only difficult until we understand them. To people who have beaten Dark Souls, the game doesn’t really seem that hard—hence the expression, “the real Dark Souls starts here,” meaning, in the much harder New Game Plus.
In music, film, and literature, difficult works provoke the same kind of response. We talk about them in terms of whether we can deal with them: War and Peace is “too long,” Lars Von Trier’s films are “too disturbing.” Audiences may balk at a work because it’s unfamiliar, complicated, opaque, taboo, exhausting, unpleasant to the senses, and so on—but in every case, the audience often hangs back and wonders: Are we the problem? Or is the work failing us? Is it challenging because the challenge is key to the form, the message, and the experience—or is it challenging because the artist is a jerk? If the artist has a message to send us—well, to paraphrase Samuel Goldwyn, why couldn’t they just send us a telegram?
Games shed new light on this old debate, because here, challenge is understood from the get-go as being integral to the experience. All games test their players, and the players accept that they are taking a test and they will be graded. We’re also more comfortable with the idea that the difficulty is the point of the game. We accept that sometimes, you have to earn your place in the audience. Consider this letter from Randall Shown that ran in The New York Times, replying to an article about choreographer Merce Cunningham:
Without the bias of an education in dance, I came to Merce on my own. Sitting in the rafters at City Center every March, I’d watch the legions leave halfway through, unable to grasp the language of his gestures or the sounds that accompanied them. Years later when coincidence led me to share my life for some years with a dancer in the company, Merce admitted his pleasure at testing the limits of his audience, suggesting in not so many words that the ones who made it through somehow earned the pleasures he suffered, and earned, in his own art.
The primary language of Dark Souls is difficulty. The game paces and varies that difficulty with the same craft that goes into its character builds, sound effects, and environmental design, and with the same purpose: to explore distinct, exquisitely-realized variations on one unified experience. What starts as a dare is revealed to be the reward.
… And okay, sure, it also gives you something to brag about to your friends. And did I mention: I beat Sen’s Fortress! I did it! See you in Anor Londo, if you even get there suckas!!!!!!!!
[CHANGES SINCE THE ORIGINAL POST: I corrected two mistakes, first that the dude by Firelink Shrine doesn't tell you where the bells are (he does), and second, that the giant who drops the boulders is the same one who opens the fortress (he isn't). Added a link to a theory from Reddit about where the name "Sen" came from. Also tweaked some wording.]