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Getting Dark Souls all wrong

Xav de Matos, @Xav

This is Making Time, a column about the games we've always wanted to play, and the games we've always wanted to play again.

When Dark Souls first launched in October 2011, I picked it up immediately. Though that statement may seem to be tied to my love of the game's spiritual predecessor, the truth is I've never touched Demon's Souls. It was the rampant fan excitement for a new entry in From Software's action-RPG that drew me in. But Dark Souls didn't resonate with me.

It was a combination of elements that made it easy for me to shelve my copy: the continuous discussion of its incredible difficulty and the "if you don't like it, you don't get it" attitude from fanatics. I never planned to play Dark Souls again.

Early this morning, I wrapped up my fifth hour of the game on Xbox 360, after putting three-plus hours in on the (only worth playing with fan-made fixes) PC version. Dark Souls' hooks are firmly embedded under my skin.

Gallery: Dark Souls (Gamescom 2011) | 16 Photos

Recently I heard podcaster, director, and friend Dan Trachtenberg make an impassioned plea for Dark Souls. His description of how the game's subtle systems function alongside precise movements was enough to pique my interest, primarily because his attitude wasn't abrasive towards those that rightfully decide to skip it. I decided to give it another chance. While his words helped bring me to re-install the game, it was other gaming experiences that I realized have prepared me to manage the game.

Having played and adored games like ZombiU, Spelunky, and FTL: Faster Than Light incessantly in 2012, I realized that Dark Souls offers a similar set of systems and rules. Those games, while also bearing frustrations, didn't carry with them a certain ego that the Dark Souls franchise has amassed by way of its ultra-hardcore following. There was no great shove to force me to like something. That shove to adore only serves to push my interest in the opposite direction in the face of frustration. But I played those games, dealt with the anger for my failings, and didn't feel like something was missing. I was able to allow my reactions to mature and to learn how to adapt to what each game was throwing my way.

There was freedom in playing ZombiU, Spelunky, and FTL: Faster Than Light – and the concept of those games and Dark Souls is similar. If you die, you're essentially done. While in Dark Souls and ZombiU you have a chance to recover, the goal is to never give yourself that opportunity. Each game is about making intelligent choices, thinking in both the long- and short-term. Realizing that Dark Souls was exactly that type of game, I was hooked.

Though when I play it I will exhibit moments of frustration, Dark Souls isn't a frustrating game; in fact, I'll even go so far as to say it isn't as difficult as people think. The perceived difficulty in Dark Souls is attached to the game's inability to coddle. The tutorial boss you square off against within the game's first fifteen minutes? It will probably kick your ass. But it isn't pounding your avatar into the pavement because it's difficult, it's doing so because you haven't adjusted to the way things work in Dark Souls.

Every movement, every parry, every block or weapon swipe is part of a crucial dance. You can't wildly mash buttons and hope to walk away. You can't stress yourself out. You must demonstrate patience at every turn. This is the difficult part. In an industry that makes its biggest piles of money on the backs of twitch-experience franchises, games like Dark Souls or ZombiU seem like dinosaurs – seemingly built on the same principles of retro games, where difficulty was increased to maximize profitability at the arcade.

Even when "cheesing" the game by gaining higher-than-normal level gear for your customizable hero, a few strikes will kill you. I know this because in my original PC-version run, I did just that; I spent far too much time acquiring the Drake Sword to ease the transition into the world of Dark Souls (I skipped it playing the Xbox version). Even then, starting enemies can take you out and bosses can one-shot you. Later, treasure chests sprout arms and legs and eat your character whole in one massive gulp.

But that moment where you stand against a behemoth you've never seen before, drain your stamina bar as you dodge and attack, and emerge victorious with nothing more than a sliver of health left is glorious. It's a challenge and, if you work within the systems offered, one that is always possible to complete.

Getting Dark Souls all wrong
Knowing how things function allows you to prepare, and it helps build confidence toward success. Making a mistake, dying, and being forced to hunt down your essence to reacquire Souls (the game's currency) and Humanity (it's easier if you read about it) can be frustrating. In games like Dark Souls and ZombiU, death brings actual consequence to your progress. It creates a barrier you can choose to hurdle over and take back your lost items or ignore and move on. The mistake I made when playing Dark Souls the first time was not realizing you don't have to constantly chase after your mistakes. You can always move on and try something different. There is no shortage of souls to earn.

Part of my transition into the 'Cult of Dark Souls' was made possible because of online tools built to walk players through the experience. YouTube user NorthernLion and his 'Let's Play Dark Souls' series have chewed up my bandwidth over the last few days. The Dark Souls Wiki has been accessed so often, it's now featured in the second slot of my Chrome homepage – next only to my work email. These are only a few sources of many and, most importantly, there is no attitude about the game from these sources. It's a collection of people in love with a product that offer their assistance to share knowledge in mastering the journey.

Of course, these sources also exist because the game does a fairly terrible job explaining almost anything. It's certainly a design decision that potential players have had to decide to accept or despise.

I know this is a real hot button topic of 2011, but it's funny how playing some games can help influence or evolve your feelings toward others. Dark Souls isn't going to be for everyone, and that's perfect; however, I'm glad I finally learned how wrong I was about it.

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