I must’ve been around 5 years old when i first fell in love with video games. I met a kid at my school whose Dad owned a video rental store, which was a mind blowing place to spend time, a portal to countless galaxies. I didn’t have a Nintendo at home, and although our dusty but trusty Atari 2600 was a fun device, i wasn’t ready for the culture shock of playing on a Super Nintendo for the first time.
The cool greyish colours mixed with the vibrant colourful logo and buttons, the rigid design of the console, and most importantly, the amazing games available on Nintendo’s iconic machine: all conspired to form an overwhelming obsession. Going from “Adventure” on Atari 2600 to “Zelda – a Link to the past” on the Super Nintendo was like going from sandals to Nike sneakers. I vividly recall spending countless hours playing Contra 3, Turtles in Time, Pilotwings, Bubsy the Bobcat and Super Mario World at my friends place, only to come home to my increasingly less appealing Atari 2600.
Falling in – and out – of love
Fast forward to the here and now. I’ve played hundreds of video games, and fell out of love with them a few times. After a while, i felt certain choices and patterns in game design became repetitive and more and more cumbersome. Ubisoft often catches flak for blatantly rehashing gameplay structures (and rightfully so, if you ask me), and even my beloved Rockstar Games is not drastically changing anything to the recipe of their open world games, much to the chagrin of some seasoned gamers who’ve seen the medium stagnate a bit as far as gameplay innovation goes, in spite of graphical improvements. But every now and then, a game will pull a “Al pacino in godfather 3” on me: Just when i thought i was out, they pull me back in. Over the last decade(s), i can name a few titles that really made me fall in love again, most notably Metal Gear Solid 5, Katamari Damacy, Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2, The Witcher 3 and PUBG. And the latest game that managed to pull off this feat: Dark Souls – Remastered on Switch.
Dark Souls – The antithesis of modern gamedesign
Some good friends have been praising Dark Souls (and the sun) over the last few years, but i didn’t really take their advice to play the games to heart (shout out to Daniell and Sjors, and to the beauty of contagious enthousiasm). At first sight, it’s not the most visually appealing game, nor does the game seem welcoming to newcomers at all. I just frowned upon it and dismissed it as some weird hack and slash game for purists and sadomasochists. While i’m not saying the latter is entirely untrue, i tend to describe Dark Souls as a modern day equivalent of, say, a Castlevania 3 or 4. The game has a brutal learning curve that forced me to learn patterns and put the blame on myself, not the game. Dark souls confronted me with the fact I’ve been pampered by modern day gamedesign. The modern AAA gamer has been turned into somewhat of a lazy wimp that expects to be guided at every junction by visual cues. You expect to be entertained and challenged, but you don’t expect to die. Dying in games is not what it used to be, and the lack of consequence ultimately creates a lack of immersion. Dark Souls capitalizes on this mental conditioning by making you die, die, and die some more. And the game just loves shoving dirt in your face and laughing at you every chance it gets. Dark Souls is a bootcamp for those spoiled by modern day gamedesign (I urge Ubisoft employees to be forced to play through this game, it could be a healing experience). Dark Souls is the total opposite of a Power Star in Super Mario, it makes you the star in power, once you get to terms with the fact YOU are responsible for your actions. (Wo)man up!
I played Dark Souls Remastered on Switch, which didn’t make the game any easier. The framerate and controls are a bit choppy, but rigid and trustworthy enough to be able to even recommend the game on this platform. I am by no means the binge gamer i once was, and tend to take my time playing (and writing about) games. Dark Souls was so incredibly frustrating at times that i gave up on the game twice and let it sit for months, but eventually felt her seductive voice pulling me back in. There’s a notorious boss duo that almost made me quit the game (Ornstein & Smough for those that know), which in hindsight, when you figure the strategy out, is actually a lot simpler that the impossible task it at one point seemed to be. I recall not playing the game for 5 months after failing to beat this boss 30 times in a row, and basically giving up on ever being able to finish it, but eventually feeling like such a wimp for chickening out. On a cold winter evening i decided to give it one final try, and for some reason i rethought my strategies. I evaluated my tactics, and tried some radical new ideas. I started decoding the patterns, and when i finally managed to finish them both i experienced a thrill i had not experienced since the super nintendo Castlevania and Contra days.
The sense of joy and immersion the unforgiving world of Dark Souls brought me felt like a really unique hardcore flavor that brought me back to the video rental store days. It’s the kind of game you want to finish for bragging rights, and the kind of game that doesnt adapt to the gamer, but instead forces the gamer to adapt to it’s rules. It’s the type of game that grows on you as you get better, which is a rare occurance these days, as lots of games (and series) seem hell-bent on keeping your attention curve spiking at all times, which in some ironic way leads to an extreme desensitization. Wander off and most games will start screaming in your face to turn back with audiovisual cues. None of this in Dark Souls. Want to reach for a helping hand? Expect to get your hand chopped off. I spent the first 5-10 hours of the game exploring a part of the game i had no business in yet. The game wasn’t literally telling me i was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the fact i kept getting my ass handed to me was. After getting killed numerous times (see screenshot above) i was so fed up, i decided to walk somewhere else, only to discover a small trail that led to the part of the game where i needed to be at at that certain time.
A spark of philosophy
The joy factor in Dark Souls is a somewhat subjective matter. While it might actually be my favorite game of the last decade, I can’t say i can recommend the game for everyone at all times. You need to be ready for it. It all boils down to the type of person you are, not as much “what your favorite genre is”. If you see value in failure, growth in defeat and development in loss, this is your jam. Furthermore, if you are growing tired of conventional game design, and don’t want to be guided through the entire game like some lost toddler, Dark Souls can be that breath of fresh air able to restore your faith in gaming. But expect heavy withdrawal symptoms if you’ve been playing lots of modern more forgiving games. You’re gonna put the blame on the game, you’re gonna feel reaaaally shitty at times, but it’s all part of the beautiful stuggle needed to feel true victory at the end of the road. In a larger sense, the beauty of dealing with (and overcoming) struggles is an essential element to a life well lived, and Dark Souls definetely lends itself to some interesting philosophical comparisons in this regard. Similar to real life, no heroic narrative can be established without a healthy dose of adversity to overcome. For an individual to flourish, he or she must venture into the big scary world, facing challenges that seem impossible at times, only to find out the biggest foe and weakness is usually your own mind.
“Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions. He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.”
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Dark Souls rekindled my love for gaming
And..for myself? As i’m trying to gather my closing thoughts on this game, i realize i’m kind of going all over the place in this article. It’s just a difficult game to describe in one sentence. It’s a lot of things, or can be: a therapy for your self pity, the antithetical manifesto against modern day game design, and the ultimate hardcore 3d Metroidvania. A unique experience that grows on you over time, and definately a game that must be played in order to be judged. Screenshots don’t do it justice, and even gameplay footage can’t translate the thrill of walking around in the fictional kingdom of Lordran. I caught myself dismissing this game over and over again for various reasons over the past years, from the visual style not appealing to me to the gameplay looking clunky as hell, but trust me: once you sink into the world, and the mechanics sink their claws into your muscle memory, this is an experience unlike any other. And a lot of that has to do with undressing gamedesign back to its core naked state. Letting the player discover and exceed their own boundaries, instead of guiding us through every step out of fear we might miss anything or break the immersion for even one second. The more you are growing tired of the same old gamedesign being rehashed and want to rebel against it, the better this game will be for you. Reverse psychology at it’s finest!
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