The Backlog (1): And yet, we still have our humanity

Isolation, Perseverance, and Asking for Help in Dark Souls

Mild spoilers for the opening levels of Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition.

A large blue knight with a scythe attacks the player character, also a knight but wielding a sword, in a large dark hall.
I don’t know who this is but they look cool as heck (Dark Souls/FromSoftware/Steam)

I’m going start off with a vital confession: I’m not that good at video games.

This is ironic, considering I’ve gone and started a blog on gaming, but hear me out. I love gaming, and grew up, like many of my peers, binging games in the hours after school ended and before dinner started. I would get frustrated, joyful, and sad, sometimes all at once, as I explored Hyrule, the Mushroom Kingdom, and The Conduit’s abysmal representation of Washington D.C. Through these fantastical realities, I could escape the humdrum of everyday life, saving the world one concerningly passive blonde princess at a time. I never, in that whole time, enjoyed grinding — not in Pokémon, not in Dragon Quest, and most assuredly not in anything that could be perceived as “hard.” Challenge was never my thing, as evidenced by the pile of slightly-too-hard RPGs that fill up substantial sections of my backlog. I don’t really want to work at video games, especially as an adult for whom playing them is a much-needed escape from the stress of everyday life, rather than from its boredom. This, of course, means my tolerance for being confused, or frustrated, by a video game has gone down, even as my patience with life generally has gone up.

Enter Dark Souls. Possibly the most important game of the 2010s (or at least tied for the top spot), FromSoftware's long, hard journey through Lordran has spawned countless imitators. These Soulslikes take its challenging, bonfire-heavy gameplay and gloomy tone and rework them for a variety of locales, hoping to capture lightning in a bottle, or at least some Estus. They rarely do. At this point, the original Dark Souls has spawned two sequels, two spiritual sequels in Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and was recently spit-polished in a remaster that manages to be playable on the Nintendo Switch, if you feel like coping with the cognitive whiplash of going from the Hyrule to Lordran on the bus to work. FromSoftware’s output, and that of their devotees, has established a high-difficulty genre of gaming that revels in its basic principle: if at first you don’t succeed, die, die again. It’s genre which both child and adult me look at and go “that sounds like utter hell to play.”

Wait… how many stairs do I have to climb? (Dark Souls/FromSoftware/Steam).

So, I’m about 15 hours in to Dark Souls at this point, and my self-assessment of being “not good at video games” has been repeatedly confirmed as time passes under the endless twilight. Never have I died so frequently, so stupidly, as the game continually reminds me never to get cocky, kid. Regardless, I have just rung the first bell after two days of repeatedly banging my head against the wall (sometimes literally — the PC port is better with the community fixes, but I regret building a chunky character rather than a fast one) and am feeling quite good. I’ve just been killed for what is, I’m sure, the first of a few times by the Capra Demon in the Lower Undead Burg. At the beginning of yesterday, however, I couldn’t even get to the Undead Parish; progress equals improvement. I am, in some masochistic, perverse way, enjoying myself. The feeling of accomplishment is addictive; the combat is fun once you adapt to its careful, brutal pace; and it all takes place in a haunting, beautifully crafted world.

I’ve felt this every time I pick up Dark Souls — I think I started my playthrough in 2016 or 2017, I can’t remember — but it struck me more clearly this time, as I started to really get rolling with the combat and pick up some tricks of the trade, parrying and riposting my way through a Black Knight and some other dudes in capes that tear me to shreds if I make a misstep but are so satisfying to cut down. The terrifying dude with the big shield at the base of the Undead Parish scared the shit out of me, but swung so slowly and moved predictably enough that it only took me three tries to actually beat him. Scary wizard dude up the tower died in a slow, clumsy hail of arrows shot at angles through the window. Nothing feels cheap; it all just feels like survival. If at first you don’t succeed, die, die again.

Medieval-esque knight pulling back a curvy bow against the backdrop of a pillars and a yellow, cloudy sky.
I just want to look as cool as this guy (Dark Souls/FromSoftware/Steam)

This grind is why, I think, I’ve found it so resonant this time. I’m lucky, in that I’ve spent the holiday season — and, terrifyingly, the whole year — at home with my family, and have a sense of security because of that. Pandemic-induced isolation, however, permeates even the best of circumstances, and as my entire province goes back into lockdown after a rolling spike in cases, it’s hard not look forward and see a bleak, dark, and cold winter ahead. My best move for my health, my family’s health, and the health of my community, is to do my best to stay home. We’re supposed to be out of lockdown at the end of January, but who knows what’ll happen by the end of the month. Or in February. We just keep going, without guarantee of a light at the end, but with the knowledge that you are doing literally the best, and all, you can do.

Cue Dark Souls, a game set in a world that is slowly falling to the apocalypse (I think — it’s been so long since I’ve started, I barely remember the premise), where you find yourself mostly alone and mostly losing, continually pushing forward against the odds and the endlessly reviving army of Hollows and demons before you. It’s a game that feels designed to make you feel very, very vulnerable, and very, very tense as you climb each staircase and make each turn with your shield raised, hoping something big isn’t just around the corner. And yet, I think I felt more alone beating The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening on Switch a couple of weeks ago.

Link approaches the pink-spotted egg of the Wind Fish at the peak of Mt. Tamaranch, above the clouds against a blue sky.
We’re going to need a bigger frypan (Link’s Awakening/Nintendo)

I tried playing Link’s Awakening DX, the GameBoy Colour version of the seminal 90s handheld title, when I was younger, but it fell into the category of ‘too confusing,’ and I abandoned it. The item path, criss-crossing of the map, and the brilliant little dungeons were too much to figure out for me at the time. Experience, and maybe a touch more patience, made it much more accessible to me this time around, but I still found myself caught out a few times, struggling to find the ocarina, the Colour Dungeon, or the directions for the Wind Fish’s Egg. So I swallowed my pride, for the first time in a while, and looked it up. I have historically avoided looking things up on the internet, only going elsewhere for help if I owned a guide; either the “Official Nintendo Power” guides or the ones written by Prima. The Prima ones sometimes had mistakes, but I still have their guides for Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, and Yu-Gi-Oh! The Sacred Cards on my shelf of gaming books. I have an extended collection of magazines from my multi-year subscription to Nintendo Power, and a couple of years ago salvaged my disintegrating edition of their guide to Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen by taking it apart, hole-punching it, and sticking it in a binder. With these books as support, I avoided the internet like the plague, and felt somewhat ashamed anytime I had to turn to it.

As I tried to finish Link’s Awakening, however, I threw years of shame out the window. I wanted to beat it, before Christmas Day, when I had received it last year. It’s a fun game, bright, lovely, and a little melancholy, with solid mechanics and brilliant puzzles. When I inevitably hit a wall, however, I went to the internet for help. I figured I’d have gotten to the solution of anything that had me stuck eventually, but wanted to see it through, so I was taking a shortcut, letting the collective brain power of the gaming media do the thinking for me (special shoutout to Polygon’s walkthrough). I beat it, felt chuffed, and moved on with my life.

So when I went back to Dark Souls, a game that was already one of the few I’ve regularly gone to the internet for help with, I went back with a renewed sense of confidence. I wanted to play it, to find the fun, and the easiest way for me to do that was to go looking for solutions. The internet helped me figure out I could summon the phantoms of the knights Solaire and Lautrec before the Bell Gargoyles, making life infinitely easier. Knight Lautrec, however, was someone I had found myself, by accident. I had done quite a lot by accident in past attempts at it, and have done more over the last couple of days, stumbling into good items and combat strategies with the same frequency that I look them up. Dark Souls doesn’t make me feel like asking for help is cheap; it lets people write advice all over the map (though I learned the hard way that taking the “jump off here” advice was almost universally a bad call). Dark Souls, for all its pervasive isolation and hardship, refuses to let you feel alone; everywhere there are signs that somebody has already been here before you, and that they got through it.

A sword-wielding knight and a knife-wielding skull-faced man face off outdoors in a courtyard under a yellow and blue sky.
This skull dude is also cool as heck (Dark Souls/FromSoftware/Steam)

When I go to the internet for help with Dark Souls, the first thing that comes up isn’t a walkthrough from a gaming site, but one of an infinite number of Reddit threads or wiki articles, community-created support that reminds you of how connected its players actually are — even if you never get invaded by or summon help from one of your fellows. The game released nine years ago, and yet my map is covered in orange scrawl, ranging from single-word advice — “Tail,” and “Bonfire” being my most helpful-yet-unhelpful so far — to more complete sentences, to the never-ending call to “Praise the Sun.” In my time in the game, I’ve found that someone has written “I Did It” after basically every boss; it’s sweet. For a game that at first appears built on an endless, individualist struggle against the odds, there’s a lot of help to find, both in-game and out, if you go looking for it. That struggle, however, is still rewarded. Be it thanks to souls, humanity, or better gear, in Dark Souls, it’s almost always easier on the way back down — especially if you’ve had to slaughter a small army to get up.

Dark Souls is the rare game that makes me feel part of a bigger community. Pokémon can let me trade with friends across oceans, Destiny 2 can let me shoot bad guys with my friends across continents, and Among Us can let me lie about/accuse random strangers of murder, but Dark Souls helps reassure me that help is always there if you ask for it (and ignore the gatekeeping assholes that might answer). In the face of our personal isolation, and the continuing struggles of our global pandemic, it is reassuring to play a game where you are so frequently reminded that someone has been through — or is going through — the exact same thing you are. At the end of the day, your journey might not be over — you might never know when or if it’ll be over — but at least there will always be a bonfire to rest at. Praise the Sun.

The author would like to point out that enjoying the best parts of the Dark Souls community is in no way an endorsement of the irritating, gatekeeping, and sometimes outright ableist attitudes that can be found in the worst parts of the community. Git gud at not being jerks, folks.

Canadian he/him who likes video games, writing, and music; has more than one job, which isn’t this.