Wreathed in flames of claret and crimson, he charges me, slashing again and again with the fury and the presence of a dying sun. I hold my ground, blocking and dodging for several minutes, taking my own shots when I can. But it’s too much. I slip up. He shreds my battered body. The words “YOU DIED” scrawl across my screen.
It was the 437th time I’d died over 74 hours of Dark Souls III. When it came, accompanied as it was by the distorted sound of a gong, I trembled. I was filled not with rage or frustration, but adrenaline: I was so close. When my hero came back to life, etched into the dirt before her was a message. “Visions of hope.” Filled with resolve, I took a few deep breaths and stepped back into the arena.
At the end of my trek through broken, tortured lands, the battle raged on in a field of blood-stained blossoms and rusted swords once again. On my way there, I’d fought aberrant beasts and the souls of ancient knights in locales that spanned the depths of hell to the highest towers of long-dead civilizations, but this was it. This time it was different. This time I was perfect.
I dodged and parried, striking back with an exacting ferocity. This was my moment. This was my victory—flawless and intoxicating, just as I’d imagined it would be.
Dark Souls III, to be released on April 12 for PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4, is a tough beast to tackle—and I’m not just talking about its Lovecraftian monsters. The series has a reputation for being extremely difficult. And while that’s definitely true, terse quips about how unfair these games can be undersells the beauty of the series. Dark Souls is hard, yes, but the series’ creator Hidetaka Miyazaki says it’s not hard for its own sake.
“As a child, I used to read novels which [were] rather difficult for my age,” Miyazaki said in an email. His parents were poor, he said, and couldn’t afford age-appropriate books, so the young Miyazaki borrowed whatever he could from his library. He developed a taste for high fantasy, but couldn’t understand all of the words. “The stories were fragmented and filled with mysteries,” he said. “But I enjoyed putting the pieces… together and filling the gaps with my imagination.”
When he found himself a game designer at From Software, he wanted to bring that style of storytelling to his work. “Dark Souls is in a way incomplete,” he says. “I want players to complete it with their discoveries. I know that this makes it harder and keeps some away from the game.”
The Dark Souls series is the spiritual successor to a 2009 PlayStation 3 game called Demon’s Souls, which itself has links to From Software’s first game King’s Field. Each game in this loosely-connected lineage features oppressive yet beautiful gothic environments, paired with brutal difficulty.
Dark Souls III, Miyazaki says, will be the last in the series. Like its predecessors, it leans on classic fantasy tropes—dragons, dwarves, ogres and demons—and injects them with decay and horror, cloaked in an obtuse fiction that resists easy explanation. All of which, Miyazaki says, “is purely intentional.”
Playing a Dark Souls game feels like practicing archaeology. As you stumble through areas packed with tortured and bizarre beasts, you tease out little pieces of the series’ narrative. Collecting the accouterments of felled foes yields bits of information, and tracking the spirits of characters through the world can lead you to their body. From there, you can infer how they died.
Together in Death
When you play a Souls game, you’re not alone. The games automatically connects to servers, and remain online for the duration of your play. While that might seem like some trumped-up digital rights management, Miyazaki says it’s there to foster a tighter community.
In his early days at From Software, Miyazaki says he struggled to find ways to “encourage players to use new online features.” He wanted to design levels with hidden paths and secrets to push them to work together.
His response was to bake cooperation into the core of the game, whether you realize it or not. Players can and often do leave notes for one another to warn of traps, or inspire hope in someone they may never actually meet. When someone dies, their character leaves a bloodstain that others can see. Touching it shows where and how they died, so that more cautious folks might avoid the same misfortune.
These features compliment the games’ difficulty, because they help players band together to overcome tough challenges and find secret areas with valuable treasure. Messages left for others can only pull from a limited set of words and phrases, so it’s hard to use them for trolling. Instead, their amber hues often signal a path of safety and comfort. Collectively, they’re there to tell you that you’re not alone, and that hundreds of thousands of players around the world want to see you succeed in spite of the challenge.
Miyazaki believes that these online features helped establish the burgeoning community that the series enjoys today. Players want to work together to understand and conquer the convoluted and opaque world. “Dark Souls‘ community is enormous and supported by passionate, wonderful players,” he says. “It [is] the greatest success of my career that a vibrant community has built up around the game I created.”
It is the greatest success of my career that a vibrant community has built up around the game I created. Hidetaka Miyazaki
The optimism of Dark Souls‘ community gives the series a paradoxical beauty. It exists in spite of a world filled with cosmic horror. There are no princesses to save here, no hope for a brighter world, no succinct resolution at the end of it all. The timbre is one of hopelessness and despair, enforced by legions of mysterious horrors. From the grotesque Gaping Dragon, a massive lizard with mouth that stretches the length of its torso, to the embodiment of death Gravelord Nito, you are a small creature squaring off against literal gods.
While a select few games dare to present their players with such terrors, Dark Souls and its sequels are alone in that these monsters will kill you without thought or effort. You have to struggle to even exist near them for more than a few seconds, and in the face of such overwhelming forces nearly all of the games’ characters lose their minds and then their lives. That’s the genius of Dark Souls‘ challenge. It sells the anguish of its world, and invites players to navigate trap-filled castles, poisoned bogs, and ancient ruins to topple these deific creatures together.
Players swap stories and strategies about tactics and strategies. Message boards and wiki pages serve as a repository for the community’s own big data. Everyone contributes and everyone benefits, because no one could ever be expected to tackle these games alone.
I played the first two games in the series well after their initial release. While I don’t often love excessively hard games, to me, the notes from other players were beacons of hope. I felt accepted and encouraged by friends I’d never meet.
Dark Souls III was different. Because I was playing it with a pre-release copy, only a handful of others were playing alongside me, and I was basically alone.
This version takes place in the many of the same areas as the first Dark Souls, but they’ve been ground down, worn away by centuries of war and ruin. Amidst these crumbling monuments, I was a furtive explorer, keen to unlock what mysteries I could. Each room, each corner brought new, unknown and unexplained dangers.
I’m relatively new to adult life. I’m not long out of college, and terrified of trying to survive on my own. Before, I always had people near me to encourage me, guide me, tell me that I was on the right path. Now, I’m alone, fumbling in the darkness. Before long, though, I realized that I now had the chance to leave those same messages of hope for others. When I came to Dark Souls III‘s finale, there were no notes on the ground. Nothing to learn from. So I wrote three.
After each fight, I’d read one to myself and charge forward, determined to prove to myself that I could win. Each time, I’d imagine what it would feel like to finally succeed, to know that I’d overcome this obstacle. After dozens of attempts, I had it. My hands shook, my breath stopped. It was over.
Most games don’t try to break you, don’t ask you to band together and conquer something that seems impossible. Still, Miyazaki says, Dark Souls is made to beaten: “When [we] set the difficulty level… our objective was to make the game possible to accomplish.” It takes time, and it takes effort, but no matter who you are, or how you want to play, Dark Souls wants to see you succeed.