The Solitary Dread of Dark Souls
Climbing down a rickety ladder in a sewer pipe that feels like it could fit a house, and the same feeling of dread starts to tug at my stomach. The dread forms a pit in the middle of my stomach. As I reach the bottom of the ladder, I’m on an ricketier plank structure. It looks and feels slapdashedly thrown together, as whatever inhabitants who live in this dank place needed space. I take a couple steps forward. The title "Blighttown" shows up on my screen. I lift my shield, as the Phantom of the Opera song would say, "...to the level of your eyes." Instead of trying to not be hanged by a Punjab lasso, I’m hopefully ready to deflect darts. I take a breath. I take a step forward. Welcome to Blighttown.
One thing that Dark Souls does above all others is building an ominous sense of pressure. Later games were as difficult, but they miss this sense of impending doom. It feels drawn from the dense and impenetrable dungeon crawlers of D&D fame from the 1980s. Blighttown, as the name suggests, is in some of the darkest, deepest and treacherous reaches in all of Lordran. True, there are places further down. But, to me, Blighttown represents the bleakest place I've experienced in a game. To get to Blighttown, you have to leave the relatively sunny and open locations of the Firelink Shrine and the Undead Parish. But as you start to go down, first through the undercity of the Undead Parish through the aptly named The Depths and down an incredibly long ladder into Blighttown, you feel more and more on edge. By the time you’ve reached Blighttown, you haven’t seen the sun in a long time. You even question if the sun ever did exist. Later games will be more user-friendly and will let you warp between bonfires. If an area is too difficult or you need to regroup, you can easily leave. Get items. Level up your equipment. But in Dark Souls, such a journey back to the surface would take time, slowly making your way back through traps and monsters and byzantine paths. The thought of trying to get back through the upper areas is maddening. Truly, there's only one way, and that's forward.
Even when you get access to the ability to warp, you have to fight for it. And it’s imperfect. You can’t simply move from any bonfire to another. Only specific warp locations are available. The game taunts you. Are you ready to go onward? Are you prepared? Are you sure?
The first Souls game I played was about an hour of Demon’s Souls. Back then I didn’t understand the pain/pleasure of this type of game. I wasn’t prepared to open that particular Lament Configuration. I didn’t get it. And so I stayed away from the series as each game came out. As a horror geek, it wasn’t until the Victorian architecture and old monster movie atmosphere of Bloodborne that I would be pulled back in. Turns out that game, like Dark Souls before it, belies what it’s really about, as the werewolves and top hats and Victorian structures gave way to Eldritch horrors, the likes of which HP Lovecraft could only dream about. I still think Bloodborne is the best Souls game FromSoftware has created, but as I went back to Dark Souls I started to appreciate its own masterpiece quality.
It feels pulled from Castlevania with levels that fold into each other. One of the joys of the game is when you open a door or activate a lift and find yourself inexplicably back at the beginning. So many “oh wow!” moments come from the impeccable level design and environmental storytelling. You can find yourself wondering if the denizens of Blighttown were trying to build their rickety structures higher and higher in hopes of reaching the Depths and, eventually, the surface. As you empty a dam and start moving through a once-flooded city, you find bloated corpses and realize that they flooded the city, people and all. So much is said through as little dialogue as possible. And for those who live for this type of storytelling, there’s an incredible amount of lore.
Yes, Dark Souls has become historically known for its “git gud” mentality, with its “Prepare to Die” moniker attached to the PC release further exemplifying just how “hardcore” the game is. But there's another side that’s rarely discussed. One of the most important currencies in the game is your humanity. And while it’s true that you can get this currency from random drops or from more nefarious means, the best and most consistent way to gain more humanity is by helping others beat bosses. This creates one of the more unique aspects of the game. By helping others defeat the monstrous bosses in Dark Souls, you’ll gain the humanity needed to ask others for help. It creates a cooperative experience unlike any other I’ve experienced. Here, I believe, is where the developers show their hand. Lordran is full of terrors and it can feel incredibly lonely, but when it gets the darkest, someone might reach out their hand and help you, just as you need it the most.
So, I’m back in Blighttown. I’ve made it halfway through the carnival of terrors to a lonesome bonfire sitting on a bridge, nestled between more rickety and poorly constructed buildings. I’ve died countless times, trying to inch a little farther, to progress further down the rabbit hole of hell. Disillusioned and reeling, I use some humanity to make myself whole. And that’s when it happens. A summoning squiggle appears in front of me; some wonderful person has been sitting there, offering to help wayward adventurers like myself. His name is Chuck. And while poor Chuck dies prematurely by falling, after dodging around some freaky insect-monstrosities, it’s enough. I desperately sprint to the next bonfire and light it.
Suddenly, the world doesn’t seem as horrible.