Ten years of Dark Souls. That’s not very long in the grand scheme of things – it’s been thirty years since there was a good Sonic The Hedgehog game, for example – and yet I can barely remember a time in which the gaming world wasn’t looking forward to the latest “Soulslike”, when flourishing indies weren’t listing the game as a primary inspiration, or when we weren’t all talking about movies, novels – absolutely anything – in direct reference to it. This *thing* is the Dark Souls of film, of literature, of countless other nodes of art and culture.
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Of course, Demon Souls and King’s Field were doing similar things earlier, and Bloodborne and Sekiro are seen as the more refined renditions. But Dark Souls was ground zero for the phenomenon itself. After scouring the depths of every critical compilation, and watching every lore video under the sun, is there even anything new to say about the original game? Probably not – but after years of playing FromSoftware’s landmark action RPG, I’m going to persevere and give it a go regardless.
From the start, Dark Souls appears unusually occupied with issues of the body and its regulation. You begin as a withered “Hollow”, locked in a prison cell somewhere in the “Northern Undead Asylum”. An asylum is already a strange thing to see in the midst of Dark Souls’ medieval, vaguely European, fantasy world. These kinds of institutions only really came into prominence late in the 19th century. Nevertheless, it says a lot that FromSoftware has you begin your journey in such a place – an institutional structure created solely to classify, manage and control bodies deemed dangerous by the State.
Within minutes you’re jogging down the Asylum’s long, cobbled corridors. Constricted, channeled and forced to make use of your shield to block incoming missiles from an undead crossbowman. It’s a quick lesson on the kind of raw physicality you can expect from the world of Dark Souls. What quickly becomes apparent is that unlike most action games, you’re forced to continually balance your stamina gauge. Dark Souls doesn’t offer weightless forms of freedom, but instead continually staggers and knocks you back.
Attempt to move too swiftly and you’ll exhaust your character’s energy and be left in a stunned state of uselessness. In the Asylum, this means running down the corridor when the crossbowman begins to reload, rather than simply marching slowly towards him with your shield up, being pinged back by every arrow’s impact. Later in the game, there’ll be countless moments where a hulking boss – a Havel or Smough – will drain your entire stamina bar in a single hit. Other times you’ll make the mistake of unloading on a vulnerable enemy, forgetting to leave enough in the tank to safely disengage.
Your equipment load hampers your ability to move too. Dark Souls’ famous “slow roll” bewilders many on their first run through the game. Deck yourself out in heavy plate armour and a greatshield, and yes, you’ll benefit from some extra defence, but you’ll also be excruciatingly slow. In this way, Dark Souls continually heightens all things bodily. There’s a physical weight and presence to every action, and while sometimes punishing, this is also profoundly impactful.
Just as your character’s decaying face is a sign of their hollowed humanity, and your ailing body a reminder of your physical limits, the world of Dark Souls similarly impedes, hinders and irritates. On top of the Asylum, we’re introduced to a number of churches and libraries. These levels, like the institutional buildings of the early 20th century, enclose and corral. When thinking about Dark Souls, I always think of these kinds of cold and cramped environments. Of hostile architecture that snares and entraps.
I can picture it now – a dark hulking figure, his back towards me. Burnt into memory, searing as bright as Gwyn’s flaming greatsword, is your first tangle with a Black Knight. It’s an unusual affair – gone is your regular gaming arena, full of promise and potential. Instead, we’re handed a finely tuned ambush. Confined by the narrow passage, your weapon clangs against the stone walls, and, unable to roll or strafe, your body can only flail. It’s one of FromSoftware’s classic funnels of death – a concept the Souls games return to again and again.
Sen’s Fortress is perhaps the best example of a classic trap-laden gauntlet. Huge swinging scythes, pit traps and rolling stone boulders are a mix of traditional D&D dungeons and the tombs of Indiana Jones. Like many video game levels, it’s about fighting your way to the top, but at each and every point Sen’s Fortress is keen to slow you down or reset your progress entirely. If you’re knocked off of a ledge or pathway, it isn’t just instant death, either. Instead, you’re bogged down in a grueling quagmire filled with hulking demonic beasts. Exhausting, torturous, perhaps even laborious. And yet, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
There are also the stymieing swamps of Blighttown. Over the years, swamps have become a bit of a FromSoftware trope. If I was to hazard a guess as to why, it would be that, like restrictive architecture and boobytrapped corridors, they force players to slow down and send them into a state of heightened awareness. Purposefully irritating, the lower levels of Blighttown, as well as places like the sludge-infested sewers of The Depths and the pitch-black Tomb of Giants, seek to regulate player movement in various ways. The world of Dark Souls is often one of mud and muck.
Ten years on and we’re not only still thinking about Dark Souls’ inhospitable world, but returning to it, like the undead corralled into their cells to live out their last days in the Asylum. Of course, at this point there are more interpretations about what Dark Souls is about than you can count. People often talk about feelings of mastery and of overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles and odds, but for me, more specifically, Dark Souls is about wrestling back bodily control. Whether that’s learning to control your frail undead character, or conquering the mechanic limits FromSoftware has so dastardly set, or breaking out from the Asylum and the cycles of its governing authority.
Ewan Wilson is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to NME.