I know what you’re thinking: “Isn’t that just an opinion? Isn’t that subjective?” Typically I’d be compelled to agree with you but the fact is that a list has been made. Yes indeed, EDGE has released its “100 Greatest Video Games of All-Time” list and the crowning game that beat out all other games, including Ocarina of Time and Half-Life 2, was Dark Souls. No matter how furiously you might like to rebut, the case is closed. So sayeth the list.
But how is it that a gameplay experience so punishing, a story so carefully hidden, and characters so tight-lipped can deliver the most memorable gameplay experience to date? To find the answer we turn to physics. Imagine a pendulum at rest. When pulled back and released, that pendulum will only swing away from you as highly from its resting point as you held it initially. If you only tug it back a little, it will swing forward but a little. Pull it back over your head and let go, and watch as it soars away and high into the air opposite where you stand. Herein lies the secret of the great depth of emotion one experiences playing through Dark Souls.
From Software will not allow you to play through this game casually and make any progress; no, you must earn it. You have to prove that you are willing to learn and to patiently explore. From the very outset you are given little to no explicit information or tutorial of any kind. You are dropped into a sprawling, mysterious, dangerous world and it is up to you to fend for yourself and discover what secrets lay buried ‘neath the stones of Lordran.
And there are many secrets. There are no lengthy cut scenes here to fill you in on Lordran’s history or the story of its inhabitants. Instead, over tens of hours you will receive tiny bits of information through single lines of dialogue, through item descriptions or the names of bosses. As highly as the pendulum of mystery swings we are afforded great moments of discovery and intrigue that lead to even more titillating curiosities. It’s a queer experience, finding yourself in a new section of Lordran that you only ever saw in the distance while playing a week ago, and realizing how brilliantly the whole game world is connected by clever shortcuts and perilous passages. The game is nonlinear, but paced and foreboding in a way that pushes thoughtful explorers along a generally adhered-to path speckled with many treasures and many more dangers; wrought with death.
‘Prepare to die’ isn’t just a cute slogan. Death will be your tutor and your guide. There are several stretches of the journey and several boss encounters that will have you squeezing your controller and cursing the developers. You’ll try again and again, only to meet a speedier end as you grow more reckless. You’ll grind and level up for hours and still fail until you’re compelled to power down your console and walk away in defeat. But the next time you come back you’re the wiser for it. Traversing the path leading to a certain boss battle has become second nature and you realize you know every step very intimately. As you walk through the fog that separates you and your seemingly immortal foe (sometimes, quite harshly, multiple foes) you no longer face an unknown terror, but a familiar enemy that you’ve studied and learned so well Sun Tzu would call it overkill.
And then it happens: you strike the killing blow after madly waltzing with your opponent, dodging expertly and draining a 2-liter of health restoring estus. Ah, there is nothing sweeter than that moment! As crushingly high as the pendulum once swung toward the pole of frustration, it now races swiftly toward poles of elation, achievement and relief. There are no games as rewarding as this one and it’s because of moments like this. No guide or YouTube video can substitute for actually learning your surroundings – dangerous and beautiful. No amount of grinding can truly prepare you for the bosses you encounter – terrifying and powerful. This is From Software’s hard-hitting formula and it works perfectly. Those who are patient enough to not only play through, but to truly experience Dark Souls will never forget it.