It’s hard to believe it’s already been half a decade since our first visits to Lordran during the last days of the Age of Fire. 60 months since we first endured the sadism of game director Hidetaka Miyazaki, and somehow kept playing until the endurance became admiration, and the sadism was realized as brilliance. Yes, Dark Souls, turned five this week, and in that short amount of time, it has gone on to become one of this generation’s most venerable franchises in gaming. But how did this one game manage to become such a phenomenon?
To start, Dark Souls was a completely different beast than other games at the time. Coming off the tails of its spiritual predecessor, Demon’s Souls, From Software delivered yet another dark fantasy game that required a level of patience and persistence in overcoming obstacles, the likes of which probably hadn’t been seen since the days of quarter-eating arcade games. Standard staples such as pausing your game are absent in Dark Souls, just to ensure that you are always on your toes while delving into dark dungeons. You don’t get reminders on how to operate certain mechanics, nor will the game directly point you to your next objective. Instead, the folks at From Software trusted you to explore things at your own pace, discovering the world on your own. Experience points aren’t something to worry about losing in most games, but in Dark Souls, whatever souls you collect are left in a pool wherever you die, and then lost forever if you die again without retrieving them.
Oh and all the enemies you spent agonizing hours in slaying? Yeah, they came back as soon as you died so you can do it all over again.
To a newcomer or an outsider, all of that is perceived as just confirmation of the game’s greatest infamy: being soul-crushingly hard. I’ll admit that the first time I picked up Dark Souls, I got about two hours into it before quitting in such a frothing rage that I couldn’t bear the idea of picking it back up again for about another year. It wasn’t until I perused online wikis and subReddits that I discovered the Knight class starts off inherently slower due to the weight of heavy armor, and that dodging is preferable to blocking and taking hits. It wasn’t until after playing again and taking my time experimenting did I discover using the broadsword, as its move set was more effective for my play style than just blindly using the battleaxe because it had 10 more damage. After dying over and over, I began to learn enemy placement and attack patterns, weaknesses and strategies. Suddenly, each death was no longer an enraging punishment, but a firm learning lesson (even if sometimes the lesson was in tolerating bullshit). And then before I’d known it, I’d torn apart the Belfry Gargoyles with my mighty halberd, and I felt more heroic than I had with almost any other game before. I had done what I’d at one point literally deemed impossible.
That was when I got hooked. You see, Dark Souls is certainly a game with a high barrier of entry—one that you have to invest your time and concentration in beating. But the reward for doing so is the satisfaction at overcoming such daunting obstacles. Nothing in any Call of Duty campaign compares to the sheer joy and relief you feel from surviving your first jaunt through the toxic wasteland of Blighttown and slaying the spider-witch Quelaag. In a world where most video games appeal to folks as just another form of entertainment, Dark Souls appeals to those who treat video games as a full fledged hobby. You can’t just turn your brain off, pick it up and be a pro. You come at it like you would with whittling or playing an instrument: new, disheartened, and awful, but with the abilities to grow and experiment. No matter how many hours you put into Dark Souls, you will find new areas unexplored, new techniques undiscovered, and consistent challenges to face.
But why is the first Dark Souls in particular held with such reverence? Multiple sequels have come out of it, and hell, even Demon’s Souls was the first game to execute the same formula. Well, none of those other games managed to come close to the genius design and layers of detail that was in Dark Souls. Lordran was an intricate and interconnected kingdom, with shortcuts and hidden items around every other corner to reward your exploration. On top of that, until you got a particular item in the latter half of the game, fast travel wasn’t option, meaning you had to trek from bonfire to bonfire. As a result, every route and bend became permanently ingrained in your mind like the streets of your hometown, which is something you can’t say about open worlds in other games like Skyrim or Dragon Age. Even the subsequent Souls games were never able to recreate a world with as much interconnectivity as the first entry, which will always be one regard in which the original reigns supreme.
And while the Souls series has produced its fair share of awesome boss battles over the years, the first entry still has some of the most memorable. Sif, the great wolf with a greatsword in its mouth, developed a limp as you were close to defeating it, making you question the righteousness in your own quest. The iron-clad duo Ornstein and Smough serve as one of the greatest challenges in gaming ever, as it requires you to fight two enemies at once, and then as soon as one dies, the other is strengthened and healed. The Gaping Dragon still serves as one of the most intimidating and disgusting introductions to a boss ever, as unease turned to absolute horror as you saw the small reptilian face give way to a massive chest burst open with a toothy maw.
Then, not content with just making the big moments rich, Dark Souls had such character and charm in all of the small things. Every item had a description that informed you about the world and its history. The amount of available weapons, armor, and magic was staggering, prompting infinite different playthroughs. All the NPCs had their own storylines that you could choose to progress, each of whom had unique personalities and quirks, from the forgetful Siegmeyer to the jovial Solaire. Players could even help each other through jolly cooperation and leaving hints, or grief each other through lethal invasions and leaving deceptive tips. All of these played a part in knitting the fanbase tighter together, laying the foundation for the game’s devoted cult following.
In the end, Dark Souls made an impression on the video game world thanks to its winning formula of intricacy, originality and rewarding challenge. One need only look at the popularity of the game’s sequels as well as the rise of the “Souls-like” subgenre with games like “Salt and Sanctuary” and “Lords of the Fallen” to realize that said formula works like gangbusters. If Dark Souls has taught us one thing, it’s that there will always be an audience that clamors for games that offer difficult and deep experiences. And hopefully that clamor will always guarantee a pocket for such experiences in the future of gaming as a medium.
So helmets off to you, Dark Souls, and happy 5th birthday. Thank you for being such a painful, beautiful, brutal and triumphant piece of work. May you always be remembered for making us happy to prepare to die.