I'd always assumed that Dark Souls wasn't for someone like me. I see myself as very much an average gamer - middle of the road ability, a pretty typical amount of time available. I'm no longer the hardcore player I once was. I'm not a massive fan of difficulty spikes, generally playing games on Normal difficulty. Dark Souls has a reputation for being long and for being hard - basically being for gamers who are much more dedicated and talented than me. It was for people who have patience a year long, and a talent for melee combat that I've never possessed in my life. People who can play the hardest of hard games and emerge victorious before wandering off to find something even harder to attach themselves to. People who, in an earlier generation, would regularly key their initials into the top spot of an arcade machine's leader board.
People who are nothing like me, basically.
It's reputation preceded it, I guess. I've admired it from afar for a long time, yet always perceived it to be kind of like a large wild predator - beautiful and in some ways awe-inspiring, and best observed from a safe distance. And yet, having started it back in December, one of the things that's amazing me about it the most is how it's challenging so many of those perceptions - both about the game itself, and about the type of videogame player I actually am.
Dark Souls has something of a killer reputation. If there's one word that's widely associated with the game, it's "difficult." I went into it expecting something that's very hard and, admittedly, so far I've not been disappointed. Reading back on my post from late last year, which I wrote shortly after defeating the Bell Gargoyles at the top of the church in the Undead Parish, I can see that in those early hours it was the difficulty that was leaving the biggest impression on me. Taking a couple of steps further forward each time before meeting an apparently inevitable death made the idea of actually progressing in the game feel impossible. If trekking from Firelink Shrine to the Undead Parish resulted in so many deaths, how could a lowly player such as myself ever hope to make any real progress through the game? And yet I've persevered, and am now starting to find a strange feeling of confidence starting to infiltrate my exploration. Will I die? Yes. Will it be my fault? Almost undoubtedly. Will I drag my ass back up and try again? Of course. A lot of this is simply because there's an awful lot more to Dark Souls than its difficulty. It takes a good few hours to settle into a rhythm with the game, and even when it happens the rhythm is a tenuous, twisting beat in an unusual time signature - one that can be lost at any moment.
It's once you settle into this rhythm though, and gain a bit of confidence in an area, that you start to explore. You discover shortcuts and new areas that you didn't even know were there, eventually getting to the point that you almost feel safe in a place - the very notion of which would have struck you as impossible only a few hours before. As I've started to realise this, peeling back levels and mechanics like layers of an onion, it's left me questioning how it is that I've ended up playing it. As someone who's long considered it to be too hard and too big for someone like me to ever get into it (especially having tried and failed in the past, retreating with tail between legs to the relative safety of the next first-person shooter on the pile), something must have changed or evolved to get me to where I think this game could possibly be for me. I've been thinking about this for a while, and I think I've cracked it. I reckon that a big contributing factor is my enjoyment of a game that, on the face of it, has almost nothing in common with Dark Souls at all, but which on closer examination could almost be considered a proving ground for it. That game is Sea of Thieves.
OK, I heard you spit your coffee across the screen from all the way over here. I know, I get it. That sounds insane, right? Kinda, yeah. Give me a moment or two, and I'll explain.
There are a surprising number of similarities between Sea of Thieves and Dark Souls. At the point when I started playing Sea of Thieves (all the way back in the technical alpha), there was no tutorial or introduction to speak of. Players were dropped into a world rich in lore and backstory for which they had no context or frame of reference, and left to figure it out for themselves. Dark Souls does something very similar. While the Undead Asylum area at the very start does give some gentle introduction to the mechanics, players face a steep learning curve within the area - mainly learning that the world of Dark Souls is one with its own rules that need to be understood, and that any transgression will be swiftly punished. Anyone who played Sea of Thieves and was sunk by a hostile ship during their very first session will immediately be able to relate to the feeling of being stomped by the Asylum Demon.
Neither games feature a mini-map, with the best players of both developing a deep understanding of locations of the game in relation to one another as they go along. In both games, the understanding of the map and of the mechanics themselves develop alongside the player's confidence and knowledge of what can be achieved and how. Experimentation reaps rewards, in exchange for risk and often failure before a technique is mastered. Both games deal with a lot of their lore through environmental storytelling - there for all to engage with as much or as little as they choose. Critically though, probably the main similarity is in the way in which the games both allow you to make mistakes and encourage you to learn from them. In both, mistakes are punished harshly; in Dark Souls you can fall to your death and lose progress through an area with a single mis-step or poorly judged attack. Sea of Thieves can render hours of effort utterly redundant with an accidental sinking. Both of them offer up both competitive and co-operative PvP opportunities.
See? They're like flip sides of the same coin. One is pretty and cartoon-ish and filled with sunshine and humour, the other is about dragging yourself through darkness and filth, but they're actually doing some of the same things - albeit in completely different tones. Sea of Thieves may lack the brutally precise combat mechanics of Dark Souls, but there are common design threads. If games have languages, the one that Sea of Thieves and Dark Souls are speaking are of different dialects, but from the same geographic area. The more I think about it, the more I conclude that it was my love for Sea of Thieves that led me to seek out (consciously or not) other games that step beyond the "collect mission, go here, hold X, fight things, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat, get prize" formula that so many games have fallen into the rut of. Playing Sea of Thieves made me realise that games that follow other structures might, in fact, have something to offer to me - the lowly average player. So here I am, checking out the daddy of them all.
I'm currently working my way to the bottom of Blighttown in Dark Souls. I have no idea what awaits me at the bottom (I'm doing a pretty good job of avoiding looking things up online so far) but I'm pretty sure that whatever it is will a) be nasty and b) will unceremoniously beat the living shit out of me within 5 seconds of my laying eyes on it. It doesn't matter though - I'll respawn at the nearest bonfire and head back at it ready for it to happen again... and with that we come to the perception of myself that Dark Souls has changed. I always assumed that it was too hard for me, and that I lacked the patience; that average gamer couldn't play a game like this. What I'm learning, fundamentally, is that it isn't too hard and that I don't lack the patience. I'm pretty sure I'm still in the first half of the game, and the challenges I've overcome already feel like some of the largest of my gaming career. The Capra Demon in particular was an insufferable swine, who killed me in under five seconds on my first half a dozen attempts. The Gaping Dragon let me whittle his health down to almost nothing on my first attempt before dissolving me with some kind of acidic vomit that he barfed all over me in an attack that I had no idea he was capable of. He then proceeded to take me to pieces in mere moments on my next ten steps through the white portal leading to his room - as if reminding me that the game is the boss. However, I've overcome them both. Just taking the next step in Dark Souls leaves you feeling like the little engine that could - putting one foot in front of the other in the most perversely rewarding game I've ever played. That reputation for being difficult put me off the game for years - now, it's that reputation that's pushing me on and through it. That and the phenomenally constructed world that it takes place in.
If you're interested, I'm pretty much live-tweeting my first playthrough of Dark Souls. You can find the thread here.