Ave et salve–hello and farewell–was a Roman greeting when two travelers passed each other on a road, perhaps heading from one corner of the extensive empire to the other. The greeting conveyed both a sense of genuine comfort in seeing another soul, and also the reality that the vastness of the empire meant that the two would likely not meet again. The video game Dark Souls is so vast that you’ll likely never meet the same player twice.
With the upcoming release of Dark Souls II, I thought I’d revisit why the original Dark Souls singly reinvigorated the action-rpg genre, and made me believe in video games again–strong statement alert! Like many people, I grew up playing the Zelda series. The original NES Legend of Zelda through the SNES A Link To the Past allowed players to explore without being burdened by excessive dialogue. Yet there was narrative to be found everywhere—with the exception that most of this narrative was created by the player.
But as the series continued, traditional cut scenes and dialogue came to replace the more passive narrative of its predecessors—until the recent long-awaited sequel Link Between Worlds, Zelda had become overburdened with unnecessary tutorials, constant narrators, and generally “told” the story rather than “showed the story,” to use a common fictional wisdom.
For those who haven’t played Dark Souls, its premise is still standard fantasy. Imagine middle earth had Sauron taken over, and his darkness spread to the four corners of the map. But the world of Dark Souls is desolate, dreary, and largely abandoned, a fact you’re reminded of not by characters constantly griping about evil but in the gameplay itself.
Save points take the form of bonfires, which when approached are little more than kindling and need to be lit. Lighting a bonfire saves your progress, but not your souls (the currency for purchasing items, and upgrading both equipment and your stats). But the catch is the thing—resting at a bonfire heals you, but also revives most common enemies (with the exception of bosses and a few special foes). You feel both excitement upon reaching a bonfire (because Dark Souls is a retro-difficult game), and dread—a well-trodden path hardly exists, and even at later stages of the game early enemies still pose a threat.
The story of Dark Souls would be nothing unique–if not for the bonfire mechanic, which constantly reinforce the idea that the flame of humanity has all but been extinguished. Still, perhaps Dark Souls would be an isolating experience if not for its brilliant online mechanic. Throughout your game, the hollowed ghosts of other players enter and leave your world . Glow red tags mark player messages that warn you of difficult monsters and provide hints on secret passages and treasure, or strangers might join you to defeat difficult bosses. Often this strange ghostly community turns hostile. They invade to kill you and steal souls. Such is life…and death. Despite the occasional angst at being invaded at the worst possible time, this online mechanic reinforces the bonfire theme. Salvation is far away, and destruction nips at your heels–not that there are heels in the game–though your armor can sometimes get fabulous…
This solitude of Dark Souls is welcoming at times, but the trials and tribulations of fellow players are never far off. Bloodstains depict how those who came before you died, and often at a long-awaited bonfire, you’ll see another lost soul rise and disappear down a trail.