Hold back the dark, shower yourself in glory. Yes indeed: ash seeketh embers.
We play too many video games. We watch too many Hollywood movies. We secretly believe that if the time came, we’d step up. We’d run the distance. We’d pull the trigger. We’d dodge the blow. We’d soldier on through the pain.
But bark your shin on the coffee table and then tell me you’d walk off a bullet.
Dark Souls reminds us that behind these pretty pictures and thrilling storylines is a world of hurt; for every hero, there are millions of ignoble ends, and nobody is a chosen one. Knight in armour? Strap that weight to your body, see how long you can hold your sword up, let alone swing it. Sweat blinding you, lungs heaving. And the blows still hurt. You’re still gonna die. You’re going to die.
Nobody telegraphs. Nobody sticks to combos, patterns. Train and train and train and still: you will die. Someone gets lucky, just once, and you die. You have to get lucky millions of times.
Dark Souls lets you try again. You are weak and feeble, but you can try again. Slowly you can grow. There’s no lesson here. Life’s not like that. It’s not true that practice makes perfect. Practice makes mediocre, if you’re lucky. This is why we play video games, innit. You can be perfect at a video game, or near enough that it feels the same. You can save the world. You can persevere.
You don’t even have to break a sweat.
I’m sweating, though. I’m sweating and shaking, I’m quietly cursing dyspraxia, I’m holding my breath and then letting it out in choking gasps close enough to sobs that I hope nobody hears me. I’m swearing. I’m having to consciously put myself back down on the floor when my shoulder blades walk me up the couch I’m leaning on to hover, tense as my bow string, above the ground.
“You waltzed through the last three bosses and now a grunt in an alcove makes you want to throw up your own heart.”
I’ve got a bow. I’m cheesing. Ping ’em, run away, find a place they can’t or won’t pass, throw the bombs, knock ’em over the side, take the souls and run. If my life were on the line. I would not hesitate to cheat.
Eventually you have to go toe-to-toe. The difficulty spikes in unexpected places. Bosses? Nothing. Run’em down with a buddy, call in three buddies, real buddies or fake buddies, there are buddies everywhere. Hey, buddy, what a nice hammer you have. Smash this boss to bits for me.
The difficulty spikes in a narrow corner where an arrow does you no good. The difficulty spikes when your area of effect poison spell mysteriously fails to pass through a window. You’re sweating again now. You waltzed through the last three bosses and now a grunt in an alcove makes you want to throw up your own heart; you are stretched like a wire, twanging with feverish fear.
I killed Black Phantom Satsuki and I’ll kill you, too. Eventually. Breathing, “fuck meeeeeeee” as yet another twisty corridor opens into an arena filled with death of all shapes and sizes, thinking with dismay on the process of luring one-by-one, all to navigate a room I could run across in a matter of heartbeats. If my heart had not already stopped.
Later, I stride through the crowd, untouchable, swinging right to left, left to right, crackling with power and magic. I wonder what it was I feared.
You grow up reading of knights errant and bold warriors, wandering the land in search of glory. It’s a strange word; like “nobility”, you get the sense that it means a lot, and then when you try to unpack it, it doesn’t seem to mean anything.
You can cover yourself in glory. But you can also give glory, most famously to gods. Is glory something you attain by feats of arm and skill, or is it something others give to you? Is glory merely the regard of others, reflecting off your armour in god ray sunbeams? Is your triumph glorious if nobody else is there to see it?
We step to the edge and look out across the magnificence of the earth and we tremble with an emotion that has just one word of expression, and we say: glorious. But what glory have rocks and sky and distance earned? Whose glory is it? Do we envision a creator? Or is glory something that happens between our eyes and our hearts, and nothing to do with the object we look upon?
I imagine glory as an object, a resource, something tangible you can collect. It is yellow-gold; it drips and runs between the fingers like ash. Perform a glorious act. Dip your fingers in the glory. Smear it on your skin. Even if nobody witnesses your feat, you are glorious in your own regard.
It feels like Demon’s Souls. The shrine. The maiden. The promise in the stones, now carved to look like thrones (and this time, the giants are within your reach). The spiralling paths that deliver you right back where you started so that you laugh in horror at how little distance you’ve covered. Above all, the castle that stretches forever; the castle, and the court, at the heart of the evil. Wherever you go, the castle is always waiting.
In the dungeons below Irithyll of the Boreal Valley, I felt the mad queen’s fingers on the back of my neck, walking and crawling across the skin there, measuring me for the noose and the manacles. “Latria,” I whispered into the echoing corridors. I had promised myself I’d never go back.
Even the rogue’s armour hangs thick and heavy, obscuring. Even the finesse weapons are screen-hoggingly weighty. Enemies walk with measured, heavy treads, swinging lumps of metal that travel slow but hit with the force of avalanches; yours, meanwhile, mostly just tickle them, failing to penetrate the layers upon layers of defence you yourself may aspire to. The duelling, the magic, the bows, yes, but in the end it all boils down to steel on steel, and you’d better hope yours is the stronger.
The first boss – the real boss, not the baby boss in the tutorial area – is a beast with a metal hide. It’s easy to hit, until it’s not. It’s easy to dodge, until it’s not. It’s comparatively easy to damage. But for all its crawling gait it is a knight, a tank; Dark Souls is metal on metal until something or other shatters. There is nowhere to hide and no tricks worth playing.
You don’t have to get good, but if you want to hold back the Dark, if you will rekindle the embers of this ashen world, you do need to be hard. Quick. Clever. Strong. You have to try, again and again and again, and hope you get lucky.
The long sharp exhale when out of the sheer chaos of the universe it manifests, when the jangling of nerves finally knocks together into the right waveform. Ten thousand monkeys bang out a respectable modern reinterpretation of Hamlet; we go left when we ought to go left and right when we ought to go right – and the beast goes nowhere but down.
At last: I get lucky.
Maybe I’ll never get good.