Everything dies. That’s one of the unavoidable truths of the universe: everything that is given life must also give over to death. It’s true of us frail, transient humans, and it’s true of the very best video games ever made, too. Everything dies, no matter how important it once was.
And 11 years is a long time in this industry. It’s a yawning gulf, an epoch. It feels like so much longer ago that Dark Souls was released – when the meteoric success of FromSoft’s first mainstream success began casting a shadow over the rest of the gaming industry forever. On a quiet September afternoon in 2011, FromSoft changed the course of gaming history forever, and built on the foundations of its own, proprietary genre: the Souls-like.
Years after the game’s debut, there's no shortage of veritable tomes published on the title – detailed descriptions of how it came to be, portfolios of art from its development, dispatches from the frontlines of its making, all revered in the same way that interviews with Scorsese are worshipped by cinephiles and students of the silver screen. But games are mysterious things. Unlike films, they can rarely be enjoyed completely out of context of their release – so much of the actual experience is knitted into playing the game ‘live’; enjoying it with other people and having your experience galvanised by the actions of friends (or foes) loading into the world at the same time as you.
For Dark Souls, this is particularly relevant. The famously sadistic atmosphere and gruelling nature of the world is compounded by ‘optional’ multiplayer, a mode that allows other players to ‘invade’ your game and ambush you to pilfer your hard-won souls. Or for you to sneak into another world and be a vessel for FromSoft’s wishes, and dish out the punishment against other, weaker players. But, 11 years after a game has come out, how realistic is it to expect a healthy player pool still haunting the streets of Lordran? How likely is it that you’ll experience the adrenaline thrill that comes with being invaded as you’re on the cusp of an important boss fight?
Sadly, the Lordran lacks the draw it once had. People don’t make their frequent pilgrimages to the land of the ancient lords any more. The tourism boards for Yharnam, the Lands Between, and Ashina have upped their game since we were first introduced to Lordran. But there’s still a local festival – one annual event that sees the lobbies swell and the dusky streets beset with footfall once again.
Enter r/DarkSouls’ ‘Return to Lordran’, a yearly occurance that sees fans return to the game so that weathered veterans and fresh-faced undead inmates can experience the same sense of unease and unremitting dread that you’d have lived through during the game’s launch window. It began over the weekend, and will run until January 20. The aim of the event is to recreate a wholly organic Dark Souls experience; there’s no password or specific lobby you’re encouraged to use to play with the community, for example.
“We actually advise against using a matchmaking password, other than to summon a friend,” says SammieAgnes of the DarkSouls subreddit. “Trying to set an event password has not worked out in the past, it ended up only dividing the playerbase up since its hard to get everyone on the same page. If summoning a friend, try using a password only to summon them, then taking it off once they've connected. Also, make sure your matchmaking region is unrestricted!”
After my first ever completion of Bloodborne last week, I took my tentative first steps into Dark Souls over the weekend – and the experience is uncanny. The Xbox servers really are teeming; whether you’re summoning for co-op or getting absolutely slain by someone clearly closer to godhood than you are, I can only imagine this is what playing the game during the heady days of 2011 felt like.
There are more player resources for the game now, too. If you want a hand parsing the game’s intentionally opaque and obscure story, there are reams of interpretations and TL;DRs online. There are myriad Dark Souls guides to help you fend off some of the title’s more sadistic enemies and overcome the more serious challenges. There’s a fan-run multiplayer competition where you earn points by completing help requests for other players. There’s a fashion contest. There’s a community-backed merchant collective where trading, muling, and giveaways are commonplace – an oasis of pleasntry in a sea of dread.
So, if you’ve got a big empty space in your heart and an itch in your thumbs after putting Malenia, Goddess of Rot to rest for the third time in 12 months, perhaps it’s time to head back to the beginning – retrace your steps and rediscover Lordran, a scrappier, dirtier, and more primitive version of Elden Ring. And an essential part of the genre’s storied history. There’s never been a better time to go back.