Is it heavy to invoke German philosopher Theodor Adorno? Adorno believed that art should be difficult, that by making severe demands of its viewers’ concentration its rewards would be greater. It’s tough to think of a game that demands deeper focus than Dark Souls.
From Software’s latest game is a spiritual sequel to the PS3-exclusive Demons' Souls, and the basic gameplay is largely intact. You move incrementally through a decrepit medieval world, engaging vicious enemies in intense combat. You collect “souls” – the game’s currency – from every enemy you defeat. Each time you die, you drop those souls on the spot, and the only way to get them back is by fighting your way back to the same enemies that slaughtered you mercilessly last time. Combat is relentless and precise. If you aren’t deliberate with your blocks, dodges, and parries, then you’ll die even more often, and you’re going to die a lot to begin with.
The game’s plot – something about saving the world from an undead scourge – is mostly peripheral. Dark Souls is really about the rewards of making progress through its inscrutable non-linear world. You reach a save point and then begin methodically – and, unless you have a death wish, cautiously – working your way to the next, memorizing each obstacle ahead or else paying the price. It’s exhilarating and beautifully paced.
It’s also weirdly lonely, despite other players leaving evidence of their passage through these areas – bloodstains that you can interact with play ghostly recordings of another player’s death in that spot, and glowing orange lines reveal brief messages left as warnings or traps. As you play, too, the game gives you glimpses of other players’ phantoms facing the same struggle as you in real time. And, on occasion, another player will enter your game, to help you or to menace you.
You can rely on nobody but yourself to take you through the game’s underbelly, to walk you through its demanding combat, and to guide you to its serene, gorgeous vistas. And it’s never easy. Then again, Adorno would say that nothing good ever is.