What the hell is it about Dark Souls that makes it so goddamn compelling.
That's the word, isn't it? 'Compelling'. I thought about this over the weekend. A family member had a PC hooked up on his TV, we were planning to mess around with multiplayer games. Mount Your Friends, Nidhogg — stuff like that. But as soon as I saw Dark Souls installed on the machine, I knew it would have to wait.
He had an New Game +. An inventory filled with fully upgraded weapons. He couldn't remember exactly, but was sure he had beaten the Gargoyles and was working his way down to the Capra Demon. It had been a while. How could I resist?
I'm not normally 'that guy'. I'm hyper sensitive about stepping on people's toes, or boring people, or playing single-player games whilst others are present. But this was Dark Souls. I spent the next hour making my way down to the Capra Demon, fighting him over and over and over again while non-Dark Souls people watched, wondering what the hell was going on. 'Why/how is this fun?' This is the question I'm sure they were asking themselves.
Point being: it is really, really difficult to stop playing Dark Souls, and it's almost impossible to fight the urge when it comes.
I was thinking about this when I arrived to check out Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin.
Here's what I thought: I thought Dark Souls II was different. I thought I had less of an attachment to that place, to Dranglaic. I thought the attraction of Dark Souls might have been Lordran, the space itself — the lived-in, inter-connected areas I had traversed so many times. I wondered if the rhythm of that traversal, the familiar feeling of moving through that environment, was what made Dark Souls so unique. I know Lordran so well. I'm familiar with every square inch. The nature of Dark Souls II and Dranglaic was such that I never really became comfortable with its world in quite the same way.
I never returned to Dark Souls II after finishing it. Not even for the DLC. At the time I was just Dark Soulsed out, having played through the original in preparation for the sequel. 100 hours of playing the same series without a break will do that to you. I was satisfied to just leave it at that.
Or so I thought.
I headed to Namco Bandai's Australia office to check out Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin because, why the hell not? I'm a big fan of Dark Souls.
Here's what I'd forgotten: the curse that Dark Souls so often refers to in its games; it's actually a metaphor for the powerful compulsion that overcomes its players the second they begin playing. At least it feels like a metaphor. Dark Souls works its magic expertly. It took the game two minutes to transform me from regular functioning human being to shuffling hollow. Blindly moving from encounter to encounter, indulging in that meditative combat rhythm.
Man, it feels so good to be back.
That's what smokers say when they take their first drag months after trying to quit.
Both Dark Souls and Dark Souls II continue to astonish me. When trying to explain why both games are so rewarding we often describe the difficulty, or that refusal to treat players with kid gloves. If we're feeling sophisticated we might make reference to the consistency of it, the fact that it's tough but fair. We might reference the design, the universe. If we're talking Dark Souls, we might discuss the afore-mentioned inter-connected world that loops around itself so wonderfully.
But we never talk about that stripped back, basic as-all-hell rhythm. The weight of our feet beating at the ground. The way it feels to just push the bumper button and have that swing feel chunky, to feel that resistance. We never talk about it because we don't necessarily understand how potent it is, we don't necessarily recognise the chemicals working filtering through our brains. Jesus Christ it feels good just to play Dark Souls. I don't really know how or why, it simple is. We are human beings and we are burdened with strange compulsions and habits.
Dark Souls is both a compulsion and a habit.
And that is why I found it extremely difficult to stop playing Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin once I started. Not because of the additional DLC, not because of the increased resolution or the frame-rate. In fact, I'm still not 100% sure precisely why I found it so difficult to stop. I just wanted to keep playing. Because that's Dark Souls and that's what it feels like to play Dark Souls.