TheUrbanOrb claims he's "not a masochist," but consider this: no shield blocking, getting hit, or levelling up. These are a few of the self-imposed restrictions he struggled through during a recent Dark Souls run, the end of a multi-year journey that began when his dream of playing the piano was taken away.
In late 2009, TheUrbanOrb went to the doctor for a routine medical procedure, wherein he experienced a rare and unfortunate side effect that resulted in extensive nerve damage in several fingers. What started out as mild burning and tingling soon became a serious impediment on basic motor functions. In weeks, some of his fingers simply stopped doing what he told them to do.
"I tell my hand to strike an S [on a keyboard] with my fourth finger, for example," he said, "and instead of hitting the key, like it usually would, it just lands to the right or on the top."
The 36-year-old, who asked to keep his identity private, found himself slipping into a deep depression, unable to focus on the physical therapy that, with years of work, could offer him control over his fingers again. But the task seemed insurmountable, and he simply gave up.
He credits the Souls games with saving him, and offering hope for the future. But he didn't discover the games because he was an avid player seeking a challenge. TheUrbanOrb had actually given up on games for years, deciding to focus on becoming a professional pianist.
It started with opening a YouTube channel in 2009 to publish his work, including many game covers, ranging from Castlevania piano medleys to "Song of Storms" from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. People would make requests, and he would tackle them with gusto.
When he started the channel, his fingers were in bad shape, and they weren't getting better. His dream was dying and TheUrbanOrb was forced to scale back the ambition of his work.
"I would restrict myself and play easier and easier pieces," he told me.
The last video he uploaded was in December 2011, a cover of "Gwyn, Lord of Cinder," a piano duet that plays over the final boss from Dark Souls. It's lush, gorgeous, and a fitting tribute to a great track.
"It had really touched me deeply," he said. "The music was just so unique and so special. That's why I looked up the game that belonged to the music."
When the piece went live, fans didn't know it'd be the last time he played for them.
He started playing Demon's Souls and Dark Souls the way most people do: dying. But after the credits rolled, the games stuck with him. He became fascinated by the concept of "challenge runs," in which people would make an already hard game even harder, simply to see if they could pull it off.
"The real redeeming quality of this [run] was to be overwhelmed at the beginning, to feel completely hopeless," he told me, "and then to keep trying to go through the frustration, and to finally get that one moment of epiphany."
I mentioned some of his restrictions, but that's not all of them -- not even close.
- No blocking with a shield
- No getting hit
- No levelling up
- Defeat every ground enemy with melee attacks
- No ranged weapons
- New Game Plus 7 (each time you beat the game, the enemies become harder)
- Cursed (half health)
- No pyromancy (fire magic that makes many enemies trivial)
- No red tearstone ring (increase attack strength by 50% at low health)
We're talking about a game already known for turning people off because of its difficulty, and TheUrbanOrb is stacking the deck in a way that gives me anxiety just reading through that list.
"I consider the Souls games to be really unique," he said. "I consider them to be pieces of art that have life changing potential. They have definitely been life changing for me."
There's a good reason the following quote kicks off his ambitious video series:
"The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones." -- Confucius
It's natural to wonder how someone with nerve damage severe enough to deter playing the piano would be able to grip a controller and employ expert-level play, but in TheUrbanOrb's case, only his pinky and ring fingers were impacted. The rest of his hand was mostly usable.
He needed everything at his disposal, too, since the challenge in front of him was so great.
The most onerous restriction TheUrbanOrb dealt with was defeating every ground enemy. In most games, this wouldn't be a big deal, but since he can't get hit, each one is deadly. And even if he survives an attack, his rules force him to start over. Unlike other games, Souls doesn't have copious checkpoints that show up every few minutes. Most importantly, there's almost never one right in front of a boss. This means to even attempt fighting a boss -- again, one where he can't get hit once -- means clearing out an an entire area before moving on.
"It is really painful because it adds a lot of tension the further you progress throughout the stage," he said. "I've had multiple occasions where I died from the last or second-to-last enemy after 10 or 15 minutes of a really good run. That is really hard to endure. [laughs] Then, starting over...that's really hard."
His run started in December 2012, but only "finished" two weeks ago, thanks to a break in playing and years carefully editing the videos into narrated highlights. They're very well done.
While he was streaming, viewers became fixated on his successes and failures. Ornstein and Smough are widely considered one of the game's most difficult set of bosses, largely because you're forced to face them simultaneously. Ornstein is a fast-paced son of a bitch with a long spear, and Smough is a screen-filling golden monster as likely to hit you with a hammer as he is to sit on you. You're lucky to survive Ornstein and Smough, let alone fight them flawlessly.
And yet, this was TheUrbanOrb's task, what he set out to do. It took five straight days of streaming to defeat Ornstein and Smough. Several days involved only a few hours of streaming, since the frustration was so high. He couldn't concentrate. Death was everywhere.
When you watch him play through this section, it becomes acutely apparent just how much he's taking into account. Every move, both the player's and the enemy's, must be deeply understood. Surprise is not an option. He even detects when a specific attack has become slightly faster in an enemy's second phase, since he's spent so much time getting the timing down.
This attention to detail means TheUrbanOrb knows all the various ways Dark Souls is broken.
"Safety and consistency was my main goal here," he said. "The theoretical idea was to be able to do this repeatedly and consistently, and I wanted to eliminate luck out of it. Unfortunately, that didn't always work, as the game has a lot of technical issues."
Sometimes, the hit boxes -- which determines if you hit an enemy or an enemy hits you -- were inconsistent. He had to play even more conservatively than originally desired, since it was impossible to know if a hit box would react consistently. Other times, the character simply wouldn't roll, despite clearly pressing the button. Glitches in the Souls games are well-known and documented, but they became serious impediments for a player demanding perfection.
Eventually, after five days of constant death, Ornstein and Smough hit the ground. There's a long period of silence -- several seconds of nothing but silence. Then, you hear a loud sigh.
"Oh, man," he mutters to no one in particular.
Another long silence. Soon, an enormous exhale, as if a great tension was just released.
Ornstein and Smough are dead, but there are so many bosses to go.
One of the game's best fights, the dragon Kalameet, also proved a major stumbling block. He spent three days studying the fight, one purposely designed to trick players into avoiding attacks in the wrong direction. Kalameet hopes to make players zig when they should zag. And die.
Kalameet's dive bomb attack caused him the most problems. No matter what he did, he could not avoid this attack. Since he can only take one hit, that meant death. That meant fighting all the nearby enemies again. That meant starting the boss all over again, one that takes, in the best of circumstances, more than 20 minutes to finish.
This was the fight that made him question the whole run, and consider changing the restrictions entirely. It didn't seem possible to beat. Perhaps this was the end of the road.
"I basically had to beat myself up in order to keep going," he said in a video. "That was very painful."
Though he kept playing, his heart wasn't in it.
"I was extremely frustrated and getting depressed," he told me.
Then, out of nowhere, he managed to dodge the attack. It was an accident, but it provided the spark he needed to keep playing. Finally, the fight seemed possible. The run could continue.
This idea of hope, redemption, and epiphany though struggle is at the heart of TheUrbanOrb's Dark Souls run, but it goes deeper than that. These runs are what made him realise it was possible for his hand -- and his mind -- to start getting better, too. He spent so much of his life with hands that just worked, and when that was taken away from him, the prospect of having to exert energy day-after-day for years to get back what he'd lost seemed too daunting.
"I used to be fairly depressed," he said. "I started doing these exercises and I would always stop after a couple of days or weeks, and I would basically give up."
Embracing his physical therapy, accepting the long road ahead, went hand-in-hand with picking up the Souls games.
"The day after I beat NG+7 in Demon's Souls, I started with the rehab exercises again," he said. "and I have been doing rehabilitation ever since. These challenges have taught me how to endure the frustration that goes along with it."
His fingers are getting better -- slowly. There's progress. One day, he might play piano again.
"That is my goal," he said. "That has been my goal for the last five years."
Illustration by Jim Cooke