Inhaling the intoxicating vapour that is Dark Souls is a dangerous life choice. You’re going to find yourself caught up in something largely outside your control. An endless loop with no real escape or respite.
There’s a term for that: ‘chasing the dragon’.
‘Chasing the dragon’ describes drug use -- the consumption of heroin or opium specifically. It’s a slang phrase, referring to the process of burning and inhaling class A drugs.
But it’s also a metaphor.
Chasing the Dragon: the fruitless pursuit of an initial high. An attempt to recreate that first drug induced experience; an attempt to recreate that bliss, to re-achieve that dreamlike state.
I wouldn’t know. I’ve never tried heroin.
But then again maybe I do. I have, after all, played a lot of Dark Souls.
Over the past month I’ve been thinking a lot about the appeal of Dark Souls and why I’m so compelled by it. Why it’s so hard to stop playing once I start. No other game has the ability to ensnare me like Dark Souls.
Once upon a time games writers tossed around the term ‘addictive’ (or its bastard son ‘addicting’) like it was a good thing. That term was a mark of greatness, but very few games (particularly in the last decade) have felt compelling. I have enjoyed games -- obviously – but do I tend to play them in fairly discrete, short blocks of time. Even games others describe as ‘time sinks’ (like Fallout or Grand Theft Auto) after a couple of hours I’m more than happy to take a break and move on with my day.
This is not the case with Dark Souls.
With Dark Souls I have to drag myself away. With Dark Souls I do that thing. I look at the clock and say ‘holy shit, 4am? I have to get up in two hours.’ Why is that?
My brother in-law was watching me play Dark Souls recently and he used another term: ‘pot-committed’. I was 20,000 souls deep, miles from a bonfire in a strange land. After a long brutal struggle, a random scabby dog bit me in the ass.
In any other game that would be enough. I’d go and clean the kitchen, make a cup of tea, head off to bed. Not this time. Quick as a flash I was back in. Gotta get my souls back. Gotta get those souls.
“It’s so fucking hard to stop playing this game,” I said in passing, to my brother in-law sitting on the couch.
“Yeah, you’re pot committed.”
In that moment it all made sense. The manner in which Dark Souls gives you this currency, shows you all the reasons why that currency matters, has you lose that currency, then gives you a single opportunity to retrieve that currency. Here’s another gambling term: double or nothing. When you’re that goddamn deep, it’s almost impossible to walk away. But sooner or later you’re leaving that goddamn casino with nothing but lint in your pockets.
In that sense, you’re chasing a different type of dragon.
But there’s the grander chase.
Dark Souls 3 is a wonderful video game. Slowly but surely I starting to realise that. My initial disappointment regarding its structure, and its lack of a truly integrated universe, has given way. Now I’m enjoying Dark Souls 3 on its own terms. I’m in the process of parsing exactly how good Dark Souls 3 is: its intricacy, its wonderful design, its beauty. Dark Souls 3 is the most beautiful game From Software has ever produced.
I’m getting to the point where I’m asking myself the question: is Dark Souls 3 the best Souls game?
It might just be. In terms of the nuts and bolts – the combat, the enemy design, the environments, the depth and verticality of each individual area – Dark Souls 3 is peerless. It’s the cumulative end point of what From Software has been working towards for over a decade. In a sense it’s the game we all hoped Dark Souls 2 would and could be. If it were possible to be objective about these kinds of things, you might just say that – yes. Dark Souls 3 is the best Dark Souls game.
But it’s not possible to be objective about these things.
The first time I played Dark Souls 3 I listened to that sound. The sound Dark Souls makes, that echoes each time you enter a new area. A sound that has the power to make my entire skeleton shake. There’s a visceral, pure reaction there that just affects me. It’s uncontrollable, the end result of hundreds of hours spent playing Souls games. It represents a long, harrowing journey. A journey that began – for me at least -- with the very first Dark Souls game.
You’re never going to get that first experience back. You’ll never be able to relive it in that precise same way. Same goes for other epoch defining video games. For 25 years now Zelda games have been trying to replicate A Link To The Past – that structure, that feeling. Sometimes they’ve been successful in that endeavour, other times less so, but they’re always pushing. Always chasing that dragon. Until death if necessary.
We, the players, are no different. Dark Souls – and Demon’s Souls before it – provided most of us with something powerfully new and unique; introduced us to an experience that would intrigue us, confuse us, challenge us and ultimately reward us in ways that most games don’t. They would introduce us to a universe that seemed so fucking strange that we couldn’t help but be compelled by it, wrapped in mechanics that would literally ensnare us. There’s nothing quite like Souls games and that’s the beautiful and tragic thing about them. That dazzling originality. Again: we’ll never get that first experience back. I’ll never get that first experience back.
I’ll always be chasing that dragon, shivering with each chime and slash. Each boss fight. Pure conditioning. As good as Dark Souls 3 is it’ll never match that initial high. We need to accept that, accept each iteration for what it is. Otherwise it’ll leave you hollow. And if Dark Souls has taught me anything it’s this:
You don’t want to go hollow. And you don't want to fuck with dragons.