One of the biggest misconceptions about Dark Souls is that it's only for super-hardcore macho gamers looking to prove their mettle -- players who are looking to test their already hardened gaming skills. The challenge is too intimidating, runs this line of reasoning, for anyone else to contemplate attempting. [The following is an excerpt from You Died: The Dark Souls Companion, a book about Dark Souls and the delightfully mad people who play it by Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth. You can buy it here.]
Bandai-Namco played on this idea with Dark Souls' marketing slogan "Prepare to Die" (which, though successful in America actually proved to be something of a turn-off for European players, if Dark Souls' early sales data is anything to go by). The difficulty is, disappointingly, often the first thing that comes up when people talk about the game, especially people who haven't played it much. It can give the impression that Dark Souls is basically a video game equivalent of the habanero pepper challenge: are you tough enough to survive it?
This whole principle is, in my experience, a total fallacy. I know plenty of people who aren't enormously interested in most video games, but who have totally cleaved to the Souls series. A friend of mine had a housemate, Amy, who had literally never played a video game before in her life, but was so intrigued by watching him play Demon's Souls that she picked up the controller for herself. Demon's Souls ended up being the first game she ever completed, and she loved it. There are a lot of stories that puncture the stereotype that Dark Souls is inherently forbidding to all but the hardcore.
One such story is that of Kay, a 33-year-old American woman who chronicled her wonderful Dark Souls journey on YouTube. One day in 2013, she and her boyfriend P sat down to play some Borderlands 2 co-op together, and her ineptitude at driving -- specifically, at using a twin-stick controller -- inspired him to sit her down in front of Dark Souls and record her playing, for laughs. "He was probably thinking it would be an episode or two of me being squished by things. And it was, at first," Kay told me. "I knew nothing about it other than the fact that it is very pretty and very difficult. He set the computer up and wouldn't tell me anything about what I was about to face. I think he hoped I would fail utterly and hilariously, but instead I was … OK, I suppose. Not great. Slow to pick up the controls, but quick to understand the game mechanics and story."
"He was probably thinking it would be an episode or two of me being squished by things. And it was, at first."
The first episode went live on 16 December 2013. Kay certainly doesn't help herself with her choice of character class: she picks Deprived, a class that starts completely naked and with all stats at an even 11. Most players would agree that it's the hardest starting class of all, especially for a beginner. It's wonderful watching someone with no idea what's about to happen throw themselves cheerfully at the Undead Asylum. Kay spends a good 10 minutes in the cell, trying out the controls (and figuring them out pretty quickly).
She had played plenty of games before, of course -- just not this kind of game. "My older brother and I used to get trotted off to my grandmother's house when we were little, and this would have been a supremely boring experience if we hadn't discovered my uncle's old room from when he was little," she says in one of her videos. "He had left behind all of his old gaming stuff -- games, Dungeons & Dragons books, Choose Your Own Adventure books, all sorts. It's funny how many of my interests today I can trace back to my uncle. We didn't have much face-to-face interaction, but I got his hand-me-down interests."
Illustration by Angus Dick
The first time Kay encounters the Asylum Demon, her poor character is still completely naked with nothing but a broken sword hilt. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't go well -- but she responds with curiosity rather than despair. "My heart is pounding right now," she says, opening the door to face him again, heroically wielding the broken sword hilt with two hands. It does two damage with every hit and she hasn't found Oscar and his Estus flasks yet. "I guess this'll be a long fight," she says.
At the beginning, everything is new to Kay -- the concept of Soul retrieval, the controls, the bonfires, the inventory system, the lot. What makes it so compelling to watch for a long-time Souls fan is the awareness that every Souls player was once completely new -- but after hundreds of hours in the company of the game, we've all forgotten what being uninitiated feels like. Watching a player as intelligent and inquisitive as Kay approach each new challenge with willingness and curiosity is an absolute treat. I wish I could say I'd been as calm and patient in my first hours with Dark Souls.
Kay did not expect to get as involved with Dark Souls as she eventually did. "Admittedly, it was originally going to be one of those, 'Hey, let's watch her suck at video games' kind of things, but after a few strangers watched and left comments on the first episode or two, if was no longer just a joke for the friends," she tells me. "Plus, sometime around Undead Burg, I started to really like the game. So I decided to just play the game the way that I would if nobody was watching."
"I fell in love with Dark Souls in that moment."
There was one particular moment in the Undead Burg that totally sold Kay on the game. "It was my encounter with the Black Knight, when I was up on the roof and started throwing stuff down on him and trying to jump onto his head. Oh man, that was a great fight," she says. "The fight was frantic, had me on the edge of my seat, and went down to the wire. One hit from death. No more healing. I had thrown every item in my inventory at it. Arrows, firebombs, daggers. I had done a series of drop attacks from the rooftop and whittled him down to near death. I had to do one more. I did … and missed. All that was left was a suicide leap to land the killing blow, and… I fell in love with Dark Souls in that moment."
And play she did. Over the course of 88 episodes and almost three months on YouTube, Kay fought all the way to the Kiln of the First Flame, gaining a pretty big following in the process. At every turning point, you feel like you're right there with her, like the moment she discovers sorcery, or when she decides to try going up the hill from Firelink Shrine, away from the gigantic skeletons. What's so captivating about watching Kay's videos is that it really is like experiencing the game all over again for the first time, from the perspective of someone who hasn't so much as read a review. It's brilliant to see her go from someone who can't find her way around the controller to someone who can comfortably despatch most of Dark Souls' bosses in five or fewer attempts.
It's also refreshing to watch someone play Dark Souls without constantly going on about how difficult it is. It isn't the challenge that attracts Kay to Dark Souls; it's the exquisite world-building, the mystery, the lore. Her observations on the game are a lot more interesting than 'holy shit, this is tough'. "I was constantly impressed with the world as a whole," she tells me. "Early on I kept spotting a tower in the distance. The same tower each time, that marked the bridge where I'd fought the Taurus Demon. But I encountered it from a different angle, within a different zone each time.
"Looking down into Blighttown from Firelink, and up from below. Spotting the Demon Ruins from the Tomb. Lower Undead Burg from above. Darkroot Basin from the Forest. The Archive from the Parish. The Parish from Sen's. Over and over I'd find myself looking back at places I'd been, or spying new locations I hadn't yet travelled.
"It turns out, I think, that the sorts of things I do like in games -- which is to make a record of what I do, ask for help, and draw maps and diagrams and read everything and look at everything -- really pays off in this style of game," she says. "The Souls games reward you for patience and for observation and for memory, and for exploration and attention to detail. It's that, with a really fun combat system layered on top of it. It was a good fit for my personality."
It’s refreshing to watch someone play Dark Souls without constantly going on about how difficult it is.
Kay is wholly unbothered by Dark Souls' supposedly macho image. "I see it differently," she says. "I think the game would be hard if you were impatient, if you neglected NPC dialogue, if you overlooked mechanics taught to you during the Asylum escape. For example, I learned how to roll, then promptly forgot it was in my repertoire for 30 episodes. Luckily, a shield protected me until I remembered. I think the game tells you everything you need to know.
"Dark Souls doesn't hold your hand, but it points you in the right direction and says, 'I've given you all the tools you need to survive. Use them wisely.' You go that way, and there are land mines. But Dark Soul gives you a manual for disarming them. But then the manual is in Swahili. But Dark Souls also gives you a Swahili dictionary. It expects you to listen, and to learn, and to improve. If I could do it, anyone with patience could. I don't think Dark Souls is brutally hard; it's challenging in a good way. I wish more games found this balance."
Dark Souls has had a pretty big impact on Kay's life. It was the beginning of a YouTube channel that she and P have worked on together ever since. But she doesn't see completing it as something that's changed her. "I was 33 when I started the game, and already had a good idea who I was," she says. "I knew I cared more about stories and characters than about stats and big numbers. I knew I was calm, patient, analytical, and not very funny. I didn't know anyone was interested in watching someone like that. I'd love to say that, through Dark Souls, I discovered some hidden quality about myself. It's the sort of game I can see having that effect on people. Maybe it gave me confidence that I could play more technically challenging games. Before, I'd tend to stick to story-driven games and, bar a few exceptions, avoid heavily strategic, skill-based games."
One thing that it has done, though, is bring her and her P closer together. What started out as a joke for friends ended up being quite an important factor in their relationship. "I think it's fair to say that P learned something about me while I played this game," she says. "He knew I had a history playing games, but I think it surprised him how much I threw myself into the world. Maybe it's sappy, but video games like Dark Souls, and working on this channel together, made us closer. I haven't said anything on the channel, but we married last year."
Kay has played plenty more games for her YouTube audience since. Her Dark Souls run, though, will always be special -- both for her, and for any Souls fan who's enjoyed it. We might have started from different places, but ultimately, the journey Kay goes through is the same as anyone's: initial bewilderment and incompetence, gradual learning, and eventual mastery. It's a reminder that even if you're fluent in all the buttons on an Xbox 360 controller, even if you've played hundreds of games before, we were all once total novices when it comes to Dark Souls.
The above is an excerpt from You Died: The Dark Souls Companion, a book about Dark Souls and the delightfully mad people who play it by Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth. It's more than 300 pages full of interesting stories about Dark Souls, its lore and its players, including original illustrations. You can buy it here. To read more from You Died, visit the website.