A Closer Look At Dark Souls’ Most Difficult Player-Created Challenges

A Closer Look At Dark Souls’ Most Difficult Player-Created Challenges
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Dark Souls’ gloomy world and difficult battles appeal to players and writers alike. One of the deepest dives is You Died: The Dark Souls Companion, written by Jason Killingsworth and long-time Kotaku contributor Keza MacDonald. The original released in 2016 but a brand-new Kickstarter for a hardcover version places it all into a package that would look nice on a mahogany bookshelf.

One of the most interesting aspects of Dark Souls is how die-hard players continue to find new ways to challenge the game. From Twitch chat driven playthroughs to exhausting “No Hit” runs, there’s always a fresh way to face the game. In this excerpt from You Died, Killingsworth and MacDonald document some of the most intense accomplishments from two astounding players.

The first time you slay a Dark Souls boss, the surge of adrenaline almost blurs your vision. You scream impulsively, sending nearby pets scampering from the room. You gesture obscenely at the television. You pull up Twitter on your phone to broadcast the news to friends and strangers. You set down the controller and stare at the screen for a minute, drawing out the moment, relishing what you’ve just accomplished. However, the second and third time you return to a boss and find him or her a relative pushover, the outcome doesn’t send nearly the same level of voltage through your limbic system.

Like a long-married person trying to spice up an overly familiar bedroom, many Dark Souls players have experimented with creative ways of altering their approach to the game to render the experience tantalizingly alien once more. This usually means introducing handicaps that force one to reformulate how to approach the game’s obstacles. Some have completed the game without levelling up, or without equipping a shield, but when you consider the feats of the most daring players in the Dark Souls community, a triumphant OneBro begins to feel more deserving of a polite pat on the head than a windmill high-five.

If you ever hear anybody boast about completing Dark Souls with one hand tied behind their back, know that they’re still only 50% as beast as Benjamin “Bearzly” Gwin. The 25-year-old Canadian software programmer commenced a challenge run in August of 2015 in which he spent roughly 30 hours completing the entire game hands-free using nothing but verbal commands funneled into a piece of voice-recognition software.

The challenge runs Bearzly routinely pulls off remind me of the squirm-inducing news story of a man from Northern California who amputated his own left leg just below the knee with pocket knives after being pinned beneath a fallen tree for 11 hours. That’s what Bearzly does on a regular basis, self-handicapping in creative ways to prove his absolute mastery of Dark Souls’ mechanics.

One commenter on YouTube named ‘A Random Guy’ comments: “Pfft. Noob. Make a mod giving the game a first person mode and then beat it on the Kinect with your tendons slashed and then I’ll be impressed.” Don’t give the man any ideas, I think to myself.

As it turns out, Bearzly explains to me that he’s already working on a motion-controlled run. “I had to write entirely custom [software] to translate Kinect actions into Dark Souls. A lot of that stuff I have to do entirely by hand.”

In the video clip of Bearzly’s ‘Voice Souls’ battle against Smough and Ornstein, reputed to be Dark Souls’ toughest boss fight, his voice commands sound terse, almost robotic. “Forward… strafe right… forward… heavy…” he says in determined monotone, trying to make his voice as intelligible as possible to the VoiceAttack software. “Strafe right… backward,” and on he goes. It’s commonplace to hear awed spectators use the term ‘machine’ to describe a person who performs extra-hard tasks in games with apparent ease, but Bearzly appears to transform into one, issuing a string of input commands with the precision of a synthetic organism. He’s no machine, though, as we are reminded at regular intervals. Despite his best efforts to suppress colour commentary or stray exclamations that might fling spanners into the voice-detection works, occasionally he just can’t help himself.

“How’d that hit me?” he snaps after Smough’s hammer clips him with a lethal stampeding shovel swing. At the bottom of the screen where Bearzly has made the flow of text inputs visible to people following the stream, the software’s input log reads, “Unrecognised: elected me”. In a more tickling example, when Bearzly takes a moment during a mid-fight-cutscene to inform viewers, “I don’t even think I’ll be healing really here, maybe once at most,” the input log notes, “Unrecognised: and indigo refuelling rally here maybe once a month”.

“After you struggle with bad voice controls for 20 hours,” says Bearzly, “you have to learn how to make them work for you. That run was painful and my voice was definitely wrecked

by doing it. So I had to kind of get into a rhythm so I wouldn’t start screwing up. I know there are some parts where I very nearly died and I just wanted to make some exclamation but I knew if I did that, I’d be dead. It was quite a challenge.”

After 111 attempts at talking Smough and Ornstein into an early grave, Bearzly finally lands the killing hit on Smough. He emits a cascade of exhausted but celebratory swears, which VoiceAttack innocently interprets as “the Michelle cuts if the link between god and if”. What you hear next is a few seconds of what sounds like unguarded weeping, followed by the statement “a moment of silence for my sanity”. At this point, Bearzly only has one final bit of unfinished business to conclude. “‘A… one-eighty… right…” he says, “… right… stop… one-eighty… well, what is it?” With this string of commands, he’s closed out the menu showing the acquisition of the Soul of Smough, run to the centre of the room, adjusted the in-game camera to face his character and, finally, triggered a gesture that has his character throw his arms wide in a kind of ‘Heyyyyy, check me out!’ flourish.

Twitch chat visible in the right-hand corner of Bearzly’s stream instantly fills up with a massive litter of cartoon puppy-dog heads (an in-joke emoticon known as ‘FrankerZ’ that conveys sarcasm or playfulness in chat rooms). The fans have been entertained, and that’s all the streamer really wanted.

Fellow software developer Gary Magenheimer is likewise impressed, but why wouldn’t he be? He’s the guy who created the VoiceAttack program Bearzly used in his ‘Voice Souls’ challenge run. “I was made aware of [Voice Souls] by somebody emailing my support inbox,” he tells me. “So I immediately went online to see what it was about. I think it’s a pretty cool accomplishment and a true test of patience. My site’s replacement is under construction so there hasn’t been an update in some time, but perhaps on the new site I can include a VoiceAttack Hall of Fame. I haven’t seen anybody with a more visible accomplishment.”

Possessing the real-life surname of Gwin, Bearzly was perhaps destined to form a special connection with Dark Souls. But I had to ask him just to be sure: was Gwin really his last name, or was it a pseudonymous way of concealing his identity while dialling up the Soulsiness of his online persona? “I had a chuckle when I first played Dark Souls and saw what the final boss’s name was,” he says, grinning. “But yeah, that’s legitimately my real name.”

Familiarity hasn’t yet bred contempt. Bearzly can’t seem to get the game out of his system, despite having played it for roughly 500 hours. He can go back to it any day of the week, he tells me, and just play through the whole game all over again, enjoying the world and the way in which the gameplay stays engaging and fresh. After his first couple of playthroughs he got deeply invested in every aspect of the game and became determined to know everything there was to know. Then later, during a stretch of unemployment, he found himself watching Dark Souls speedruns and challenge runs all day, especially the most prominent Souls challenge-runner in the community, Lobos Jr., whom Bearzly adores and cites as his inspiration for getting into challenge-running in the first place.

“I guess I’m trying to reduce Dark Souls to being playable with the most minimal advantage possible,” says Bearzly. “Because Dark Souls to me is about the learning process that everyone goes through when they play the game. Like, I had people coming to my stream all the time and saying, ‘You’re better at playing this game with voice controls than I am with a controller!’ And I’m like, yeah, probably, but it’s because it’s a game where you learn so much and get so much better. I do consider every boss in Dark Souls pretty trivial now if I’m just playing normally. When you take away so much that you know and try to apply something new to it, the challenge is back, and the reward is also back.”

The video archive on Bearzly’s YouTube channel is a veritable Pandora’s toybox of game peripherals. By now he’s completed Dark Souls with basically every Rock Band peripheral in existence – guitar (the peripheral for which he’s best known), drum kit, even the piano. In the case of the piano, he had to reverse-engineer how the piano actually functioned in order to write the custom software necessary to make it play nice with Dark Souls. He’s completed the game with nothing but the Donkey Konga bongo drum controllers (Donk Souls?). He’s used a DDR dance mat (DDRk Souls?). During our interview, he asks me if I’d seen the guy on YouTube who figured out how to play DOOM with a toaster. Gwin promptly throws down the tease: “Well, stay tuned, I guess.”

I haven’t personally attempted the ‘Niagara Falls in a barrel’ breed of Dark Souls challenge runs, but I’ve completed the most common entry-level one: the OneBro run, or Soul Level 1 run, in which you must complete the game without levelling up. I’d spent hundreds of hours playing Dark Souls on the Xbox 360, but when the PC release came out and Durante’s DSfix mod provided glorious 60 FPS and high-resolution textures, I had an incentive to return. The OneBro run imposed a constraint that would amp up the difficulty, giving me a hit of the challenge-runner’s high that I’d heard so much about. I missed the euphoria of those first-playthrough victory screens, the jumping-up in front of my TV and flipping birds at the ashes of particularly hateful bosses.

It was fascinating to see how tweaking just one major parameter of the experience fundamentally altered my whole approach to the game. I was expecting to feel grotesquely underpowered, but realised quickly that by aggressively upgrading and adding elemental damage to my Battle Axe and Reinforced Club (two of the only weapons OneBros have the requisite strength stats to wield effectively), I could pack a punch, even as a level-one character.

I quickly realised that I was playing a glass-cannon build. Two light attacks from a boss or one heavy attack would finish me, but I could wear them down quickly enough. Realising the importance of evading damage, I made damn well sure I had light enough armour to maximise my agility. I needed to land my attacks on bosses’ flanks and buzz away like a mosquito before the lash of the horse’s tail came whipping around.

I didn’t put myself through the torture of veering into the DLC’s ornery cul-de-sac to face down Kalameet and Manus, but I did kill that bastard Gwyn. I was able to take a screenshot with the Soul of Gwyn in my inventory and my level-1 stat in plain view. Like Gwyn, I’d burned to cinder for 45 hours or so, enduring that scorching gauntlet. The feeling of accomplishment was rapturous. But no achievement unlocked when I reached my goal, even though it was one of the most difficult things I’d ever accomplished in a video game. No Kotaku or Polygon journalists scrambled to compose a post about my triumph like they did for Bearzly when he slayed Smough and Ornstein with his fret-covered “axe”.

What was it like to be a celebrity for a day, I wonder? Was that recognition part of the fuel that kept Bearzly on the road when the trail got particularly bumpy? “I don’t really care about any of these gaming blogs talking about me; I consider it an interesting footnote on my life,” he says. “It’s been an interesting experience. It’s not a huge part of me, but it’s fun while it lasts.”

Bearzly’s challenge-running idol Lobos Jr. has been punching an elderly man in the testicles for almost two solid hours. Adding to the ignominy, there’s a crowd watching him do it, cheering him on. The old man happens to be Gwyn, Lord of Cinder, Dark Souls’ final boss. The decrepit god-king wields an enormous flaming sword and stands nearly twice as tall as Lobos’ player character, but he’s brutally outmatched in this fight. Lobos isn’t making any attempt to play evasively. He’s just standing directly in front of Gwyn, defiant, daring him to land a swing of his sword. When the swing comes, Lobos parries effortlessly and, since he has no weapon equipped in his right hand, he ripostes with a below-the-belt jab of the right fist.

Each time one of Lobos’ punching ripostes connects, Gwyn crumples to his knees with such a ruinous wobble, you half expect a boxing umpire to run into view to signal the KO and end the charade. Yet, each time, Gwyn climbs to his feet again and silently asks: May I have another? Without a weapon equipped, Lobos’ punches are doing a vanishingly small amount of damage. The initial riposte inflicts a grand total of 1 damage, while the follow-up strike that knocks Gwyn flat onto his back does either 4 or 6 damage, depending on some random damage calculation. Lobos would be doing even less damage, but he’s wearing the Hornet Ring, which gives a 30% boost to critical attacks.

Gwyn’s health bar is depleting so gradually that, an hour and a half into the fight, the red segment has only just reached the left-hand portion beneath Gwyn’s name. “We’re nearing the beginning of the ‘w’!” Lobos tells the thousands of viewers watching the endurance test via Twitch. Anticipation builds with each new letter conquered in the painfully slow advance. As the health bar drops so low as to become barely visible, clusters of puppy emoticons are soaring up the Twitch-chat scroll so quickly, it feels like some kind of bizarre homage to the animated classic All Dogs Go To Heaven.

There’s a fantastic bit of unplanned tension at the very end of the fight because, with Gwyn’s health decaying by such minuscule increments, it’s impossible to predict which blow will actually be the killing blow, even though there doesn’t appear to be any health left in the bar. Lobos keeps his cool and keeps parrying with flawless timing all the way down to the final blow. “That’s all she wrote for the Gwyn boxing challenge,” Lobos tells his fans before exiting the ring.

Mike “Lobos Jr.” Villalobos, a resident of Austin, Texas, has been broadcasting himself playing video games regularly for about six years, but his channel didn’t explode in popularity until he began streaming Dark Souls challenge runs back in early 2013. He attributes the audience spike to the fact that he got in at the right time. Since the game only had a cult following at that point, he was one of the only streamers challenge-running Dark Souls. All of a sudden the Souls community had a court jester a la Johnny Knoxville. If completing the game normally equated to pedalling a bike up the side of Mount Everest, here was somebody who’d already reached the summit and was determined to go back down…butt-naked in a shopping trolley with a snarling Rottweiler inside. No brakes or crash helmet required.

Lobos gave Demon’s Souls a shot but had tossed it back in the pile after 2 ½ hours. “This game is garbage,” he recalls thinking at the time, “I’m out! This isn’t fair!” Later when Dark Souls came out, however, his friends staged an intervention and sat him down, forcing him to play it while they offered hints on how to survive. Those friends probably deserve a cut of his streaming royalties; thanks in part to the success he’s found streaming Dark Souls, he was able to quit his day job at BioWare performing quality assurance on Star Wars: The Old Republic to begin streaming full-time. He’s already built a dedicated audience of 341,000 subscribers on YouTube and nearly 348,000 followers on Twitch, the latter of which he’s affectionately dubbed ‘The Wolfpack’.

In addition to the Gwyn bareknuckle takedown, he’s completed Dark Souls in a myriad of dementedly difficult ways. During our interview I ran down a non-exhaustive list of my favourite Lobos Jr. Dark Souls challenge runs and asked him to offer his abiding impression of each in lightning-round succession. If you want to experience the most profound suffering that Dark Souls has to offer, feel free to take notes. Off we go…

Complete game solely dealing damage by rolling into enemies while wearing Kirk, Knight of Thorns’ armour set.

Lobos: “Didn’t kill Four Kings [with rolling], every other boss was doable but not Four Kings.”

Complete game with 1 stamina point, no spells.

Lobos: “Lots of dying.”

Complete game using bow only, no lock-on.

Lobos: “Miserable. Basically I had to aim my neck area at characters to kill them, that’s how you aim without locking on.”

Complete game using only consumable items to inflict damage.

Lobos: “Manus took two hours.”

Complete speedrun of the entire game in under an hour.

Lobos: “Satisfying.”

Complete speedrun with no healing, bonfires, attuning or levelling.

Lobos: “The run [from Firelink] to Nito is the most exciting part.”

Speedrun to acquire The Dark Soul 100% achievement.

Lobos: “Didn’t really care about it. I’m not an achievement hunter. Someone came up with a speedrun route for it and said, let’s race this, and I was like, alright, cool. It took a long time and I did it, but I probably wouldn’t do it again.

Complete game while switching to each successive weapon you find in a new chest or gain via loot drop (a.k.a. the ‘Use What You See’ challenge).

Lobos: “Surprising. I could plan it out to a certain extent in terms of, ‘Oh I need to go pick up this weapon’, but occasionally an enemy would drop a weapon and all of a sudden I have to drop my good weapon and switch to this crappy weapon.”

Complete Dark Souls blindfolded with friend offering seeing-eye dog directives (a.k.a. ‘In The Dark Souls’).

Lobos: “Tedious, very tedious. We got all the way to Anor Londo. We got through Sen’s Fortress, that felt like a victory there almost. But yeah, it’s not that we really gave up or anything, we just didn’t return to it.”

Complete game using only weapons which you don’t have sufficient stats to wield (a.k.a. ‘the bouncy-sword run’).

Lobos: “Very slow, very slow.”

Shield-only speedrun.

Lobos: “Fun but grindy. The best shield to go for is the Bonewheel Shield, but it’s got a very low drop-rate so the very first part of the run, which I had to do over and over and over, involves trying to get that shield to drop while not dying to Bonewheel Skeletons.

Reach 1,000,000 souls held, can only spend souls from items.

Lobos: “All I remember is losing like 700K souls at some point and having to start over, so: heartbreaking.”

Complete the game by summoning in viewers to kill everything on your behalf.

Lobos: “Unique.”

Kill Gwyn in a boxing duel.

Lobos: “Endurance test. Gruelling.”

The more I hear Lobos talk about the unique sort of enjoyment he gets out of challenge-running Dark Souls, the more his interaction with the game starts sounding like an extension of his previous gig working in video-game quality assurance. He’s naturally drawn to the ethic of playing games in ways that were never intended, and gets a bird-hunting thrill out of spotting a rare animation or AI glitch during his escapades.

“Even before I worked in QA,” he tells me, “that is what I loved to do with games. Also, I love how speedrunners will find certain glitches that you can exploit to get through the games faster. I’m just so interested in the mechanics of games. Once I went into QA I got to harness that and use it in an actual professional setting, and now when I stream, sometimes I have to stop myself because people don’t want to watch me jump at this corner for an hour [trying to find a sequence break in the map].

“If a game is very well polished, that’s great. If a game is horrendously broken, that’s almost better. Because I’m just in love with mechanics and how they break. When stuff breaks, my mind goes crazy thinking, ‘OK, here’s the logic for why this is happening’. And Dark Souls being broken makes me love it even more. Every time somebody asks me who on

the development team I would love to talk to, everybody expects Miyazaki, but no, I would like to have a conversation with one of the QA guys and be like, ‘Did you guys know about this?!’”

To date, he’s never gotten any indication from the Souls developer that they’ve discovered and patched a bug based on his stream, but there are some choice Dark Souls bugs still in existence that can be exploited, he assures me. His favourite glitch, which he used just the other day, is known as ‘tumble-buffing’. By casting a buff such as Magic Weapon in the middle of a roll, it will send the command into a queue to be executed the moment you come out of the roll. However, if you quickly swap the weapon out for a different one mid-roll, the Magic Weapon buff will automatically be applied to whatever weapon you’ve subbed in, even if it can’t normally receive the buff. This allows you to cast a Magic Weapon buff onto a bow or a shield, or even your bare fists.

“I did a run with my bare fists,” says Lobos, “which revolves around using Magic Weapon and levelling intelligence just to buff your fists. It does enough damage where you can get through the game that way.”

If you’re wondering how many hours it takes to get as good at Dark Souls as Lobos, you might want to pack a lunch for the journey. He does most of his challenge runs offline, and Steam doesn’t track offline hours, but he’s been keeping a mental tally over the years and he estimates the total amount of playtime to be somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 hours. He’s completed the game 300-400 times in that span. “It sounds ridiculous,” he says, “but they say it takes 10,000 hours to master something, and I’ve been [playing Dark Souls] as a full-time job for a year and pretty much full-time as a hobby for years before that.”

I’d like to take a moment to personally congratulate Lobos on having crossed the halfway point along his journey to mastery of Dark Souls. When he reaches 10,000 hours, hopefully we can all gather in his stream chat together – you, me, Bearzly, all of us – to give that beautiful bastard a dogpile for the ages.

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