Blindspots is a new, irregular series in which I play games, series or genres that I have, for one reason or another, never spent significant time with. Sometimes that’s because of simple omission, other times it’s because I’ve deliberately avoided them – convinced that I wouldn’t enjoy them or that they were poor quality. My intent is to play each for long enough that, at the very least, I understand their appeal in order that I no longer dismiss them out of hand, but ideally I’ll reach the point where I break through the wall of ignorance or fear and love them as my own.
We begin with the Souls games, specifically the recent Dark Souls III. I have resolutely steered clear of this series because I have been certain that they would be too ‘difficult’ for me. Because I am a pathetic little babyman.
Statements I believed to be true before I played Dark Souls III:
1) Blocking is boring
2) Bosses are the worst
3) Memorising level layouts and enemy movement patterns involves empty, unsatisfying grind.
I no longer believe any of those things to be true, but it took several hard, unhappy days of play before that became the case. I knew, going in, that Dark Souls was going to give me a hard time: it seems to be all the internet talks about, after all, and I have never enjoyed a surfeit of either dexterity or patience. But simply ducking the issue, hoping that I could be in this job – hell, in this culture – without really knowing about Dark Souls was cowardly and unhealthy. I had to force myself. I had to understand it, at the very least.
Initial minutes with the game provided both relief and anxiety. The enemies in the first, forlorn area were easily killed with a single sword-swipe, but the messages littered on the ground warned about learning multiple blocking and dodge manoeuvres, and my heart sank with each: buttons to learn. Buttons to press with precise timing. Buttons my clumsy hands would mis-hit or fumble for.
I swore as simple, stupid enemies gave way to those who pursued or who double-teamed me, my flailing attacks interrupted by savage, lethal strikes. But I pushed on. I tried again and again, and I learned where those guys were, how they attacked, how they could be avoided, how my own attacks, blocks and parries worked. I stayed longer than I should, training myself, having already learned the hard way that, not far on, a boss lurked.
Not everyone, I came to discover, agrees that Iudex Gundyr is a true boss. But he was my nightmare.
A hulking knight with an axe which seemed able to span the entirety of the arena I was locked inside, an axe which seemed able to hit me no matter where I was. I couldn’t get my head around that axe, couldn’t understand its reach or where the safe spots were. Could not understand how I could beat someone who could hit me from anywhere. I ran and I rolled but none of it seemed to make a difference. Two or three hits and I was dead, and usually two of those hits happened within seconds of my stepping into the arena. Miserable.
By the tenth failed attempt, my heart sank: I wouldn’t be able to do this. I would have to give up. I would never understand. Never write this piece. Never be able to talk about Dark Souls, never be able to admit that I ever tried to play it. “Oh, I just never got around to it, ha ha. One of these days, you know, but I really am ever so busy. Ever so busy.”
Ever so busy staring at the wall, hating myself.
It was only in the admission of my shame and my worthlessness that victory became possible. I was blind Arya, I suppose. I decided to admit my failure on Twitter, rather than lock it up and pretend it had never happened. On my next attempt – calmer and unburdened now, just one more try for the road, Iudex Gundyr fell. In my new calmness, the anger gone, I found a flow.
I rolled in time, I swiped and stabbed only at his back. Sure, he took a few chunks at me, but suddenly, in quiet disbelief, I realise half his health had gone. Two thirds. Nine-tenths. It would take just one more hit. I was going to do it.
I worried I was going to die. I really did. My heart – it had never thumped so hard, so sickeningly before. Thump, like a rolled-up newspaper against my chest. Thump, like sudden turbulence on a flight. Thump, like… like I had done it.
I had defeated the tutorial boss. It was nothing, I knew. But a door had opened. I might have transformed from someone who was incapable of playing these games into someone who could. Later, I learned that others had struggled with Iudex Gundyr, that he was considered harder than other first Souls bosses, and that door opened further. I had dived in at the deep end, it seems, and I had not drowned.
Thereafter, I learned so much. The game told me little, but through exploration and experimentation I worked out how its Souls system – a single currency for both item purchases and levelling up – worked, the risk/reward of how far to push on before I went back and spent my earnings (to die would be to lose them all), how to dodge enemies entirely to reach new places or reclaim lost Souls more rapidly, how to upgrade weapons, how to deal with shielded foes, why to only fight down and never up a staircase, and most of all how to die.
How to die fast, how to die slow, how to die at the worst time, how to die at the right time, cutting losses or leaving dropped Souls in an easy-to-reach place. How to not mind when I die, because at least I will have learned something new.
Because I have learned so little, that I could tell. To play Dark Souls III would be to keep on learning: every enemy location, every shortcut, every ambush and every trap. I no longer felt that I was staring an insurmountable brick wall, though. Rather, I saw a long series of surmountable brick walls, each of which I could batter down once I found the right tools.
When I met the second boss, it was not with fear but with determination. Having faced down my doubt once, I knew that I would be able to do it again if I could just retain discipline and patience.
He was so much easier. I laughed even as he murdered me for the first and the second time, because even though I had failed I could see a way through. I could tell that, soon enough, I would win. The lack of that infinite axe helped enormously, to be honest: I could more easily understand a huge, armoured enemy who I simply had to dodge then hack at the behind of. I could see where I needed to be and where I should not be, whereas the exact capabilities of Iudex Gundyr’s absurd weapon had always been hard to comprehend.
Vordt of the Boreal Valley, though, fell on my third attempt. Thump, thump, thump, but not as sickeningly as before. Just the adrenaline of victory this time, not the conjoined disbelief that I had survived the impossible.
I have been much further than that, and there is so very far still to go, but now I can say this: I get Dark Souls. I get that it is not about ‘difficulty’ so much as it is working things out for myself. It’s not about precision so much as it is bludgeoning a way through, fumbling my way to success through a combination of patience and grit.
There is grind, but it doesn’t feel like it: not in the World of Warcraft sense, because I feel that something is improving and expanding, and because the ingenuity of the Souls systems means there’s always drama: I might lose all my earnings at any point.
Importantly, it’s about exploring as much as it is learning level layouts: wandering around, getting jumped, finding secrets and shortcuts, building a map in my mind. Getting a little further each time.
It’s also about working out what feels right, weapon-wise: not for me big, heavy two-handers or the heaviest armour, but a semi-fast, souped-up axe and a lightweight shield which I only really used to block the bolts of ranged enemies. I wear lighter armour so I can move faster: tanking is not for me. I want to swipe and swipe as I dodge and roll, not to time and lunge for big damage. I’m an attrition fighter, it seems. I have no doubt that I will soon meet a boss who will punish me for that. Because this is Dark Souls.
And I get it. Honestly, I was the last person I thought that could ever be true of, so I am quite sure that you can get it too.