A few days ago, I gave up on outwardly promising surrealist RPG Nashbored an embarrassingly short way in, due to a wildly misjudged trap-dodging section (one part of which reset me back to the start of the banal puzzle if I failed to skip past any one of its five rows of patrolling doomblades – you know the sort). I mean, sure, whoever designed that challenge deserves to immediately step in particularly rancid dog poo whenever they leave their house, but on the other hand my swift abandonment of it speaks volumes about where games (and games and I) are at in 2019. It’s so easy to give up now.
In the late 1980s, I faced kindred tortures at the hands of seminal Spectrum adventure Knight Lore, whose outrageous brutality would chill the blood of even the most vociferous git-gudder today. But I did not give up. I dashed myself against those craggy, mono-coloured rocks time and again.
Knight Lore’s a landmark, shifting action games on from side-on perspectives and doggedly linear paths and into isometric quasi-3D and quasi-openness.(It wasn’t the original innovator of such things, but it did set the course. It’s also an absolute bastard. A bastard for the ages. In my auto-mythology, the ur-bastard. Its combination of insta-death and absolutely unforgiving pixel-precision movement reaches the stressy heights of unplayability today.
I was, at a guess, 9 or 10 when I first sampled Knight Lore upon the rubber-keyed monolith of 1980s legend. When I later tried it as an adult (at least a decade ago), I was probably worse at it. As a child I had had an advantage: zero certainty that I’d have any other game to play any time soon. This became mutant perseverance, a determination to press on, no matter how many times I lost all five lives on the very first screen.
I never made it far. But every new hurdle jumped, every new screen reached, every death dodged – if only for a moment – filled my heart to bursting point with pride. Sooner or later, another, easier game came along, and me and Knight Lore were done forever, but it remained with me forever too. Not just its difficulty, but also what seemed at the time like powerful gothic menace, the seething danger of its world, the unanswered mysteries and misery of a protagonist afflicted with lycanthropy; less a superpower, more a rot of the soul.
I was late to the Dark Souls party (though I was also early to it, having bought and been confounded by Demon’s Souls at initial release). Always in a hurry, my life and mindset just didn’t fit it. That changed with Dark Souls III, when professional embarrassment motivated me to finally get to grips with this phenomenon. Revelation, at last.
From there I went backwards, the first Dark Souls earning my eternal love (although I will incline to the tragically PS4-only Bloodborne instead, given the opportunity). But something gnawed away at me, a familiarity I could not place. Not the game itself, but the feeling I had while playing it. Some steely part of me, indefatigable even in the face of great adversity, which I almost never had access to outside of this.
The words ‘Knight Lore’ popped, unbidden, into my brain for the first time in years while I was ruminating on my past and uncertain future, as I do too often, in the shower. And there it was. The first time I prepared to die.