Pain and purgatory simulator Dark Souls: Remastered was released a couple of weeks ago, and within hours it was already the playground of a well-known hacker. Malcolm Reynolds, who is known to players from his exploits in other Dark Souls games, was invading players and throwing an accursed, hacked fireball at them, which inflicts diseases and a curse that makes the game even more difficult. He also has a history of getting people “softbanned”, which means their save file is flagged and they can only play with a small pool of other players (others who’ve been softbanned). I spoke to Malcolm Reynolds about why he does all this.
“I always say this to people that ask,” he tells me, “but every time they release a game I honestly wish they would have good anti-cheat.”
This would seem a disingenuous answer from somebody who broadcasts himself hurling magical flameballs that fly through walls and transform players' heads into giant, grotesque eggs. But as he admits, “it's more complicated than that.”
“People don't find cheating in CS:GO fun for instance," he says over Discord. "I tried it out, didn’t like it after a while… I don't find it fun and I find it confusing, what's so great about killing someone in a game like that?
“Dark Souls is a different story. As far as I can tell you can do anything with it. It's interesting to look into, and to figure out new things with it, finding out how a function works, or like in Dark Souls 3's case, finding out how to fire spells without pressing a button."
So perhaps he just relishes the technical challenge of modifying code, getting enjoyment from surgically fiddling with a game’s innards. But that's “too simple of an answer” for Reynolds. Like any troll, much of the appeal, he admits, comes from seeing how a player reacts to his powerful magicks. That’s why he will often specifically target players who are streaming. He gets to see their faces drop in real time, or in some cases, their laughter.
“It's fun to see how people will react. You stir up a shitstorm and you don't have to do anything else… It's the same reason I stream snipe really. You see the reaction… There's people that are indifferent, joking, angry, et cetera. But the best ones aren't when they get mad, even though that's funny to see as well. It's best when I can see that this person doesn't take it seriously, or becomes curious. It's interesting to see how people react to certain things, because it really goes both ways.”
Mal insists he doesn’t softban people as often as you might think. The accursed fireball, for instance, doesn’t get people softbanned and “never did”, according to him (I'm not volunteering to check). It simply applies all the worst negative status effects that already exist in the game.
"If you're that early into the game and I invade you just downloaded the hard mode DLC," he says.
Despite this, his reputation means that people assume they'll be softbanned should the dreaded Reynolds do one of his nasty tricks. If they're unlucky enough to be ensconced in flame, for example, or stabbed with one of his magical weapons, or perhaps faced with an endless cloud of ghostly archers.
He says this isn’t the case.
“I do it [softbanning], just not the way people say I can. There's only a few small ways you can actually get a person's save flagged, and it isn't just by hitting them or entering their world.
“But yeah softbanning is definitely a real thing. It's just not as simple as people make it out to be… People that play Dark Souls know so little about they game they play, but it's so easy to spread a rumor. I never once claimed to softban anybody. People did that for me.”
The legend of Malcolm is quite hard to separate from the truth. When I ask why he calls himself after the spaceship captain in Firefly, he tells me: “I don’t. This is my real name.” He also says the original PC release of Dark Souls had a bug that meant the exact amount of characters in the name “Malcolm Reynolds” caused a bit of a problem.
“If you put your sign down and people read it, the game would crash,” he says. “My name is perfectly designed to crash you.”
Whether one or both of these assertions are true, it’s hard for me to verify (although he does offer some footage of a crash happening to a player reading a 16-character summon sign). And whether or not he softbans players, he’s still making the game a lot harder for many of his victims (as an aside, the best protection against softbanning is regularly backing up your save files). He sometimes invades people multiple times over, especially streamers. All this said: a hacker is still a human. Doesn’t he ever feel bad about ruining peoples’ games?
“Not randoms really. Sometimes if I invade somebody that's streaming and they don't react poorly I'll do something nice. It shows they don't really take it too seriously, or they find it interesting. Instead of thinking: 'Wow what a fucking asshole', they think: 'Holy shit, how did he do that?'
“They get interested immediately and want to know. Those people usually end up learning more about it. It's fun to see them become interested in something, especially if afterwards I cure their ailments and show them something cool.
“I make it sound like I never invade and do something cool. Dark Souls 1 just has very limited tools and very limited resources. DS3 and DS2 are by far more interesting for that kind of stuff.”
Like many hackers, he also says part of the blame must rest with the people who made the program in the first place. In other words, it’s not his fault From Software are so “incompetent when it comes to making a multiplayer game.” Although he does say they’re making some progress with the Remastered version. A recent patch made his job a little harder, he says. What’s more, there are modders out there working on their own anti-cheat systems.
“I know people that are far better than me at coding, and do it for a living unlike me, that plan on making anti-cheat to release publicly. I won't say who but it's scary to think what they'll come up with. It's possible it'll have functionality that auto-detects some form of cheating and then auto-blocks that person.
“In other words, something good that should have existed a long time ago.”
This is an odd position for a notorious hacker to take. He gets his kicks from seeing streamers reacting to his invincibility and other frightening abilities, but at the same time he insists that anti-cheat ought to be in the game. It’s like the fox petitioning for more chicken wire.
“Fromsoft is special,” he says. “Anybody that reverses the game can tell you how badly its been coded. It's easy to exploit, easy to RE [reverse engineer], easy to learn how it works.”
“I honestly wish they would have good anti-cheat. It'd separate me from stuff I'm interested in, like I wouldn't be able to mess with people as much, or investigate the code but I'd get to play safely and not have to have [a] cheat engine open at my side in case I run into some frozen HP chump, or god forbid, somebody that knows how to do what I do.”
It’s not clear how Malcolm would feel if From Software suddenly erected a foolproof anti-cheat system, something that would keep him from stream sniping and fire-balling. But his general feelings about the game suggest he might just get bored of it, since at this point he is less interested in squelching through the Depths or finding another route back to Firelink Shrine, and more interested in the game as a machine.
“Dark Souls 1 used to be one of my favorite games but when you know how easy it is to manipulate you stop thinking about it the way you did when you first bought it. You just start seeing how it operates instead.
“Oh, but Dark Souls in general isn’t that great,” he adds. “I don’t like the PVP that much.”