There he was; a sliver of midnight set against the deeper black of the room behind him. The Black Knight. When he moved, he moved with the easy lope of the master, the practised ease of the warrior. There was silence in the moonlit hall, silence save for the cold metallic chink of his armor and the hammering of my own heart.
He was twice my height, broad of shoulder and clad entirely in black armor. A sword, five feet in length, gleamed in his right hand. He didn’t seem to have a face; no flesh peeked from the slits of his face plate, there was nothing quite so fragile, instead a sulphurous yellow gas twisted and swirled, burning through the thick shadow of the hall. My hand tightened around the hilt of my sword, tightened so that my knuckles went white, so that my skin went taut.
Then, before I knew it that great black blade was arcing through the air towards me, splitting the thin rays of moonlight as it raced towards my heart. I only just parried it with my shield, then it was coming back again, this time from left to right, and I threw myself to the floor, rolling back out of reach and sprang back up again, already deflecting perfectly timed blows, expertly aimed thrusts.
Already I was being forced backwards, driven back into the darkness, back into the cold. Every strike sent pain rippling up my arm; every blow brought me closer to death, to defeat; I could already see that sword diving through my flesh, already feel its kiss on my skin. Desperate now, I struck back, and felt his armor give way, felt my sword hew through bone, felt his ghostly flesh shudder and saw black, oily, blood crawl from his chest. No sound escaped the Knight’s lips, but its sulphurous yellow eyes seemed to burn that bit brighter, all before his sword came crashing against my shield once more.
So we danced, twirling through halls streaked in shadow and corridors cloaked in cold, whirling through the miasma, dueling in the silence. His sword twisted through the moonlight, with ripostes and thrusts and feints and strokes he shattered my defence, left me gasping and quivering.
With silent conviction he struck, slashing from shoulder to hip. My backwards leap only just saved me; the blow shattered my armor and split the skin beneath it, so that a shallow gash stained my chest.
Soon, I was covered in such wounds; blood soaked my tunic and caked the steel of my armor. I was weak, weak from fatigue, from fear, from the pain in my limbs, the sweat in my eyes. I was weak and he knew it. With a sullen, taciturn grace, the knight raised his sword ready to deal the final, disembowelling blow.
I forced my leaden legs to move, my stammering mind to function, and, before his sword could split my skull, I was upon him. My sword was tearing through his chest again, sundering his armor, shredding his flesh, crushing his silent heart.
There was a sound this time, and a reaction; the knight fell to his knees and a scream that wasn’t quite human rippled through the musty halls, leaving only silence in its wake.
That was a slightly jazzed up version of my duel with some huge dark Knight guy in a rather brilliant little video game called Dark Souls, an RPG released in 2011 for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC (although, for once, that’s the inferior version). It’s been my obsession for the past couple of months now; I’ve driven my friends insane about it, raved about it to everyone I could, sang its praises like a madman in the streets of my small English seaside town and guess what, Black Gate? Now it’s your turn.
I love it. I love it not just because it’s got absolutely fantastic game-play, not just because it’s sadistic and challenging, and cathartic and rewarding but because, as a work of fantasy, it’s excellent. Where most fantasy games are merely clusters of clichés filed to the brim with dragons, bow-wielding elves, snarling orcs and stonking great trolls, Dark Souls likes to come up with its own ideas.
Where other games tackle Tolkien to the floor, steal all his money and run away screaming, Dark Souls forgets he even exists and does its own damn thing. Its monsters are hulking great knights who fight with taciturn grace, snarling undead soldiers, withered madmen called ‘hollows’, sullen demons lost in the earth, basilisks that curse you with their breath, and primordial, god-like relics of ages long since passed and races long since dead, searching for a place in the new world
Its characters aren’t the noble men of other games, the dignified, furious warriors of other RPGs; they’re crestfallen madmen, who always seem to be on the verge of flipping out and splitting you in two. They’re men and women seeking purpose and companionship in a world without it, or have condemned themselves to an existence without either.
Others exist in a world of their own creation, using their imagination to create a heaven to escape from the hell they exist in. The things that aren’t trying to eat your face off (and there are few) are simply indifferent to you. You’re on your own in this world.
Solitude, almost to the point of suffocation, is exactly the word to describe this game. Occasionally, you’ll see the ghosts of other players stalk the crumbling ruins of the game world, Lordran; occasionally, you’ll touch the bloodstain of another player and it tells you a wordless story of that player’s death, messages are left by other players; warnings, tips or traps, and some can be summoned to your world to help, others can invade it to hinder.
But you’re always in the dark as to who these players are; there’s no way to identify them, and you can’t play online whilst talking to your friends, nor can you invite them to your game; anyone you meet in the game world is probably a complete stranger.
It really helps to create this sense that you’re nothing but a fly, a speck, insignificant and unimportant, navigating the remnants of a lost and crumbling land, a speck of dust trying to navigate a continent.
It helps you feel like a part of this world too: almost all of the characters in the game are lonely, without anyone in the world to rely on, and those that do find it have it quickly and brutally wrenched away, like a priest I met early in the game who had lost his allies somewhere in the world and feared for their lives, and none of the characters stay in the same place, they all have their own little arcs which you can see through to the end, however brutal that may be.
It’s also reflective of the way in which you play the game: you’re thrown into the game world with no help, no tutorial but a few messages on the floor, telling you how to swing your sword and raise your shield and that’s it.
From then on you’re alone, left to face the world and its mysteries all on your lonesome. It just slaps you on the back, whacks a sword in your hand and says ‘good luck’ before running away cackling in the scariest way possible.
Which brings me to one of the best parts of Dark Souls: its lore. I’ll admit I won’t be introducing anything particularly new to the table here, the lore of Dark Souls has been widely discussed in gaming circles and its merits are well known, so those of you who’ve played the game will probably know what I’m on about, but I feel the lore is at the center of what makes Dark Souls excellent fantasy.
You see, the lore of Dark Souls is incredibly obtuse; there’s a story behind almost everything, and you know there is, but the game makes you think about it; players have to discover these stories for themselves, analyzing the environment, the characters’ appearance, what enemies surround them, what their name could mean, read into the item descriptions of items you find, hoping they’ll reveal something about the guy that owned them.
With this analysis, enemies become so much more than just obstacles; they become characters in and of themselves, sympathetic and almost kind of sad. Reading an item description for a piece of armor from one of those black Knights I wrote about above, I discovered that they were the followers of someone called Lord Gwyn, who is apparently some sort of big deal. Lord Gwynn was now gone, and the knights were left only as disembodied spirits, searching for a purpose, a reason to exist.
Just like that, one of the most difficult enemy types in the game became something to pity, to respect. A novel couldn’t get away with that, a film couldn’t, it’s something that only a video game can do; it’s got premium game-play and a shred of context to support that if that’s all you want, but if you fancy something a little more, the back story is always there, and since you have to work it out for yourself, it becomes that much more absorbing and rich than if the game just grabbed you and furiously rammed it down your throat, asking you how you like it.
But the most intelligent feature of Dark Souls is the way in which every aspect of gameplay adds to the story; you don’t just respawn after death because it’s a game, you respawn because you’re cursed with undeath, destined to die and die again until, eventually you lose your mind and go hollow; sure, that new ring you found might give extra defense against fire attacks, but it also adds another shred of information about the world around you.
Because lore is so hard to get a hold of, it becomes valuable, something to work towards, the reason you push through to the next area, the reason you go that extra mile, explore that hidden crevice, but it also gives players a degree of choice. They can choose whether or not they want to immerse themselves in the world, to snuggle up to its mysteries next to a warm fire, or they can decide they just want to hit really big snarly things with really big sharp things.
And it’s just so sword and sorcery, its crumbling castles and decrepit knights, its labyrinthine forests and musty catacombs wouldn’t feel out of place in the pages of a Howard short story or a Kane novel, they would be right at home in the minds of Clark Ashton Smith or HP Lovecraft.
I’ve been playing for about thirty hours and I’ve seen so much already. I’ve battled through the balastrades of a dead city, hewing down its withered inhabitants. I’ve crawled through the catacombs, battling skeletons controlled by skull-wielding necromancers. I’ve fought through a plague-infested underground city, braving the mad men within, stood before the ghosts of a drowned civilization, explored a giant forest in the depths of a tree, inched through a trap-infested fortress guarded by huge, hostile snake men, and plumbed the depths of a drowned city and gathered its interdicted knowledge. And I’ve loved every second of it.
Another way in which it succeeds is the way in which it closes the gap between the player and their avatar. Becoming a super-human god-like figure with machismo oozing out of your nipples is completely possible, but it’s very, very hard. Dark Souls is a challenging game; it’s unforgiving and brutal, utterly masochistic at times, so simply leveling yourself up won’t work like it does in other games, you have to master the game mechanics, read enemy patterns, and time your strikes; you have to improve, not your character. So, when you finally stare down at the corpse of that huge boss you know it’s not because you spent an extra six hours grinding, it’s because you’re so frickin’ good.
Be warned though, for those without much patience, Dark Souls can be an incredibly frustrating experience; deaths can be frequent, you won’t always know where to go next, and sometimes you’ll feel like you’re trying to bring a fortress down by head-butting it.
But as I write this on a Saturday morning, heavy metal playing at frankly obscene levels, I can’t help but smile at all the things I’ve done in this game, from the serious and atmospheric, to the actually kind of stupid, like losing a fist fight with a giant mushroom man who I like to imagine has a thick cockney accent. I’ve given very few examples of the game’s lore by design, because half of the fun is finding that out for yourself, at least if you’re in it for the fantasy. It’s an experience, one fueled by creativity and ingenuity, and it’s one that I urge you to go out and at least try, regular gamer or not.
Don’t buy the sequel though; that sucks. It just sucks.