Time to reflect, with Dark Souls
Dark Souls is my favourite game this generation. Let me just get that out of the way. It's by far the most memorable game I've played in years, and a shining example of a developer taking a wonderful idea or concept, and not only faithfully realising it, but doing so damn near perfectly by building it around one of the most fundamentally excellent frameworks ever.
There are so many moments in Dark Souls though, so many experiences that take your breath away and leave you in awe of the genius you're participating in, that you're spoilt for choice. So rather than splurge all of these moments on one article, I'm going to deliver them piece by piece through the letterbox in the front of your brain. Of course, the letterbox: your new pleasure portal.
The first moment in Dark Souls that gave me cause to suspect I was playing something quite special seems stupidly simple when reduced to a couple of words: a shortcut. That's all it is. A quick way to get from one part of the map, to another. But also your first insight into how the game works, what it thinks of you, and how it wants you to think.
No, don't stop reading, let me explain myself. Put the tranquillisers away.
The more time you spend with Dark Souls, the clearer it becomes how goddamn clever From Software are, and how meticulous they are in their production. Every component that makes up Dark Souls is a respective masterclass in games design; whether it be the combat, the levelling system, the multiplayer, or - indeed - the game-world. Ah, Lordran. What a treasure you are. Rarely has a game-world captivated so many by such simple means. Really, it's the main character in this epic; so full of personality, intrigue, and darkness. You could devote a short lifetime to attempting to uncover all its secrets. Verticality is a key concept to it, and more often than not, the path to progress will have you gazing up at the next area full of perils and wonders, or down at the ever-deepening underworld that can fill you with palpable trepidation. Initially, everything feels so...out of reach.
Nowhere is this more true than at the start of the game. "Go up," you're told, "to the Undead Chapel, or down to the murky slums of Blighttown." Both are visible from your starting point, and nine times out of ten, you'll decide to go up. Don't ask me why. Something something, human nature.
Progress at the start of Dark Souls is, for lack of a better term, clumsy. You're like a feeble, naive newborn, hesitantly stumbling upwards past equally feeble enemies. You die, time and time again. Whether through cockiness or nerves, the game is quick to correct your errors. But you do progress, albeit slowly. Up, up, up you climb and eventually the first real boss. Then you die. Back to the start you go.
Eventually you will break out of the frustration-death feedback and make it to a bridge where you will die again. Then underneath the bridge, where you will get poisoned. Then to a bull unto whose tusks you will become impaled. By now it may have taken you anywhere from half an hour to five hours to get to this point, and you might start to wonder if you're really cut out for this stress. But onwards and upwards you traipse nonetheless, on the promise of progress. New sights, new possibilities. A different fucking bonfire, for chrissakes. Please.
And then you reach it. The fabled chapel itself, and a bonfire opposite. Joy be unconfined! Oh sure, the giant fucking knight waiting inside will probably squash you like the petulant beetle you currently are in this world, but you've reached an honest-to-God goal.
Time for a bit of exploration. A stairway, presumably leading to death. More knights over there, backs turned. I'll be quiet, guys. What's this cage thing? Is that a button on the floor? I think I'll just step inside and...
Oh sweet Jesus, I'm going down...no, it's taken too long to climb, I can't go back down, let me out...let me...
Then, the orchestral boom, and the white text signifying somewhere new. Or maybe somewhere familiar. 'Firelink Shrine.'
All the progress. All the hard work. All the sheer, bloody effort. In the grander context of this strange place, that was all the equivalent of a ten second elevator ride back to where I started. I realise now.
Goddamn, this game is smart.