Jake Muncy has basically grown up as a gamer. He’s of a generation where video games have always existed, and as he has matured, so have they. Which is why we’re giving him the space to do Save Points, a column where he revisits his gaming history and works through the significance of the video games that have had a meaningful impact on his life and on video games. Up this month is Dark Souls 2, the third game in From Software’s Souls series, a game about repetition and memory, making it a great lense for Jake to discuss all the time in his life he’s devoted to play.
Previously on Save Points:
My favorite NPC in Dark Souls 2 is a woman named Lucatiel. I first met her in a place called the Lost Bastille, an abandoned prison hewn of cobbled stone and rusted metal. Everywhere in Drangleic, the land of Dark Souls 2, feels like a prison of one kind or another.
Lucatiel dresses like a musketeer, in finely decorated layers of coats and gloves and a tri-corner hat. She wears a mask of an old man’s face, a neat gray beard carved on it. It gives her a constant look of dismissive indifference.
On that first meeting she told me she was from a land called Mirrah, a warrior’s haven of a nation to the far east. I had never heard of it, though perhaps that’s not surprising. She made a name for herself with her sword, and now she’s journeyed to Drangleic for…
“And then I came here to… to….”
For a long moment she doesn’t seem to remember.
I don’t remember why I first started playing video games, what initially drew me to them, although I know generally when it must have been. In my family’s dining room, which was never used for dining, tucked away in a corner, was a small television. Hooked up to this television was a Nintendo Entertainment System in all of its 8-bit glory. It was my mother’s. She was a child of the arcade days, pumping quarters into Galaga machines, and the NES was a treat of hers. I don’t know how involved she was in it, as by the time I started forming memories she seemed to have mostly moved past the hobby, but it was something she certainly had a fondness for.
That NES had two games: the Super Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt cartridge and the original Legend of Zelda in its original shining gold. As a toddler, I would see my mom playing and would inevitably want to join in. She tells me that she ameliorated me by handing me an unplugged second controller, a tactic she used on me until I was old enough to make the logical connection between the controller’s wire and the body of the console. After that, she let me play for real. I was a huge fan of Duck Hunt, though the Legend of Zelda confused me into frustration.
A couple years later my paternal grandmother gifted us with the money for a Super Nintendo, ostensibly a treat for my mother, but it was one I ended up using more than she did. Eventually it ended up in my room along with that little television. Somewhere around that time she stopped playing games. The games got too complex for her, or real life just was more important than pixelated life. Or she decided that if we had money to spend on games, she’d rather buy games for me than for herself.
For whatever reason, I took on the hobby as an inheritance, a Nintendo passed on like a plastic, blocky mantle. I don’t remember why I first started playing video games because, so far as I’m concerned, I’ve never not played them.
When I was younger, I got obsessed with video games easily. If something struck my imagination right, it would briefly take over my life. I would put everything on hold to explore this new imaginative space, learning everything about how it worked, pulling it apart and putting it back together again in my mind. But the more and more games I play, the harder it is to capture that feeling. A game that gets at something I’ve never felt or seen before is exceedingly rare. It’s all knotted up in memories at this point. I had just about assumed that I was done having those experiences entirely, done with that immature, arrested sort of enthrallment.
Then I played Dark Souls.
The first Dark Souls placed you as a nameless, historyless individual afflicted with the curse of the Darksign, which renders you unable to die permanently in exchange for a slow descent into madness and a shrivelled-up zombie appearance. The only way to stave off madness is to keep moving, retain purpose, and absorb souls, which can be gathered from killing other undead like yourself and the various other creatures that populate the place you find yourself in. It’s a gothic fantasy world, an abandoned nation called Lordran perched at the brink of the end of the world, as the First Flame—which seems key to maintaining the fabric of reality—on the verge of extinction.
In the game, you journey through the dreamlike fantasy world, killing and dying over and over again. Ultimately you are given the choice to either kindle the First Flame or let it be extinguished. In a world that relies on elliptical, riddle-like storytelling, populated by people who are already insane and want to kill you or are going insane and will want to kill you later, neither choice seems to carry much consequence.
Dark Souls 2 casts you in a similar world, a kingdom called Drangleic, which may/may not be built over the ruins of Lordran. You have a bit more backstory this time; the opening cutscene shows you becoming afflicted with the curse and turning into a wanderer, looking for some sort of understanding or cure. Your journey finds you in Drangleic for reasons that are unclear. In the opening cutscene, a mysterious old woman explains it to you thusly: “Long ago, in a walled-off land, far to the north, a great king built a great kingdom. I believe they called it Drangleic… One day, you will stand before its decrepit gate, without really knowing why.”
In Drangleic, you meet a mysterious woman by a bonfire in a ramshackle village. The woman calls herself the Emerald Herald, and she gives you a quest: find the four Great Ones, kill them, gather their souls, and discover the fate of the missing King of Drangleic. Will this give you what you’re looking for? No way to know. But you don’t have any better ideas.
My initial fascination with Dark Souls was a result of this elliptical, notional approach to storytelling, its moody and enrapturing atmosphere, and the feedback loop of its high difficulty. Dark Souls is a game that refuses to tell you much of anything about its story, forcing you to dig through environmental cues, flavor text on weapons and equipment, and indirect dialogue to form some coherent semblance of narrative. In Dark Souls 2, the Emerald Herald’s quest turns into a journey to become the new King of Drangleic due to the current king, Vendrick, having abdicated his throne to go into hiding, buried deep in a crypt behind miles and miles of defenders and mazes.
Why should you want to be the king? Why did Vendrick leave? And who the fuck is the Emerald Herald, anyways?
Trying to answer these questions is akin to an archaeological dig through the game’s world, an excavation that’s spun out a whole cottage industry of redditors, forum goers, and youtubers who try to piece together these answers and tell and retell these stories as sort of post-modern bards (in the fandom, this is called Lore, and this guy is probably the most prominent of its storytellers).
Gameplay success, then, is rewarded with just a bit more flavor text, one more mysterious boss fight, one more conversation. One more chance to figure out what’s going on. To figure out why I’m here.
The older I get, the more and more I’ve asked myself why I play video games at all. It’s a generational hangup, I think. In the past twenty years, video games have gone through massive shifts in their position in the culture. At this point, they’re pretty close to being something that everyone has an interest in in one way or another, which is exciting and has done a lot to energize the creation of incredible new types of games. But the memory of video games as weird cultural outlier is still vivid enough to occasionally creep up on me, enough so that some people I know still hold that view. That video games aren’t a hobby for the cultured. So I ask myself questions that only the most pedantic would bother asking about movies or television or music. Why am I into this?
I have a lot of answers, mostly the same answers those pedantics give to similar questions about those other forms of art. Games help me relax, distract me from my problems and from, you know, death. They allow me to experience things I could never experience in real life. They hold meaning to interpret and think about and use as a lense to learn more about the world.
The save screen in Dark Souls 2 has a clock that records how much time you’ve spent playing. That clock, which stands, as of this writing, at right around 85 hours, feels more and more anxiously like a mockery of all of those answers.
Nearly 100 hours? Really? Anything I was going to get from this game, I should have gotten by hour twenty, right? Hour fifty at the latest.
This anxiety really came to a head in an area called the Iron Keep.
Here’s how it goes: Leaving the bonfire I rested at, I come immediately to a platform with an open doorway to my right, leading into a wrought iron castle. Across from me is something called an Alonne Knight Captain, a tall, wiry knight in smelter black armor. He wields a katana that crackles with lightning. He strikes fast and hits for heavy damage, but he’s pretty predictable. I circle around him on the small platform, wait for him to strike, and lay into his exposed back with my dual longswords. He dies, the souls his body was carrying added to my inventory.
Through the door is a thin chain-suspended platform, hanging menacingly narrow over a lava pit, because the architect for this castle was a maniac. On the other end of this death bridge are two enemies who I call Hammer Turtles because I can’t remember their actual names. As the name implies, they’re hulking beasts with metal turtle shells strapped to their backs and massive hammers in their arms. These guys are tough, especially in narrow spaces. If you try to slip behind them, they just bodyslam you and crush you under their shells, which is almost always a one-hit kill. Their hammers are nearly as bad.
I can’t take them both at once, so I pull out my bow and shoot an arrow at the nearest one to get his attention. He lumbers over to me while his partner starts slamming his hammer into the ground in front of him, breaking a strip of the platform and knocking it down into the lava. If I survive long enough to get to him, I’ll have to jump to cross, which is always tricky in Dark Souls.
I take down the first Hammer Turtle without much trouble by luring him into the doorway and keeping him there, where he only has room for easily avoidable vertical strikes. I roll back and forth, taking quick slashes until he’s dead. Then I advance, cross the bridge while swearing profusely, make the jump, and approach the next doorway. The second Hammer Turtle is behind it, waiting for me. I move up and then back away, pulling him out. There’s not enough room on this section of the platform for a fight, but I don’t have much choice. He swings, I dodge—barely. Then I take a chance with a fast strike of my own. He swings his hammer again, earlier than I expected. It hits me head on and sends me flying.
Directly in the lava. Incidentally, this is not the first time this fight has ended this way. It is, roughly, the fifth. And when I respawn back at the bonfire, all the enemies are back. This is the peculiar cruelty of Dark Souls—death is a big reset button on the world, resurrecting most regular enemies and causing you to drop all your souls.
After a pause to hyperventilate a little and consider breaking my controller/burning my apartment down, I run back out to the Alonne Knight Captain. Katana swing. Dodge. Attack. Pull out my shield. Block. Dodge. Attack.
This is about the point when I wonder why I’m doing this. This is my second playthrough of the game, on the New Game+ difficulty, where new enemies are added and everyone gets tougher. My initial addiction felt like the result of the feedback loop between the game’s challenge and its sense of mystery, the way struggle and success translated into new experiences and terrors. But I’ve already beaten the game. And when I’m stuck at a section like this, fighting the same few enemies eight, ten times in a row, I’m not gaining any new insight into the game world. All I’m gaining is a specific and useless type of mastery. When I conquer the Iron Keep, the only thing I walk away with is intimate knowledge on how to beat the Iron Keep.
I think of Lucatiel again. The last time you meet her in the game, in a hidden place called Aldia’s Keep (From Software has a keep fetish), she barely has any of her memory left. Depending on the choices you’ve made in your previous interactions with you, she may not even remember you. She has forgotten her warrior heritage, her vagabond past. She’s just there, merely existing. One day, you will stand before its decrepit gate without really knowing why. After spending enough time with a Souls game, that begins to make more sense.
The realization doesn’t stop me from playing, of course. When I first wrote about Dark Souls, in a half-formed blog post over a year ago that I would prefer not to link to here, I likened it to absurdist and existentialist fiction, particularly the plays of Samuel Beckett. In Beckett and in Dark Souls alike, repetition gives way to madness and meaninglessness, bleeding away sense. Both point, in their own way, to hard truths: in the face of the inevitable, “why?” can seem like a pretty silly question.
My other favorite NPC encounter is with the fallen and missing king of Drangleic, Vendrick. Most of the game’s plot deals with tracking him down. It was he who presided over Drangleic when the Undead curse struck it, and it is he who tries and fails to find a solution to this terrible fate.
This is how you find him: Hiding in his own crypt, defended by his last knight, long ago gone mad from the curse. The king is supernaturally tall and his body bears the evidence of once being strong and imposing, though it has long since withered. He is wearing nothing but a tattered rag and a crown. His gray beard sways as he steps in a lazy circle. His dull sword scrapes against the cobbled stone with a sickening screech as he walks. Round and round and round. In the corner, his empty armor rests in a heap, a gravestone for a king who is dead in all but body. He doesn’t even notice you. It’s not clear he even can.
King Vendrick is the game’s example par excellence of a man who tried to find out why. The game world is littered with clues about his quest to cure the curse. It didn’t get him very far. Vendrick’s undead husk is a warning against asking why, against purpose. There isn’t one, at least not one to be sought out. Not here. There just is. You fight and struggle because… well, because you do. What else is there?
It’s not a satisfying conclusion, and Dark Souls 2 is not a game that’s interested in being satisfying. Like Beckett, you’re left with a lingering sense of the absurd. “I can’t go on; I’ll go on.”
Over a hundred hours in, and I’m still playing, whittling through New Game+ and the downloadable ad-ons that they’ve been releasing over the summer. In one of the DLC packs is a boss called the Fume Knight, and so far as I can tell he’s the hardest boss in the entire game, maybe even in the entire franchise. He wields two swords, one mildly bigger than is reasonable and one that is comically bigger than is reasonable. He moves fast and hits hard, swinging the swords in devastating one-two punches. I’ve been fighting him off and on for two weeks.
The combat system in Dark Souls 2 is at its core incredibly simple. Each move has a wind-up period and a cooldown time, both of which leave you—and your enemies—vulnerable. Combat is a matter of trading these moves, trying to time your moments of attack to your opponent’s moments of vulnerability. I’ve watched a video that compares it to the old video game Punch Out. It’s a good comparison: just defend, wait, attack, dodge, defend, wait, attack, dodge. You’re constantly watching your opponent, as most moves are clearly telegraphed beforehand in the animation. Raise your shield or roll out of the way when you get your cue. One elaborate couple’s dance after another.
The Fume Knight is designed to push this rhythm to its breaking point. His attacks are strung together quickly, and his larger sword is very difficult to dodge. The best strategy I’ve found so far involves wearing as little equipment as possible to increase my character’s speed, allowing me to roll under and around his attacks more fluidly. Even then, I struggle: each attack hits for significant damage, and getting time to heal means successfully dodging even more attacks. I’ve yet to get him below 25% health.
I should probably quit, play the rest of the game and ignore him, but that something keeps pulling me back. So every day or two, I fire it up and give him a few tries, learn something new about his movement patterns, confirm that he is, indeed, really hard. As I do so, I notice something strange. I’ve noticed it more and more as I’ve been more closely interrogating my playing of Dark Souls 2.
What I’ve found is that, deep down, underneath the heavy difficulty and steep learning curve, playing Dark Souls 2 is a relaxing experience. Dodging the Fume Knight’s terrible horizontal swing for the thousandth time, my mind is empty and clear. I’m focusing entirely on what’s happening on the screen. The distance between me and my digital avatar briefly fades away, and everything else fades with it. No worries, no stress. Just action and reaction. Souls games require such an intense and sustained focus that they cause the rest of the world to temporarily fall hush around you. As silly as it sounds, I want to call it meditative.
I’m not sure that qualifies as a proper reason to persist. It’s not an answer that responds to the assertion made by Vendrick’s lost steps. It doesn’t provide much comfort when Lucatiel forgets her own name and I realize that someday, if I don’t die first, I’ll forget mine too.
I don’t know why I’m standing at these gates. But after looking at them for this long, maybe I know enough.
Jake Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living in Austin, TX. In addition to functioning as Loser City’s Games Editor, his writing appears on The AV Club, Ovrld and anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him by email or twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. He has very strong feelings about Kanye West.