Games can be frustrating. When you cannot make progress, when you are stalled by a difficult boss or an increasingly problematic platforming section, your hands grip the controller a little more tightly. Most games account for this by talking to the player, spurring them forward with on-screen prompts and tutorials. There is no such help in Dark Souls.
Dark Souls doesn’t want to talk to you.
Instead, it asks you to explore it, to read through it, to understand that the people of Lordran do not live, they merely survive. One of the first areas that you visit in the game, the Undead Burg, is, as the name suggests, teeming with the undead. It conjures up images of misery and cruelty. It’s marked by a parish overrun with lumbering zombies. You can almost smell death as you traverse its stony grounds. Dark Souls is frustrating, but that frustration is coupled with a deep sense of understanding. Each time you play Dark Souls, even if you make no progress, you learn to understand the world. It is important not to rush or throw caution to the wind. You must scrutinize your path to the next bonfire, you must analyse the movements of the enemy or else you will find a familiar red text filling the screen: YOU DIED.
In many ways, playing through Dark Souls is like reading T. S Eliot’s highly revered Modernist poem The Waste Land. As you progress through Eliot’s prose, you become frustrated. You get distracted by the things around you because everything seems tangled, it doesn’t seem to flow. Lines collapse around each other. It seems as if there is little thought to the overall structure. It feels misleading. Before you know it, you’re 100 lines deep with not a lot to show for it. What did he mean “April is the cruelest month, breeding”? If you speed through it with little regard for its depth, you’ll find it very difficult to reach the end. You’ll put the poem down before you reach its conclusion.
The Waste Land is both haunting and beautiful. Written in 1922, the poem spans 434 lines and six languages. If I asked you to read it, to understand it and to tell me what you thought it meant, I am certain we would come to different conclusions. It speaks of thrones, of men and women, of death, love and misery. It features many speakers, alludes to many popular works of fiction and is complete with imagery and lore. It taps into the same themes that Dark Souls presents through the game’s textually rich descriptions of the world, or through the environments it renders from code as you move from area to area. The world within The Waste Land and the world of Lordran feel like a single entity split down the middle, the artistic medium they occupy morphing into the other being’s missing half.
Dark Souls is all about frustration and repetition. It practically begs you to try again. It asks you to understand by teaching you failure first. Only once you’ve misunderstood can you truly understand. In a way, it is like that old adage made famous by Michael Caine’s Alfred in the Batman films: “Why do we fall? So that we might better learn to pick ourselves up.” In Dark Souls, the fall – death – is the conduit for misunderstanding. Misunderstanding begets understanding. We, as human beings, want to get it. Whatever it may be. We ache to know.
Death in Dark Souls ensures that the player is aware of their mistakes, that these mistakes are the result of a misstep, a mistimed parry or an ineffective weapon. It ensures that when they replay that section, they do not make the same mistake again. The game doesn’t offer you a helping hand. It doesn’t give you an extensive tutorial on how best to defeat Enemy A, or Boss B. It simply lets you walk in, fall down and subsequently pick yourself up.
Similarly, The Waste Land is all about frustration and repetition. It practically begs for you to read it again. It doesn’t teach you failure in the cruel manner that Dark Souls does, but asks you to be conscious of the words and the way they are placed on the page. It teaches you misunderstanding. In The Waste Land, finality is the conduit for misunderstanding. Misunderstanding begets understanding. The finality of Eliot’s prose asks you to turn back to line one and begin again. It asks you to pick up each intricate detail the poet has hidden with each subsequent read through. After the poem has ended a fourth or fifth time, you begin to understand how its first part connects to its second, its second to its third and so on. As such, it lets you fall down too. It lets you get caught up in its Sanskrit, in its deep mythology. It lets you clamour for understanding in those rabbit holes before you can pick yourself up and continue reading. In this case, that means understanding sentences, then passages, then parts, then the poem itself.
Both pieces of art are arranged this way, revealing their secrets piece by piece. They ask the participant to unravel the whole in a stepwise manner, before they build on and understand how to utilise what they’ve learnt. The worlds never change. Eliot’s satirical prose is always positioned in the exact same place each time you read The Waste Land. The same can be said for Dark Souls’ enemies, from the undead soldiers, to their largest bosses.
Frustration in Dark Soulsis so endearing. It’s a frustration that builds and releases in steady waves. Waves that mimic progress stalled and progress gained. Yes, Dark Souls is frustrating, unapologetically difficult and unforgiving. It is cruel and it is callous. Yet it forces the player to hone their craft and to understand. It forces the player to consider what is put in front of them. It creates a haunting, beautiful world to explore at your own will, within yourself.
It does exactly what Eliot’s poem does.
It is silent and in its silence, it asks you to become the better craftsman.
Dark Souls doesn’t want to talk to me and I’m fine with that.