Few games continue to enthral me past the first month, fewer still for half a year. I deliberately flirt with games avoiding the long-term commitment of MMOs and titles that demand a serious time investment. It isn’t that don’t like them, more that I have a nagging suspicion that should I get sucked in I will never get out.
On occasion I let myself replay a game, but with the ‘grind’ of reviews this has become an increasingly guilty pleasure. With that in mind nothing prepared me for Dark Souls and how its tag line ‘prepare to die’ was not talking about anything in-game, but my social life.
Dark Souls is a game of terror and anticipation the first time you play. Constant death and insurmountable challenge demands constant attention to everything onscreen as enemy or trap could prove lethal. Building a character that suits a chosen play style is key, and the long process of levelling-up can be infuriating as the ‘souls’ that are spent on upgrades can easily be lost if not used before dying. This makes walking in to new areas enough to fill you with dread at what new horrors could lie beyond.
It took me nearly a hundred hours to finish Dark Souls the first time. But even though Dark Souls’ initial appeal of discovery and exploration was gone, I didn’t stop playing. There was nothing left within the range of its programming to surprise. Every event and weapon had been seen and collected but I was still enjoying each moment because, without even noticing it, I had been sucked into the game’s unobtrusive multiplayer.
Were Dark Souls more vocal about its online elements I may have more actively avoided it. The idea of walking through an area only to be invaded and ambushed by another (often better) player, holds about as much appeal to me as a swift kick in the happy-sacks, but it is so subtly implemented and avoided that it seeps into the game’s universe unnoticed.
It is so subtly crafted that it took me about a hundred and twenty hours to start appreciating it, about halfway through my second attempt. While offering to help players from other realms (by placing a ‘summon sign’), I found myself called on increasingly often not to fight the world’s monsters, but other players.
Slowly I caught the bug and rather than simply offering my help to others I began to spend more time in an ‘unhollowed’ state (a form that allows others to enter a host player’s world at will, for better or worse), all because the threat of possible invasion was outweighed by the superb ‘community’ I discovered online. The incredible part of this is that Dark Souls allows for no verbal interaction. This results in all of the game’s communication relying on the use of in-game gestures and PSN messages.
Of course such communication happens frequently when working with others cooperatively, but it is how invading players act that really surprised me. There is a patience to combat, with some opponents bowing (one of the games emotes) before beginning their attack. One player even waited for me to return to my PS3 having gone to get a coffee. He stood a few steps away until my character moved at which point he bowed to initiate the fight. He killed me.
Another notable such experience saw an invading warrior appear in my world and then rapidly retreat from me dropping items. At first I believed it was a breadcrumb trail designed to draw me from my tactically superior position, but then they simply left my world. The trail of items did not turn out to be rubbish either, but rare items that greatly helped me progress. Messaging the player in thanks we proceeded to defeat a boss together, turning a possible enemy into an ally.
This strange chivalry, wordlessly developed between ephemeral knights, made these meetings and battles with invaders take on an almost noble aspect far removed from my previous online experiences.
There are jerks of course, but Dark Souls has managed to evolve. Within the quiet confines of its system, it has developed an etiquette that held my attention far longer than any previous game, online or otherwise. Now on my fifth play through of this lengthy game (totalling some three hundred hours), I simply don’t want to stop. Piles of games go unopened and work is being left to the last minute as I search for more time to spend in this world of death. My fears realised; online has hooked me, despite all my efforts to avoid it.