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On Beating Dark Souls

I finally completed Dark Souls in 2018. It only took me 4 years and 38 days, but I did finally complete it and come to think of it, I have some things to say.

Spoilers will follow...obviously

I began Dark Souls based on my dear friend and colleague Paul Berberich’s proposal that we do a let’s play. I would start my first character on his PC, and I would only play the game on that character on the Prepare to Die edition of the game on Steam.

So it was that Johnson came to be when we recorded that first fateful episode of Prepare to Suffer with Paul and Moe on September 11th, 2014. Much of Johnson’s story is missing from YouTube (although we hope to rectify that eventually), but one thing that isn’t missing is the point where he went hollow.

It would happen some time after we recorded the episode for the Well Played journal, but it was nonetheless Ornstein and Smough...or more aptly Smough’s hammer that had the last word with Johnson. He rests on a hard drive that I believe Paul still has, but he is unlikely to ever kindle another bonfire or learn a new pyromancy.

His hollowness can be attributed to many things: The fan on Paul’s PC had gotten excessively loud, our propensity for drinking craft beer certainly didn’t help, the absolute and utter trainwreck my personal life became during late 2016 was a likely factor, and I mean, I just wasn’t quite that good yet...and I wasn’t playing a sorcerer.

So, when Dark Souls Remastered was released on PS4, I more or less immediately stopped playing Dark Souls 3 and started Yarnstin, first of her name...as far as I know. 4 months and 26 days (and 101 hours of gameplay) later, she had finally slain Lord Gwyn and I had finally beaten the game.

It was quite a journey, and I was fortunate to ultimately have Paul back with me in the same room when I completed it. I was honestly a little stunned in the moment. It was hard to comprehend that I was finally done...except of course, I wasn’t because there was still Dark Souls 3...but done enough, done for now.

We went out for a beer.

Dark Souls is an extraordinary game. I’m on record talking about a lot of it academically and conversationally with Paul, but the thing I want to say here is different and in a sense I can only say after beating the game. Even though Dark Souls finally peters out and becomes a patchy wasteland of design in the very tippy end, it consistently rewards the player’s effort from the very beginning, and it does so with style.

Dark Souls is of course known for providing opportunities to fail. What is less understood by most is how It also provides learning opportunities that are relatively accessible in those moments of failure. Some of the best deaths in boss fights and exploration give hints at how to overcome the whole challenge progressively. Slightly better thinking on the part of the player is rewarded with an additional understanding of an attacker’s behavior. The positioning of threats in the environment and the geography itself unfolds a little more with every mistake, allowing for slightly more progress next time.

Not only does playing Dark Souls make you a better player in the way that great video games usually do, it does so in a way that helps you feel progressively competent over things that are  initially both visually intimidating and mechanically difficult. Each progressive death paves the way to victory*. It is in short a damn fine example of a game as a learning engine.

Of course, I can’t deny the fact that the 207 hours of ultimately fruitless gameplay that Jarnson has received on Dark Souls 3 helped me beat Dark Souls with Yarnstin. All those hours dodging, ducking, and having no choice but to get in close as a mercenary have not been without benefit. Nonetheless, Jarnson is likely destined for Johnson’s fate. He resides at the Dragonslayer Armour, his twin sworded style simply too demanding for my own abilities as a player, at least for now. yarn however, she will persist. Sorcery in Dark Souls 3 has thus far felt a great deal like it did in Dark Souls, and she is perilously close to slaying the Abyss Watchers. I’m looking forward to revisiting the Pontiff.

* With the provision that the player is adequately sober and not on tilt.

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