Today, I finished Dark Souls. That's a difficult concept for people who love the game to understand. I don't mean that I completed the story, that I linked the fires as you are encouraged to do all through the game. I don't mean that I found the alternate Dark ending either, or that I got through new game + or that I succeeded with different builds and techniques. I don't mean even that I got all the achievements. I did that last week.
No, today I beat the Four Kings and Lord Gwyn on soul level one, an unlevelled pyromancer. I'm now a onebro. I went through most of the game knowing I could be one-shotted by almost any enemy. I went through the game without poison arrows, without spells and weapons dependent on dexterity stats. Not that I can consider myself one of the hardcore: on YouTube you can watch Emarrel make it through a seventh new game - the point at which the game stops increasing in difficulty - without levelling up, beating all bosses with ease. Others argue that the soul level one challenge is itself an inappropriate marker of excellence: a starting sorcerer at level three is weaker. I even summoned NPCs to help! Hardly hardcore.
Instead, this marks a certain summit for me as a gamer, as a player of Dark Souls. I have beaten my fear. I am not afraid of low-level griefers, of Forest gankers, of the Four Kings who fell to Dark. I am not afraid of the Abyss, of basilisks, of Crossbreed Priscilla. I am not afraid of going hollow.
Fear is a key game mechanic in Dark Souls. It keeps you from advancing too fast, too quickly. The game teaches you to be afraid and then gradually to circumvent these fears. It took me two hours to leave the Undead Asylum on my first evening with the game. I wandered around, amazed that the lowliest of enemies could kill me so easily. I spent most of that first week going around the Undead Burg, grinding and levelling up, afraid even to spend a humanity in case I should lose it. I made a lot of mistakes in that playthrough, failing to reinforce my weapons and armour, but I made it in the end. It took a hundred hours. I was beginning to understand.
The next time I played, I wasn't as scared. There were people on the internet I could talk to, guides I could visit. I wasn't bothered by the Hollows. I could parry their attacks. I didn't level up so quickly because I wanted to help other players in co-op, requiring a balance of strength with experience. This meant I reached further, explored areas I was under-levelled for, so I could bring a special weapon or a new spell into a struggling fellow traveller's game. This was a gradual process over several playthroughs. Soon I was no longer scared of Blighttown, of Sen's Fortress. Anor Londo was trivial with a bow and poison arrows. Even New Londo was no challenge when you had the right items.
What remained, however, was a lingering fear and horror that could still occasionally paralyse. In Darkroot Garden - an easily accessible area not far into the game, there was still dread. The walking tree enemies have no poise and little power, but their special attack - when they praise the sun before chomping on you - shocked me. The frog-rays disgusted me with their shuddering, blubbery creeping, even after death. The tree lizards were uncanny and difficult to see: so I saw one on every branch. The funny thing is that more than once my fear lead me to my death: I would be petrified with fear by their motions, when all needed to do was push a button, the same button I'd been pushing all along.
Fear is what stops you progressing in Dark Souls. Sure, the boss fights are tough, but people threaten to give up once the boss has been beaten. They're scared of what comes next. They might have had trouble beating Quelaag, but it's the leeches and the firebugs - wait, do they have human faces? What even is this? - that are in the back of their mind when they say how ghastly Blighttown is. The Four Kings is the toughest boss fight if you're not a sorcerer, but it's the Mass of Souls and the ghosts - and the knowledge of where they come from - that give you the dread of what's to come.
For me, it was the Painted World of Ariamis - a secret level in the game - that offered the best case study in fear-affected gameplay. It's uncanny from the get-go. To access it, you need to retrace your steps to find a Peculiar Doll, an artefact with a creepy description in a place you had already been, its very presence an eerie riddle. Once you're in the Painted World, you face new enemies, all hideously deformed, some more deadly than others. The first time I encountered the Phalanx, I quit the game.
Far worse were the Crow Demons. They made a terrible sound, swooping out of the air and on to your shoulders, where they would peck your life away. I could not defeat them. I would run away, into greater peril, into flocks of them. I would not fight them. I looked up a guide to find the fastest way out of the Painted World. I got out.
Over several playthroughs, I returned to the Painted World time and again. I did not relish fighting the Crow Demons. Until one day, armed with a halberd-like weapon called Lucerne, I suddenly realised that they were easily staggered. All I needed to do was hit them first and continue to hit them for about 700 hit points. Not difficult. What had been holding me back, then? Only my fear. Only the uncanniness of their appearance, the screeches they made, the threat they represented to something more than my life bar. It was a turning point in my Dark Souls experience.
Any Dark Souls player will tell you about the moment they first saw the Black Knight on top of the tower that overlooks the bridge connecting the Burg with the Parish. He's not the first Black Knight that you encounter, but the way that he is suddenly, terribly there at the top of a long winding climb up a spiral staircase is real heart-in-the-mouth stuff. The Black Knights are terrifying wherever they appear, but this is almost the definitive example. For me, the fear is most real on your return to the Undead Asylum. It's an optional part of the game that sees you return to the place where you basically had your tutorial. You turn a corner. Where there was previously a hollow with a short bow there looms a Black Knight. He doesn't move. You grip the controller far too tightly. Something in you has forgotten you're playing a game.
On my last playthrough, I beat the Stray Demon and climbed out to face a Black Knight. I was expecting him, of course. I was carrying 40,000 souls and five soft humanity. It was in a narrow corridor. I was soul level one, wearing no armour to speak of. I parried the Black Knight and riposted. Three times. He didn't get a scratch on me. He died with a roar that I'd heard dozens of times before. I'd just watched his animation - watch the hand. Parry the hand, not the weapon, EpicNameBro had said on YouTube - and hit the left trigger at the right moment.
I ran past him into the cell where the fear had started all those months and realised that it was different now. It was a game. It was mechanics and timing. I wasn't scared. Now I just had to get to the end.
I'm not going to tell you that I'm never going to play Dark Souls again. I've loved the co-op side of the game so much that I'm sure I'll keep my characters around to help anyone who needs a wee hand past a boss. But I'm done with the story. I've seen everything I wanted to see, I know everything I wanted to know. I've finished Dark Souls, and I'm not afraid anymore.