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Dark Souls Stresses Me the F#$k Out

Hey- do you like to play video games to kick back and relax, forgetting your workaday woes while you push a button and make something move on your TV screen without a care in the world? If so, then you should never, ever play Dark Souls. It’s got to be the most stressful video game I’ve ever played, maybe even more so than its predecessor, the great and glorious Demon’s Souls. I’m actually finding it difficult to sit down and really dig into the game because it puts me into this particular state. Demon’s Souls did this too, but it took me something like six months to acclimatize myself to the kind of worry this game causes….

After the initial disappointment that some of the Collector’s Edition material isn’t actually in the box and you have to download it with a code, I couldn’t get the game into the 360 fast enough. I don’t remember being so excited about playing a new game in quite some time, particularly since I regard Demon’s Souls as one of the best video games I have ever played in my entire life. I wanted it to envelop me in that devastating blanket of ravishing grimness, that unremittingly gray bleakness that From Software imbued Demon’s Souls with. I could bathe in that stuff. I’m morbid like that.

And enveloped I was. Everything from the visual design to the music recaptures the dark majesty of Demon’s Souls. But immediately, I was stressed out by the game. I didn’t make it past character creation before I started fretting and sweating.

I couldn’t decide which class to play, so I wound up just going with a boring knight. Then I couldn’t decide which gift I wanted, knowing full well from past experience that just because the game tells you that something doesn’t do anything doesn’t mean that it won’t become the best item available later on. I couldn’t decide on a face, a body type, or a name. I wound up going with Ragnar since I completely blanked out on the well of Black Metal names that I typically dub my RPG characters. Damn it, I should have gone with Abbaoth. Not that it matters. Or does it? I don’t know!

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Once again, From revels in its masochism in Dark Souls. And I’m not just talking about how they throw you into a fight with a giant monster within ten minutes of starting the game and before you’ve even been properly tutorialed. I’m talking about how you can’t pause, and if you push the thumbstick while in an inventory menu near a cliff, you fall and die. And oh, the cryptic dialogue, item descriptions, and overall lack of instruction. They want you to learn through pain, and that creates an amazing sense that the game is out to get you. It can wear you out if you’re not careful.

Then there’s the more open world environment. At least in Demon’s Souls, the Nexus was a safe hub area and you felt like you had some agency to stay out of really dangerous areas until you were ready. In Dark Souls, there are bonfires where you are more or less safe, but I’ve had monsters walk in and start killing me right there. Walking around and exploring the Undead Burg is so unbelieveably stressful because there is literally death at every corner. Traps, pitfalls, ambushes, a giant skeleton-thing that I ran like hell from when I saw it…the game wants you to die over and over again.

That constant cycle of dying, losing all of your souls, and trying to get back to your bloodstain to get them back is such a unique, thrilling experience in games. The stakes are extremely high, and if you’ve not learned the lessons the game is trying to teach you then you’re going to lose everything you’ve worked toward. It’s a game where a sloppy melee can result in losing an hour of grinding. Under most circumstances, that would piss me off. But with Dark Souls, it’s part of what makes the game great.

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It’s rare these days for a game to be so punishing, but it also puts the player in this constant state of stress. It’s not anything like what you experience playing a ultra-hardcore platformer like Super Meat Boy or Hard Corps: Uprising. It’s a feeling that’s much closer to survival horror in a lot of ways- worrying about running out of items, worrying about surprises, worrying about the limitations of control and movement, worrying about things like weapon condition and where the next bonfire will be- if you make it past the next area.

It can make the game very tough to play, at least for me. I get so invested in it. The visceral, physical combat and atmosphere draw me in to the point where it can be rather grueling to come to terms with the inevitability of dying. But the learning process is so compelling and the rewards of surmounting the difficulty far outstrip anything measured in achievments or trophies. It’s a game that will take everything away from you, but if you play by its unique rules it will give you so much more in return. Provided that you can deal with the tension of simply walking around a corner.

I’ve only played Dark Souls for about two hours. But it feels like twenty. Some reviews have said the game isn’t “fun”, and I think that’s actually kind of right. It’s too stressful to be “fun”. But in those moments where you push just a little further or overcome a foe that had previously seemed impossible, “fun” doesn’t matter. You’ve beaten not only something the game has thrown at you, but something in yourself.

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This isn’t a review of Dark Souls, I’ve barely played it. But I will say that Dark Souls is definitely an evolution of Demon’s Souls, and I’m already wondering if at the end of the next twenty (or two hundred) hours I’ll be declaring this the best game of the year, if not of this generation of games. Yes, it’s better than Demon’s Souls. If only because it’s even more stressful.

Bill Abner

Bill has been writing about games for the past 16 years for such outlets as Computer Games Magazine, GameSpy, The Escapist, GameShark, and Crispy Gamer. He will continue to do so until his wife tells him to get a real job.

21 thoughts to “Dark Souls Stresses Me the F#$k Out”

  1. I’m about 30 hours in now and enjoying the heck out of it. I remember that it took me three tries before I got hooked on Demon’s Souls, and what did it was learning that dying all the time wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but a learning tool. Especially in boss fights there’s a lot of trial and error, figuring out which tactics are going to work where and how you have to time them.

    I think the word ‘satisfaction’ is more applicable than ‘fun’ for my experiences with Dark Souls. Sure I killed the huge demon that had beat me to a pulp the last 10 times, but only because I had learned its every move and attack pattern and the correct way to counter each. I didn’t walk into an arena of death and walk out triumphant, I studied for an exam and passed, barely. The exam just happened to be about killing a giant demon. That stress you feel might be pre-exam nerves.

    My only complaint is the frame rate, which just completely disintegrates at times.

  2. This is exactly how I felt when playing Condemned. Knowing that crazed hobos were around every corner and all was a cafeteria tray to defend myself with was too much. I could only play it for about an hour at a time before I had to stop and do something less stressful.

    There is no way I could play Dark Souls.

  3. Yeah, Condemned did kind of have a similar stressful feeling…but stakes were lower, and the worst that happened is that you got startled. Dark Souls takes things away from you.

    I think if Condemned were made by smarter developers better able to tap into suburban fears of blighted urban areas, those games could have been really something interesting. Rather than just punching hobos.

  4. Agreed- “satisfcation” is probably a better description of what Dark Souls offers you over “fun”.

    Oh, the frame rate. Man. it does chug, doesn’t it? At first I thought it might be helpful, like in bullet hell shmups how the slowdown is actually beneficial. No dice. It doesn’t help at all.

    The game looks amazing- highly stylized and singular- but it does hit a sort of technical wall, it seems.

  5. Like you mentioned Mike, I wouldn’t say the game is “fun” per-Se, but the game does trigger higher levels of emotional response than any other single player game.

    I’m never as tense as when exploring a new area, never as satisfied as when having completely figured out said area, never as euphoric as when finally defeating a tough boss and never as shocked as when plunging to my death during an important corpse run causing me to lose all my hard earned humanity and souls.

  6. Clearly you have underestimated my love of punching hobos.

    Yeah, Condemned was more startling than stressful but the limited ammo and the checkpoint system made it so that there was a risk of losing progress too. Plus, if I died and had to go back to a checkpoint from 15 minutes ago, I’d have to redo a section and get stressed out all over again.

    Still, it’s not like losing 4000 souls because I fell off of a ledge while poking through my knapsack.

  7. “Sure I killed the huge demon that had beat me to a pulp the last 10 times, but only because I had learned its every move and attack pattern and the correct way to counter each. I didn’t walk into an arena of death and walk out triumphant, I studied for an exam and passed, barely. The exam just happened to be about killing a giant demon. That stress you feel might be pre-exam nerves.”

    This is how I felt playing through Demons Souls. I didn’t feel like I conquered an area as much as I beat it by shear repetition and memorization. It was cool for a while but eventually I burned out. At this point I feel like I got my fill of that type of game and I’m not the least bit interested in Dark Souls.

    But maybe after the holidays….

  8. See, I’m not opposed to difficult games. Hell, I think we need more of them in general. I usually prefer this level of challenge in my platformers. I got 242 stars in Mario Galaxy 2 and finished World 9 with all star coins in NSMB Wii. I love Super Meat Boy to death (and many of them) but what makes it so great for me is the encouragement to experiment and instant retries. I know part of the sheer terror of facing down that giant dragon is that you’ll lose all your progress when you die, but that’s just too much for me. It’s like the game wants you to experiment and learn through trial and error, but it wants to punish you excruciatingly for the errors part. I feel like those other really difficult games I enjoy are throwing a challenge at you and saying “Come on, you can do it!” and actually encouraging you. This is a game that actively hates you. Oh well, different strokes.

  9. Here’s the thing though. I don’t know how Dark Souls works yet as I haven’t had time to play. But in Demons Souis, yes, you lose your “souls” when you die but the levels themselves aren’t that big.

    Once you know where to go it’s usually a matter of a few minutes to get back to the boss battle (or wherever you died).

    If the treks to get to your corpse were long and crazy hard I’d agree. But really the backtracking isn’t to bad. Well, except for that mindflayer prison.

    Fuck that place.

  10. Was curious if the PS3 suffered from this too.

    It’s REALLY bad on the 360 in certain spots.

    Progress, gotta love it.

  11. I think this is a game where every change they’ve made in the game makes sense when viewed through demon’s souls. it’s as if From saw all the little glitches and workarounds in demon’s souls and said “yea we’re not letting them do that”

    a few examples:
    1. The mist doors are completely impenetrable. the maneater in demons souls could be picked off just by firing arrows through the mist door, not any more in this game

    2. No safe spots in boss battles. There are one or two points where you won’t get hit as badly, but no deadpoints like demons souls where you could sit back for a sec or two.

    3. Can’t speedrun through things. They’ve made great chokepoints in the game to where you can’t rush the way you could in demons souls. i used to juke and dodge to run through the stage to get to the boss. If i try that in darksouls, i get ambushed by 15 dredglings who have sharp swords aimed at my tender body

    4. Doing away with the human/ghost thing. After awhile human/ghost didn’t matter in demons souls since you had enough health to properly take on most people, and since stones of ephemeral eyes were few and far between, it was rarely worth it to be human other than to summon people (which limited the amount of summoning). now there is no health penalty and the ability to become human (and summon) is using humanity which is found much easily. such a smart idea

    but the bonfire concept blows the rest of these changes out of the water. refueling the health at the cost of respawning all the enemies is a great tradeoff that forces you to keep progressing after a certain point, but still allows you to keep some sort of progress while moving through an area.

    i once suggested the “game difficulty” topic awhile ago for the JTS podcast and i thought about it again when playing this game. i think the things a game must do in terms of difficulty is to teach you something, allow you to apply that knowledge, but most importantly, give you the freedom to also experiment/deviate from that knowledge. when reviewers complain about the difficulty of dark souls, i almost feel that we as gamers are too used to the game telling us how to play (ex. “I got the bow and arrow, clearly this will kill the big boss”)

    and i’m done!

  12. it’s sort of suprising that you’d find it stressful, being a seasoned demons souls player. I always found the concept of “losing your souls” to be very freeing.

    in some cases, it allows you to have a “stupid run” if you’ve already lost all your souls already so you can experiment with either killing an opponent a different way or just to explore around w/o worrying about losing souls (and have 30 enemies chase you).

    but just spending all the souls to upgrade your character before leaving the bonfire usually leaves you with only a little bit of souls that you shouldn’t be worried about losing

    the other thing is that the game naturally ramps up the souls you get from enemies to where the amount that you were worrying about naturally comes back through the enemies you kill.

  13. I support this post. The more I play this the more I think the subtle changes have all been for the better.

  14. I would add that the overhaul they did of the magic system to use charges rather than MP worked very well. I was highly suspicious at first, but warmed up to it. Then again, my character was mostly melee so I’d be interested to hear how someone more dependent on magic found it.

    Also, the upgrade system for weapons was more comprehensible. In Demon’s Souls I always felt like it was sort of a crap-shoot with when weapons could be upgraded with certain materials while in Dark Souls everything followed a much more logical scheme.

  15. I know thread necromancy is frowned upon, but I just thought I would point out how you can see Bill starting to get hooked over the course of the thread.

    Made me chuckle…

    It’s like a time capsule.

    1. RIISSE FROM YOUR GRAVE.

      I want to note that I wanted to add to this thread back then, but the train had left the station. You’ve made my day.

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