I don’t like Dark Souls 3.
I’ve been depressed for a lot of the last, let’s say 4 years as of this writing, often to a level best described as “nonfunctional”. During that time, as well as playing too much Destiny 2 (but that’s an essay for another time), I played through Bloodborne, Dark Souls 2, and Dark Souls Remastered.
I also watch a lot of video essays on YouTube nowadays, and talking about Dark Souls is a point of fascination with a number of those essayists. Any number of videos exist to dive into themes and worldbuilding and ways the game plays, or where it’s a metaphor for overcoming adversity, especially in the writers’ depression.
Some of these videos have resonated a lot with me. It’s nice to hear about others’ struggles with mental health and hearing that this game that I can also play has helped manage their symptoms, maybe it could help manage mine.
One of the … consistent? parts of videogames for me is that the world needs to be directly interesting before I am able to fully engage. For games like Dark Souls, which are deeply and relentlessly obtuse, that level of interesting has often remained directly elusive. Yes, it’s an interesting set of ruins to stomp around in, I’m sure these zombies are meaningful in some broader sense (they are), but as presented it is not interesting.
Dark Souls 2 has the same problem. Dark Souls 3 has the same problem. Sekiro has the same problem, as well as other problems.
Bloodborne … we’ll get back to Bloodborne.
I can contrast my experience of Dark Souls with The Surge, a game best described as “What if Dark Souls but it was Dead Space”. The world is a poorly-lit sci-fi dystopia where everything is in the process of going extremely badly, and you wake up in the middle of it, just in time to participate in things falling to pieces.
The Dark Souls series doesn’t have that intrinsic hook for me, an intrinsic idea that’s presented and highlighted that encourages me to keep bashing my head on the wall of progress. I’m left needing an external connection before I can resonate with the game, someone else talking about their experience in a way that I can find that hook, and engage.
With Dark Souls, that external hook was watching the Eurogamer Let’s Play. It gave me an entry point by walking me through the game and talking about what was happening, talking about lore and connection and the world, and showing me what there was to see.
Dark Souls was only approachable to me because of that Let’s Play. I learned how to explore the world and how to engage with enemies and how to think about attacks and dodging and defence. I was able to watch Johnny and Aoife struggle for hours with the bosses, and I could learn their patterns for myself.
The frustration was still present, but greatly muted compared to an unspoiled run. I wasn’t frustrated because I didn’t know how to deal with these enemies, I was frustrated because my timings were off. My timings were off because I was still learning what to look for before my button push, while still knowing it was possible to learn that timing, and that the timing would always be consistent.
But I’d seen the world through others’ eyes. The places held meaning. The hatred of Blighttown 3, the sense of joy at making it back to Firelink, the oppressive darkness of New Londo.
Anor Londo, in that first reveal.
The places became memorable because others showed me how they could be memorable.
Dark Souls 2
For Dark Souls 2, it was Hbomberguy’s Defence of Dark Souls 2, which dove into the theme of absolute loss that would come from the curse of immortality, the crushing weight of centuries of forgetfulness and dissociation from not even being allowed to die. I loved how he drew upon the disjointed and nonsensical level design4 as the ludic manifestation of that dissociation, via losing the memory of travelling between the locations in the game.
He touched on the core question of the game — “You can only save yourself from the curse. Is that enough?” — and how the character before you that found that cure breaking from the weight of knowing that only he could be saved.
I saw Dark Souls 2 in new eyes through that video, and absolutely fell in love with it.
(He also wrote a great video on Bloodborne, but, again, we’ll talk about that later.)
Dark Souls 2 is a controversial game. Critically well-regarded, but mired in hashtag controversy spawned from people who were bad at the game. That controversy and negative public reaction created those spirited defences like Hbomberguy’s, which in turn provided me with that way in to the game and the world. Without Hbomb, I wouldn’t have been able to connect with the game and fall in love with it, see through the final days of Drangleic and be cursed to do nothing but perpetuate that curse.
The world is dissociated and it is so powerful for being so dissociated. The gentle soundtrack of Majula is burned into my brain, a song of safety and sadness. The truly excellent fumble through the pitch-black dark tension of The Gutter and No-man’s Wharf, carefully guarding my torch as I hunt for scattered lamps to light.
The world of Drangleic has stuck with me, in the best possible way. 5
The Third Dark Souls
I don’t like Dark Souls 3.
Dark Souls 3 is critically well-regarded, and has a positive public response. A great number of people hailed how it returned to the form of Dark Souls, shying away from the new and interesting aspects of Dark Souls 2.
It’s a much more … coherent … structure of level design, with the verisimilitude that Dark Souls so famously nailed and Dark Souls 2 so famously eschewed. Dark Souls 3 definitely has places and those places are definitely connected in ways that make visual sense.
But instead of finding those places memorable, I find they slip from my memory. The places themselves are inherently meaningless and there’s nothing there to give me a connection or make them meaningful.
Where Blighttown is reviled across so very many peoples’ experiences, I can connect to that and remember Blighttown and in so doing make my own connection and memories.
Where Dark Souls 2 waves away the idea of a contiguous world, I can connect to that and remember the shock of crossing tens of kilometres through a single tunnel, rising to a lake of lava from the top of a tower, or finding a hidden castle in the sky. I connect to that and remember the world as it drifted to pieces.
My initial, visceral response to Dark Souls 3 has always been “this is phoned in” or “this is a greatest hits album that no one actually wanted to make.” The world design feels tired and boring and tedious. Tedious! I never once felt tedium playing Dark Souls or Dark Souls 2 or Bloodborne.
Nothing about the game feels like the grand quest of prior entries, it feels like going through the motions.
My first play-through, I’d even made it to the end boss of the game, found a new area afterwards that I could explore instead, and, instead of excitement at more to do, all I could do was groan “oh gods, there’s more?”, and quit the game.
It’s a well-regarded game, so those spirited defences don’t exist. I’m bouncing off and I don’t have anyone sitting down and talking through how the game resonated and what a thematic core could be.
I’ve seen some essays which do touch on some of the aspects that could provide that thematic anchor and core question that Dark Souls 2 so prominently asks. One essay I watched talked asked why these major bosses you’re meant to defeat refused to do their duty a second time.
They sacrificed to save the world, were called back to do it again, and said no.
This essay didn’t answer that question, it asked me to ask that question.
The world of Dark Souls 3 is ruins and decay and shattered, broken creatures, and me, back from the dead to claim their power to save the world. To do what they refused to do. This essay challenged me to ask why, when this world is so very broken, am I trying to save it.
Being asked that, being asked to look at the level design and the boss design and the world design, being asked to really look at what I was doing and what I was doing it to, has started to change my perspective. Everything feels like it’s going through the motions, and I’m starting to wonder if that was actually the point, a design goal of “yes, this world is going through the motions.”, a world that is so buried under the ashes of the past that even the act of repeating the cycle is worthy of despair.
Dark Souls 2 asked me if saving myself was enough, and showed me the ruins of men who broke under the strain of that question.
Dark Souls 3, I think, is asking me if I’m strong enough to accept change. I think I’m being presented a world so corrupted with the rot of stagnation that it is an act of weakness to perpetuate the world and renew the cycle.
I think I’m being asked to view these great beings who have abdicated their responsibility to sacrifice themselves again as having made the correct choice, because they see that rot and that weight of history and refuse to be a part of it again.
When I think about Dark Souls 3 like this I start to see the generic world design as an intentional act, that these places are so crushed by history that any uniqueness has been done countless times before, and there’s nothing left but to be generic.
I start to see the tedium of the experience as intentional. I’m being told to go through the motions, and I do, and I am left with nothing but ennui as I do so.
Instead of the satisfaction of victory or the fascination of experience of the world, I’m left with
nothing but ashes.
And yet, I still don’t really like Dark Souls 3.
Intellectually I can respond to these ideas around theme, I can vibe so strongly with the way the level design rams home the stagnation and misery of the world, I can start to respect the craft that was able to build a game world that is seethingly generic on purpose, that my experience of ennui and dissociation from the experience is a design goal.
But I haven’t crossed that emotional threshold where it stops being tedious and starts being fun. I’m not sure if that threshold exists for me, because I’m not sure it’s supposed to exist.
Last time I groaned at more to play, and turned the game off before the final boss. I could have won then and there and picked the easy ending, the weak ending of forcing everything to repeat once more.
I’m not sure how long I can endure a game that seems designed to make me feel ennui and disaffection.
I’m being asked to persevere, if I’m strong enough to change.
I honestly don’t know if I am.
Some of the achievements are extremely tedious and required farming items that either only drop from a single enemy or require doing PvP shenanigans. I’m not much for PvP, so farming it was.↩︎
Getting all the weapons together took a NG+4 game. Farming the last of the Black Knight weapons on the run to Gwyn wasn’t the best experience, but, what can you do?↩︎
Blighttown is great, actually)↩︎
you ride a tower from the top of a windmill up to a lava lake, in the most notable case↩︎
Again, 100% achievements. Some of the farming required was definitely a slog.↩︎