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Aaron Waite Aaron Waite
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The Zen of Dark Souls

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How to love a game that hates you

50,000 souls.

Fifty-mother-frakking-thousand souls.

I stared in disbelief at the incredibly subtle 'YOU DIED' crimson across the screen like a neon slap in the face. Fifty thousand souls (the measure of experience in this game) plus 11 humanity - a good couple of hours of work vanished under the club of a fat, venomous troll. It was my own fault for being overconfident and pressing onward into the face of obvious danger and then spitting in the face of said obvious danger, which resulted in that same danger beating the crap out of me.

Devastation. Complete and utter devastation. I watched my character respawn at the closest bonfire, looking as dejected as I was.

As crushed as I was, I couldn't stop. I picked up my undead self and trudged back toward my goal, knowing that many more deaths lay between victory and I.

Welcome to the Zen of 'Dark Souls.'

You don't play this game. This isn't a game that willingly allows you to enter its realm. No, no, no, my dear readers, to 'Dark Souls' you are an invader; you are a controller-wielding parasite that deserves nothing more than to be squished underfoot. It feeds off your despair and relishes taking everything you've worked toward and scattering it across the surface of the sea. It is Sauron, you are Frodo, only when it sees you, it doesn't just send Ringwraiths, it sends the whole bloody army of Mordor your way. There's no two ways about it:You. Will. Die.

But hidden within the multitudes of adversaries are the small victories that make up the crux of this game, the tiny specks of hope that keep you playing in the face of overwhelming darkness. One of the biggest things you need to know about 'Dark Souls' is that it's not full of cheap, terrible deaths. Probably close to 90 percent of the deaths you accrue over the course of the game are no fault of the game, but yours. You dodged when you should have run, you rolled when you should have jumped, you pressed on instead of taking a moment to find a bonfire to replenish yourself. 'Dark Souls' forces you to think both on your feet and on your previous experiences. It teaches you to tread lightly instead of barging in and kicking bad guys to the curb like most action games these days.

You have to be willing to take small gains over large ones. Be overjoyed at the fact that you killed that lowly skeleton, because it doesn't matter what level you get to, that skeleton will still hand you your butt on a silver platter if you don't treat each encounter with respect. 'Dark Souls' takes a slightly different angle on the old-school approach of grinding, swapping out mindless myriad random battles for slow, measured progression. You fight, you die, you retrieve your dropped souls, you die again, you can't reach your dropped souls, you die, you lose all of those souls and then the cycle begins anew.

One of the best things about it is the fact that you're not alone in the darkness. Every once in a while, you'll find orange scratches on the ground, messages from other players about what they've run into, warnings of booby traps - or sometimes blatant lies that lead directly to your terrible, gruesome death. Another factor that multiplayer uses to ratchet up the tension is the concept of invasion. At any point while you're in human form, a random player can be summoned to hunt you down. The terror of seeing a well-armed phantom charging at you, threatening to destroy all of your hard work, is beyond mere words. As soon as you get the notification that someone has entered your world, you'll break out in a cold sweat, knowing that another human is hunting you.

This cycle of rags-to-riches-back-to-rags and the unique multiplayer concepts that started with 'Demon's Souls' is one of the most refreshing ideas in gaming for quite a while. Your each and every life isn't something to toss aside lightly, but it's something to defend with a very palpable sense of desperation. 'Dark Souls' has a wild yin/yang effect that made for some of the most tense 30-someodd hours of gaming I've ever had.

You will love it, and you will hate it. That's the only thing I can promise.

Aaron Waite would like to dedicate this article to the loving memory of Face McShooty, easiest quest in Borderlands 2.'


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