If you asked me my opinion of Dark Souls two weeks ago, I would have said, diplomatically, that it was a much loved game which was just not for me. In truth though, I hated Dark Souls. My experience with it had been universally bad.
I originally tried to play it back on the Xbox 360, a few months after it came out. I lasted about 3 hours, spread over a few days - a series of mini-rage quits terminated each individual session after about an hour, leading to a final catastrophic rage quit when I was killed by an invader just as I had struggled to a point I hadn’t been able to get to before. I eBay’ed it the next day and wrote it off.
The stories of that game continued to haunt me though; the world had a genuine attraction for me, as someone who loves sci-fi and fantasy but is old enough to have become really tired of by-the-numbers renditions of those tropes. So a couple of years ago I picked it up again on Steam in a sale. That time I only lasted 45 minutes before deciding that my previous assessment was correct: Dark Souls was just Not For Me.
On both occasions, veteran Dark Souls players tried to convince me of its merits. While some fell into the entirely unhelpful “git gud” bracket, many were genuinely well-meaning people who wanted me to succeed, and to be able to appreciate this game they held in such esteem. Unfortunately, their advice didn’t work for me, and I realise now that the reason was they fundamentally misunderstood why I, and perhaps others like me, bounce off the game so hard.
You see, for the past ten days or so I’ve put 15 hours into Dark Souls, and I’m looking forward to playing it some more. I’ve beaten several bosses, become able to read the world better, and most importantly have found the balance between tolerance of failure and hope that I can actually do this, maybe next time, or the time after that. The conclusion that Dark Souls was Not For Me turned out to be inaccurate.
But the thing that was Not For Me was a specific way of learning to enjoy Dark Souls that is typically projected by most veterans, wiki articles, think pieces and reviews. These guides are unintentionally unhelpful to the kind of beginner I was, and I’d like to try to address that here.
What didn’t work
To learn to like Dark Souls, I didn’t need to be told how to be good at playing Dark Souls. You can’t teach fighting styles, really; they have to be developed and that comes naturally with time. The problem was being able to tolerate the early game long enough.
Telling me death is OK
It also didn’t help to be told to accept that dying is part of the game. Telling me that doesn’t undo the mindset that all other games have instilled in me: that death is a failure, a loss.
Again, what I needed was the time to get acclimitised to that concept, and to start appreciating the risk/reward mechanic associated with how much you put on the line - souls, humanity, progress - and the mitigating factors that can soften that blow should you fail.
You just get better at accepting death as time goes on, but early on, death will feel bad to a new player. You can’t blunt that with words, you just have to keep them playing somehow.
Telling me to be patient
I’d been told many times that playing Dark Souls requires patience. That’s true. But you can’t tell people to have patience and expect that to do anything.
Patience isn’t something that can be summoned from the ether; turns out there isn’t a sigil for that. If someone is struggling and having a bad time, patience is the last thing that’s naturally going to develop.
I need hope to develop patience, and for that I need some time, some breathing space, for it to grow naturally. I need a reason to stick with a game that clearly hates me as a beginner.
Imagining you can imbue a mindset with words
The reason none of the advice worked on me was that everyone giving it had a different mindset. People can’t help but think that the advice that would have helped them would also help me - without realising that we’re starting from different places.
My starting position is being vaguely interested in both the world and this esoteric game I’d never been able to get into, but having limited time and lots of other things that I could be doing. At this stage I’m also far more interested in game experiences than I am in “proving” myself. Dark Souls has some great experiences, but early on a mindset of “beating games” helps you acclimitise to its hostile environment.
My tolerance for early game player hostility is much lower than someone who goes into it deeply invested, whatever their motivation. Failure to recognise that meant that most veteran advice missed the mark with me.
What finally worked
There’s a specific thing that helped which I’ll talk about in a minute. But to appreciate why it worked, you have to understand that all I really needed was tips on how to simply survive the Dark Souls early game, even if my skills and mindset weren’t tuned to it yet. Because there is simply no chance of me learning to like this game if I’m driven to turn it off in frustration.
Tips about skill development, enemy analysis etc are way premature, and veterans often don’t get that. What someone like me needs is enough wiggle room to survive to see enough of the game that I get it. Unfortunately the first section of the game is very grindy and almost entirely linear (realistically); rinsing and repeating it can get boring and annoying really quickly if you don’t feel like you’re making progress.
Here’s how I got over that.
Kindle, baby, kindle
What prompted my latest attempt was watching Eurogamer’s Lets Play; originally I thought it was a great opportunity to see more of Dark Souls without actually playing it. But watching them play flagged up an important nuance I’d never understood in previous attempts: that you can increase your Estus (healing flask) to 10 instead of 5 by “Kindling” a bonfire.
This is no doubt obvious to veteran players. But, literally no-one had ever pointed this out to me before, and it never seems to feature highly in beginners guides. Dark Souls is notoriously bad at explaining anything, but I feel particularly amazed that no-one has ever flagged this as a major tip before when they saw I was struggling. I put down the entire success of this latest Dark Souls run on the effect of kindling the bonfire at the start of the Undead Burg. It transformed the game for me.
Part of the reason I’d never discovered this feature is that to Kindle a bonfire you have to become human; and to do this, you use up a Humanity point, a rather rare resource in the game. You then need another humanity to Kindle the bonfire; so importantly, you need to have 2 Humanity in reserve. That’s not that big a deal, you have that at the start anyway. But here’s the issue: if you’re just learning and experimentally use a single Humanity to become human, you can be invaded (you can’t when you’re undead). And if you die while human, you revert back to undead again, having wasted that Humanity point.
To make matters worse, the starting areas are absolutely awash with PvP arseholes who invade and kill newcomers with alarming regularity; seriously, I don’t think I’ve been human in the Undead Burg for 15 minutes without being invaded. And yet now that I’m further in the game, I’ve been human in other areas for ages and it never happened. People eh? What a bunch of absolute bell-ends 😃😪 This was the trigger for my Xbox 360 final rage quit.
So the trick is to only use Humanity in batches of 2 at the bonfire at the start of the Undead Burg, and Kindle the bonfire. Humanity is so rare, if you accidentally waste it because you don’t understand the system - which no new player does, because it’s never, ever explained properly - you’re basically stuffed.
Why did no-one ever explain this to me before?
The beauty of tolerance of small failures
Having 10 “shots” of healing at the start of the game is transformative. Sure, occasionally you’ll screw up and get killed too quickly without having chance to heal, but those circumstances feel mostly fair; it’s usually a genuine learning moment: you discover a nasty move an enemy can do which you will look out for in future, or realise the danger of letting more than one enemy mob you.
But what I realised is that previous cases of boredom and desperation were caused by dying because of attrition, a series of small errors that by themselves were minor, but accumulated and ruined my run. The learning experience from those was not valuable; sometimes it was that I pressed the wrong button and wasted an Estus, because so many other games use X to attack, and when you have only 5 that’s a big problem. Sometimes the camera totally screws you over - sure, that happens in all 3rd person games but the section of health bar you lose for it could be the difference between making it over the line, and restarting all over again. Sometimes a BS firebomb comes out of nowhere. Sometimes you flub the controller stick slightly. These failures were not educational, just annoying.
I got tired of the game making me repeat the same damn section far more quickly than I was learning to eliminate enough of those small errors to survive with 5 Estus. Repetition is only fun for me if I feel I’m learning something. Learning only that the early game is intolerant of small errors doesn’t fire my endorphins. So, the rage quit becomes inevitable.
With 10 Estus, that tolerance level for small errors was pushed just high enough that I’d finish a new section with maybe 3 left (instead of being dead as often), would see more each time, and I’d have enough space to learn the big things without feeling unnecessarily punished for small errors. Importantly, it showed me I could do this. And slowly, very slowly, I started to like Dark Souls.
The take away
My primary advice if you’ve bounced off Dark Souls like I have before:
- Save 2 humanity as early as possible
- At the Undead Burg bonfire (just before the bridge in the header image):
- Reverse Hollowing
- Enjoy the increased tolerance for small failures 10 Estus gives you
- Never become human in the Undead Burg/Parish unless:
- You really need help with a boss (summoning requires being human)
- You’re ok with “flip a coin not to die” because the area is rammed full of PvP twats
Maybe this advice is 6-7 years too late, but maybe there are others like me out there, or maybe there will be more once the remaster is released. Or maybe they’ll actually explain the systems better in the remaster (one can hope!).
Seriously, that 10 Estus lifeline is everything.