Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
Like most people, I have never beaten Dark Souls. I have barely even played it, to be perfectly honest—I bailed without beating the Taurus demon, which is sort of like quitting The Sopranos midway through the pilot. Part of the problem, at the time, was that my roommate was playing the shit out of it, so why bother, when I could just watch him? Over the years, I’ve absorbed the game osmotically, such that slugging through its challenges myself has never made sense. For a full winter, my then-girlfriend’s roommate beat the game repeatedly, rooting out every possible hidden corridor while I sat on the couch watching, usually high. I once watched two people speed-run the game on adjacent televisions; I again sat on the couch, almost certainly high, while they did so. Later I went to a guy’s house exclusively because he had plans to speed-run the game in a single day; I sat on his couch and drank beer, as a change of pace, which sort of sapped our energy by the time he got to New Londo Ruins. I have never seen the man since.
I had accepted that I would never beat the game, to be honest; wrangling the TV for 60 hours has gotten harder over the years, as has finagling time for extremely long games in general. (I beat Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls II, and Bloodborne before I had a kid to contend with.) And so the prospect of the game’s translation to the Nintendo Switch was immensely appealing to me, in part because it’s always bothered me that I haven’t beaten the game, and in part because it offered me an opportunity to really put the system’s portability to its test.
There’s this trope repeated in pretty much every review of a game for the system, in which the writer casually shoehorns in a reference to playing the game while commuting (me included). It’s an easy cliché, but I always read these references to grinding on the bus or missing your train stop and wonder: Do these people actually commute? Or do they commute in some post-scarcity utopia where riding the train to and from work each morning is not an exercise in darwinian social politics, wrangling for position and strap-holds? Do they not wedge themselves miserably between mouth-breathers and old people who don’t know to turn the volume off on Candy Crush? Do they not have transfers? FURTHER: Isn’t it dangerous to whip out a full game console while riding the train? And wouldn’t you look like an asshole doing so? I have never once seen a person play a Switch on mass transportation, and there’s something vaguely lame about the prospect of doing so. I always groan at those Soylent-chugging tech types clacking away at their keyboards at 7 a.m. on the train, as if the 15 minutes of coding they get done commuting were essential to their daily productivity.
Anyway, I have a long-ass commute, so I figured, for the sake of science: Why not give Dark Souls a shot on the train? The worst that could happen is—well, probably someone punching me in the back of the head and stealing the system, which would in fact be pretty bad. But isn’t the threat of unexpected physical violence somehow uniquely Souls-ian? No need for suspense here: After two weeks of playing it on the train, I have sufficiently confirmed that it is really good and cool to play a big old game like this during 90 minutes of the day I’d usually spend, like, “reading,” or whatever. What’s surprising isn’t so much that the Switch works in this setting—it was designed for it—but that the most life-swallowingly bleak major game of the past decade does. Dark Souls is a game of inches, each session aiming for an infinitesimal sense of progress over the previous one. Failure is so regular that it becomes meaningless, such that it can feel absorbing—not unlike, say, Sudoku, the all-time heavyweight champ of mass-transportation time-wasting. The game’s famous difficulty, generally smoothed out through mindful repetition, gains a new potency in compressed, bite-size sessions. You died; you’re four stops from work. When I line up for the train at night I think, now which bonfire am I starting up at?
This is, obviously, the wrong way to play Dark Souls. Dark Souls obsessives famously live by a code, disdaining certain builds and classes as weaker and less true to Hidetaka Miyazaki’s uncompromising design. Summoning help is bad; looking at walk-throughs is bad; shields are bad. But part of the fun for me is learning all of those codes of honor and then ignoring them, scraping by boss to boss like the sniveling coward I am. After days of dying against those Bell Tower Gargoyles, I summoned Solaire and watched him kick their asses while my train jostled northward. If this is not galling enough, consider that I have also played the game almost entirely on mute because I can’t find my headphones. And yet, it’s still fucking Dark Souls. The game’s wrought-iron design allows for this variability, full of cheesy exploits and there-when-you-want-it narrative. My policy with Miyazaki games has always been to accept victory any way it comes—this time, it just happens to come almost a decade late, on mute, and while listening to some asshole have a loud conversation on their phone. Prepare to ride.