This week, I got Drew Toal on the phone to kick off our weekend-plans thread. Drew has recently stumbled back into Dark Souls and, with a little help from yours truly, he is transfixed by the game’s dedication to keeping the player confused and scared at all times. We discussed how this first real playthrough is going, and the game’s odd role as a geek status symbol. Let us know what you’ll be playing this weekend in the comments.
Matt Gerardi: What are you playing this weekend?
Drew Toal: I think I’m going to play a little Dark Souls, Matt.
MG: Is this your first time?
DT: Yeah—well, it’s not the first time I’ve tried playing. It’s the first time it’s actually taken. The game doesn’t really do a great job of explaining what you’re doing in its world, or what you’re supposed to do—or anything really. So I would get frustrated with that occasionally when I was first starting out. I would just quit and play something easier.
MG: Why do you think it stuck this time?
DT: First of all, there’s not a ton of other compelling stuff I want to play right now and would be easy to jump too. And also because I’ve been feeling like a leper almost, because I feel like anybody who’s at all “serious” about video games is always talking about how Dark Souls is the best game of the last forever. And plus I don’t like the idea that Steve Heisler is better at something than me or knows more about something than me. This is my way of righting that wrong.
MG: You’ll have to play it for a really long time to know more about it than he does.
DT: I at least want to get acquainted with it enough so that we can start more or less even on Dark Souls II. But yeah, that’s basically it. I remember being at the first Gameological holiday party, and I feel like I ended up being in a group where everyone was talking about Dark Souls, and I was just standing there staring at my beer. I think my wife was embarrassed for me. She was like, “This is the nerdiest shit I’ve ever heard, and you’re not even cool enough to talk about it.” It was a new low for me. It was all building up to me actually playing it.
MG: It definitely does seem to be one of those games where the people who are really into it kind of look down on the people who haven’t played it or didn’t get into it.
DT: That’s the thing, right? I was really into Skyrim when that came out. I dumped hundreds of hours into that. But there were moments even with that where it felt like people thought [in his smarmiest tone] “Oh, it’s got a story. Oh yeah, Skyrim. That’s a game for pussies.” I guess, in a way, it’s true. I just couldn’t get into Dark Souls for the life of me. It’s like a secret club. Once you’ve figured out some of the mysteries, then it’s more inviting.
MG: That sort of elitism happens with all kinds of media too. People treat Dark Souls the same way they do something like The Wire. It’s always, “Oh, you haven’t seen The Wire?” It’s become one of these high-geek touchstones.
DT: Exactly. That’s a good way of putting it. In my case, I needed a little help to get into it—so thank you for helping me. I didn’t want to go and look up how to play it on the Internet or anything, but I just had absolutely no idea what to do. I just ran around the starting area, talking to these two guys who weren’t any help. Then, I would just wander down and get killed by ghosts.
MG: And that’s the weirdest thing about people having this sort of Dark Souls elitism. It’s absolutely not a game for everyone, and it’s horribly masochistic and obtuse. It doesn’t explain anything to you, at all, and the things that it does are pretty unimportant, in the grand scheme of things. All of the important parts of that game, the things that will actually help you succeed, are things you’re left to discover on your own—or more realistically, have someone tell you about.
DT: Yeah. I’m currently playing as a character I started a year ago, when I hadn’t gotten anywhere. And when I went back, I had totally forgotten what I was supposed to be doing, what my quest is. And when you said, “You have to ring the bell,” I just thought, “What bell? What the hell are you talking about?” There’s little direction, and it just becomes a game about survival and pushing ahead little by little. You forget the overarching goal in favor of this war of attrition.
MG: The first time you play is like that, absolutely. You have to learn not just the game’s seemingly infinite nuances but also the layout of all the areas and how they interconnect—
DT: There’s no real map! I have no idea where I’m going. I have no sense of direction at all in real life. I’ve been lost in the JFK airport’s parking lot for hours. I just have no idea.
MG: Right. And when you go back after having played it enough, it becomes a completely different game. The gulf between the two experiences is huge. Once you have a certain level of knowledge it just becomes a completely different beast. It’s more about experimentation and exploitation than scraping by. You have the advantage.
DT: I was talking to this one guy I work with. I know he plays the game, so I mentioned it to him. And one of the first things he said was “I’m really jealous you’re playing through it for the first time.” He almost couldn’t believe it. This was the same guy who was really deeply offended that I killed that knight Solaire. I felt like I killed his brother or something.
MG: That seems to be a common reaction people have to hearing that someone killed Solaire. I think people have an attachment to him because he seems to be the only friendly face in this horrible, horrible place where everything wants to brutally kill you.
DT: But one of the notes another player left on the ground told me to attack him. I didn’t know any better at that point. I thought I could get some cool stuff from him if I killed him. But no. Nothing. All I was left with was regret. A lifetime of regret. And that dude at work was like “If I came into your game and saw you wearing Solaire’s armor, I would kill you immediately.”
And it’s true. You can’t trust anybody or anything in this game. I walked into a forest the other day, and another player came into my game and killed me. Apparently, that’s a thing? A group of players that made a pact to protect the forest? I didn’t know that was a thing—roving gangs of players who can invade your game and have these secret prerogatives that I don’t know about because I don’t read Dark Souls message boards or whatever. What the fuck have you people gotten me into? I kind of just want a new game to come out so that I don’t have to worry about this one anymore. It’s already giving me anxiety.
It’s definitely one of those “gamer looking down their nose” sort of games, but getting someone to explain what’s so great about Dark Souls is really difficult. I kept trying to get people to explain it to me, and everybody failed.
MG: How did people try to explain it?
DT: The one that sticks out for me is when people would say it had no story or that what story it did have didn’t make sense, like that’s a good thing. I’ve always been a fan of RPG with engaging narratives. But these people would say, “Yeah, it makes no sense, and there’s no story, and you die all the time, and people invade your game. It’s amazing.” And I’d think to myself, “That sounds like the worst game in history. I’ll just go Dragonborning around instead.” Skyrim’s story is dumb, too, but in comparison it’s like high art.
MG: It’s not an easy game to explain. Now that you’ve played it, do you see a reason why people would elevate it like that?
DT: Yeah. In a video game world where there’s a lot of copycatting and not a lot of really new experiences, it’s definitely an outlier. I’m definitely going to keep playing it. I feel good about finally having played it, even though I still don’t know much about it. It’s a weight off my shoulders. I can finally talk to people about Dark Souls. I don’t have to just stare at my feet when people start talking about it.
But yeah, I do get it. It’s a fun game—no, that’s wrong. It’s not fun at all. It’s an intriguing game, for sure. I guess it just always seemed like a ton of work, and very little payoff. Which isn’t true, it turns out. It is a lot of work, but it can be super-satisfying in a way most other games are not. The satisfaction doesn’t come from seeing a story through but [from] learning how this foreign world works, and learning where everything is, and how to overcome it. Normally with these kinds of fantasy games, it’s all about the quest and the loot and stuff like that, but with this, it’s more just choreographing each area and overcoming it.