best before 28.04.2018

by Hartigan Malchop

Tough love is good for the Soul

Well howdy there, folks! Your old pal Harty Malchop is always pleased to see you. I know I ought to try and write to you good folks more often, but it takes such a darn long time for me to round up my foolish little thoughts and to line ’em up all neat and orderly for you. The truth of the matter is, I’ve been wanting to talk to you all for a good long while about this one particular video game that I’ve finally got around to playing. In fact, when your pal Harty started gittin’ back into video games not that long ago, this here game was one of the things that got me fascinated with them all over again. It was a game that folks everywhichwhere had been talking about, and the way they made it sound, it was one of them games that only come along every now and then – the sort of game that stands apart from the rest and is such a gawpin’ marvel to behold that folks get to calling it a classic in no time at all. The problem was the way folks talked about this here game, it sure didn’t sound very fun. Even the name was kind of consternating and serious. It was a game that went by the name of Dark Souls.

Cheer up, Artorias, it may never happen.

The word goin’ around was that Dark Souls was a tough beast. Folks kept on saying that this here game was so hard, when you went wandering around its crumbling world, you’d spend a fair helping of that time in dying. People went on saying this kind of thing so often and so loud that Dark Souls was one of the games your pal Harty had heard about even back in those empty years when he didn’t play video games. As you can imagine, on account of all that hushed and fearful whispering about how Dark Souls was made out of gruelling despair, I was more than a little shy about tackling it.

There’s a simple reason for that. Y’see, I ain’t never really hid it from you fine people, but your pal Harty isn’t really that great at video games. Now, I don’t mean I’m all confounded and cussing like your granmaw when she tries to use one of them infuriating modern-style telephones. Naw, I can play games okay – good enough to finish most of ’em, sure. But I ain’t no swift-fingered genius and I ain’t got crackling nerves of dancin’ lightning. I’m just good enough at games. Back when I was growing up, Little Harty and his pals used to play a game outdoors that we called Kickcan. It was a sport that we made up ourselves over the years, using an old squashed tin-can for a sort of puck or ball. It was kind of a mix of football, hockey, and wrasslin’, I guess. My position on the field where we used to play was always over by the old blue shack. That was the place for a fellow like me, who weren’t terrible, but weren’t good enough to be flinging the kick-can through the goals. That’s where I’m pretty comfortable in video games – not great, not terrible, just waiting over yonder by the old blue shack.

Meat Boy smiling through the pain.

I guess, some part of me reckons that I ain’t got the time or the gumption for playing tough and ornery games. F’r’instance, I once had a gander at Super Meat Boy, a difficult game where you’ve got to time yer jumps just so, or else you fall into a grinder or land on some spikes or somesuch. It’s one of them games that’s supposed to be difficult – that’s made to challenge those folks who are already real good at video games. I lasted about an hour at playing Super Meat Boy, and it was just getting harder and harder, and I wasn’t getting any faster or any better. So I quit. I ain’t proud of it, because the Malchops may be a lot of things, but we ain’t normally no quitters. Still, for this perticular Malchop, after a certain point and a good honest try, sometimes I just can’t break into hard games. I know that the toughness is the whole point of Super Meat Boy, and I have a lot of respect for the folks who designed it and all those of you out there who are swift and nimble enough on the controller to crack these sorts of hard cases. But no matter how I work away at some tough games, it just feels like I ain’t getting anywhere. I guess I was worried that Dark Souls was going to be that sort of game, one I just wasn’t good enough to play.

When you start Dark Souls, you ain’t a big tough guy wandering through a world where the enemies are only there for you to smack ’em around. Naw, you’re a dried up withered unheroic piece of undead jerky, and all sorts of enemies can kill you lickety-split, not to mention the fact that a whole lot of the angry critters you are going to bump into are often a heck of a lot bigger than your little insignificant self.

Interior Design had become very extreme in the world of Dark Souls.

There are a lot of locales in Dark Souls where I was stuck for a good long time. I spent so long gittin’ chopped up by giant pendulum axes and squished by boulders and blown up by fiery explosions in a spot called Sen’s Fortress that I started having nightmares about the place. That took me a good long while to get through, but the one piece of the game I thought I’d never get on past was one that flummoxes a whole bunch of other people who play at Dark Souls. Y’see folks, there’s a sort of important turning point in the game where you face two fellows in golden armor – one of them a big-boned guy by the name of Smough, who is handy with a hammer, and his buddy, a fleet-footed spearman whose idea of a swell time is to shoot lightning at you, called Ornstein. These are some intimidating hombres, let me tell you, looking like towering golden statues come to life, a pair of tarnished monstrous relics running straight for you so hard that the first time I saw them my heart panicked like a jackrabbit trapped in front of an oncoming truck. Y’see, Dark Souls teaches you to be careful from the very first, to avoid fighting more than one opponent at all costs – you learn early on that even a bunch of fairly weak wrinkled up dudes can wipe you out pretty quick if they surround you – you end up gittin’ smacked from all different directions and can’t get away or fight back. When you finally reach Ornstein and Smough, the game has already spent hours teaching you that you will get killed quick smart if you try to fight more than one enemy. But now when you face the onrushing gold-heads, you are suddenly supposed to juggle a fight against two guys, and let me tell you folks, your pal Harty got smooshed and zapped and stabbed a heck of a lot. I spent days skewered and tenderised by that pair, and I was truly startin’ to believe that I was never going to get any further in the darn game, that I was just not good enough to get past this hurdle.

Smough and Ornstein were also a very successful boy band in their day.

A lot of role-playing video games have a system where you fight enemies, get a bunch of experience points, and these points let you make some numbers go up on your character that makes ’em stronger. If you can’t get through a particular boss fight, you grind away killing weak monsters to make your numbers go up, dragging yourself through the same sorts of fights until you get to a level where you are strong enough to move on. Dark Souls has a levelling system like this, but it isn’t the main part of the game – it’s there as a sort of helping hand. Naw, in Dark Souls you don’t just need to improve your character’s Strength number or Vitality number if you want to move on to the next bit of exploring. In Dark Souls, the player needs to get better. Your pal Harty needed to improve at playing the game if he wanted to progress. Now that might sound like it could be a frustrating thing, like having to learn how to time a split-second jump to go forward in the game, but the real darn clever thing about Dark Souls is that it gives you different ways of improving so you can get past the monster being all obstructive. Maybe you need to find and upgrade a weapon you are more comfortable with timing, because a heck of a lot of this game is getting a feel for timing, for learning rhythms and patterns, kinda like learning to play an instrument. Maybe you need to get good strong armour so you can take a hit and survive, or maybe you need to go the other way and wear almost no armour, so you can be nimble and scurry and roll out of the way of big ole claws that can wipe you out in a single hit. Dark Souls taught me to try something to progress, and if that something didn’t work, to try something else, and eventually I’d find the right armour or weapon or spells or rings in some combination that worked for how I played, and I’d get that sweet satisfying relief of defeating the critter standing in my way.

I knew, because the game had drummed it into my head already, that even if it felt like I couldn’t beat the terrible twosome, there was a way to do it somehow, (heck, there were probably a bunch of ways I’d never even think of), and if I just persisted and tried different things, eventually I’d find a way to get past them. I made a fiery sword to hit ’em with, but that didn’t work so well. I tried to hide behind a shield and poke ’em with a spear, but they knocked me all about the room. I summoned a jolly computer-controlled character called Solaire to lend me a hand, but he got killed, and I followed quickly after. I tried to switch to holding a sword almost as big as myself with both hands, and then I started making some progress in chopping ‘em back a few times before they put me down for the count. As I lay in bed in the middle of the night, listening to the wind blow and the owls hoot outside, I was keeping myself awake thinking up new schemes to try on Ornstein and Smough when the sun came up.

Solaire was fond of sunbathing, but he still took care to protect himself from skin cancer.

In the end it was a darn simple thing about using the space where you fight – about learnin’ to use the room to protect myself, rather than relying on my flimsy human-sized shield which was about as useful at stopping this rampaging pair as a wet paper fence would be at holding back an angry steer. I kept columns between me and both of them, so neither could blindside me into the ground. Sure, it sounds like an obvious thing to do, but it took me while to work out exactly how I should be timing things to keep the duo away from my poor frail self – when to heal, when to hit, when to hide, and when to wait. Like a lot of things out in the real world, it ain’t enough to be told how to do something in Dark Souls, you’ve got to practice until you get a feel for it yourself, deep down in your hands and in your bones, and that’s what, with a heck more effort than you clever folks would need, I eventually did. Beating these two ain’t even close to the end of the game, but for a lot of players, as it sure did for me, it feels like the most important part, because it was where I had to persist until I got better, even if it felt impossible.

This here game can be a mean ole cuss – giggling to itself when it surprises you with enemies hunkered down quietly behind doors, or cackling when it lures you over an edge to just the right spot where a big critter takes the opportunity to make you into mash. But you get to do these same bits over and over, and eventually even someone like your pal Harty, a gamepoke of only middlin’ ability, starts to learn that a sword-owning fella might be hiding behind the door, or to make darn sure that you tread carefully when near any of them slippery-looking edges. Next, you might learn that there’s one particular weapon that hostile swordsfellows are so impartial to that you can be the one doing the chopping for once, then you might come across a path that lets you skip past that whole wobbling walkway you’ve crawled on through so many times. The land of Dark Souls is wily and dangerous, but beautifully dense, full right on up to the brim of details you can learn. In time and with practice, you can uncover ways and means to make the difficult into the doable, to make the monstrous into the manageable, and the only thing that will have really changed is you – you’ve learned what works best for you in that little corner of the world.

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