How did you spend Valentine's day this year? Maybe you booked a reservation at a fancy restaurant for dinner with your special someone. Maybe you found the Hallmark holiday not applicable and decided to ignore it by watching Die Hard, the way most people these days ignore Christmas. As for me, I chose to spend the evening eating at the Dark Souls cafe. Let me elaborate: I spent the evening being the only person eating at the Dark Souls cafe.
I'm not sure what one expects from a video game-themed eatery. Games and food rarely cross paths - unless, of course, you're engaging in an eating contest - so I go in with modest expectations that quickly become drastically more modest upon entering the diner tucked into a back alley of Roppongi, Tokyo.
The moment I enter the premises I'm suddenly hit with three very distinct thoughts: Where is everybody? Why's it so poorly lit? And why, for the love of god, is it playing club music? It was clear this was going to be a disaster, but if there's one thing Dark Souls has taught me, it's that a failed adventure is still one worth taking.
The first query can be explained in part by the weather. Tokyo's undergoing a snow storm this very night, leaving several businesses closed and the streets sparsely populated. But even a quiet Friday night/Valentine's Day combo in Tokyo is still pretty busy, so while it's likely the climate tipped things away from the cafe's favour, one can't help but cast a raised eyebrow when the chef explains to me that it's usually packed.
The other concerns aren't as easy to reason away. The dim lighting sort of fits the mood of From Software's games - if they were set in a dive bar - but it's no way to show off the marketing theme Namco is no doubt paying top dollar for. There are Dark Souls 2 posters strewn about, a handful of trailers playing on repeat above the bar, and next to the entrance is a sculpture of an imposing knight. And yet the shadowy decor does everything in its power to hide these adornments. When I ask the chef if the place gets a lot of visitors based on the theme, he barely understands the question and seems moderately embarrassed by the promotion. "Oh yeah, this," he says. "This is only for three months. Then we take it down."
When I tell him what I do for a living and why I stopped in he seems genuinely surprised that I've actually heard of the game in question. "I like video games," he tells me. "I've not played this Dark Souls game. Is it good?" Clearly the staff is no more bothered by the establishment's theme as a coffee shop is about the rotating selection of art hanging on its walls.
Still enamoured with the novelty of this establishment's very existence, I take my seat and explore the menu. Naturally, it's all in Japanese and my Nihongo is rather rusty in the decade since I studied it in college, so the poor waiter has to use his limited grasp of English to try to deduce what my order should be. "Do you like fish?" he asks. "Hai," I reply. "And rice?" "Hai" again. A few minutes later the confused fellow returns to ask what kind of sauce I'd like. He suggests maybe tomato or a cream sauce. Momentarily forgetting I already confirmed a rice dish, I tell him tomato is fine. Another instant regret. This results in a mad concoction of Italian food with rice as some sort of bizarre interpretation of what westerners must like. To the chef's credit, the sauce is pretty decent and the dish is more edible than expected, even if it's not going to rival Korean/Mexican fusion as the new east-meets-west hipster trend in my part of the world.
"Clearly the staff is no more bothered by the establishment's theme as a coffee shop is about the rotating selection of art hanging on its walls"
At least my drink is good - a Chivas Regal 12 - and if there's one thing I've learned from lengthy international flights it's that scotch makes everything better. But even this comes in a usual shot glass rather than the decorative Dark Souls-themed estus flasks displayed upon the cafe's announcement.
As the liqueur courses through my veins I begin to wonder what I'm doing here. What did I think was going to happen at this video game-themed eatery? Did I expect to be transported to the world of Lordran with other tired travellers taking shelter from the hazardous terrain? Did I think I'd see throngs of social outcasts letting their freak flag fly in a pub tailor-made for their favourite hobby? No. What I thought I'd see was the camaraderie of fans of From's series celebrating their love of Dark Souls, even in a kitschy way. I thought I'd see groups of players eating alone, but knowing they were a part of something larger, the same way we felt when we'd hear the church bells ring atop the Undead Parish, letting us know that there was someone else out there enduring the same struggles as us, yet overcoming the odds. Despite its sadistic "prepare to die" ad campaign, Dark Souls was never about failure. It was about hope.
My first visit to Japan is punctuated by one trip that puts me in mind of From's series, but it isn't the Dark Souls cafe. On my last day in Tokyo I enter the Meiji Shrine, where people the world over have come to see the sights and possibly even pray. In the main courtyard there lies an octagonal kiosk adorned with wooden tablets inscribed with the wishes of weary travellers. You can buy your own tablet to hang at the gift shop for a few hundred yen a piece, and the legend goes that your wishes will be sent to the spirits that watch over the shrine. I'm not a religious man, nor am I a superstitious one, but in a shrine where I don't prescribe to the religion, in a country where I don't speak the predominant language, it's impossible not to feel alone, yet also impossible to feel alone at all with everyone else rummaging about like wandering spectres all wanting for something. The sense of unified yearning is palpable. Like everyone's unique, arduous journey through Dark Souls, it's clear that we're all alone, all together.
Of course it would be impossible for Namco to rent out a shrine for marketing purposes (heck, they don't even let you take pictures in some parts of the temple), but it's an atmosphere the publisher would do well to emulate. Or, the publisher could always fall back on the old eating contest idea where a church bell rings when someone conquers a 72-ounce steak. That always works too.
In a lot of ways the Dark Souls cafe is a lot like Dark Souls. Mysterious, nonsensical, difficult to access (I had to ask for directions at one point), and beyond bewildering. Only there's one key difference: Dark Souls used its more enigmatic elements as a way to inspire wonder and curiosity, whereas the Dark Souls cafe's mere existence is depressingly obvious as a tenuous marketing ploy. The Dark Souls cafe then is like Dark Souls minus the soul. All that's left after that is very dark indeed.