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Becoming the Dark Soul

From the archive: Rich Stanton goes in pursuit of the game's crowning achievement.

It's somehow 10 years since the release of Dark Souls - perhaps the most significant release of the last decade, in fact, given the huge impact From Software's meticulously designed adventure has had. To celebrate we're returning to one of our favourite pieces of writing about the game, from none other than Souls connoisseur Rich Stanton.

I love the Great Grey Wolf Sif, and have fought alongside her. I have killed her five times across PC and Xbox 360, and the last was the one that mattered. With other Dark Souls bosses, I enjoy Summoning other players to help. But never with Sif. The fight is one that saddens me. It is a duel to be savoured, a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Dark Souls: Full PrologueWatch on YouTube

Even the first time, before knowing much at all about Dark Souls, there was something special about Sif (the wolf's gender is up for debate, incidentally). I reviewed the game back in the day, and so was playing through weeks before the internet had unravelled Lordran's mysteries. An occasionally panicked email chain of reviewers from several publications swapped hints and tips about Dark Souls - the only time I have ever known this - and one rumour, since debunked but persisting to this day in dark corners of the community, was that you could somehow save Sif.

You cannot. But Dark Souls makes you wish you could. Sif is the companion of the long-fallen Knight Artorias, a legendary figure in the world of Dark Souls, and guards his resting place with his greatsword. It is an unforgettable arena, dominated by a huge gravestone and dotted with the fallen swords of warriors who have come before you. Near the end of the fight, exhausted and injured, Sif begins limping - her attacks slower, her grace replaced with fatigued clumsiness, even to the extent she falls over. But she never gives up. You must kill her, and claim your prize.

One of Dark Souls' defining characteristics is what is known as New Game Plus (NG+). After completion the game restarts from the beginning, except you keep almost all of your equipment and the enemies become tougher. This Groundhog Day structure is the key to Dark Souls' longevity, its narrative threads and endless depths of incidental detail. You are literally playing the same game - and yet, in practice, doing anything but. The most important thing of all has changed. You.

Getting a parry in PvP is Dark Souls' most demanding and unforgiving learning curve - the timing is almost impossible to master, thanks to problems with lag, which makes the reward all the sweeter

The game's crowning Achievement plays on this, and has the description 'The Dark Soul'. It doesn't just demonstrate the depths of Dark Souls' branching paths and many hidden secrets, but also how these odd little prizes should be used. Too many games give you achievements or trophies for simple progression. Oh, you finished the first level? Well done little man, here's a pop-up! You killed 50 enemies? Good boy! Unimaginative crap. Such games treat the idea as an afterthought, something to mark off the notches on a linear structure. But becoming the Dark Soul depends not on merely completing the game, but an increasing mastery of it.

You could choose to see it another way, as a mere completionist's prize, but it doesn't depend on acquiring everything in the game. It requires much, but all is specific. Becoming the Dark Soul will require you to (among other things) collect every rare weapon, follow every equipment upgrade path to its end, see both possible endings, and acquire all of the various magics in the game. What this boils down to, in the case of Dark Souls, is ceaselessly exploring and experimenting with each covenant and location in the game, hunting down oddities and taking liberties with other players. It does depend on doing pretty much everything - but actually figuring out what 'everything' means in this context is unique. And it'll take at least two complete playthroughs, plus a good chunk of a third.

Why? Why does Dark Souls, of all the games, pull me back after hundreds of hours in its embrace? I don't care about achievements, as a rule, but I wanted this one. I would like to tell you Dark Souls' deepest secret, but it doesn't have one. It has hundreds, and you'll never find them all. It is a tease, a puzzle to which you will never find all of the pieces, and what you discover is that it ultimately comes down to your interpretation.

You'll never discover everything about Dark Souls, because it is impossible. The game has been released for just over a year, and despite an incredibly dedicated community there are things we don't know and will never know. I'm not just talking about lore. Vagrants are rare enemies that spawn in your world, and will often one-shot you, because of another player dropping lots of stuff in theirs. Or dying on their way back to a bloodstain full of souls and humanity. Or maybe it's linked to something else. We don't know.

"I would like to tell you Dark Souls' deepest secret, but it doesn't have one. It has hundreds, and you'll never find them all."

When your world is Gravelorded, bigger red versions of the enemies appear and make the game multiple times harder - unless you can hunt down and kill the Gravelord himself

Gravelording is famously unreliable, no-one's quite sure why, and you'll have nights where you get Gravelorded to hell and back. Until recently, no-one seemed to twig that the phantoms only spawn for players in NG+. Other players' ghosts will randomly appear and scare the life out of you, or you'll suddenly acquire soft humanity just standing around. Why? Nobody knows the rhyme or reason, and those that say they do are assuming too much.

Even the touches that can be explained have a brilliance to them that other games can't match. Dark Souls is a social game like no other. Not in the sense you're always with other people, but in the sense you're always aware of their struggle. Making your way through the Undead Burg or Blighttown to ring either of the Bells of Awakening, you'll sometimes hear them peal - meaning another player, at that exact moment, has rung them in their game. While in the depths, a sludgy sewer system filled with Basilisks that will curse you (reducing your health bar to half size, until you can get it lifted), there are the statues of other players who have been cursed, frozen in agonising contortions, reaching out for help that wasn't there. You'll go to fight a nightmare boss on your sixth attempt, and someone's put a new message down just before the door: 'I can't take this'. Or as the wags put it, 'Need head.' Nothing big. Just a reminder, a little nod from one unknown to another, that you're in it together.

What is best about this aspect of Dark Souls is that it gives rise to a community that isn't like any other I've known. Perhaps some MMOGs might match it, but not many. Everyone is trying to puzzle it out, and so you get wonderful things like EpicNameBro's YouTube lore videos, the r/darksouls subreddit, ever-new streams of duels or Calamity Ring challenges, constant PvP videos, unbelievable speedrunners, and even the naughty hackers. After becoming the Dark Soul, my next personal challenge is to become a Onebro - completing the game at Soul Level 1, a feat that would have seemed impossible in those early days of feeling my way through a hostile world but now seems like an inevitability. Special games inspire special communities, and Dark Souls is and has one of the most magnificent of them all.

Which brings us back to that personal quest, becoming the Dark Soul. This is the reason why, on PC, I have killed Sif three times. I had to. The act may have made me feel bad, but the simple fact is I needed her soul to craft three different weapons. Sure, she got tougher every time. But I'm a killing machine, and got a LOT tougher. There was no contest. And that's not all I did.

I've Gravelorded for hour after hour, sending huge NPC phantoms into the worlds of other players, and slaying those who dared to come face me. I've invaded the worlds of so many people I couldn't count, struck them down with Sunlight Blade and returned with their sweet humanity. I've switched sides, too, hunting the guilty as a Darkmoon Blade and returning their severed ears to Lord Gwyndolin in Anor Londo's secret tomb. I've helped other players defeat bosses, praising the sun as I arrive, and leaving clutching a Sunlight Medal. I've fed humanity to the Daughter of Chaos, worshipped the illusion of Gwynevere, mouthed faith in the Way of White, and turned myself half-dragon by murdering those who would do the same. I have killed and died so many times, saved my brothers and sinned against them, bowed honorably and ambushed mercilessly. I have sworn fealty to everything, and been loyal to nothing. I have become the Dark Soul, and to do that you must be everyman.

The moment of all moments, my proudest ever moment in gaming, watched over by Solaire as I offer his father's soul to the sun, and become the Dark Soul.

As the end swung into sight, my focus shifted. I knew what I wanted to do. The game by this point is like a contraption to me, its levers less hidden even if its workings are still opaque. One of Dark Souls' big questions is about Solaire, a knight of Astora and the only in-game member of the Warrior of Sunlight covenant - a group of players dedicated to helping others, known by their brightly shining Summon signs. It is strongly suggested that Solaire is the firstborn son of Lord Gwyn, the game's pre-eminent deity, cast down and erased from history. But the old god of war still watches closely over his warriors.

Whether you choose to believe this or not is a choice, but I do. And I made it so the last achievement left to acquire was 'Prayer of a Maiden', for acquiring all of the game's miracles. I held back, saving this for last so I could offer the soul of Lord Gwyn at the Altar of Sunlight while watched over by the man who was once his heir.

It's crazy when you think about it. Not only gunning for every achievement in a game in a bloody-minded and calculating manner, something I've never ever done before, but setting it up so that the moment it was awarded was a reaffirmation and some sort of conclusion to my own interpretation of the storyline. I offered Gwyn's soul while Solaire watched on, and was awarded the Sunlight Spear miracle. For a second nothing happened, I thought I'd messed it up. And then the little noise and pop-up came through.

I was finally the Dark Soul. It's worth 50G, though its real value is not measured in imaginary points. Dark Souls is a game that demands this kind of respect. It's a matter of personal satisfaction and, yes, of pride - so much so, that it wasn't enough for me to do it just for the sake of it. I had to, and did, do it my way.

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