I’ve never really been one to play multiplayer games. I enjoy some split-screen co-op with friends sitting in the same room, to be sure, but when it comes to playing online, it’s something I often find myself avoiding. I don’t like the commitment, the need to organise an actual time to play with someone, the subsequent pressure I feel to continue playing for an extended period of time. Or, if I am playing with strangers, I don’t enjoy the feeling that I am constantly letting the rest of the team down by not being good enough. For the most part, I’ll stick to my single player games—the games that don’t depend on anyone else; the games where nobody else is depending on me.
I’ll even play games alone that were built specifically for multiplayer. I have played Borderlands 2 for over fifty hours now and not once considered actually joining up with other people. “Friends are currently playing Borderlands 2,” my Xbox will politely inform me. I ignore it. I’ve fought through waves of enemies in Gears of War 2’s Horde Mode by myself, dying when a single other player could get me back on my feet. I’ve explored the world of DayZ in quiet solitude, cowering in the bushes whenever I see another person.
Most recently, as I started to make my way through the world of Dark Souls, I stepped past the marks that would summon a fellow human player into my world to help me through the intimidating challenges. It’s just too much pressure to perform. I don’t want them to see how terrible my gear is, how terrible I am.
But Dark Souls is different from all those other games that give me the option to play either alone or with others. Dark Souls insists that I play with others, and short of disconnecting my Playstation 3 from the internet, I have no choice. The worlds of different players bleed into one another. Spectres of other players sitting besides the same bonfire or fighting the same knight in a different world flicker in and out of reality. Bloodstains can be touched to give me a window into the fate of a poor soul in another world. Notes scribbled on the floor and walls of other worlds warn me about traps and hidden enemies. The few times I’m not hollow, the few times I use my precious supply of humanity to become human again, I see the summon signs of people offering help and, more than once, I am invaded by an evil-minded player wishing me grief.
Much like DayZ or Journey my solitude in Dark Souls simultaneously feels more and less lonely because of the perpetual bleeding of other players (sometimes literally) into my world. But more importantly than the fact that I have no choice to engage with these players, Dark Souls actively encourages me to seek out the help and support of others by refusing to help me at all itself. In my last column, I discussed how Dark Souls is designed to appear apathetic towards the player, to make the player feel as though it doesn’t care about them. It is this designed apathy that leads players to band together. Whereas players normally compete against each other in a game, in Dark Souls players come together compete against the game.
Dark Souls is one of the few games where it feels not only acceptable but necessary to ask for help. Asking friends on Twitter who have already played the game to give me directions, or looking at a walkthrough on the internet just feels like an extension of the support networks afforded by the game itself. As game designer Matthew Burns said to me on Twitter, it feels as though Dark Souls was made specifically for the age of Twitter, YouTube, and GameFAQs.
It’s simply the counterbalance of Dark Souls elegant and ingenious design: the game paints itself as passive-aggressive, stand off-ish, cold, apathetic, but then it gives the players all the tools they need to communicate to each other. Well, not ‘all’ the tools. It importantly restricts any tool that might allow two friends to seek each other out and lend each other a hand. Instead, much like Journey, it insists that all players who are willing to help someone, are willing to help anyone. Everyone is a stranger in Dark Souls. You can’t set up parties on Xbox Live or use voice communication. You can only play with whoever happens to be around and willing to play together. For the signs and the spectres, they are all strangers—anonymous except for the jargon of characters that is their Playstation ID or Gamertag.
The overall sensation is not one where you want to help a friend through a game that is causing everyone else to suffer. The sensation is one of every person who plays Dark Souls mustering together to overcome this game that doesn’t care for any of them (with the exception of those invaders that choose to murder other players, but they’ll get theirs).
It is possible to get this sensation of an overwhelmingly supportive community helping each other without ever actual playing multiplayer with someone. Indeed, I got it from the inundation of people offering me help on Twitter every time I simply mentioned what part of the game I was up to—and I got it from the desire that swelled inside of me to help others. Sometimes, after an unmarked trap or a hidden enemy would take half my health, I would actually take the time to leave a mark to warn later players. This was never going to give me any kind of reward. I don’t get extra souls because someone else liked my warning. Yet, I felt an obligation to my fellow players to warn them about this trap.
But for many hours, I still avoided actual multiplayer. There are several specific fights where the game tries to insist that I play with other people. Specifically, the few boss fights that have you attacked by two bosses at one time. These fights can be practically impossible without help. Learning when to parry, block, or attack against one opponent is doable—learning to deal with two incredibly aggressive enemies at once is near impossible. When I first reached the battle against the two gargoyles atop the Undead Parish, I procrastinated for hours, thinking maybe I could grind myself more powerful so I wouldn’t need any help. Eventually, I just summoned an NPC knight to help me. It worked, but the victory felt just the slightest bit empty.
It wasn’t until much later in the game, trapped inside the Painted World of Ariamis, that I finally gave in and summoned an actual human to help me. I was trapped in this world, and I couldn’t leave it without traversing it. A locked door was blocking my progress, requiring me to go underground and find a lever, but that lever was surrounded by spinning-bone-wheels-of-death that I just couldn’t defeat by myself.
So I used some of my humanity to become human, found a summon mark near the world’s bonfire, and clicked on it. After a couple of minutes a big, burly man appeared carrying what looked like a giant harpoon. He bowed at me. I chose the gesture ‘wave’ and cringed as my character didn’t wave “Hello!” but a very clear “Over here!”. Already, I was making a fool of myself. Already I regretted this.
But my companion seemed nonplussed. He followed me into the compound and seemed to know exactly where I wanted to go. Of course he knew. He was a vastly more powerful character than me; he had probably done this countless times; of course he knew where I needed help. In the sewers, he took the lead and I stood behind him. Before hitting the invisible wall that would take us into the room full of the wheeled enemies, we raised our shields in unison, and I couldn’t help but smile a little bit at that. On different sides of the world, two complete strangers just held down L2 simultaneously on their controllers, completely unaware of who their companion was.
I’m not sure I actually killed a single enemy in that room. My companion’s magic missiles snaked and exploded through the darkness and obliterated everything. I pulled the lever, bowed at him, and we continued on. He didn’t rush ahead. He hung back and let me go first. It was a gracious, polite act. He could have killed everything in a single hit, but this was my world; this was my first time I was going to these places. He was just a guide and a mentor; he was just there if I needed him.
And that is the beauty, the true beauty, of Dark Souls’s multiplayer. With summoning, you don’t choose to just step into someone else’s world, and neither do you choose for someone to simply be dragged into your world. First and foremost, someone has to decide that they want to help somebody—anybody. A player has to put down the summon mark that another player in need of help will see.
To play Dark Souls multiplayer is to think “Someone I don’t know might need my help, so I better help them.” What this means is that all over the world—both our world and Dark Souls’s world—there are these players with incredibly powerful characters just standing around and waiting to help people. Imagine someone walking through a neighbourhood, knocking on doors and asking people if they need any help with their housework. That is the kind of person who plays Dark Souls multiplayer. Forget Journey. This is the most beautiful thing I think a game has ever shown me about humanity.
The whole reason I entered the Painted Realm in the first place was to put off facing the game’s second boss battle again a powerful duo that insists on multiplayer: Execution Smough and Dragon Slayer Ornstein. But once I left the Painted Realm—freed by my brief encounter with a new friend and stranger—my anxiety about multiplayer had vanished. I was no longer scared of embarrassing myself to these players. They had nothing to lose, and I knew now that they were too kind-hearted to judge me. They existed to help me because it was assumed I, the summoner, would be weaker than them, the summonee. They were offering their help precisely because I needed their help.
So I summoned a woman with a sword larger than my character and a nimbleness swifter than my arrows. This time I bowed in return to her bow, not making a fool of myself. As we jogged from the Anor Londo bonfire towards the chamber of the boss duo, she would dash behind enemies that would take me five minutes to carefully kill, and stab them in the back. She was terrifyingly efficient.
When the boss battle began, she went right and I went left. Ornstein—the tall and nimble one—went for me as Smough—the giant one with the hammer—went for my companion. Ornstein was too fast, too aggressive for me to really hurt him, so I focused on keeping him busy, dodging and blocking and staying alive. Meanwhile, my friend quickly obliterated Smough. As a quick cut scene showed Smough die and Ornstein absorb their comrade’s powers, I felt like I had been useful. My companion had done all the work, perhaps, but I had played a crucial role keeping Ornstein busy. I didn’t feel like my companion was babysitting me; I felt like I was part of a team with her. When it came to fighting the newly super-charged (and super angry) Ornstein, we swapped roles. She distracted him as I closed in with my fire sword and slashed and slashed and slashed and defeated Ornstein myself.
As one of the hardest bosses in the game exploded into twinkling nothings, my friend disappeared. Companions always disappear at the end of a boss fight. I didn’t have a chance to say thank you, but I don’t think it needed to be said. She knew I was thankful. Or maybe she didn’t need to know. Just as I don’t leave scratched messages about traps for a reward, these vastly more powerful players don’t allow themselves to be summoned for a reward, but simply to help a fellow player battling against this passive-aggressive game that gives no quarter.
One day in the future I will defeat Dark Souls. A month ago I would not have made that statement. A month ago I would have been happy to accept that at some point the game would defeat me and that would be that. But now I fully appreciate the support network of players out there willing to help me. The very support network that Dark Souls, in a subtle and backhand way, fosters through its designed apathy. One day I will defeat Dark Souls with the help of other players. Then I will return to these areas—the Painted Realm of Ariamis, Anor Londo—and I will put down a summon mark. I will sit there with my Playstation 3 turned on, maybe reading a book, and I will wait, just in case someone else needs my help in this perpetual battle against Dark Souls.
About the Author:
Brendan Keogh a Media and Communications PhD student at RMIT University. He is a freelance videogame critic and journalist for the likes of Edge, Hyper, Unwinnable, Gamasutra, Pixel Hunt, Ars Technica, and PC Powerplay.