There comes a moment in every Dark Souls 3 play-session when I totally lose control.
For a while I’m able to maintain some measure of knightly composure: shield up, chin tucked in, I confront each dire challenge with steel and conviction, each foe slain with efficiency and panache, each area combed for secret passageways, each glowing treasure scooped up, every item description read. Steady progress is made, from bonfire to bonfire.
Then the game systematically corrodes my resolve and composure.
I start falling for traps. New enemies prove wily and unpredictable. I lose too many hit points with each encounter. Invaders start popping out of nowhere, malicious red devils with evil in their hearts. And the worst: I get lost, stuck in some dank labyrinth, panting, sweating, low on flasks of healing “estus” but loaded down with precious souls, unsure of the way forward yet certain it is riddled with lethal denizens. I break down. I panic. I start to run.
Heedless of the loss of dignity and self-respect, I sprint through packs of monsters like a madman, rolling through their swipes whenever I can, praying that I take the right turn through the darkness to find succor at the end. More often than not, I die. I know, consciously, that panic does not suit the adventuring knight. But horror takes over. The fear of the dark becomes real.
It would be easy to become paralyzed by it. In my ignorance of what’s to come, the imagination takes over, and with it, emotion. Whatever lurks within my subconscious is ultimately far worse than the horrific contents of the game, because fear is unlimited. In essence, I bump up against a wall of ignorance. I know what I’ve made it through, and what it cost me, but I have no idea what lies beyond. If I didn’t dash like a craven maniac, I would lose the will to carry on.
On the other side of the experiential spectrum, I lose forward momentum when confronted with a vista of unimaginable beauty, but for completely different reasons.
It’s nice to take a breather, amongst all that adrenaline and blood, and soak up the sun’s rays while gazing on a gorgeous landscape. Maybe I chill by a bonfire and scope out the awe-inspiring architecture strewn throughout Lothric, or spend some time with binoculars on a cliff, trying to stitch together all the landmarks in the distance with the different stages of the journey thus far.
Breathtaking level design is one of the prominent features of Dark Souls 3, the twisting, convoluted, intestinal dungeons and treacherous murky forests you fight through as much a part of the danger as the monsters themselves. By the same token, the landscape and setting provide a major component of the game’s atmosphere, each character, boss and item woven into the larger tapestry of this crumbling, decadent world. In a sense, the setting is a character, one whose relationship with the player shifts over time. Through these moments of profoundly gorgeous scenery, Dark Souls 3 asks the player to pay attention to the world around them and begin to notice the tiny, enigmatic details that suffuse the game.
And yet, these moments of rest and beauty are few and far between. Some are hidden in little corners of a level so that you have to go hunting for them. Others sneak up on you, just as much a surprise as the demon that comes swinging around the corner. You’re still left with a gaping wound in your chest, but it’s an ache of aesthetic delight rather than blunt trauma.
Then, when I’m done feasting my senses, I don my armor, shake out my sword-arm, and plunge back into the darkness.
It seems like these two facets of experience, those of beauty and of horror, ought to be mutually exclusive. When someone runs screaming through a pitch-black tunnel, dodging claws and axes and fireballs, they can’t stop to smell the roses. But in Dark Souls 3 these two emotional experiences fuse into an alchemy of utter engagement, each reinforcing the other.
Both draw the player deeper and deeper into the game because they’re highly emotional modes that hinge on a meticulous attention to detail. Adrenaline-fuelled combat and aesthetically pleasing “time-outs” establish a rhythm of action and rest, and because both are surprises, the player becomes constantly primed for either experience in a kind of tingling, anticipatory dread-wonder that is utterly unique. As you stalk the dark halls, you’re equally ready to be blown away by a visual banquet or annihilated at the end of a rusty pike.
Both the horror and the beauty prompt the player to pay attention to their surroundings as though they were real, to become drawn into the world of the game. And both help you understand the whole story, since Dark Souls 3’s lore is hidden in fragments scattered throughout the world. By prompting a higher state of awareness, concentration, or attention, the beauty and horror help you notice connections between item descriptions and characters, bosses and their lairs, and even the story of each level. None of this is handed over on a silver platter—you have to piece it together, and this full-bodied engagement helps guide the player to contemplate the meaning of the game’s many deliberate aesthetic decisions.
Dark Souls 3’s emotional roller coaster hinges on the game’s astonishing art direction. I don’t mean the graphics per se, because it isn’t the quality of rendering that sparks the cocktail of fear, awe, and imagination, but rather the cohesive artistic unity riven through the many elements of the game’s design. Every piece of armor, every weapon, every locale, every character, and every monster is dripping with personality. And they all fit together to reinforce a distinct image of this tragic, withering world of cinders and ash.
Nothing sticks out like a sore thumb. No element undermines the aesthetic unity of this imaginary world, which makes for a rich suspension of disbelief. And that’s what it’s all about. The strength of each magnificent vista or bowel-chilling note of fear depends upon the player believing that the world portrayed on the screen is, in some way, real. Then it matters, emotionally, for as long as the game is booted up. And this spell lasts as long as you can endure the ever-mounting tension.
Of course, one can only withstand such heights of emotional intensity for so long. When you hit that limit, overwhelmed by the pressure bearing down on your shoulders, you have the option of sprinting headlong into danger, finding a relaxing perch and gazing at the sunset, invading other people and dumping your angst upon them, or even taking a break from the game. Maybe do some deep breathing. Whatever it takes to settle, until you’re ready to face the darkness again.
Cian Cruise is a writer living in Toronto. His work has been published in McSweeney’s, Kill Screen, and Hazlitt. His website is ciancruise.com.
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