The alarm buzzes at 5:45am and my eyes crack open to greet the murk. This is the earliest I’ve climbed out of bed in years. I stumble through the apartment using my cellphone like a torch, grab a controller and a bit of food, then sit down as a wave of adrenaline courses through my frame. Why am I booting up my PlayStation 4, nibbling on raisin bread, and grinning like an idiot before the sun comes up? Easy: I want to play Dark Souls III. The game doesn’t come out until next spring, but I’m lucky enough to be participating in an online multiplayer test from the comfort of my own home. The catch? The test only runs for a few hours a day, over a single weekend, and it’s on Japanese time.
Plus I’m not allowed to write about it. I had to agree to not share any details that aren’t already public knowledge. This means no secrets, no intricate explanations of in-game mechanics, and no tasty tidbits on the story or setting. However, I am free to describe my impressions from playing Dark Souls III at the crack of dawn, and the corresponding cascade of thoughts and rollercoaster of emotions that accompany the hype of this critically acclaimed medieval fantasy franchise.
When the game boots up I linger on the title screen. I want to savour this moment of raw anticipation before diving headlong into the violent ballet. Once the weekend’s over, I’ll be bereft of this excitement until the game comes out. In a way, my ignorance is treasure, because I’ll never have this first impression again.
The music builds and crashes. I hit “New Game.”
For an hour and a half my mind shuts off. I’m supposed to be taking notes, plotting a course through this ocean of excitement, but I’m too enthralled in the hack and slash poetry to bother. Every meaty swing, every bone-crunching connection of steel and desiccated flesh, every howl and roar that echoes across the sunburnt battlements draws me deeper into Dark Souls III’s spell.
There’s this miraculous tapestry of feelings that occur when exploring a Dark Souls game. At first, you’re utterly lost. There’s no map, so the world is a terrifying null. Around any corner might be instant death in the form of a dozen halberd-toting zombies, dragonfire, or a diabolical trap. You creep your way forward, combating dread as much as the denizens of night. Sometimes, the fear oppresses so hard you cower behind your shield, barely able to muster the bravery to edge through a doorway.
Along the way you slug it out with a host of deformed critters that can end you at the drop of a hat. When every enemy is potentially lethal, every move becomes essential, the entire fight a dance where each button press has meaning. A single mistake, a single botched dodge or parry, and you’re swarmed, pulverized dog-meat.
The ambience is so thick you could cut it with a knife.
Eventually you begin to map it out. It happens on both a micro and macro level. With each enemy, you learn their “tells,” the hints their body language gives whenever they wind up for an attack. If you pay attention then you can counteract them. In the same way, you learn the areas. Through trial and error you determine enemy placement, the quickest way through obstacles, and the choke points where you’ve gotta drop the hammer like a medieval boss.
That burgeoning familiarity establishes a rapport with the game. A measured question of how far you can hack away at the darkness before running out of resources. In Souls games safe havens and healing potions are few and far between, so you’ve gotta think damn hard about how deep you’ll plumb the depths before returning to a bonfire to replenish your vital flask.
Then, when you least expect it, some time when you’re staggering forward, wounded, rasping for breath, unsure if you should carry on but unwilling to retreat, you push ahead anyway—and find a shortcut that loops back to familiar territory. An elevator, a secret door, or a hidden ladder that leads right back to where you started. It’s a blessing, plain and simple, a wonder of level design, and it sends a shiver down my spine and a thunderclap through my mind.
I feel my brain growing in those moments when all the corridors and chambers, rooftops and bridges, dungeons, ramparts, and vaults come together like crochet, unified in a baroque Möbius strip of adventure.
You’re carving away your own ignorance—overcoming your own limitations. It’s ineffable. There’s really nothing like it.
As I slowly crawl through the twisting passages and death-packed alcoves, it hits me. This test, this sneak peek with an ironclad blockade on all information, is rather unique. So many things in life are enhanced by anticipation—hunger is the best spice—but the oversaturated media frenzy of contemporary video game marketing transforms an organic appetite into an artificial construct of distended corporate vision. Often you know everything about a game before you even boot it up, and your expectations are rarely close to the reality as a result.
Dark Souls III is different. The series’ developer, From Software, keeps their cards close to their chest. With a dearth of information, we’re forced to imagine. I think that’s why these games are so susceptible to hype.
Since so little concrete information is released officially, players uncover and share the game’s details and lore for months after release. For many, this mystery is tantalizing. Even after you’ve played one Souls game to familiarity, when the news comes that another is on the horizon, forget about it. You try to keep calm for a spell, but when you catch wind of its new features, or see a trailer, or your friends get excited—then the dream machine kicks into high gear.
The Dark Souls III test weekend was a microcosm of that cycle. I got to experience bursts of raw, untrammelled joy and long, seemingly endless deserts of time waiting for another chance to grope and grasp at those memories of light.
When each session ends, I’m right back where I started, hungry for more. The difference is that now I’ve had a taste. Now I’ve glimpsed a splinter of brilliance like a shaft of sunlight slicing through the darkness.
Then it’s over. Just like that. After all is said and done, you feel empty inside. You feel hollow.
Spring can’t come quickly enough.
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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