Over several hours I had slogged my way through the Iron Keep, making mental note of the Alonne Knights, the Ironclad Soldiers, the Greatbow Knights—the fucking Greatbow Knights, I couldn’t forget them, not after I’d located what I thought was a peaceful refuge away from the action, only for a javelin-sized arrow to vault through the air and into my sternum, knocking me off the edge, where I plummeted helplessly until I hit the ground, which was also, for what felt like pointedly antagonistic reasons, covered with lava. Instant death, as it had been when the Ironclad Soldier pinned me against a wall and pancaked me with his mace; as it had been when a swarm of those Alonne Knights advanced upon me as I attempted to retreat to the start of the level, only to backstep once too far and fall into the lava, again; as it had been when I spotted the fuzzy glow of a potentially rare item resting on a column below me and inched ever so slightly toward it, so that I might roll off the bridge I was standing on and fall delicately onto this lower platform, allowing me to collect this potentially rare and possibly even crucial item (a new sword? a new piece of armor?) only to miss my mark, and plummet—you guessed it—into the lava.
These were merely a handful of ways I had died in the Iron Keep, a series of endings altogether surprising and humiliating and plainly unfair, wrenching a series of sounds from my body that I would charitably describe as “sexually repellant.” So when I reached the end of the level, I was ready to move on. A thin layer of fog separated my character, an adventurous knight whom I named Patch, from what I hoped would be the final boss. But was I actually ready for this? Really, actually ready? I had intermittently Googled things about Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, the game I was playing, in order to anticipate items I might want to collect or characters I might want to meet, but whatever lay ahead of me at the end of the Iron Keep was unknown. And if I died again, as I had so many times, I’d have to slog back through those Alonne Knights and Ironclad Soldiers and Greatbow Knights—something I dearly wanted to avoid, lest I produce more of those sexually repellent exhortations.
I was not alone in my nervousness. Google “the hardest game of all time,” and Dark Souls is the first result that pops up. Like many games, Dark Souls forces you to explore a dangerous and unfriendly series of interconnected environments, fighting difficult enemies with the goal of fighting an even more difficult boss at the end of each level. Defeating these enemies and bosses earns “experience points” (here they’re called “souls”), which you spend to increase statistics like health and stamina. Dark Souls puts a particularly painful spin on this format: If you die, you’re warped back to your checkpoint, and lose all of the unspent souls you’ve collected. You must then retrace your steps to where you died in order to get them back, but you have to clear out the enemies again, and because they’re so good at killing you, and because the environment itself is also hostile (poison, arrows, more lava, random pitfalls to nowhere), and because the game is always semi-arbitrarily declaring “Hey, fuck you,” it’s possible to get stuck in a death loop where all you can do is sort of throw your hands up and feel a transient despair at your own failure. Also, you can’t pause the game. It’s a lot of fun.
(Some boring facts for context, sorry: The Dark Souls series was created by Japanese developer FromSoftware. It launched in 2009 with the game Demon’s Souls, a sort of thematic predecessor built around the ultra-intense formula I’ve described above that the first Dark Souls, released in 2011, would perfect. That game was followed by Dark Souls II in 2014, and Dark Souls III in 2016. Beyond that, FromSoftware also released 2015’s Bloodborne and 2019’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, games that take place outside the shared Dark Souls universe, and provide their own mechanical twists on that ultra-intense formula. A new game, Elden Ring, cocreated by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, is forthcoming. I have beaten three of these games, multiple times; I’m currently playing the Demon’s Souls remake for the PlayStation 5, and yelling a lot; I have beaten Dark Souls II once; Sekiro still scares me, for now.)
Over the years I had dabbled in the series, but at the spiritual nadir of the pandemic, when the slowly freezing weather had sapped all my desire for outdoor social engagement, I picked up Dark Souls II because it was $4.99 in the PlayStation Store (never underestimate the siren call of a discount). Though this installment is unanimously considered “the not-as-good one” for reasons you can also Google, my passing interest quickly morphed into full-blown obsession. I don’t know what happened. One moment I said, “Hmmm, this seems too hard, I’m an adult, this isn’t worth it,” and the next I was deep in the shit, playing whenever I had a justifiably free moment even as I kept dying over and over again, at one point actually falling off my couch in response to my latest failure and pressing my forehead to the ground, where I uttered the painful groan of a grizzly bear pumped full of buckshot. The bosses would wipe the floor with me, so I’d look up how to beat them on YouTube, and eventually I was watching videos like “Ranking the Dark Souls 2 Bosses From Easiest to Hardest - Part 1 [#20-41]” (16 minutes and 46 seconds long), and then I’d wonder what the entire deal with those bosses was so I moved on to videos like “Dark Souls 2’s Story: Explained!” (21 minutes and 38 seconds minutes long), all while desperately texting and messaging my friends to see which ones had played it. I started lurking on Reddit. I started posting to Reddit.
I was physically alone for all of this, but while they’re intended as single-player experiences, the Dark Souls games incorporate an online network that allows players to leave rudimentary messages for each other—“item ahead,” “be wary of enemy,” stuff like that—and, after fulfilling a set of in-game requirements, summon other human players into their own world, in order to help out. As I worked my way through the series over a six-month period, there was never any shortage of helpful messages and other players to summon. Why do so many people still engage with a notoriously challenging franchise that last released a game when Barack Obama was president?
For me, it was partly—and perversely—the difficulty. There was no shortage of astonishingly cruel and upsetting ways to die in Dark Souls, all of which elicited a sliding scale of emotional reactions. Dash across a hallway, only for a gigantic skeleton ball to roll out of nowhere and crush you to death? (The winding Catacombs of Carthus of Dark Souls III.) Maybe a six out of 10—annoying as hell, but something to be avoided on your next run. Spend 15 minutes whittling down a boss’s health, only to bite it when he’s a couple of hits away? (My third time facing the infamous Ornstein and Smough of the first Dark Souls.) That’s a 10 out of 10, likely to produce some of those sexually repellent noises I mentioned. Block an enemy’s attack, only for the impact to push you back juuuuust far enough to fall off the edge of a cliff, to your doom? (Far too many times to count, in every game.) LOL/10—the type of bullshit you could only laugh about.
Yet there was only one solution to these issues: I had to “get good,” stylized as “git gud” within the message boards and video channels and general online discourse dedicated to Dark Souls. “‘Get good’ isn’t meant to be demoralizing, or unhelpful advice,” a YouTuber named theDeModcracy told me. “It’s more of an encouragement. They want you to push harder.” By “they” he means the broad and robust Dark Souls community, like the 900,000 or so combined users subscribed to the franchise’s quite active subreddits. TheDeModcracy, who lives in Washington, D.C., had logged a few thousand subscribers during his first year as a creator. But it wasn’t until he actively courted the game’s Reddit fandom that his channel really took off—he now boasts nearly 341,000 subscribers, good enough to make sure he’ll never go back to his former career as an accountant.
Though he focuses on other games these days, for a long time theDeModcracy’s bread and butter was videos in which he ranked the games’ bosses—“Ranking the Dark Souls 2 Bosses From Easiest to Hardest - Part 1 [#20-41],” mentioned above, was one of his. When I watched this video, and others in his series, invariably my interest would peak as he got closer to the harder challenges. Something like curiosity: “Which of the bosses that gave me a fit also gave everyone else a fit?” Accompanied, next, by pride: “Wow, that wasn’t as hard as everyone thought it was.” Because accountability was an appeal of these games, too. Whenever I died, I’d be anywhere from furious to irritated to annoyed to totally upset with the inimitable cruelty at the heart of the human experience, but I always wanted to keep playing. The game was difficult, yes, but calibrated in such a way that I could imagine beating it, if only I could … git gud.
Almost always I understood why I had failed, why I’d watch “YOU DIED” scrawl across my screen yet again. During one level of Dark Souls II, the pirate-themed No-Man’s Wharf, I must have eaten it over three dozen times before I reached the boss. Yet I never stopped. And when I finally did overcome an especially infuriating boss, after however many hours and however many tries, the endorphin rush—actual endorphins, not exaggerating, resulting in tingly arms and a brief head rush—was unmatched by that of any other game I’d been playing, or had ever played, in fact. (I am not too much of an adult to admit that, on occasion, an involuntary and guttural and quite reasonably volumed, all things considered, “fuck yoooooooooooooooooooooooooooou” would escape my lips.)
TheDeModcracy affirmed this sense of responsibility to keep going, and the thrill of success. “Whenever something went wrong, it was almost always on my end,” he said of his first experiences with the game. “The game had a very deliberate way of presenting lessons you would learn early on—like don’t just run into a room without looking around the corner first, make sure you’re paying attention to what enemies are in a room. You just gotta keep pushing against the challenge and see how much you can improve, and that became really, really addicting.”
He was right about that addictive quality, the thing I’d sought most in my video games ever since I was a teenager. I had no interest in passive gaming, in playing the kind of games you put on because you’re bored and just want to distract yourself for a few hours—I only wanted the pure shit, the games I couldn’t stop thinking about until I’d reached the end. I knew when something had really hit because I’d visualize the maps and enemy patterns and ongoing challenges as I was falling asleep, invent excuses for taking breaks so I could squeeze in another 20 to 30 minutes—possibly unhealthy, but something I was desperate for as the pandemic stretched on. Gaming was the perfect distraction, whenever I craved distraction from what continued to be a very bad stretch of American life.
I don’t want to awkwardly segue into another writerly invocation of just how much the pandemic changed things for me, especially since I am talking about a video game. But it was nice to think about other things, when possible. In particular, the overarching mythology of the series felt relevant: Dark Souls takes place in a fictional fantasy universe where all life is sparked by a mythical flame that burns for eons, allowing for the creations of gods and monsters and men and entire civilizations, before sputtering out. Your job, as the mythologically chosen one of this world (who is also incapable of dying), is to ensure that flame doesn’t go out, so that another cycle of life might continue, allowing for more gods and monsters and men and civilizations to flourish. (This is called “linking the flame,” in the game’s parlance.)
These cycles of death and rebirth, taking place over thousands of years, implying the infinite timeline on which all of our actions unfold, render our lives existentially meaningless until they’re suddenly meaningful—something to think about. Every Dark Souls game unfolds in a post-ruin kingdom—a place where there was once life but now there’s just decay, as the world slows to an end. Evidence abounds that things used to be good, but now are bad. And yet … maybe you can change that? And maybe you can change the constitution of the fantasy worlds themselves, bearing ominous Teutonic names like Lordran and Drangleic, populated with zombie knights, skeleton dogs, ax-bearing were-men, cannibal gods, eldritch nightmares, and more. One boss is a giant wolf with a sword in his mouth. When you see him, your first thought is “Holy shit, that is a giant wolf with a sword in his mouth.” Then you get to kill it.
Not inherently unique stuff, given what generally goes into fantasy, but Dark Souls submerges nearly all of this lore and mythos under the surface, a narrative decision at flagrant odds with contemporaries like The Elder Scrolls or Dragon Age in which the player practically drowns under the weight of provided textual context. Dark Souls has no lengthy cinematics, no encyclopedia of terminology to keep abreast of. Here, the story is pushed firmly into the background, there to be more or less ignored until, possibly, your curiosity is piqued—maybe it’s a name you keep seeing, or a boss design that catches your eye—and you start noticing how the pieces ever so subtly fit together … which brings you, inevitably, to the internet.
The Ashen Hollow is another video creator who carved out a strong audience within the Dark Souls community, by stitching together all of the available information to dredge something resembling a story. Take Irina and Eygon, a pair of tertiary characters you might meet in Dark Souls III. Irina is a penitent monk, of some strain. Eygon is an intense knight tasked with defending her life. It’s a little sweet, but also a little ominous for reasons that jump out from the first encounter. It’s also entirely possible to glimpse just a fraction of their story line, even if you play it through and pay attention. You might just miss them altogether, with no penalty—the game also works like that. But using item descriptions and visual hints and ambient context, creators like the Ashen Hollow can gesture at the full and heartbreaking truth of these characters, and how they’ve ended up in these games—a demand that’s allowed him to rack up over 111,000 subscribers. (The king of this genre is probably the creator VaatiVidya, who counts 1.73 million subscribers—mostly just by talking about what’s going on in these games. Seriously, there’s a demand.)
The Ashen Hollow, who lives in Tennessee, told me his channel started out as a by-product of shooting the shit with his friends, who collectively became obsessed with the series around 2011. But he was immediately able to locate the underlying themes pulling him, and so many others, into this world. “It’s the tragedy of it all,” he said, pointing to his own struggles with mental health. “I didn’t relate to it in the sense that I know what it’s like to be undead, and I’m never linking the flame, but it resonated with me—the idea of seeing that light at the end of all these depression tunnels that I’d go through.”
And through the nontraditional online system—the messages and summonable characters I mentioned above—you never quite feel like you’re alone, as you undergo this perilous quest to link the flame. Back in the Iron Keep, right before the fog door of the boss, I spotted the glowing scribble of unknown language that prompts you to summon another player into your world. Traditional online gaming has never appealed to me—I never took to the necessary mechanic of strapping on a headset so you can yell at friends and strangers, and perhaps be cussed out by a racist Oklahoman tween just because you beat him.
But Dark Souls does it differently. When I requested that a real human player join me in the Iron Keep, we had no linguistic way of communicating—no headset coordination, no keyboard text field. Instead we could only gesture at each other: pointing, waving, lying down, and several other preprogrammed physical movements meant to help us stay on track. Here is what I knew about this other player: He had a big sword. That was it. His online handle has been lost to memory; so has the way he looked. But the sword sticks with me, as does the way we waved at each other, before he proceeded to follow me through the fog wall and into the unknown.
Beyond the fog was a gigantic, yawning lake of even more lava, out of which a buff and winged demon emerged—the Old Iron King, according to the health bar that stretched across the bottom of my screen. The Old Iron King began marching toward me and my new friend, who stood on a narrow strip of stone, as I swiveled the camera to adjust to my surroundings. When the boss got closer, I noticed a gap between where I stood and where the other player stood—between us, of course, was lava, into which I might fall if I didn’t keep an eye on my footing.
I did not want to die. But I also had no idea how to avoid dying, at the hands of this fearsome demon. I got as close as I could, and swung my (not as big) sword at his body; a direct hit, but the demon immediately raised his hands and slammed them down into the ground, knocking me back. I backpedaled a bit, and he spewed a stream of fire across my field of vision, forcing me to roll to the side until it was over. I ran all the way over to the other side of the platform, and he used his arms to sweep the ground, nearly knocking me into the lava.
Then I noticed something. My new friend, the knight, wasn’t running back and forth like some dumbass, but instead picking his spots, waiting for the Old Demon King to position himself in a particular place before attacking. While I was trying to figure out just what was happening, he’d managed to shave off a healthy chunk of that health bar. Though we had no means of communicating, I realized that all I needed to do was follow him. So when he moved to the left, I moved to the left. When he stood back from the flames, I stood back from the flames; when he moved in to attack, I moved in to attack. He had been here before, I now understood, and knew exactly how to beat this boss—had none of my first-time nerves or confusion about what to do. Now we were like synchronized swimmers, coordinating in silence as the health bar dropped lower and lower—and when the last blow was struck, and the Old Demon King slumped back into the fiery chasm from whence it came, I allowed myself to feel triumph at the victory.
It wasn’t just triumph at the possibility of moving on. It was gratitude. For no other reason than the kindness of his heart, this anonymous player had decided to help me out—and though we could not talk, we had worked together well enough to win on the first try. After we won, he waved at me again, before disappearing from my world. We’d never interact again. It was December, and it was very cold outside, and by this point I—like most people around the country—had been more or less stuck inside for a very long time. I had managed to maintain some semblance of my old routines, but shed many of them in the adjustment to pandemic life. And here was a stranger, who I didn’t know at all, facilitating what I hoped would be an eventual victory over the entire game.
I was moved, I really was. Throughout Dark Souls, the concept of “going hollow” is constantly referenced—it’s what happens when undead characters like you degenerate entirely into mindless husks. The cycle of life and death and rebirth ends; they are just dead, incapable of moving on. In a meta sense, giving up at Dark Souls because it’s too hard is the moment you, the human, go hollow. Like your in-game avatar, the cycle ends, and you move on to another game (or perhaps, infuriated at the entire concept of gaming, you take up crocheting).
But here was this community of players, many of whom would never exchange meaningful words with each other, or any form of communication beyond the intuitive physical cues allowing them to play together. (There is even a subreddit solely dedicated to requesting help, where the response time is usually just a matter of minutes.) “I think people remember their experiences and are able to be excited for people who are able to have the same experiences,” theDeModcracy told me, about why he thinks the broader community is, relatively speaking, eager to help each other out. “I don’t know that all games quite have that—they might have it in different ways, but I think with Dark Souls, it specifically does relate to overcoming those hurdles.” Everything in this game is engineered to make you want to quit, but with a little help, you can keep going. You’ll never go hollow, because the world won’t let you.
This was resonant for me as well. It was communal catharsis—a shared experience of these blood-curdling games, set within this dark and depressing universe, whose mastery was nonetheless possible through the help of others. Other games were less upsetting, but beating these felt like a real psychic accomplishment, a navigation of a journey meant to discourage you at every step. I only hoped I could repay the favor for someone else who was struggling, when the time came, so they wouldn’t be overwhelmed by their own frustration. The cycle of rebirth would continue, for someone else not quite ready to give up.
Jeremy Gordon is a writer from Chicago who contributes to The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, and The Nation.