Dark souls is frequently described as masochistically difficult. I don’t think this is very apt: Masochism implies a state of being acted upon, of being made to suffer by an outside force. Dark Souls never makes you do anything, only invites you to do it to yourself. Dark Souls is a raw onion, a bottle of sriracha placed suggestively next to the sandwich fixings on the table. Nothing is required of you, but the challenge is implied.
The distinction becomes clear when you compare it with other games described as masochistically difficult, such as I Wanna Be The Guy. IWBTG acts upon the player, manipulates their expectations only to betray them. It pulls the carpet out from under the player, instead of laying out a carpet of spikes and inviting the player to walk upon it. Dark Souls isn’t hard just to fuck with you – well, usually. It’s hard because that difficulty is the only way to convey the oppression and disease that is endemic to the story it is trying to tell.
Dark Souls is a game that shows more than it tells, but it’s also a game that listens more than it speaks. Playing most games is like a conversation with someone who you can tell is listening to you just long enough to construct and express the thoughts that are in their head. They tell the player who they are, how they act, why they’re there, and why that’s awesome. Dark Souls is content to let the player be who they are and act as they will. It doesn’t care why they’re there, and it doesn’t think that it’s particularly awesome that they are. It just presents itself, and waits, and lets the player occupy that space in whatever way suits them.
The silence and withholding stoicism of Dark Souls isn’t just about minimalism or about telling a story through gameplay, it’s about giving the player room to make that world their own.
Games lost something for me when the characters started talking — at first in little yips and exclamations, then in progressively longer-winded cutscenes. The more they talked, the less room there was for me. When a character speaks through text lines, we’re still part of the process, we’re the reader, the interpreter, parsing the sequential art and the dialogue into a coherent narrative. As technology has progressed, as we’ve been able to add more life and detail to our worlds, we’ve reduced the ability for our players to invest them with a life of their own.
I think part of the reason why people think of Dark Souls as a vaguely retro, old-school game, isn’t because of its punishing difficulty, or its structure, but because it’s willing to shut the fuck up for a moment in the way that those games were pragmatically required to by the limits of technology.
The only part of Dark Souls that never shuts up is the people who love it.
Fuckin’ Dark Souls, man.