How Dark Souls Teaches Us to Accept Failure

The Age of Fire is ending, and an undead plague is gripping the land. The undead, feared by the populace, are herded into asylums, kept far away so their curse cannot spread. You are one of these undead, locked in a cell, leaning against the wall, head on your knees in despair. Then a corpse falls into the cell, and on it, the key to the door. A strange knight nods from a hole in the ceiling and disappears. You pick up the key, grip your broken sword hilt tightly, open the door, and head out into the asylum…

Here's the key to your cell...
Here’s the key to your cell…

The beginning of Dark Souls is a confusing and desperate scene, meant to knock the player off balance from the first moment. Led only by strange messages on the floor of the prison, the player is taught the most basic controls and little else. Within ten minutes of hitting “Start” for the first time, the player is ambushed by a boss-level encounter, the Asylum Demon, left to fight the hulking monstrosity with only a broken weapon, and a single tutorial message on the floor telling the player to run for their lives.

To say the Souls franchise (Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, and Dark Souls III) throws the player into the deep end, head first, is an understatement. With little notion of what to do or how to do it, the first time a player starts one of these games they have to overcome seemingly impossible odds just to get out of the tutorial level. The Souls games are known for their difficulty and unforgiving nature, and have a reputation among the gamers as some of the hardest games around. Like Contra in the NES era, the original Tomb Raider on PlayStation One, or any of the Ninja Gaiden series, the Dark Souls games are known to require dedication and determination to complete.

To get an idea of how hard these games actually are, the Steam community provides a good indicator by tracking the achievements of the players. In Dark Souls II, only 76% of players defeated the first boss, The Last Giant 1. In Dark Souls III, 82% of the players who got through the tutorial pressed on to defeat that game’s first boss, Vordt of the Boreal Valley 2. For an experienced player these milestones represent barely an hour’s playtime, but for many it is an insurmountable task.

But the difficulty of Dark Souls is balanced by its fairness. Enemies attack with consistent animations, and are encountered in the same places. Players can learn to only engage one in a group at a time, or predict where an ambush may be. They can learn to block, dodge, and parry predictable attacks, and develop the instincts to anticipate the movements of an unfamiliar foe. For those that persist through those first few grueling hours of the game will find the game getting easier – both by the virtue of their character getting more powerful and their own reflexes improving.

Unlike many games, the signature failure screen is not “Game Over” or “Continue? Y/N,” but “You Died.” These two words become part of the player’s experience over and over, but the game never stops. Your character dies, appearing back at the last checkpoint, ready to try again. Your souls, which are both the currency and experience points of the game, are at the spot where you died, resting in a glowing green bloodstain. The enemies are back where they started as well, making the path back to your souls no harder or easier, but a replica of your previous trip.

Not "Game Over"
Not “Game Over”

“You Died” isn’t an indicator of the end of your journey, but instead says “Try again.” No matter if it was a foolish error, an unexpected ambush, or simply a foe that proved too difficult in the moment, the results are the same. The player has the option to resume their journey, fighting their way back through the obstacles they had previously overcome to take another crack at what cost them their life in the last trip. In this way the game isn’t punishing the player for failing. Instead it is resetting the arena, letting the player learn from their mistakes, to try again, and to set the stage for a future success.

It is not only a mechanical consideration, but one within the plot of the story. The character is afflicted by a curse – one which does not allow them to die. They rise, again and again, their bodies and minds deteriorating with each passing. The return to the last checkpoint doesn’t feel like the game reverting to a previous state or save, but your character returning to life despite the best efforts of the world to end them. The whole world has reset, except for those massive adversaries who’s souls you carry with you, preventing their return. Even when you die, there is a sense of progress, a sense that like you, everything else has come back from the dead as well, ready to fight you again.

Hollowing and being Human

Human vs. Hollow
Human vs. Hollow

In Dark Souls and Dark Souls III, the death mechanic follows the path outlined above. Your character is punished in a two ways: the loss of their souls, which are left behind at the spot of death, and the loss of their Humanity. The Dark Souls series is all about the struggle to remain an intelligent, coherent individual, keeping the insanity of undeath at bay. When someone loses themselves to the undead curse, they have gone “hollow.” Hollows represent the majority of the enemies in both games – waves of undead coming at you, locked in repetitive, nonsensical, tortured existences, ready to lash out at anyone that comes too close. There is a mechanic in all three games to “unhollow” and gain a benefit from embracing the spark of life. In all three games, when you die, you lose that benefit, and have to consume a limited resource (Humanity, a Human Effigy, or an Ember, respectively) to regain it.

The other function of Humanity is related to the multi-player aspect of the franchise. While the series is a single-player game at its core, there are a few mechanics that allow both cooperative and competitive multi-player. When you are in human form in all three games, you can find summon signs on the ground where players can be brought in from their game in the form of a white (or gold) phantom to aid you. This also makes you vulnerable to invasion from other players, who appear as red (or purple) phantoms in your game and will try to kill you. The strategy of when to reverse your hollowed state becomes a careful balance of risk and reward – are you willing to risk invasion to summon help, or would you rather go it alone and keep yourself safe from hostile phantoms?

This mechanic serves as an equalizer. Novice players can summon companions to help them with a particularly tough area or boss, which will always make a fight easier, but take on the additional risk of being killed by a hostile player, which is a much more difficult foe than your average AI enemy. In this way the game delivers the same message: learn from your mistakes and get better. There is no easy solution to Dark Souls, no difficulty setting, no work-around. The game forces you to improve as you go, and thus accept that dying, over and over again, is the only way to do so.

The Dark Souls II difference

Dark Souls II, however, has a few changes to the core mechanics that change the way the game judges death. In Dark Souls and Dark Souls III, the benefit from humanity is static. Being hollow or being human is a binary state – if you die, you become hollow, and you have to spend a humanity or an ember to reverse it and regain the advantages thereof.

In Dark Souls II, the game takes a different tactic. When you die for the first time you start becoming hollowed, and your maximum health goes down by 10% for each subsequent death until you’re only half as durable as you started. You return to 100% when you consume a Human Effigy, and the process starts over. Dying over and over has a cumulative penalty, which can hinder a starting player greatly. While there is an item in the game that caps the penalty at 25% health lost, it takes up a valuable inventory slot to equip, thus limiting your optimal effectiveness. In this way Dark Souls II is a harsher judge of player performance.

In addition, being hollow in Dark Souls II allows invasions from other players instead of the reverse in the other two games. The more times you’ve died, and thus the lower your health, the more likely you are to be invaded. This means the worse you’re doing in an area or against a boss, the more likely it is you will be invaded, and thus hampered further. By consuming a human effigy and reversing your hollowing you not only gain the benefit of being able to summon help, but also prevent invaders. This creates a significant desire to remain in human form as often as possible, but effigies are a limited resource. A novice player could easily find themselves stuck at 50% health, with no way to reverse their hollowing, being regularly invaded and unable to progress.

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Mechanical changes lead to philosophical changes

The other major difference in Dark Souls II is that, eventually, enemies will stop re-spawning. If a particular enemy is killed twelve times, when you die and return to the last checkpoint that enemy will no longer be there. This serves a dual-purpose. First, it means a player that is struggling with an area deep into a level can effectively clear out all of the earlier enemies and make their progress through the level easier. A player could even clear out every enemy, leaving the whole level empty except for the boss, thus allowing them to have multiple attempts at a boss without having to worry about the difficulty of the approach.

The double-edged sword of this mechanic is that a player cannot rely on a single, easy-to-defeat area to harvest a mass of souls so they can gain levels to make the next areas easier. Known as “farming,” this tactic is a safe-haven for novice players. They can keep fighting in one area as a way to practice, and a way to gain souls so they can improve their character’s statistics. Dark Souls II has an inherent way to prevent excessive farming, thus forcing a player into the next area whether they feel they are ready for it or not.

Accepting Failure

No matter which entry of the Dark Souls series you play, you will die, over and over. This is the only way to improve; the only way to learn the game, the mechanics, the movements, the controls, and the tactics is through trial and error. If you have the fortitude and patience, you will, over time, find things getting easier. Enemies that were a road block in your first hour of gameplay will be trivial by your tenth and a nuisance by your twentieth. The all-too familiar “You Died” will be replaced by the ever-increasing message of “Victory Achieved.”

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By not having mechanics of permanent death or game-ending circumstances, Dark Souls encourages the player to keep trying. It is an upward climb, but an ultimately rewarding one. Through perseverance, and a lot of failure, the final boss can be met and the game won. Failure becomes a normal part of the process, and in that way, despite the game’s punishing difficulty, helps the player “get good.”

Works Cited

  1. https://steamcommunity.com/stats/236430/achievements/
  2. https://steamcommunity.com/stats/374320/achievements/

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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John Faugno is an English professor, author, and self-proclaimed nerd. He is currently teaching at the University of New Haven.

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57 Comments

  1. Puck
    3

    A damn fine review with good insight to a good game series. Many of these points had barely occurred to me. I look forward to more of the authors work.

  2. Gamerbunny03038
    1

    This is a clear, sussinct, and explorative explanation of these fantastic games. Dark Souls has been a benchmark for gamers to test their skills and ultimately changed the way that many gamers approached video games. Great article, thanks for the read.

  3. AngryBeaver
    0

    Well written. Makes me want to run through them all again.

  4. Tigey

    “Dark Souls II has an inherent way to prevent excessive farming, thus forcing a player into the next area whether they feel they are ready for it or not.” Sounds like real life. How ironic that an escape from reality reflects reality… except for that coming back from death thing. Very cool, thought-provoking article.

  5. Trump
    5

    I’ve read things before, many things, the best things, but this thing is amazing. I’ve got a great brain, the best brain, it’s huuuuge in fact and this article still managed to impress. I have to say though, I’m not a big fan of losing. I’m always winning, so I made a strategy for beating dark souls without ever dying. It’s the best strategy, nobody has ever made a strategy like this. Everyone calls me now asking “what’s this amazing strategy?” I can’t tell you, because if I told you then the developers would know I’m coming. That’s the big mistake so many people make playing this game, the game knows that they’re playing.

  6. Tyler
    0

    FromSoftware has always had a reputation for making games with learning curves that are essentially vertical, though in the past their flagships were Mech games. I’m glad to see that the fantasy community has received them so well in the last few years. I wonder if there is anything specific to the genre that made its players base willing to accept harsher game play.

  7. Gist
    0

    DS is probably my favourite game of the past 25 years. However, I hated DS 2 when it first came out.

    Recently though, having finished Bloodborne, I sank 200 hours into Scholar of the First Sin. I actually loved it. It’s a huge improvement over DS 2 via merely small tweaks. I never returned to Bloodborne again.

  8. Tabor
    0

    Brilliant piece, thanks for this!

  9. Evelop
    0

    I’ve been enjoying my failures at Enter the Gungeon (Heck with the Interdimensional Horror though, the Hedgemony Carbine is worthless) in much the same way as in Dark Souls, and I think many games that try to be ‘hard’ should either allow you to grind to get better or at least allow you to get something (Hedgemony Credits) that can help you in future runs just to slightly ease the frustration of less skilled players or at least, of failing.

  10. Margre
    1

    Nice to see such thoughtful content on Dark Souls. I’ve had some Dark Souls analysis fatigue recently but this was very tasteful and thought provoking.

  11. brad
    1

    My wife asks, “you’ve been fighting that same guy for the last 3 hours, how is this fun?”

    “Because I will beat him and when I do it will be 3 hours sweeter.”

    • Feeke
      0

      For some reason I failed again and again beating Queelag the first time, but it was one of the two most intense moments of my entire “gaming life” when I beat her. Absolutely amazing.

      The other time was PvP in Dark Age of Camelot, by the way. Still the best PvP in any MMO ever made.

      • HomeGou
        0

        I disagree. There were times where I spent too long trying to beat certain bosses and trying new tactics constantly to see what would stick.

        When I finally beat them I wasn’t feeling accomplished. I was fed up and pissed off. 4 Kings on NG+ for example. Took me dozens and dozens of attempts before I beat them. Did I have this feeling of glory of success? No I sure didn’t. I was pissed off that it took that long. I tried so many different setups and tactics and really I only won because of RNG/luck.

        There are definitely bosses that are too damn hard because their design is unbalanced. But those hide behind the guise of “well it’s dark souls.” You can stack odds against a player but it has to be done fairly so that gamer doesn’t just get up and quit.

  12. Koenig
    1

    Fascinating! Dark Souls, destroying game controllers since 2011.

  13. Coralee
    0

    There were times when Dark Souls drove me to despair. It made me hate myself, scream at myself, hurt myself for being a failure.

  14. David
    0

    Awesome. Insightful.

  15. Ainsworth
    0

    I liked this. Even though I’ve never played a Souls game (or Bloodborne) and almost certainly never will.

  16. fry
    0

    I hope Miyazaki combines the metaphysical coherency of Dark Souls with the mechanical lessons learned in Dark Souls II and creates the greatest game in the history of creation. That’d be cool.

  17. Prudence
    0

    The archeology of dark souls is one of the most fantastic things i’ve bee able to do in a videogame, and that is almost completely absent in DS2. It’s there… it’s just a lot more… soulless.

  18. Gameroom
    0

    Superb analysis. It really lays out a lot of what makes Dark Souls so incredible.

  19. freshwoman
    0

    On a slightly related note, it’s really interesting how Japanese culture glorifies failure, when other cultures see that as a bad thing, to varying degrees of punishment. Still, I do think that nowadays Japanese culture only praises failure as long as you improve with time.

    • Jame
      0

      It’s not glorifying failure, it’s glorifying persistence and tenacity. A common trait in many cultures.

  20. Valrie
    0

    Truly great games, it challenges… ruthlessly.

  21. Like many gaming strategies and themes, Dark Souls conditions us in a highly submliminal way to accept status quo achievement. I strongly agreed with this article’s break down of not only how to manuever through different levels but the underscoring why and what. Thanks…great analysis and deconstruction!

  22. Callahan
    0

    You nail some of the key reasons that Dark Souls franchise is amazing.

  23. Carlin
    0

    Wonderful topic and beautifully explained.

  24. Pounds
    0

    I was thinking of Final Fantasy X when reading this. The whole pilgrimage is about sacrifice. Giving up your life to save everyone, which in itself is failing, and a history of idolising those who have made that noble choice.

  25. FreeTime
    0

    The failure/death in dark souls mostly comes from your infamiliarity with the combat system, other than that all enemies move comparably and obviously more slowly than any other action game,, while you’re very easy to die, so are the enemies, (usually takes only 2 or 3 hit to kill one), so its easy to fail also easy to succeed.

  26. hermin
    0

    Thank you very much for educational explanation.

  27. Aiken
    0

    You all are such skilled writers, it’s unbelievable. I’m loving this publication more and more, and I think we can all tell you’re very passionate about your chosen topics.

  28. Back
    0

    Dark Souls, for somebody acutely sensitive to personal or perceived failure, it is immensely reassuring.

  29. Jazmine
    0

    The celebration of failure is explored in anime really well.

  30. Kimi
    0

    Very well written!

  31. katykaty
    0

    Absolutely brilliant!

  32. CmndrShepard84
    0

    This article perfectly sums up the infuriating nature of playing Dark Souls.

  33. Martin
    0

    I’ve been wanting to play Dark Souls but I haven’t had the chance, yet, I think I can come very close to understanding its fame and nature.

  34. trash
    0

    I learned a lot more about the core of Dark Souls in this article than any “10 Dark Souls Facts” article could teach me.

  35. Thank you

  36. Well written. I am personally unfamiliar with the game but the article sparked some interest. Great connection to accepting failure!

  37. Janx
    0

    Of course. Follow me.

  38. I have never actually played this game series, but I heard that it is almost impossible to get from level to level on the hardest difficulty in the game, but on the other hand you cannot play on the easiest difficulty because then the game punishes you by taking you out of some of the levels.

    • This is not actually the case, as there are no difficulty levels in the game. There are optional areas, some of which are more challenging than the mandatory path (especially in Dark Souls 2), but there is no “easy” or “hard” setting.

  39. Dark Souls is my favorite game of all time. I have completed it at least 20 times, am very involved in the community, and try to convince all of my friends to play it. I’ve earned all of the achievements and still go back and play it on a weekly basis for PvP or challenge runs. That being said, my experience and relationship with Dark Souls II was an entirely different experience. It was very difficult for me to warm up to the new feel and additions of Dark Souls II, and found myself feeling spoiled by the complexity of its predecessor. The bosses were the main cause of concern considering the fact that they were blasé at best when comparing them to the bosses featured within the first game. The ability to warp from the beginning, lack of shortcuts, and excessive amount of bonfires all created a very condensed feel, and lack of attention to pristine world design that made Dark Souls stand out to the public in the first place. The tracking of the enemies, artificial difficulty demonstrated by hordes of enemies rather than skillfully places entities, and rushed attempt to conspire a plot are of the worst offensives Dark Souls II committed. While I recognize that the game had a difficult legacy to live up to while succeeding Dark Souls, the insurmountable amount of backtracking on previously perfected mechanics make the mistakes made in production unforgiveable. The games previous director, Hidetaka Miyazaki, was not present for the making of Dark Souls II, and it is evident from the beginning.

  40. Ohh thatthat and college both have!

  41. People who play Dark Souls for personal pleasure are gods to me. Mainly because the first time I played Dark Souls, I ate 15 kit kats, pulled out my hair, bit my nails off and screamed bloody murder the entire time before I turned it off. Long story short – I managed to make it to the chapter boss three times by running frantically and avoiding everyone.

    Honestly though, while I understand the appeal of Dark Souls. I cannot abide by the fact that I have absolutely no fun playing this game and can feel my blood pressure rising the entire time. And I am not willing to be subject to this torturous game anymore except to watch my friends kick a** at it.

    • There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a video game as a spectator. I feel the exact same way about survival horror games (like Outlast or The Forest) – great to watch, but I have zero fun playing them.

      • I agree! I spent my childhood watching my brother play Zelda (because my mother wouldn’t let me play) and I had so much fun watching and helping him figure out the puzzles. So sometimes it’s nice to sit back and watch other people play.

        And I feel like we share similar views on Outlast and the Forest. I jump way too easily to be able to play those games seriously.

  42. I learned to accept death playing Angband, a far more punishing game than Dark Souls. As a scientist though it is extremely important to me to be able to accept my failures and learn from them, as in DS. These games teach you that failure is acceptable, and is the only way to learn is improving a little bit each time you try again. A lot of people have trouble accepting they suck, or as Mr. Meeseeks said “Your failures are your own old man!”. Only by accepting your limitations can you start to overcome them.

  43. wtardieu

    I’ve always loved the games that drop you right back at the checkpoint so you can master whatever gauntlet has you stuck. It exercises endurance, diligence, and adaptability. It forces you to try something different each time. I’ve come to never expect to beat the Dark Souls chapter boss on even the third try. Some of them are so intimidating, I wonder if someone is going to come on screen and go “Just kidding. We had you there. You actually thought beating this thing was possible?” I always know I’m going to have to treat it like a project. Learning through failure and sorting out pros and cons is what the game truly teaches. The hollowing punishments feature seems a lot like choosing an insurance plan. Higher deductible or lower premiums? How much do you really want to pay out-of-pocket?

  44. Jeffrey Toney

    Learning from our failures is the key to becoming successful!

  45. As someone who knows VERY WELL how frustrating these games are, this article hits on what I think is one of the major driving forces that the game thrives on. Dark Souls is notorious for being damn near impossible for most, so the triumph of beating even the first boss is something that is so supremely satisfying. There is definitely a “don’t give up, try again” feeling to each failure, and it while it can enrage players, it also forces something in us that refuses to give up. I personally learned quite a bit about my limits when playing these games, so I loved this whole article. Failure is required, and it’s okay; this series made me realize and accept that.

  46. Afanos

    Interesting article, I have never played Dark Souls but I have heard that it is a great game.

  47. This mechanic and the use of failure in the game is the legacy of this game. I’ve never played a Dark Souls game, but I’ve heard of them plenty and the most common thing I hear is,” Fuck this game is hard.”

    It’s refreshing though, in games I play these days where you’re made to feel invincible and like a god among men, this game is made to make you feel mortal and vulnerable and unsafe. It brings me back to classic games. When I was younger I would sink hours into those damn racing levels on Jak and Daxter, but nowadays anything people can’t concur on the first try is racked up to cheap mechanics.

    As a society we treat failure as end all be all. If you’re not perfect you’re a failure. But trial and error are the best learning system around. It’s really impressive the lessons of patience and persevering that are to be found in this dungeon crawler.

  48. I’ve always heard how horribly difficult Dark Souls was, but this review did a great job in explaining how ridiculous this game really is. Ridiculous in a good way. Wow, I give props for gamers who actually love the Dark Souls series.
    “YOU DIED” hilarious

  49. I’ve played through each game in the series, and the mechanic really strengthens you and tracks through each experience. I found that coming into Dark Souls III I was well suited to the task, having endured the past two titles. If you are willing to be patient and walk with the game, it blooms into an exemplary experience. Most of the time when you die, you know that really DESERVED to die, because of a mistake (lack of judgment, greed, overzealous running towards a ladder on a cliff, etc.). I think in a sense, the game wants you to beat it, the challenges are built for you to surpass; if you have the patience to learn its rules and motivations. After a while you laugh off the deaths you do have (or stare in disbelief at your momentary mediocrity) and you enjoy the difficulty spikes (that ONE boss, the dogged invader, etc.)

    I personally don’t like to milk a million playthroughs on Dark Souls, as I think it benefits from periods of hiatus and then re-familiarizing on the part of the player. I think the best thing about the death/hollowing mechanic is it’s base in the lore. Your character is literally losing his/her humanity and memory each death; To fail is to forget yourself, to carry on is to maintain purpose, thus continue to exist individually. That is pretty powerful stuff. Certainly an allegory to the bare facts of waking life.

  50. Great analysis. Dark Souls has been more fun and influential than any other game series I’ve ever played, and you’ve really gotten to the bottom of why. This shit is just amazing. I’d never seen such storytelling couple with such versatile game mechanics before I found Dark Souls. It didn’t just provide an intensely fun game to play and conquer, but an inspirational story that really changed how I thought about things.

    The whole accepting failure bit is a perfect example. Dark Souls was the first game I played that really made me keep a clear head and not just react to the game. Instead of mashing “x” to kill the boss, or simply locating the new shiny item that would instantly kill the huge bastard, I really had to keep my cool and study how the game worked. That was just so much fun and has changed how I play video games, and, as melodramatic as it sounds, how I approach certain parts of my life.

    Fantastic game and fantastic review; can’t wait to read the next one!

  51. This did a wonderful job of informing people the gameplay of Dark Souls and explaining the mechanisms. When I first watched a playthrough of Dark Souls II I must say the fact that the death screen actually said “You Died”. Very few games are that blunt.

    But this made me open my eyes more to accepting failure. I’m so glad that games like these are coming out, that teach players to accept failure and be forced to repeat the same scenarios until they can succeed.

    Very well done, and you chose a great example.

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