Timothy Welsh

Timothy Welsh is an associate professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans. His research at the intersection of digital textuality and culture, contemporary narrative and critical theory uses videogames to think about the relationship between art and life.

Contact information:
twelsh at loyno.edu

(Re)Mastering Dark Souls

by Timothy Welsh


The overabundance of supplemental paratexts--increasingly typical of today’s culture of livestreaming--informing a late playthrough can transform the experience of Dark Souls from one of exploration to one of consumption, from discovery to affirmation. Moreover, many of the late stage Dark Souls “metagames” (Boluk and Lemieux, 2017) aim to reduce the game’s complexity in pursuit of greater efficiency. Though Dark Souls embraces “jolly cooperation” and sharing in the community’s collective mastery can save players time, it can also foreclose the possibility of what Daniel Vella (2015) has called the “ludic sublime.” Revelatory experiences of gameplay require specific, historically situated playstyles, ones that play with and against gaming’s natural disposition toward objectivization. This paper argues for the importance of a poetics of play--in correspondence with or at least alongside a formalist poetics of games as such--as a way to preserve the possibility of creative play within neoliberalism and its drive towards ubiquitous productivity.

Keywords: Aesthetics, casual revolution, collective intelligence, Dark Souls, games-as-service, mastery, metagames, neoliberalism, ludic sublime, time



From Software’s Dark Souls (v1.06, 2012) seems like the ideal candidate for a remastered edition. Acclaimed by critics and players alike for a responsive combat system, unrelenting difficulty and compelling storytelling, Dark Souls suffered since launch from framerate dips, muddy textures and generally low resolution graphics, as well as inconsistent multiplayer connectivity. Despite these limitations, Dark Souls attracted a significant, persistent player base and community, with over 300,000 subscribers to its subreddit at time of writing. With the 2018 remastered edition, From Software finally addressed many of the community’s longstanding complaints, upgrading the technical performance and overall appearance of an aging PlayStation 3 game to meet the expectations of current generation gamers.

Even so, re-releasing Dark Souls runs contrary to current trends in the gaming industry, which has in recent years “pivoted” away narrative-driven, primarily single-player games [1]. The practice of remastering itself suggests a bygone era when games were considered standalone, discrete media objects. Today, major studio games are more likely designed as services, updated via patch and downloadable content rather than remastered and re-released. Commenting on games like Destiny 2 (Bungie, 2017) that operate under a games-as-service model, Kirk Hamilton (2018) observes, “most modern single- and multiplayer videogames are better thought of as processes than objects,” due to an unpredictable, yet steady stream of patches, updates, expansions, downloadable content and balance changes putting them in a “constant state of flux.” Dark Souls, by contrast, has remained relatively stable, with fewer than ten patches and only one downloadable content expansion, “Artoris of the Abyss,” issued a year after launch. Even the remastered edition--much to the disappointment of the community--included no new content. Dark Souls’s persistent player base has, thus, played essentially the same game for nearly ten years. That is not to say that the experience of playing Dark Souls has not changed, however.

A playthough of Dark Souls now is supplemented by guides, walkthroughs, streams, wikis, forums, lore videos and so on that were not available when it was first released. This collection of tips, strategies, documentations and interpretations, most of which are readily available online--the collective intelligence (Lévy, 1998; Jenkins, 2006; Shirky, 2011) about Dark Souls--constitute the player community’s mastery of the game, a collective mastery. The game remains punishingly difficult for new players, but guides and walkthroughs can offer techniques and approaches to mitigate and even trivialize in-game challenges. The game’s fictional world remains vast and vague, but it has been thoroughly documented and this documentation recontextualizes, remaps and repurposes the virtual environment. Playing Dark Souls now means playing after most of the secrets have been revealed, strategies have been developed, tutorials have been written and Let’s Plays have been shared.

This article considers what it means to play Dark Souls now, both after it has been mastered by the player community and in the context of games conceived as services. The overabundance of supplemental paratexts informing a late playthrough can transform the experience of Dark Souls from one of exploration to one of consumption, from discovery to affirmation. Dark Souls embraces “jolly cooperation,” as it is referred to by the popular non-player character (NPC) Solaire, both through specific game mechanics and its fictional conceit. At the same time, sharing in the collective mastery of the game can foreclose the possibility of what Daniel Vella (2015) has called the “ludic sublime.” Indeed, many of the late-stage Dark Souls “metagames” (Boluk and Lemieux, 2017) aim to reduce the game’s complexity in pursuit of greater efficiency. Revelatory experiences of gameplay require, I conclude, specific, corresponsive playstyles, ones that play with and against gaming’s natural disposition toward objectivization.

Recognizing, as Hamilton does, that games are processes rather than stable products means acknowledging that what a game is and how it is played are radically contingent. Playing a videogame means playing today’s version and today’s version describes not only technical updates and content expansions but also player practices as they have evolved and been shared over time, corresponding not only to alterations in characteristics of the game itself but also to the social, cultural and historical contexts of the moment. Thus, to be able to respond to games in a “constant state of flux” videogame studies requires approaches that can treat not just the game as such, but the playing of a game as historically situated.

This piece is part of a larger project on the implications of the industry shift to games-as-service for the playful possibilities of videogames. There is not space here to work out a full theory of “creative play” in response to the industry’s embrace of microtransactions and recurrent user payments, monetization strategies adopted from freemium game models often aligned with neoliberalism (Leino and Möring, 2016). Instead, this case study demonstrates how the objectives of efficiency and productivity can overtake more exploratory, reflective playstyles, even in a game like Dark Souls that does not feature freemium models. In doing so, it asks what it would mean to play Dark Souls creatively, cognizant of the player community's collective mastery by the game’s community, corresponsive with its historical contexts and against neoliberalism and its drive towards ubiquitous productivity.

Jolly Cooperation and the Sublime over Time

In “No Mastery without Mystery: Dark Souls and the Ludic Sublime,” Daniel Vella (2015) draws attention to the problem of time for game scholarship. He begins by discussing a fundamental limitation of proceduralism, which he says “has grown to constitute arguably the dominant discourse within the branch of game studies that concerns itself with the nature of the game object.” Vella argues that proceduralism, in order to make claims to the way a game system signifies, presumes knowledge of the entire system. This overlooks, he observes, the phenomenological encounter with a game and the hermeneutic process of learning how to interpret it. In other words, Vella’s problem with proceduralism is that it fails to consider that gaming is a process, that our engagements with videogames are phenomenological, contextual and evolving.

To demonstrate that this unfolding in time cannot be taken for granted, Vella lays out how Dark Souls resists a player’s attempt to know it completely. It is in its capacity to maintain its boundlessness against our attempts to master it that Dark Souls offers the possibility of experiencing what Vella calls the “ludic sublime.” Players of Dark Souls know this feeling well. It occurs in those moments when one discovers a new path connecting different zones, like the first time one takes the back way into Blighttown or when the description on a newly acquired item, like the Ring of Favour and Protection, hints at an obscure history (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Item description for the Ring of Favour and Protection (source: own screenshot). Click to enlarge.


These and similar moments of revelation suggest the irreducibility of the virtual world of Lordran. They offer the potential for the ludic sublime, this brush with boundlessness, precisely because our experience of Dark Souls unfolds over time. We begin the game with no knowledge and progressively learn more about it, which only reveals how little we actually know. Over time, though, these sublime experiences come fewer and farther between. When the player dies--and they will die often--they lose all progress since their last bonfire checkpoint. They resurrect at their last bonfire checkpoint having lost their accumulated souls and Humanity, two important resources for advancement in the game. The enemies they had defeated all respawn in the same locations, requiring the player to encounter the same challenges over and over with each death. The player will thus complete the same zones repeatedly as they are “learning the game’s cues, memorizing its environments and internalizing its systems” (Abbott, 2011). Through this repetition the player gains a functional knowledge of the space, the mechanics and how to negotiate both. They develop strategies for efficient, relatively safe traversal of areas, skipping enemies or loot they know they will not need or are not worth the risk. Eventually they will have seen all the areas and know how they connect.

Once players know and have internalized environment, mechanics and patterns--mastered the game to some functional degree--their relationship with the virtual space changes. Zones they might have found difficult at first can transition from the tense give-and-take between frustration and discovery--the “paradox of failure” as Juul (2016) calls it--into a routinized exercise for productive play. The poisonous lower swamp of Blighttown, for instance, which can be treacherous for a new player, eventually becomes an efficient farming route for weapon upgrade materials.


Figure 2. A YouTube guide by chaotic (2012) demonstrates how to farm equipment upgrade materials in Blighttown (source: own screenshot). Click to enlarge.


Additionally, players may find shortcuts--either on their own or with the help of online guides--to skip some of the game’s challenging content. For example, rather than pursue a multi-stage side quest to track down Lautrec and defeat him in a difficult battle, the player can obtain the Ring of Favour and Protection much earlier in the game by simply kicking Lautrec of a ledge when he first appears at Firelink Shrine (Figure 3). Players who take this shortcut miss out on some of the game’s more interesting lore; but it is a much easier and faster approach to acquiring one of the most powerful--and frequently recommended--rings in the game. Though the core of Dark Souls itself does not change as the player gains practical knowledge of the environment and internalizes “the logic of the program” (Friedman, 1998), playing the game can become routinized as wonder at its boundlessness gets replaced by other objectives.


Figure 3. From this position, the player can kick Lautrec off the ledge behind him and acquire the Ring of Favour and Protection (source: own screenshot). Click to enlarge.


Vella addresses the impact of this process on the potential for the ludic sublime at the end of his article. Contrary to Paul Martin’s (2011) assessment that the sublime landscape of Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (Bethesda Game Studios, 2006) eventually becomes “familiar and banal,” Vella (2015) says that Dark Souls demonstrates how “even after extended play has resulted in mastery of the game, there remains at least an opening for the possibility of surprize and further revelation.” Certainly there will always be aspects of Dark Souls we do not know or have overlooked. Such is the nature of the object: it recedes from view, “always hidden, inside, inaccessible” (Bogost, 2012, p.6). Part of the reason for this, though, is that “stuff becomes ready-to-hand,” or meaningful to us humans with regard to its usefulness to us as humans (p.5). In other words, what a player can or wants to know about a game depends on what they do with it. What players do with a game, though, changes over time as they play it. Arsenault and Perron (2009) explain that the player never has access to the game itself. Instead, they develop their own mental image of the game--what Arsenault and Perron call Game’--through gameplay. This mental image informs their interactions with the game, which then develop their mental image and so on in a spiral. “The experience of a game,” Arsenault and Perron observe, “is a gradual shift from predominantly bottom-up processes, where individual elements are analysed before reacting, to top-down processes, where a mental image of the game system guides the gamer’s reactions and expectations” (p.114).

This suggests that the more time a player spends with a game -- like, say, over the long lifecycle of a game like Dark Souls -- the less time they occupy this analytical mode and the more their gameplay is defined by their developed mental image. Jesper Juul (2005, p. 139) argues that “experienced players shift their focus from the fictional world of the game to the game as a set of rules” as they learn to “ignore information that is not relevant to the performance of the task.” Openness to the ludic sublime, then, is a gameplay style, one that is likely more prominent during earlier engagements with a game. Once a functional image is in place, gameplay can shift to pursue other purposes and encounters with a game’s sublime boundlessness may become less significant.

Take for example EpicNameBro’s 56-episode walkthrough of Dark Souls (2015-2016), posted to YouTube in preparation for the release of Dark Souls III (From Software, 2016). Few in the Dark Souls community know more about the series than EpicNameBro, a long-time Dark Souls YouTuber and Twitch streamer who has previously worked with From Software to develop guides for their games. Over the course of this completionist run, EpicNameBro collects every in-game item, demonstrates a variety of effective character builds and strategies, reads all item descriptions, elicits every line of dialogue (that one can access in a single playthrough) and contextualizes it all with his unrivalled knowledge of game lore, fan theory and developer commentary. Attesting to Vella’s argument, EpicNameBro points out several details in the environment he had not noticed previously. These moments, when an expert like EpicNameBro pauses to observe a bit of texture on a door in New Londo or questions why a Twin Humanities is in a particular chest in Blighttown, demonstrate that discoveries are still possible at this late stage in Dark Souls’s lifespan. And, yet, when confronted with opportunities for “further revelation” EpicNameBro shrugs off his novel observations to get on with his video, merely commenting and moving to the next objective. Where discovery, insight and awe may have defined earlier playthroughs of Dark Souls, now they occur in passing on the way to other goals.

Against the already accumulated knowledge of Dark Souls lore, these observations seem relatively minor, nothing like encountering the sublime. Though they attest to the possibility of surprize, at this point in the lifecycle, such minor encounters likely do not inspire awe at boundlessness beyond comprehending. Additionally, many of the game’s unsettled points of lore--like Ornstein’s status in Lord Gwyn’s army--are accepted as intentionally ambiguous and thus unresolvable [2]. These ambiguities still gesture at a mysterious history; however, there simply is not much to be done with them.

Of course, not every Dark Souls player is as knowledgeable as EpicNameBro. Most likely lack the level of knowledge even to recognize these moments as significantly unsettled and may still have moments of awe as they explore their first few playthroughs. But, playing Dark Souls today means playing it at a time when EpicNameBro’s completionist run is easily found on YouTube. Much of the Dark Souls lore that can be determined has been scrutinized and debated on sites like Reddit. Multiple print companions catalogue and analyse the gameplay, lore and even personal play histories of individual players [3]. At any moment any number experienced players are demonstrating how to deal with the game’s challenges live on Twitch or are available to discuss strategies on Discord. Though one may not know as much as EpicNameBro, this knowledge is never further away than a simple internet search. Arsenault and Perron note players can speed up their progress down the gameplay “spiral” toward a functional mental image through reference to walkthroughs and other paratexts. As a result, players who participate in this collective mastery of the game progress much more quickly through the exploratory stages than they would on their own.

A new player could certainly aspire to play Dark Souls without participating in the collective mastery of the game. Doing so would likely slowdown the development of a functional mental image; however, the viability and value of such an ascetic, isolationist playstyle is questionable when so much information is so easily accessible and when gaming culture is increasingly defined by community building and fandom. Moreover, contemporary “hardcore” games have only become more demanding, growing broader and more complex, both in terms of mechanics as well as their, often transmedia, narratives. In many cases, it takes a community even to begin to chart their expanses. For my part, I have come to rely on community-developed guides, summaries and discussion boards to do my scholarship to a degree that would be unthinkable in literary study. Dark Souls certainly falls into this category of expansive complexity. Even if one decided to go it alone anyway, doing so would involve sidestepping designed elements of the game’s lore and mechanics. Indeed, Dark Souls is designed to enter players into the game’s community, integrating it into the fictional world itself.

Through a variety of tip sharing and cooperative mechanics--made possible by the game’s always-online functionality--Dark Souls encourages players to share in the collective mastery of the game. The Orange Guidance Soapstone, for instance, allows players to annotate the environment with notes constructed from a set vocabulary (Figure 4). “Messages transmit to other worlds,” as it says in the item description, and appear as an orange icon visible in the same location in the environment for other online players. Players encountering an icon read these transmitted messages and rate them positively or negatively, which impacts how often the message appears to other players. Though not all messages are helpful--some are intentionally misleading or mischievous--they often warn players about upcoming ambushes, illusory walls or valuable items.


Figure 4. An Orange Guidance Soapstone message suggests a strategy for an upcoming encounter (source: own screenshot). Click to enlarge.


Another way players annotate each other’s worlds is simply by dying. The death of the player character can generate a Bloodstain in another player’s game (Figure 5). Touching a Bloodstain icon causes a ghost image to re-enact the last moments before a fellow player died in that location. These re-enactments can help a player to be on guard for potential threats and anticipate upcoming challenges.


Figure 5. Touching a Bloodstain summons a ghostly figure, who re-enacts a fellow player’s recent demise (source: own screenshot). Click to enlarge.


The most direct assistance comes through the summoning mechanics [4]. When in human form, a player can find summoning signs on the ground indicating that another player is available for summoning. When activated, the summoned player will join the original player’s game. The summoned player will often already know how to complete the area and can guide and protect the summoner, earning souls for themselves along the way. This co-operative play, available from very early on, allows players to learn from other players directly within the game environment, while gaining assistance on some of the more difficult challenges.

In some situations, these kinds of cooperation are indispensable for unlocking all that Dark Souls has to offer. The Great Hollow area, for example, is hidden behind not one but two illusory walls. The chances of accidentally uncovering both illusory walls on one’s own are so small, assistance from other players, such as an Orange Guidance Soapstone message, are all but essential to find this region (Figure 6). At this point in his playthrough, EpicNameBro (2015, part 19) suggests the double illusory wall is in place in order to require player collaboration. Dark Souls, he argues, was “designed to make people talk about the game outside of the game. There is a reason there is not reliable communication in the game, it is to make people talk about and think about it outside of the game. The perfect game to build a community around.” From this perspective, the wikis, streams, forums, Discord servers and so on, all the sites and methods enabling players to share and request assistance, are extensions of these in-game collaborative components.


Figure 6. An Orange Guidance Soapstone message informs the player of the second illusory wall concealing the path into the Great Hollow (source: own screenshot). Click to enlarge.


Some gamers might define this kind of sharing as a form of cheating as it means participants are not “getting through the game all on [their] own” (Consalvo, 2009, p.88). Given the increased prominence of playthroughs, tips and livestreaming, alongside the industry’s efforts to encourage and grow community around their games, these mores may be shifting. Dark Souls itself has been designed with the expectation of a robust player community willing to pool its knowledge through in-game and out-of-game communication methods.

Furthermore, Dark Souls incorporates tip-sharing and collaboration into its lore. Solaire informs the player that the result of the flow of time being convoluted in Lordran is that “heroes centuries old” are able to interact with the present. This is why the player can confront characters like Lautrec, Sif, Dusk, or Solaire himself, who would be long dead according to a linear timeline. He gives the player the White Sign Soapstone “to summon one another as spirits, cross the gaps between the worlds,” by which he means create a summoning sign that makes the player available to join another player’s session “and engage in jolly co-operation.” Co-operative play, soapstone messaging, the bloodstain ghosts and, by extension, forums, streams and walkthroughs, are the results of Lordran’s collapsing timeline bringing heroes from different worlds in contact with one another.

Dark Souls does not intend its players to face its dangers alone. Community collaboration is not only part of the game’s design, it is diegetic and integral to understanding Lordran’s convoluted history. As the game has progressed in its lifecycle, though, participating in these co-operative mechanics and the community’s collective intelligence about the game effectively alters the pacing of Dark Souls. Collaboration can short cut exploration, spoil discovery and reorganize a player’s relationship to the fictional environment, all because the game has been mastered by the community if not the individual player. It makes a difference how long the game has been released, how much of it has been documented online, how many other players are currently playing, writing messages, or offering themselves for summoning. The possibility of experiencing the ludic sublime is thus not only a function of the qualities of the game, the way it resists mastery through its difficulty and illusive storytelling. It also depends on how player and community practices evolve and are shared over time. For this reason, the aesthetic experience of a videogame should be understood as not only contingent but also specific, situated and corresponsive with socio-historical contexts. 

The git gud Economy

A key context within which to evaluate late-stage Dark Souls is the gaming industry’s transition from product model to service model (Schreier, 2017b). In the wake of the “casual revolution,” major game studios sought to seize on successful freemium monetization practices of games like Farmville (Zynga, 2009). Under the product model, users pay for a game like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward, 2007) once and then enjoy hundreds of hours of playtime in online player-vs-player (PvP) modes. Game companies earn little or nothing from the extended playtime and replayability of a game-as-product. Under a model of game-as-service, game companies monetize extended playtime through subscription fees, microtransactions, downloadable content sales and other recurrent user payments [5]. Sustaining a longer time commitment then becomes important because it fosters in players a sense of sunk cost, whereby they rationalize spending more time and money on the game [6]. Because longer playtime makes recurrent user payments more likely, games-as-service, like their casual freemium counterparts, are designed to be “neverending” (Costikyan, 2014). As a result, Nathan Grayson (2018) observes, players often get bored and walk away well before finishing a game, let alone mastering it.

The extent to which the shift to games-as-service has reshaped contemporary videogaming exceeds the limits of this study. Instead, in what remains, I want to suggest that the influence of this shift can be recognized even in the late-stage play practices of Dark Souls, a game that does not feature recurrent user payments. It manifests specifically in a prioritization of efficient, productive play as opposed to more exploratory, interpretive forms that might lead to the ludic sublime.

On one level, playing for efficiency is an expected response to the modes of monetization deployed in games-as-service. To avoid accusations of being “pay to win” games-as-service often offer players the option of buying items, cosmetics, upgrades, characters and other forms of desirable content either with real money or in-game currencies acquired by playing the game. In other words, they allow players to decide if they want to pay for content with money or time. Designing for this choice leads to different priorities. Rather than designing for fun, challenge, or significance, the game-as-service is designed to impede the player’s progress, to frustrate in order to make paying to save some time seem appealing [7]. For the player, the objective of play shifts away from beating the designed challenges of the game to the metagame of finding the most efficient in-game currency extraction methods [8]. Developers then issue patches to rebalance these efficient approaches, prompting players to find and share new methods, which require a new patch and so on. The lifecycle of games-as-service becomes this competition between developers and players to determine the value of the player’s time: the new gameplay spiral.

And yet, on another level, by merely entering into this competition, players submit to modes of engagement that barely resemble play. By Bernard Suits’s (1978/ 2014) definition, play is the antithesis of work, intentionally and importantly inefficient, done simply for the sake of inhabiting a lusory attitude. In games-as-service, however, the more players progress the more these games come to resemble work: repetitive tasks done for the sake of in-game items that have explicit or easily calculable real-world valuations. The gameplay loop of daily, weekly and monthly achievements supports an unending grind for resources, equipment, materials and currencies to build characters for more optimal grinding. In this way, games-as-service exemplify the conversion of daily life--including leisure and play--into forms of value generation under digitally enabled neoliberalism.

For games developed explicitly around recurrent user payment monetization models, this reorganization of play as its opposite is fairly easy to identify. Dark Souls, however, was not designed for recurrent user payments. It has never included microtransactions and its one downloadable content patch was distributed for free. Technically still a live-service game due to the always-on functionality of its co-operative and PvP mechanics, Dark Souls did not adopt artificial pacing techniques of its freemium contemporaries. Furthermore, Dark Souls is often figured as the anti-casual game. This predominantly single-player, mature-themed, dark fantasy with an obscure, decentered narrative challenged players to “git gud” right as the casual revolution was getting underway [9]. Indeed, the qualities that Vella identifies as resisting mastery--its infamous difficulty and esoteric storytelling--are contraposed to the design priorities of the freemium casual games that became the model for games-as-service [10]. At the same time, however, Dark Souls cannot completely resist the neoliberal reformatting of play.

Some of this occurs on the level of genre conventions. The inclusion of character building mechanics common to roleplaying games, for example, constitutes a form of customizable avatar that Pérez-Latorre and Oliva (2017, p. 792) associate with the “entrepreneurial self.” More specific to Dark Souls, though, is the way the game’s resistance to mastery enables and even reinforces late-stage playstyles that prioritize self-improvement, efficient productivity and competitive individualism. Notably, despite recommending “jolly cooperation” through cooperative mechanics, tip sharing and community building, the “git gud” meme originated as a response given to players requesting help on community forums.

A full assessment of Dark Souls’s participation in neoliberalism is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, I want to focus on how, despite its lack of microtransactions and other recurrent user payments, late-stage Dark Souls still manages to redefine play as productivity. Central to this is the way the game’s resistance to mastery has the effect of extending playtime indefinitely. Simply put, it takes a great deal of time to master, even only to a functional degree, a game as difficult and obtuse as Dark Souls. Dark Souls does not include daily log-in rewards, iterative release or artificial progress gates that appear in its contemporary games modelled as services, but it also doesn’t need to. It still manages the player’s time through its difficulty curve and arcane, distributed lore. 

From the perspective of difficulty as playtime management, the collective mastery of the game--as it does with more heavily monetized games--grants players the agency to contest the value of their time in-game. The community’s storehouse of tips, tricks, walkthroughs, player builds, lore recaps and so on enables players to subvert the game’s efforts to pace play. With the help of this material, a player can save countless hours they might have spent getting lost, looking for better equipment and learning the upgrade system, squandering rare resources only to farm them again, experimenting with ineffective combat mechanics, dying to traps and generally figuring things out on their own. Experienced players can use these tips to engage the environment more purposefully, shortcutting to preferred areas, weapons, equipment and materials in order to make advanced character builds honed for PvP encounters. Referencing and relying on these supports--refined by numerous players over years of the game’s lifespan--allows late-stage Dark Souls players to navigate the game much more efficiently. The cost of this efficiency, however, is the pre-empting of exploration and experimentation.

Speed running Dark Souls is perhaps the most intense example. For a speed run, players attempt to achieve some win state--like defeating the final boss, Gwyn--in as little time as possible, often by taking advantage of quirks in the game’s programming to progress more quickly than intended. Ironically, speed running requires probably the greatest time commitment of any playstyle. Endless practice perfects optimized routes coupled with ceaseless study of the game maps, AI movements and mechanics to shave off fractions of a second from a run. The speed runner does not seek the ludic sublime, though. Instead, they practice a playstyle that defines mastery as maximal operational knowledge and thereby forego confronting the game’s boundlessness to pursue measureable, objective performance gains.

The speed run strips the game to its bare, rule-driven essentials as it makes explicit the correlation between play and time management. A number of online tips videos do something similar, although to a lesser degree, by demonstrating how to become “overpowered” in a few minutes. Dark Souls’s interconnected areas enable players to access much of the game’s content quite early. By placing more difficult enemies in certain areas, the game encourages players to traverse Lordran in a specific order. For example, it is much easier to go up from Firelink Shrine to the Undead Burg before going down to tangle with the ghosts on the way to New Londo. Because all the areas are accessible, however, players can run through them without confronting the difficult enemies and acquire powerful equipment earlier than intended, thus breaking the game’s difficulty curve. The shortest overpowered video I found at time of writing demonstrates how to sprint through the maze-like Catacombs to get the Gravelord Sword and the Rite of Kindling in about five minutes (Nicsaweiner, 2017).

Though certainly useful for struggling players, these tactics are also used by advanced players in order to prepare for low-level invasions. For this playstyle, players circumvent the matchmaking system--which uses character level to pair players--by minimally upgrading their characters while they collect advanced gear [11]. This allows them to farm resources from players who follow the normal difficulty curve and so have much weaker weapons and armour. These PvPers can be found skulking around popular dueling zones, like the Undead Parish, awaiting a challenger, uninterested in progressing the world of Lordran, alongside the respawning hollowed NPCs (Figure 7).


Figure 7. A YouTube highlight reel by Colby CheeZe (2013) demonstrates low-level invasions. Perched within the Old Church, typically an early game area, the invader waves to their opponent with an advanced weapon, Quelaag’s Furysword. Notably, they take up the position formerly occupied by the Channeler, a challenging NPC for low-level players, reinforcing a comparison between invading PvPers and the undead NPCs (source: own screenshot). Click to enlarge.


If the remastered edition’s inclusion of an upgraded match-making system rather than new content is any indication, PvP dueling is the dominant late-stage Dark Souls playstyle. For the committed PvPer, AI enemies have become tiresome, the rich--sublime even--environment a burden. Every new character must be built up from scratch, all gear must be acquired anew, all upgrades farmed again, until reaching the preferred soul level (usually 120). While this character building practice can be enjoyable, it takes a great deal of time. It incentivizes efficiency to complete a build and open up areas of the gameworld as soon as possible in order to get back to dueling. The entire gameworld is thereby remapped, the detailed fictional environment overlayed with practical zones for farming, arenas for dueling and the dead zones of slow traversal in between.

This is not to say that these late-stage playstyles are bad, necessarily. Instead, the point here is to recognize that, though Dark Souls itself has remained relatively unchanged, what it means to play Dark Souls changes over the game’s lifecycle. When considered in the context of the current trend toward games-as-service, late-stage Dark Souls playstyles--informed by the collective mastery of the game--tend similarly to prioritize efficiency and productivity, which resonates with the neoliberal conversion of play into another form of value generation.

Not every late-stage Dark Souls playstyle eschews the game’s difficulty for greater efficiency. Many attempt to reinstate it by imposing restrictions on gameplay. SL1 runs, caveman or naked runs, or starting gear runs all eliminate, by choice, whole swaths of the game’s offerings and opportunities in order to make playing the mastered game hard again [12]. Dark Souls players have also completed these types of runs with non-traditional input devices such as a RockBand guitar-shaped controller or DanceDanceRevolution pad, adding to the game’s designed challenge a mechanical, operational challenge [13]. These forms of what Nguyen (2020) calls “striving play” have gotten pretty intense, progressing to the point where advanced players complete the game without being hit while not using the dodge mechanic or ranged weapons [14]. These playstyles are ultimately reductive, however, focused on difficulty rather than wonder. They rely on deep knowledge of the games systems, practiced routes and perfected operational facility, to be sure. As a result, though, these styles are beyond exploration, experimentation and sublime encounter, now merely a matter of errorless execution. In this way they too become a form of self-valuation, particularly for the aspiring content creator. These restricted runs are popular on YouTube and Twitch precisely because of Dark Souls’s reputation as a difficult game. At this late stage, it is no longer enough to prove oneself by beating the game. One must do it at soul-level one, with starting weapons and no armour without dodging or else “git gud.”

While these metagames may reinstate a form of play--ascent to arbitrary rules for the sake of inhabiting a lusory attitude--they do so by reifying difficulty, reducing the game’s complexity, ignoring, for the most part, its boundlessness. James Davenport (2016) makes a similar observation about the implications of fixating on difficulty in the run-up to the release of Dark Souls III. He encourages players to “get curious,” “get dramatic” and “get playful.” Only then, he writes, does “death [turn] into an excuse for playful experimentation and the unpredictable drama of online interactions set the stage for stories that no other medium can.”

On another level, such self-imposed limitations recall Ian Bogost’s (2016) invitation to “play anything,” suggesting that Dark Souls has become a site of boredom, ironically requiring the fresh attention of play. The game in fact thematises this stage of its gameplay cycle. Dark Souls is about the spreading curse of the undead, which causes the afflicted to reanimate when they die. Without the possibility of death, the undead eventually go hollow, losing their minds from frustration, hopelessness and boredom. In this way, the game anticipates its player’s affective response to both their repeated confrontations with the game’s harsh difficulty as well as their position within postmodernity. It is a fascinating engagement with boredom as “a response to late capitalism’s relentless imperative to always be ‘on’, to continually self-valorize, an injunction which is impossible to ignore entirely, but that always teeters on the brink of abject failure, concerning, in particular, our growing inability to suture together past memories and experiences, present existence and anticipations of future intersubjective relations to late capitalism” (Gardiner, 2017, p.239). Throughout Lordran, for instance, the player meets “crestfallen” NPCs, adventurers who have given up hope of discovering anything different (Figure 8). The game’s difficulty, repetitiveness, ambiguity and mystery reflect this question of hope back on its players, challenging them--amid the futility--to play with purpose anyway, to find meaning in their quest and their lives. Does late-stage Dark Souls help players toward these corresponsive playstyles, one might ask, or hasten their hollowing?


Figure 8. The Crestfallen Warrior offers the player advice (source: own screenshot). Click to enlarge.


Dark Souls may still offer the ludic sublime, even now. This capacity does not reside in the game alone, however, which can invite optimization and efficiency and thus reductivism. Maintaining and pursuing a sense of boundlessness requires particular forms of engagement, forms that increase complexity rather than reduce it, in the way good literary criticism honours its object of study. In the wake of the casual revolution and the expansion of highly monetized games-as-service, playstyles that resist the conversation of gameplay into another site of value generation are of urgent importance.

Try Hope

To play a videogame is not only to enact its rules and fictional world, but also to take real world action that has meaning and significance beyond the screen. As a result, playing a game is never solely consumption; it is an act of interpretation and so includes the possibility of critique, both of the game itself as well as the cultural contexts in which it participates. There are, thus, playstyles that resemble what Phillip Wegner (2020, p.16) calls “creative reading,” which he describes by quoting Fredric Jameson as aimed at “detecting the presence of some utopian content even within the most degraded and degrading type of commercial product.” In response to an industry and a culture that seeks to collapse play into productivity, we need to attend not only to game composition but also to such creative playstyles, a poetics of play that recognizes the “importance of play and players as activities that have creative, performative properties” (Sicart, 2011).

The challenge for videogame scholars is to be able to identify, document, analyse and even develop and share--perhaps even becoming frontline content generators ourselves [15]--playstyles that prioritize complexity, ambiguity, surprize, epiphany, beauty, contemplation, self-reflection and, perhaps most of all, unoperationalized fun. As the evolution of Dark Souls playstyles demonstrates, however, creative modes of engagement can be difficult to pin down. Play is always situated, but never stationary, so every metagame has its own weird histories. Perhaps it is for that reason, though, that “play can never be reduced to product” (Boluk and LeMieux, 2017, p. 6).

Every year on 4 October, the anniversary of the game’s North American release, the Dark Souls subreddit kicks off the Return to Lordran event. Players new and old alike are encouraged to start a new character and embark on a fresh playthrough of Dark Souls, as if starting the game for the first time. Return to Lordran exemplifies why Dark Souls Remastered feels like a missed opportunity. With its only new content aimed at improving PvP encounters, the remastered edition declares Dark Souls already lost to the skulking PvPers. Even as the gaming industry rings the death knell for the single-player narrative driven game (Sarkar, 2017), Return to Lordran speaks to a nostalgic desire for mystery, exploration and play. But, of course, as Hamilton reminds us, we can only play today’s version. We can’t go back to a time before Dark Souls was mastered by the community, before we knew all the shortcuts, before the game got too easy. Nor can we ignore the storehouse of tips, strategies and lore, the sharing of which Dark Souls fosters and incorporates into the game itself.

Setting aside Dark Souls’s unique embrace of “jolly cooperation,” the solution here is not to ignore or abstain from participating in community mastery. As Steven Jones (2008, p. 74) observes, “Player and fan intelligence is by its nature modular and distributed, at its best when it is collective.” As individual players, we could never amass the understanding and mastery of Dark Souls that has been developed by the community. For contemporary games, increasingly designed to be “neverending” and often belonging to open and expanding transmedia stories, community developed paratextual guides, summaries and strategies only become more indispensable even as they alter one’s aesthetic experience. The goal then must be to re-evaluate what constitutes poetic play in the context of collective mastery, to “re-master” these games toward crucial aesthetic and critical projects. Herein lies the significance of individual enactments of a game, their “replay value.” A specific playthrough focalizes collective mastery within the situated present of an embodied player, bringing it into active correspondence, as Alexander Galloway (2006) would say, with lived social contexts.

Figure 9. A reassuring Orange Guidance Soapstone message (source: own screenshot). Click to enlarge.


Dark Souls may have remained the same since 2011, yet every return to Lordran is an opportunity to play in search of meaning and hope to stave off hollowing (Figure 9). An expanded poetics of, not just games, but gameplay recognizes in these situated, contextual playstyles the capacity for creativity and critique. In doing so it might foster in gaming culture the pursuit of values other than the efficient accrual, values like empathy, curiosity and wonder.



I would like to thank Chris Schaberg, Ed Chang and my reviewers for their generous and insightful feedback.



[1] In a statement announcing the closing of Visceral Studios and the delay of the Star Wars game it was working on, EA Executive Vice President Patrick Söderlund said that they needed to “pivot the design” of the game because “in its current form, it was shaping up to be a story-based, linear adventure game” (Sarkar, 2017; Schreier, 2017a). The result of this pivot was Star Wars: Battlefront 2, which has become synonymous with exploitative lootboxes and grind-heavy progression. See Good (2017). 

[2] The item description on Ornstein’s armour reads “Ornstein is believed to be the captain of the Four Knights.” This belief, however, is never corroborated by other sources in the game and thus Ornstein’s position remains in doubt. Prompted by this example, EpicNameBro (2015, part 32) references an interview with Hidetaka Miyazaki, director and producer of Dark Souls, in which he discusses unreliability as a key feature of the game’s storytelling.

[3] See for example MacDonald, K., & Killingsworth, J. (2016). You Died: The Dark Souls Companion. Backpage Press.

[4] There are a number of different ways to encounter other players in one’s own instance of Dark Souls. For simplicity, I will only be discussing the most basic version of cooperative play, the White Sign Soapstone.

[5] Two years prior to the release of Dark Souls Remastered, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered (Raven Software, 2017) received the addition of microtransactions, literalizing the transition from product to service. See Jacques (2016).

[6] Managing player time is a key tactic for free-to-play, or freemium, game models because it is understood that the longer a player keeps with a game the more likely they are to spend money on it. This expectation has resulted in a number of mechanics intended to extend playtime indefinitely. For more on free-to-play designs, see Luban (2011).

[7] Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (Ubisoft, 2018), for example, sells an experience booster to speed up its painfully slow character progression. See Plante (2018).

[8] This is explicit in games like Rockstar North’s Grand Theft Auto V (2013), which uses timed intervals to determine how much in-game currency is rewarded for certain activities. This even applies to modes like races, which curiously give bigger rewards for taking longer to complete. As a result of this mechanic, tips videos often advise players not to end a mission until a certain amount of time has passed, even if all objectives could be completed more quickly. For an example of a tips video demonstrating efficient currency generation methods in Grand Theft Auto V, see Laazergaming (2018).

[9] The phrase “git gud” is an intentional malapropism of “get good” which became a sarcastic response to the difficulty of Dark Souls. In a typical example, a player might ask on a forum how to beat a particular boss and then receive the response “git gud.” For a history of this phrase, see MScratch (2014). 

[10] Juul (2012, p.30) explains that casual games prioritize inviting fictional conceits, pick-up-and-play usability, interruptible play sessions, forgiving difficulty and effusive, or “juicy,” feedback.

[11] Dark Souls matches players for cooperative or competitive play based on the soul level of each character. In short, for a player to summon or be invaded by another player the two must be within an acceptable soul level range. The intention was to prevent very high-level players from being matched with very low-level players. The overpowered videos and other tutorials for low-level invasions show how to acquire advanced gear while remaining low-level, thereby allowing strong players to match with relatively weaker ones. For example see Colby CheeZe (2013).

[12] “SL1” refers to “soul level 1” or a character’s starting level. The idea behind this playstyle is to complete the game without increasing their character’s attributes. For caveman or naked runs, the player cannot wear armour. For a starting gear playthrough, the player may use only the equipment with which their character begins the game.

[13] For a range of non-traditional controllers that have been used to beat Dark Souls, see Rad (2016).

[14] See for example jnz (2019).

[15] Espen Aarseth (2016) made a similar suggestion, arguing that academics have ceded too much of the public discourse on videogames to content creators like PewDiPie.



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