What I remember most about Dark Souls is the cold. This is impossible, naturally, and may seem to fly in the face of the game’s most celebrated maxim – is not Dark Souls the game that commands us to praise the sun? Nonetheless, eight years since From Software’s Gothic labyrinth of an RPG overturned an entire industry’s notions of challenge and myth-making, everything I love and dread about the game seems to resolve itself into a question of temperature. The huddled damp of Firelink Shrine. The shivering darkness of New Londo. The ashpiles of the Kiln, where long-ago-melted iron pillars stream sideways like windblown icicles. Even Anor Londo, the heavenly citadel on which the sun never quite sets, is a frigid place, its god rays brightening the marble but failing to pierce the skin.
The game feels most hospitable, of course, when it comes to the bonfires that pin its singularly ominous layouts together. Those bonfires! I can hear the noise they make in my head as I write this – that strange, airy, undulating note, more like the hum of a machine than the crackle of a blaze. I can see the light bronzing my character’s emaciated features, hollowed out by death after death. But considered against the fatal arc of the unspoken plot, the bonfires are the chilliest elements of all. Dark Souls is a game about entropy and the way vital forces consume themselves: it invokes the flame as creator and destroyer. Its bonfires might be places of rest, but they are also places where the souls of living things are burned in exchange for power.
We could talk about the concepts that make up Dark Souls. We could talk about its merciless, stamina-based combat system, its knack for ambushes and split-second reversals, building on the already-withering example of 2009’s Demon’s Souls. We could talk about the pitiless yet engrossing principle of having players trek back to the site of their last demise, hoping to reclaim their hard-won XP before they are slain twice over. We could talk about the astonishing interweaving of the mythology with the online elements. We could talk about the bosses, each ravaged by pride and grief, ranging from balletic knights to behemoths that would have God of War fumbling around for a QTE. We could talk about its enveloping, yet pleasingly organised world, a cyclopean spiral stair that bores relentlessly up, from titanic graves through castles crowded with ghouls to the scooped-out eyrie of the gods. We could talk about the tantalisingly slight item descriptions, and the memes the game’s baroque cast and library of player messages have spawned. We could talk about Artorias, Ornstein/Smough, “jolly cooperation” and “amazing chest ahead”.
We could also talk about how the Souls formula changed from entry to entry – flattening and unravelling a little in Dark Souls 2, though who could say no to the view from Majula’s cliffside?; engorging itself with Stoker and Lovecraft in Bloodborne; darting sideways into ninja fantasy with Sekiro. We could talk about the grand procession of third parties that steal from or outright clone it, though we should be careful not to overreach ourselves – critics have become hypnotised by Dark Souls, sensing its darkness within every game, much as every veteran of Lordran knows to regard a treasure chest with suspicion. We should also probably discuss how the difficulty of Dark Souls, or at least the edgelord machismo of its marketing, has reinforced elitism and ableism in the gaming community. But none of that means much in the abstract: everything has to be thrown onto the pyre before you can see it clearly. It’s hard to spell out what Dark Souls is because Dark Souls casts such a spell itself. You have to set foot within to know it. You have to open yourself up to the cold.