To mold the mind and body. To cultivate a vigorous spirit, And through correct and rigid training, To strive for improvement in the art of Kendo.
–“The Concept of Kendo,” 1975
I am sure you will die a lot in the game, but the game is designed in a way which a player can learn from his deaths. By experiencing a lot of deaths in the game, I am hoping that a player can find out how he can overcome each difficulty in the game… When the difficulty is high, all the values of things a player finds in the game will be very precious.
–Hidetaka Miyazaki, director, Dark Souls
Most reviews of Dark Souls lead with a lament/celebration of its difficulty. Whatever else we might say about this game’s merits (and there is much to say), we’re fixated on this game’s capacity to bash our brains in. Many players find the difficulty frustrating, and some have suggested only masochists can truly enjoy the experience Dark Souls delivers. But for many of us, this game and its predecessor Demon’s Souls elicit an uncommonly ardent (dare I say reverential?) feeling of devotion that few games evoke. Why?
Dark Souls pushes all my buttons, provoking long, bleary-eyed play sessions; tenaciousness bordering on obsession; audible gasps of incredulity, followed by frustration, followed by profane tirades, followed by warnings from my wife not to wake up our 3-year-old. These behaviors are all familiar to me because Demon’s Souls provoked all the same reactions. I’m left wondering why no other games push me anywhere near those places?
These questions have rattled around in my head since late-2009, when Demon’s Souls sunk its hooks in me. What is it about these games that draws me in so completely? Why do I feel such a powerful compulsion to keep going, despite hundreds of ruinous failures along the way? Is it less about the game and more about me? Am I looking for a way to prove myself as a gamer? Am I simply a glutton for punishment?
Maybe I shouldn’t dismiss that last question so quickly. If the ‘punishment’ dished out by these games feels substantive to me - if it truly has meaning - then perhaps I do behave like a player-glutton. I eat up my punishment in big helpings, ever eager for more. I mean, if the shoe fits…
So, an obvious question arises: what does Dark Souls punishment mean? What exactly do I get out of it? Back in ‘09 I took a stab at that question with Demon’s Souls, and the answer I came up with was pedagogy. These games employ a failure-as-tutelage model that works remarkably well, if you’re willing to trust the teacher. Ultimately, the difficulty resonates because the cumulative impact of many failures is progress - and progress feels like victory in these games.
I believe that assessment holds, but I’ve come to realize it doesn’t fully account for the grip Dark Souls has on me. Something else - deeper and more reverberant - is happening to me when I play this game. I believe it has something to do with training and mindful discipline. Playing Dark Souls intently, over time, is akin to practice, in both the common sense of the word - performing an activity or skill repeatedly to achieve mastery - and in the traditional spiritual sense - deepening our awareness through disciplined focus and effort.
For the correct transmission and development of Kendo, efforts should be made to teach the correct way of handling the shinai in accordance with the principles of the sword.
For me, Dark Souls enables an approach to play that reflects Kendo (i.e. “The Way of Sword”) training, with some of the same benefits imparted to the earnest practitioner. Thus, the world of Dark Souls functions as a kind of virtual Dojo, a stern but playful host for rigorous lessons in persistence, patience, discipline, precision, mastery, and charting an optimal path.
Dark Souls is an exacting master, unsparing in its insistence on thoughtful play. No game requires more persistent mindfulness of my actions, my environment, and my technique. Each new place (and its terrain and inhabitants) will test what I’ve learned. Cautiously entering an uncharted region, I unfailingly pause to take a breath and consider my preparation. Am I ready for this? Do I have everything I need? Am I nimble enough? Am I strong enough? Am I fully focused and undistracted?
If any of these answers are ‘no,’ I will very likely die. If all the answers are ‘yes,’ I may survive, but probably not. The real challenge for me isn’t survival - I mean, the game starts the player as dead and insists on keeping him there - the challenge is mostly about paying attention. Learning the game’s cues, memorizing its environments, and internalizing its systems. Dark Souls doesn't rely on adaptive AI for its NPCs because doing so would disrupt this carefully balanced ecosystem. It would also likely make me shoot myself in the head.
The great misconception about Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls is that they’re designed to kill you a thousand times. In fact, these games are a series of immaculately designed challenge chambers, designed to teach the studious player to succeed, but on the game’s terms. At the risk of cliche-mongering, I’ll suggest that this requires a kind of surrender often described as ‘letting go’ or ‘becoming one’ with the game.
If you want to be given everything, give everything up.
--Tao Te Ching
And so in the Dark Souls Dojo the player cultivates his mind, spirit, and technique through disciplined practice, aiming for “Ki-ken-tai-ichi,” (“spirit, sword, and body are one”) a Kendo term used in teaching striking moves. “Ki is spirit, ken refers to the handling of the sword, and tai refers to body movements and posture. When these three elements harmonize and function together with correct timing, they create the conditions for a valid strike.” This concept embraces a way of playing this game that appeals to me and enriches my time inside the game. I know what a "valid strike" is in Dark Souls. I have felt it.
When I play Dark Souls mindfully, it’s possible for me to experience a fully-unified sensation. Last night, I sustained it through a perfect run of the New Londo Ruins. I executed every move efficiently, with minimal effort and maximal effect. I knew exactly where to be, what to do, and how to do it. I was elegant and precise. It was less like fighting than dancing. It was beautiful.