The fire has faded, ashen one.
With the release of its final DLC, “The Ringed City”, Dark Souls 3 concludes a series that began in 2011 in familiar sombre fashion. The fires of humanity cling to their last embers through you, the player-character, as you navigate a deformed city at the end of civilization in pursuit of a knight gone mad trying to save his niece, and thus the world. This final chapter has you dart and weave through a twisted maze of some of the series’ most iconic locales, albeit viewed upside-down, or sideways.
“The Ringed City” exhibits all of the familiar thematic hallmarks of the trilogy: difficulty, hopelessness, and loneliness. Souls games have always done a spectacular job of making you feel alone and isolated in their unforgiving and haunting landscapes. However, one thing I have discovered in all of my hours spread across the series, is that you are only as alone as you choose to be.
When I first began my journey across the Kingdom of Lordran in Dark Souls 1, I found myself extremely lonely and frustrated with the infamous unforgiving difficulty of the game. I would have to take frequent breaks from the game after getting stuck in an area, trying the same strategies over and over again, and yielding no positive results. This lead to an extremely slow pace game for me, and though I felt satisfied by completing it, I didn’t have any reason to want to replay it at all. This sentiment continued when I ventured through the “Kingdom of Drangleic” in the 2014 sequel, Dark Souls 2. I had no reason to want to spend more time in a frustrating world alone, and no motivation to change my character’s build, or seek out any different items or weapons than what I had stumbled upon while charging through to completion. Astute readers and fans of the series will have already noticed a glaring error in my approach to these beautifully crafted games: I didn’t touch multiplayer. It wasn’t until my foray into the decrepit ashen “Kingdom of Lothric” in Dark Souls 3 that I finally discovered the joys of cooperative and PVP modes, which From Software had taken so much time to perfect.
Multiplayer has a very unique format in Dark Souls games, in that, usually the experience is largely singleplayer until you call for help. A player may choose to enlist the help of another player (called a Phantom) to aid in their adventures. The Host player can do so by searching for a White or Yellow “summon sign,” to be scrawled on the ground by the Phantom enlisted, in the exact same spot in their own game world. This White or Yellow Phantom player is pulled from their world into the world of the Host. Once in the same world, they are tasked with helping the Host dispatch a particularly difficult pack of enemies, solve a complicated puzzle, and finally, defeat the area’s boss. After destroying the ultimate foul creature that has been plaguing the Host with its presence, the Phantom is sucked back into their own world, and the Host is left to stand over the corpse of the newly felled boss. The catch? There’s no voice chat. Or text chat for that matter. Jolly cooperation is at the mercy of hand signals known as “emotes” or “gestures” that only cover the most basic of communicative movement (such as, pointing, kneeling, rejoicing, bowing, and beckoning). This extremely limited vehicle for communicating has lead players to develop a shorthand for getting their point across. For instance, a Host can summon multiple Phantoms, but this process is invisible to an impatient Phantom wanting to get started on the boss or mob of enemies nearby. How is a Host to indicate that the second summoning (which can take anywhere upwards of 30 seconds to a minute depending on internet connection) is in progress? Simple. He or she spams the point gesture and spins around rapidly in place, making him or herself into a pseudo-loading icon. The impatient Phantom now knows why the Host is wasting time; they are waiting for another helper.
While this example of shorthand seems simple and limited, in the context of cooperative modes, the forced and voluntary PVP thrust upon a player during their journey, reveals a far more nuanced and rules-based etiquette system. Red Phantoms, who are hostile players bent on destroying you, can enter a Host’s world in two ways: through a voluntary summoning similar to White and Yellow Phantoms for a Duel, or through a forced Invasion into the Host’s world. During an Invasion – which is again devoid of any voice or text chat – anything goes. The Red Phantom will stop at nothing to slay the Host, enlisting the help of enemies in the world to ambush and distract, while plotting a sneaky attack from the rear, or using the myriad buff and de-buff items to set up the Host for a crafty execution. The only time I have ever seen shorthand used during an invasion is when the Host cries for mercy, using either the collapse or prostration gestures to fall to their knees, and beg for their life. Kind and generous Red Phantoms may take pity on the plight of the poor Host player, and end the Invasion through their Separation Crystal (an item to return a Phantom to their home world), or by hurling themselves off the nearest cliff. As a Red Invader, I was never so kind and generous…
Duels, on the other hand, are a beast of their own. While no mechanic in the game forces a player to abide by any rules beyond those found in an Invasion, players have developed a set of rules and etiquette to adhere to when Dueling. Since a Host is entering PVP voluntarily by summoning a Red Phantom, and the Red Phantom has willingly responded, the players have entered into a contract of sorts – but what are these community enforced terms of combat?
First and foremost, before summoning even occurs, both players must be in a location devoid of any of the world’s enemies. These creatures would give an edge to the Red Phantom as they would only attack the Host. A neutral and flat location is typically chosen, with lots of room to accommodate all sorts of different character builds and weapon sizes.
Next, a greeting must be made between parties, using character movements or one of the gestures designed for just this. If you are an edgy, angsty, too-cool-for-you nerd, you’ll choose ‘Legion Etiquette,’ where you run the dull of your off-hand weapon along your firmly extended main-hand weapon, because you’re just that cool and confident. The rest of us simply bow.
The following step is optional, and used more on weekends and evenings where you are more likely to encounter newcomers or people more likely to break etiquette. Dark Souls games’ healing function is based on a charge system. In all the good Dark Souls games (looking at you, 2), this takes the form of a flask containing multiple swigs of Estus, a healing concoction. During this step, you spam-chug all of your flask uses until you run out, and your character does an animation where they turn the flask upside-down, revealing it empty to the drop. By making sure both parties to the Duel have no way to heal, you are on an even playing field, utilizing only the health bar you bring into the fight. Honorable duelists will have no need for this step, as they will abstain from healing during a Duel simply out of respect for the rules.
Duels are one-on-one, but as a Red you might be summoned into a world with more than just the Host present. This can go one of two ways. Either you are entering a Fight Club, or you are being Ganked. Gankers are a mob consisting of a Host player and up to three other White and Yellow Phantom players that are ready to ruin your day by ganging up on you all at once. These are extremely frowned upon due to the fact that they exploit the trust of a Red Phantom just looking for a Duel. A Fight Club, though, is where a Host has summoned many Phantom players, Red, White, and Yellow, in order to facilitate a tournament of sorts where Phantoms are sent into the ring one-on-one in a gladiatorial style elimination match to crown an eventual winner. Etiquette here is simple: wait outside the ring until the Host points at you using the a gesture, and only refresh your health with Estus Flasks between fights. If you defeat all the Phantom players lined up against you by the Host, you’ll have a chance to fight him or her.
The last step, if you are able to defeat your foe, is to choose some kind of gesture or combination thereof, to reinforce to your fallen adversary that they’ve been beaten. Though many just bow as they did to start the Duel, a common practice that I’ve seen is to line yourself up at the corpse’s crotch, and perform the lie down gesture, using their pelvic region as a pillow. Seems crude, but the floor is yours, and to the victor go the spoils.
The community has developed these rules in order to bring familiarity to a largely unknown world. However, the question remains, with the prevalence and ease of implementation of a simple voice chat system in other games, why has From Software decided to go the bare-bones, stripped-down route? Souls games craft a world more difficult than needed, with a narrative that is cryptic at best, never giving any instructions or directions save for, maybe, a mention from an NPC to ascend a tower, or find a dungeon. The lack of communication, even when you do find someone to share in the adventure with, is an intended feature in itself. It’s a pillar of the narrative that ties into the atmosphere of isolation and hopelessness.
When you feel as though you are always on the edge of knowledge – never given enough pieces of the puzzle to see the complete picture – you must create a constant of some sort, to see you through to the end of the journey. The player is sent into a world where, instead of journal or codex entries tracking what they’ve learned, they’re given hundreds of items with descriptions so vague there are still heated debates across fan forums, as to how an item’s text relates to the lore at large. A world where every player’s actions and decisions have meaning, even when that meaning may not be felt immediately or leads to other players questioning why another player did something. For instance, a particular NPC decides to leave the sanctuary hub world of Firelink Shrine after I killed a particular boss. Where did he go? Was that boss his friend? Will he himself become a boss later? One of the ways in which we as players find comfort, and a semblance of familiarity, amidst such uncertainty is through our adherence to the community’s rules and etiquette. The kind of gameplay that Souls games provide also informs their atmosphere, and can lead players to search for answers in different ways.
Though the community has organically developed these “house-rules,” again, no one is compelled by any mechanic to abide by them, they are entirely community enforced. This phenomenon of self-policing competitors in Dark Souls relatively stands alone in a gaming landscape rife with players exacting every last drop of advantage out of systems designed to reward winners. Duelists in Souls games play to win, for sure, but they also play in search of a challenge – a search born out of the love of an incredibly challenging game. After jumping back into the trilogy with the release of Dark Souls 3, and throwing myself into the multiplayer ring for the first time in the series, I can happily say I have found that love too. The game is over a year old and I still find a reason to “touch the darkness within…”