Grinding is an experience almost as old as videogames themselves. It’s a main gameplay feature in nearly every RPG, whether to beef up the game’s length or lock up the best loot behind a barrier of progression. But in nearly every game, the act of grinding is a solitary experience. Even multiplayer games will see the player need to embark on a grinding solo session when their friends are offline. You set out on your own, equipped with gear that exists only to be replaced. What can seem like hours will pass before eventually, you get it—the new shoulder blades, hat, sword, whatever new gear that’s next in line for replacement but for that moment constitutes the most exciting find in existence. While these kinds of small victories appear solitary, across the world players just like you are mirroring your grinding efforts. Dark Souls III allows players to not only share these moments but experience them in unison through its unique online features, turning the isolating task of grinding into a communal one.
Every game has a cycle of “it” weapons. The weapons you want—no, need to have. The ones with a dedicated Youtube guide that you wantonly skip through to see the most efficient grinding route. Dark Souls III has a lot of these weapons depending on your playstyle, but for those of us that are in it for the ludicrously large swords, the Black Knight Greatsword is it. I carried the Black Knight Greatsword throughout the originalDark Souls, and it carried me. I upgraded the behemoth to its maximum damage, organized my stats around being able to swing it as many times as possible, and watched as my many foes fell flat under its weight. I killed a plurality of the game’s friendly NPCs on accident by simply being too trigger happy with the beast and never stopping to think about who or what I was swinging at. Lugging the slab of metal around was synonymous with the Dark Souls experience for me, so when I realized the sword made a comeback in Dark Souls III, I knew I needed to have it.
Dark Souls pits the player against two Black Knights near the beginning of the game, each with a 20% chance to drop their Greatsword. If the Greatsword doesn’t drop from these two non-respawning Black Knights, you have to wait until right before the final boss fight of the game for a chance at some respawning Black Knights to appear. Dark Souls III is more generous in offering the player a constantly respawning Black Knight about halfway through the game, but less generous in how it calculates drop chances. The third game introduced a luck skill, which factors into determining when and which loot drops. As a no-think big sword boy, every levelup saw me dump skill points into strength (ability to hold big sword), endurance (ability to swing big sword) and vitality (ability to tank hits in order to continue swinging big sword). The average of these skills was around 30 at the time I began my Black Knight Greatsword grinding quest. My luck? Nine.
My friends warned me that with such a low luck skill, getting my personal excalibur would be a lengthy endeavor. But as thick as my soon-to-be sword was, my skull was thicker and I set out on what I confidently assumed would be a five-minute detour. Dark Souls III and its predecessors use a network of bonfires as checkpoints; resting at these bonfires restores your health, refills your estus health potions, and respawns enemies. The perimeter bonfire at Faron’s Keep was only about a 30 second walk and a few enemies away from the Black Knight that was suggested to me for farming, so I warped there and got to work. My first attempt saw me take out a few measly corvid creatures on my walk over, but struggle to take out a larger troll. I came out victorious against the troll, and was soon face-to-face with the Black Knight who held the object of my desire.
Not only did he kill me, but he humiliated me. I barely got a scratch out on his fire blackened armour before he used that illustrious weapon to send me back to the bonfire from whence I came. No problem, I thought. Just part of the process. After a few more unsuccessful attempts, I managed to fell the Black Knight and for my efforts received nothing. Well, I got 900 souls which amounted to some percentage of a levelup—but mostly nothing. Some more attempts with varying degrees of success made me realize that this small detour was actually a full blown traffic jam. But then on one attempt numbering somewhere in the 20s, I saw a faint orange light smoldering on the ground to the right of the Black Knight on a staircase. I carefully walked up the staircase to the light, making sure to not enter the enemy’s attack zone. When I reached it, I clicked to read the player-left message and two simple words popped up: “try falling.”
Multiplayer in Dark Souls III is unique in that it doesn’t stop with standard co-op and player vs. player. The series has fixed multiplayer into the game’s lore and created systems of communication not seen in other videogames. In Dark Souls lore, time and space are convoluted, with heroes across different worlds and times seeing their worlds briefly collide. In game, this translates into gameplay mechanics like the messaging system, which allows players to leave messages for one another on the ground. The game will select random messages from other players to present to you in your own journey. The messages have a limited set of word choices, but nearly infinite meanings in different contexts. So when I read “try falling,” puzzle pieces put together by some other player—days, weeks, or maybe even months ago—fell into place for me.
The message was placed strategically above and behind the Black Knight. I could fall down to his level, and by walking slowly I could easily approach his rear for a devastating backstab. I did just that, and in addition to taking out nearly all of the Black Knight’s health, he was staggered to the ground. His recovery period to stand back up was just enough time for me to charge up the final blow, and the Black Knight crumbled without me having to fumble through a sparring match. I didn’t get the Greatsword just yet, but I had received the knowledge necessary for its acquisition.
But even equipped with this forbidden knowledge, my meager luck stat still lingered over me, and my now shortened attempts were still proving fruitless. Sure, the Black Knight was no longer sending me back to the bonfire, but upon defeating him I would have to hike back to it anyways and rest in order to respawn him. On one of these walks, I took notice of an apparition fading in and walking past me in the opposite direction towards the Black Knight, two-handing an impressively large sword. They exited my world just as quickly as they had arrived, but their wordless walking spoke to me: I wasn’t alone.
In keeping with the lore, Dark Souls III also employs a system where other players around you in their game can momentarily appear as a sort of ghost-like entity in yours. You never know when your own ghost is present in someone else’s world, and for most of my journey this was a feature I largely overlooked. But seeing the ghost of another big sword zealot walking down a hallway that exclusively leads to the Black Knight grabbed my attention. By this point, I had spent well over an hour trying at the Greatsword, with no luck. I had memorized my route completely, and it was a simple 2 minute process that I executed with the deftness of a surgeon working on his umpteenth procedure. But I knew that when I condensed my grinding story down as a conversation topic, I would never be able to explain the intricacies of my forged path in full detail. “It took me a few hours, but I got it,” just wouldn’t do justice to the scope of my quest. But here was another person who understood everything I went through entirely. Not so much as a nod passed between us but we shared a bond in our love of big swords, and our will to get them.
Throughout the next two hours, I saw more and more of these ghosts pop into my world. Resting at the bonfire, I would see familiar faces (well, helmets really) and know that their latest attempt was also unsuccessful. But every now and then I would realize that I hadn’t seen mushroom head or pointy boy in a few runs, and know that their journeys were complete. They had the Black Knight Greatsword and although they would never know it, I silently congratulated them on their determination. New players would take the place of the old ones, each sporting a unique armor set but shouldering one of the game’s big swords and ready for their chance at the next big one.
It barely registered to me when it happened. I think I yelled at my girlfriend in the room over that I got it, but it was such a blur that anything could have happened. The Black Knight Greatsword became mine. Over the course of three hours, I had managed to get almost the entire Black Knight armor set (each piece of which, according to the wiki, is more rare than the actual Greatsword) and became nearly robotic in my movements. But the end of my journey was as exhilarating as it was distressing. I don’t know if or for whom my own ghostly presence had made an appearance, but now it was their turn to say goodbye to me.
Maybe after three hours I was reading too much into the situation, building up the idea of a community in my head to boost my morale. But reading too much into things is kind of what Dark Souls is all about. The games rarely tell you what’s going on, encouraging the player to look at item descriptions and physical parts of the world to ink out the story—both past and present. Looking in every nook and cranny the game has to offer nearly always rewards the player with loot, lore, or both. This time, the reward wasn’t just the Black Knight Greatsword, it was the knowledge that there were others out there like me. Solaire of Astora, an NPC from the original Dark Souls, puts it best: “The way I see it, our fates appear to be intertwined. In a land brimming with Hollows, could that really be mere chance? So, what do you say? Why not help one another on this lonely journey?”
I don’t think my running into a fragmented collective of big sword seekers was mere chance. There was a combination of gameplay choices and resolve that led each of us on our own grinding journey that fateful Tuesday night. I used the Black Knight Greatsword for a few bonfires before ultimately replacing it, continuing the cycle of grinding. But where other games would have seen me cast aside my previous weapon for the next without much thought, replacing Black Knight Greatsword was different. It made me think of all those out there who keep their shields holstered on their backs, saving both hands for the hilt of their sizable swords. The Black Knight Greatsword may be hidden away in my inventory, but the memories of grinding to get it are there for me, reminding me that I’m not always alone on my lonely journeys.
Nicolas Perez is an editorial intern at Paste and opinion co-editor for New University. He’s rambling on Twitter @Nic_Perez__.