While spelunking my way through the deep blackness of The Tomb of the Giants, our internet went out. While this might seem inconsequential, I was navigating my way through this winding cavern of pitfalls and skeletal ambushes entirely on the grace of other players, each charting a course through their own version of this inky nightmare.
“Lying in ambush ahead,” read one player’s note. A combination of “Try Jumping off” and “Imminent Shortcut” let me know there was a hidden path to bypass a large portion of the tomb down to a much needed bonfire. One player had seemingly just left a trail of messages simply labeled “Path.” And, of course, there were also the bloodstains and murky phantoms dashing through the dark showing me potential walkways, pitfalls, and giant skeleton dogs.
Even with the player notations, Tomb of the Giants sucks. It’s got giant skeleton dogs that you can’t see until you’re right up on them. And when the game loaded back up in offline mode, I’d been cut off from the multiverse of other players. There were no glowing orange pathways, no guidance in the form of shades dropping off of unseen cliffs. Just me, and the dark, and the giant skeletons. I took a few steps, missed an enemy to my right, and was promptly rewarded with being thrown into a pit. But, like the Chosen Undead, I knew after this brief disconnection, those messages and phantoms would be right back.
On the last day of Demon’s Souls’s servers, I mostly observed. A patchwork of other players’ messages shimmered into glowing orange existence wherever I traveled. They didn’t know who, if anyone, would see them, but they reached out through the fog of our individual Boletarias eager for connection. Soon we’d be cut off from one another forever. I read them, as many as I could. There were pleas for help, encouragement for when our connections would be severed, quirky sayings, blue humor. I rated them quickly. Letting them know that at least someone was there. I left a few words of farewell and encouragement of my own. Then I found a quiet corner in The Tower of Latria to wait out the end of a connected universe. I watched a few shades flit past, some left blood stains, others a message or two, and then the servers went down.
I’d been playing online all week, knowing this was the end. But I wasn’t playing for progression. I didn’t care about how many items I burned through (or gave away), or world tendency. This wasn’t going to be the last great playthrough. This was watching a world celebrate its end. It was a week of nihilistic absurdity. I stayed in body form as much as possible, courting invaders and offering help where I could. And for every message I read, I left just as many of my own. People invaded just to throw themselves off of ledges after gesturing wildly for attention, putting on their most ridiculous (or fashionable) outfits.
It was a weird time. Imagine all the outlandish moments that players have cataloged on YouTube over the years, but without anything else. It was playacting millennial anxieties. We forged shared connections in this catastrophically bleak virtual world that we all somehow ended up loving. It was a reminder that for all its press, marketing and player bravado about being a deeply antagonistic and antisocial game, Demon’s Souls (like it’s successors) is also very much about how we approach a global transition, the choices for connection or disconnection.
After the servers went dark, I opened the game back in offline mode, and while the Tower of Latria had never felt inviting, this new isolation was suffocating. My fellow shades had departed, along with their notes, and with them my connection to other players. There were no more invasions, no more summoning. This is what it meant to be truly alone in this world.
I’d always enjoyed the guidance, jokes and misdirections of other players’ messages, but I hadn’t really thought about how fundamental they were to the experience of Souls games. Player messages can aid or hinder, poke fun, or call attention to tragedy. Orange markers indicate hidden passageways, precipitous falls, dead ends, or provide encouragement (either to the self—“I DID IT!”—or others, as when “GOOD JOB!” is placed under or behind a tough boss). The messaging systems are crucial. Whether players choose to engage in the other multiplayer aspects, being online means seeing these phantom notes wherever players have left them. And as with summoning and invading, it’s up to players to decide when and how they will use them in a pro-social or antisocial way.
Most Souls games teach players how to summon and be summoned before they explain invasion. In Dark Souls, the tragic-but-jolly Solaire serves as an in-game guide to this system, and offers players an early faction to participate in cooperative multiplayer.
Players are encouraged to leave a glowing glyph down to indicate to others, each on their own quest as the Chosen Undead of their timeline, that they are willing to assist for a time. But putting down your glyph to aid another player means taking time out, staying largely in one place. In order to help, you have to hold space for them, you have to be patient. And while there are rewards for successfully aiding other players (souls, covenant items, humanity), there are no guarantees. In another world, players can locate and use another player’s glyph to summon aid for boss fights, or through particularly tricky areas, but summoning successful or useful help isn’t guaranteed. And there’s always the threat of invasion.
Invasions get talked about a lot, and there’s an argument to be made that they are technically opt-in. If you never play a game in Body or Human form, you’ll never get invaded by other players. Being invaded is the risk a player takes from becoming human—either to kindle a bonfire or summon assistance. Being vulnerable and open in Souls games means that other people can help you, and it also means they can hurt you. Invaders epitomize the anti-social aspects of the game. Sure, they earn souls and humanity and sometimes items and faction rank, but players choosing to engage in PVP often do it for fun, the thrill of the hunt, or because “this is what Dark Souls is.”
And they’re not wrong. Making the choice to be antisocial is baked into the game. But while a player who becomes human may welcome the chance to be invaded, to wrestle and triumph over an invader or just have a good fight, they may also just desperately be in need of help, and down to their last humanity, making a hail mary. Or, they could have been an absolute misanthrope who thought nothing of their desire to ruin players experiences. But invaders never know who they’re invading, just as summoners never know who they’re aiding or being aided by. In fact, a player may kill an invader, just to turn around and be summoned to aid them in a fight.
In a game where direct answers are hardly forthcoming, and every character seems potentially suspect, these multiplayer mechanics engage directly with the nebulous path all players must chart, whether in Lordran or Boletaria. They offer players concrete ways to positively engage with each other, or indulge in antisocial impulses. But Souls games need both—vulnerability has to have a cost, and humanity is precious.
There’s a vocal contingent of Souls fans who will tell you that Demon’s Souls is still the same game. That playing it offline is great, that matchmaking never worked, and summoning keeps you from “getting gud” and cheats players of the real Souls experience. And while they’re entitled to that opinion—and yes, fundamentally you can progress through the game as always—they’re unequivocally wrong. Demon’s Souls, and the games that follow encourage players’ extensive use of pro-social and antisocial mechanics and systems to expand upon and engage with the games’ cosmologies and thematic elements. While I’ll admit the matchmaking in Demon’s Souls was inconstant, it’s complete lack is palpable. Having spend half a year going back through Dark Souls, I can’t imagine what it would be like to hear the tower bell cease ringing. But I know what it’s like trying to get through the Tomb of the Giants without the spirit of other players, and while it may be more difficult, and may even be the “intended” way, being able to guide, encourage, and maybe even trick players makes it and every other zone in Dark Souls so much more meaningful.
The major decision players make in Souls games are almost always the same: do you choose to return the previous status quo to dominance, or replace it with a new one. It’s never a really interesting decision. And it’s a choice that’s thrust on players with hazy information at best. Because in the end, it’s not the big decisions that really matter in Souls games, it’s how we arrive at them, what we’ve done along that way. Because there are hundreds of small social decisions players have to make before the final choice, opportunities to be vulnerable or an aggressor. It’s choosing over and over again how we’ll approach the end of the world, not just for ourselves, but others. Souls games need these choices, because the real Dark Souls starts with other people.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer, photographer, and founding editor of CapsuleCrit.com, a monthly journal dedicated to microgenre work about games. She tweets too much at @dialacina.