Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Dark Souls is the story of the Chosen Undead, the character controlled by the player, transcending challenge after challenge. In the perfect melding of game narrative and player motivation, the game literally gives us a prophecy that we will go forth, ring two Bells of Awakening, and eventually save the world. Or, if not save the world, then at least keep it going along in the same way that it is currently.
This week, with the release of Dark Souls Remastered, my friend Danni and I streamed the game in its entirety in a single sitting to raise money for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. It took more than ten hours. It was long and grueling, and we thought that it might destroy any interest we have in the game. We were willing to burn out for charity, but what happened was astonishing.
We ended up enjoying it more.
With games as much as people, familiarity can breed contempt. I’ve burned myself out on a game franchise before. Although I wasn’t the one holding the controller, narrating and discussing Dark Souls for ten hours without a real break is still a big ask for a person’s attention. It demands a huge amount of concentration and commitment, and sometimes the work of puzzling out where to go next and what to do is as difficult as the manual manipulation of the little Chosen Undead that you’re guiding through the level.
That kind of dedication is something that Dark Souls rewards, though. Much has been written about how the game’s obscure narrative, delivered in bits and pieces through item descriptions and dialogue from several different characters, demands a lot from the individual player. If you want to understand what is happening in the game, then you need to put in the effort of putting the pieces together. To make it even more complicated, those pieces don’t necessarily fit together. There is no source of “objective” knowledge in the game. Instead, there are people and there are legends, and both of those are forms of storytelling that hinge as much on desire than they do on actual information.
Somewhere around the three hour mark I realized that we weren’t just streaming for charity. Or we weren’t merely doing that. Instead, we were telling a story together, and not just in a “every path is different way.” I was explaining the plot for people who were unfamiliar with the game, and people in the chat were correcting me or supplementing what I said with additional information. Viewers were typing out theories about how characters come to be where they were, or if what they were telling us was true. We discussed level design and architecture. We dug into the game.
I’ve written before about how enjoyable Dark Souls is to stream, but this was something different. It was total immersion, not in the sense of being lost or dissolved in the game, but instead it was about being completely surrounded by it. Every moment in that ten hours was dedicated to pursuing minutiae about the game, all the while waiting for Danni to die in a comical way to so I could clap about it.
It was my first foray into that kind of longform streaming, and it helped to put some things about the culture of Dark Souls into context for me. It is a game that you can completely immerse yourself in. You can dedicate yourself, priestlike, to the pursuit of perfect knowledge about what happens within it. You can learn what all of the stats do, what the “soft caps” are for level ups are, what the appropriate routes are for completing all of the bosses in the correct time. You can warp yourself into a being purely dedicated to the mechanism of Dark Souls because, unlike so many games, it rewards that kind of dedication. Other than fighting games, I can’t think of many gaming experiences that really ask you to think about frames in a serious way.
In the same way that the prophecy of the Chosen Undead asks the characters in the game to continue moving forward, no matter the cost, the immersive potential of Dark Souls will always reward you for diving down deeper into it. You can get caught up in the mystery of that storytelling, of that leveling up, of that efficient routing. Some people buy in so much that they pursue this to toxicity, claiming that anyone who doesn’t play in the way that they do should “git good.” Like the hollows at the top of Senn’s Fortress, they plateau in their abilities, looking down on those who can’t quite make it to their level.
The marathon stream in a simulation of that real-life, all-the-time immersion, though. I don’t have to think that hard about Dark Souls tomorrow or the next day, and I certainly won’t be surrounded by dozens of other people who are concentrating as hard as I am about it. That isn’t the life I lead. But doing a marathon stream is, in many ways, a glimpse into a potential life of dedicated play.
I didn’t burn out. I don’t want to abandon the game forever, eternally thinking about something else. But I do know what my limits are for immersing myself within that world and its story. I think I know my limit for thinking about Dark Souls as a singular object. And I’m glad that dedication and focus isn’t my everyday experience.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/evkabw/dark-souls-remastered-charity-stream-marathon