On its 10th anniversary, Dark Souls is still comfortably the best video game I’ve ever played, for many reasons.
But looking back from where we are now, the one that really stands out is its timing. Dark Souls continues to loom large in part because it arrived at the perfect moment. It changed the gaming landscape. But also something else. It captured a bleak social mood that’s only deepened since.
On one hand then, Dark Souls matters because of how it shifted the triple-A balance. For me, personally, it was a revelation. It says something about my apathy towards a lot of games in the years leading up to its release that I hadn’t so much jumped into the Xbox 360/PS3 console generation as slowly waded in once the tide was too strong to resist.
I bought a 360 in late 2008, and still only found a handful of single-player games I cared for. Gears of War and Dead Space felt too streamlined and cinematic (similarly the PS3’s Uncharted games) and even some RPGs and open-world adventures seemed overly guided.
Dark Souls was the perfect antidote. It turned all that upside-down. Of course, it was building on the achievements of 2009’s Demon’s Souls, but that remained a comparatively niche title, platform exclusive, with a muted late release in Europe. It was Dark Souls that had an impact on the wider gaming psyche. More than anything, it reintroduced a sense of faith in players.
It wasn’t love at first sight for me, admittedly, thanks to its near pathological opacity. I spent my first couple of hours with it holding my shield up obsessively, expecting ambushes at every turn, not realising my stamina would recharge much faster if I lowered it. But after years of guiding lines, objective markers and glowing weak spots, it meant so much to figure that stuff out alone, or indeed with other players.
But here’s the thing. This could only have felt like a revelation at that time. Before this era, it was par for the course for games to throw their players in at the deep end with barely an encouraging wave (compare the original Tomb Raider to the modern trilogy). Nowadays, there’s so much variety it’s easy to skip between hand-holding and tough love as the mood suits. But in 2011 the sense of mystery and limitless discovery in Dark Souls felt new, daring, liberating.
“It wasn’t love at first sight for me, admittedly… But after years of guiding lines, objective markers and glowing weak spots, it meant so much to figure that stuff out alone, or indeed with other players.”
I’ve lost count of the number of times and ways I’ve played through Dark Souls since, and again in its Remastered form. And I don’t usually replay games much. Not only that, it planted a desire in me for other ‘Soulslike’ experiences, to recapture its thrills. Fortunately, From and dozens of other developers have felt the same desire. Some of games they’ve created have got close to the same magic (particularly Bloodborne), many haven’t, but either way the legacy of Souls is undisputed.
On the other hand, what also felt more significant about Dark Souls as the decade wore on was its dour spirit. Dark Souls, it turned out, was a challenging and foreboding game for a challenging and foreboding decade. It replaced power fantasies of invincible action heroes with a fantasy of survival against the odds, and that slotted neatly into a time of austerity and division.
Indeed, if you want to feel the resonance between From’s RPG and reality, just watch the news. One tells the story of a crumbling civilisation and an old guard desperately trying to reignite a golden age – a story of immense challenge and repeated failure, as select champions fall and rise, increasingly convinced of their ability to succeed, but also folly, as the prosperity they seek will only lead to further suffering and sacrifice. The other is Dark Souls.
Again, the synergy is in the timing. The world of Dark Souls runs in cycles, between ages of fire and dark, with each game in the series focusing on a historical point where the fire is dwindling, and the acolytes of the gods seek to keep it burning. They refuse to let a new age arrive, clinging on to their reality even as it starts to crumble.
After the economic crisis of 2007-8, this premise has come to mirror our own predicament. We still haven’t managed to move on, in politics or economics, from the hubristic failure of the ‘neoliberal’ age. This was the thinking that had ruled uncontested since the fall of the Soviet Union, with the doctrine that there was no alternative. So when it started to fail, no one in power had anything else to offer. All they could imagine was to remake the thing that had stopped working.
And so, in the UK, we’ve seen many a chosen undead promise to relink the fire – David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson (Jeremy Corbyn’s offer of jolly cooperation was roundly rejected) – and restore the mythical golden age of Gwyn, Lord of Cinder (probably Margaret Thatcher in this metaphor). Yet as the decade has worn on, it’s become clearer they had no stomach for the notorious challenge this entailed, choosing instead to focus on enrichment and scapegoats.
“What also felt more significant about Dark Souls as the decade wore on was its dour spirit. Dark Souls, it turned out, was a challenging and foreboding game for a challenging and foreboding decade.”
We’ve been left with the dying embers, the hollowing of society and our communal relationships. In 2021, Britain is more like the end days depicted in Lordran than it was in 2011, hanging in stasis, unable to rekindle the fire or move forward to a new age. Like Dark Souls being played by someone who lacks the inclination to finish it.
It’s hardly a surprise then if Dark Souls still feels culturally important. With that, however, and as great a game as it will always remain, I also hope it becomes less relevant in the next decade.
I’m looking forward to playing Elden Ring and a number of other forthcoming Soulslike games. But it wouldn’t be so bad if they began to feel a little out of touch. At the very least, it’s time for another triple-A shake up. And if the coming period were defined by a very different kind of game – preferably a more caring, unifying and empowering experience – that would be some relief.
The decade of Dark Souls has burned as brightly as any in the history of gaming. I thank it for some of my greatest digital memories, if not my continued love of the medium. But 10 years from now, I hope I have a new favourite.