I Can’t Take This:

Dark Souls, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Networks

Released in 2011 to near-unanimous critical acclaim, the action role-playing game Dark Souls was hailed by many as a return to old-school gaming principles that eschewed overly-detailed narrative exposition or player tutorials in favor of a trial-and-error design philosophy and strong risk-versus-reward approach to in-game deaths. Many critics praised the game’s ability to cultivate a type of psychological torment (but also potential for satisfaction) via its unforgiving gameplay, as echoed in Keza MacDonald’s original review of the game where she states “Dark Souls’s design is so consistently dark and twisted that it actually starts to encroach on your mental well-being after extended play” (McDonald, 2011). Despite the emphasis on what was seen as a return to older design principles, equal attention was paid to the game’s radically innovative approach to online multiplayer. Unlike many other online role-playing games that operate through persistent shared universes—or, games that create virtual spaces where dozens or even hundreds of individuals can interact with each other in real time—Dark Souls operates primarily through asynchronous, indirect, or highly-restricted player interactions, such as its famous anonymous user-generated notes posted throughout the world. Such a novel approach to online multiplayer was described by Kevin VonOrd as an “unusual and wonderful contradiction” insofar as Dark Souls makes players “feel remarkably alone in this frightening place, yet simultaneously part of a large multiverse where simply playing the game makes you part of a chorus of silent voices urging each other forward” (VonOrd, 2011). In this sense, Dark Souls achieved the almost paradoxical feat of creating a gamespace that is shared by many but individually experienced as a fragmented and desolate landscape. Continue Reading