Let’s rewind the clock.
I’m 11 years old. It’s April Fools’ Day. At school, during morning recess, I hatch a plan along with representatives from the other classes of my year. We’re going to play a trick on our teachers.
After recess we all trudge back to the 3rd floor. It’s a small school, and all the classes of my year are on the 3rd floor. We make to go back to class as usual, hanging up our jackets on the hooks provided in the hall, but, at a designated signal, every student walks one class further, so that we all end up in the class next to ours.
The teachers take it in stride, and we all take the next period in the wrong class. After lunch we return to our normal classrooms, not wanting to overplay the joke.
As soon as I sit down, my teacher calls the class to attention. “Alright everyone,” she says, “there is a new standard tests that’s just come in. It won’t count toward your grade, but everyone has to do it.”
We all groan.
The teacher passes the tests out. I get mine and I’m even more dismayed: the thing is thick with paper, easily the longest test I’ve ever taken. “Remember our rules for taking tests,” says my teacher. “Read the whole test over before starting, and skip past questions that are too difficult. You can always come back to them later.”
The test begins. As long as it is, I think it will take the better part of an hour to complete. I get my head down and start working.
Not 5 minutes later a couple of students get up and hand their tests in. It’s odd, but they’re A students, so whatever.
Twenty minutes after that and more kids are handing their tests in. I’m barely half way through myself. These kids are not A students, they’re C students at best.
Ten minutes later and I’ve had enough. The test is just bizarre, and annoying. There is no rhyme or reason to how it’s structured: long division mixed in with geography, fractions alongside probing questions about Ancient Egypt. It makes no sense. I start to flip through the pages, just to see how much I have left.
Then, on the 26th page, I see the last question: “This is not a real test. Sign your name on this page and hand it in.”
I look up. I see all of the students who have handed in their tests already, and I see all the students who are still plugging away. And I see the teacher, sitting at her desk, reading through notes with a smug look that she can’t quite hide.
I sign my name on the last page. If I’d been thinking clearly I might have added “Well Played” under my signature. But I was only 11 years old.
I never forgot the teacher’s rules about tests after that. Not to say I ever really used them, but they’re still at the back of my mind.
If I’d been expecting anything special on the other side of the white light I’d have been disappointed. Crossing through only sees me entering yet another tomb full of invincible skeletons. These are especially moronic, as well, which is a big problem for me. The stairs I take downward are curved around the chamber’s right wall, and the skeletons are getting stuck in the middle of the room, bumping up against the side of the stairs, rolling end over end as they try to attack a target that is above them, out of reach. They are unwilling to take the time needed to back up and use the steps. I want to lead them up and out, but I can’t get them to follow.
I move here and there, up and down, back and forth, trying to find a spot that will get the skeletons to come around and attack me directly, until I slip and fall the short distance to the floor below. That doesn’t do any damage, but the skeletons are right there, and they’re very curious about what I look like on the inside. I die. Which is no big deal, as I expected to die eventually. But, on my way back, while fighting a skeleton in a doorway, I am struck in the back by an arrow, and I die again. Without having recovered my body. That’s nearly 10000 Souls, and 3 Humanity, lost.
I feel disappointed, but less than I might have been. Souls have been easy to come by lately. I can earn 3-5k every time I run back to my corpse after a death. It’s the Humanity that I feel bad about losing, but that’s tempered by still not having any idea what it’s for. The game has told me that it helps me find items, but the only items I’ve found have been crappy shields and weapons (falchions and scimitars) I don’t want. It’s not like I can sell those to anyone, they just pile up in my inventory. No point in getting worked up over a mystery. Every now and then I just seem to acquire another Humanity. I thought it was because I hit a certain number of Souls, but I’ve reached 6500 again and I’m still as dead inside as I’ve ever been. Unless it’s cumulative, as I’d thought before, between deaths.
There’s nothing to do but press on.
Eventually I do clear the skeletons out, and I find another message. “Treasure.” It’s written underneath a flimsy-looking wall that crumbles away as soon as I tap it. I want to step through, into the new darkness, but I hear arrows being fired, and impacting against the other side of this wall. On my left is sunlight, so I decide to check that out first.
The path outside runs to my left, along the rock wall, and then curves all the way around the shape of the valley like a horseshoe, with the ends nearly meeting up again with another land bridge, but that has long ago fallen apart. At the top end of the curve the path widens out, and a small pack of skeletons paces back and forth. In the open space around me float a bunch more Skull Ghosts. Maybe later.
I can’t see anything inside the treasure room. Not that there’s nothing in there, because I can definitely hear things, like the ceaseless firing of arrows in my general direction, but it’s too dark to see even the dimensions of the room, or where the floor might be. With some careful use of the camera I figure out that I’m dealing with 2 skeleton archers. One is on the ledge directly to my right, another is up above me, on another ledge. Below is only darkness; I’ll have to fall and trust that I’ll land on something solid.
I time my entrance, getting between the arrow hits, and go after the first archer, who appears to be in reach. But when I leap at him I find that he’s not quite on my level. I take a short fall, landing in front of him, then slip off his ledge and fall to the floor below. I’m now in a large, open room, the general shape of a cube, and there are a couple more skeletons striking menacing posses, getting ready to leap at me. I know I can’t really kill them, and I don’t want to stand around in view of a pair of archers, so I keep going. I run out of the room, into a wide hall. At the end is the sparkle of an item; there’s a stone casket, lid propped open, with an item inside. I run toward it. I hear the sound of stone crashing into stone, and the ceiling caves in. A huge skeleton lands in front of me. Can’t fight it. I run past him, toward the item. I can’t quite get in reach, and I circle around the coffin. But now I’m being pressed in from all sides, skeletons blocking any avenue of escape. With nowhere to go, I die.
Now, this. This is a problem. My body is in a place that I know is suicide to approach. I have seen the length of that space, and there is no fire thrower down there. If I fall into that room, I have to fight my way out, and even if I could do that, there was no ladder or set of stairs leading back to the doorway. It was a smooth rock face, nothing to climb. If I went down, I wouldn’t be coming back up.
Upon returning to the tomb, I make another careful study of my surroundings. I can hear fire being thrown. The fire thrower is around here, somewhere. I’m standing at the top of the stairs, trying to figure it out, when it hits me. By “it,” I mean a fireball. The fire thrower is standing in a room directly across from the top of the stairs. A room in the opposite direction of a fall into the treasure room, and also of the only other exit from this tomb. How, I wonder, am I supposed to get up there?
Somewhere along the line I have also gained another Humanity. I have less Souls now than I did before I died. It has to be a cumulative count.
Just to be thorough, I kill off all the skeletons inside the tomb, then the ones outside, on the horseshoe ledge (they also don’t stay dead, but there’s plenty of empty space to kick them into), and follow that path down into another tomb. There is a long, empty hallway, which leads to a large-looking open space. In the distance I can see what looks like statue of a horned demon. That looks suspiciously like the kind of place a game would like to put a boss of some sort. I decide to tackle the other tomb first.
I dive into the treasure room once more, and this time I make sure to pick up the item in the casket. It’s a Darkmoon Seance Ring, which grants an extra attunement slot. I think I understand what the game is trying to tell me.
When I respawn at the bonfire I don’t even bother to go after my corpse again. Instead, I equip the Darkmoon Ring and run all the way back to New Londo, where I buy a Sorcerer’s Catalyst, a staff that will allow me to cast my Soul Arrow spell. I camp at the Firelink Shrine and equip the Soul Arrow spell, then run back to the Catacombs. On the way, I am confronted with a distressing message informing me that my club is in critical condition, so I have to go back to New Londo again for repairs.
Finally, after everything is prepared, I return to the room with the fire thrower. I can see him there, and I can target him with my Soul Arrows. If I can kill him, then the skeletons will become mortal, and I can go down to the treasure room, clear it out, and solve that mystery once and for all. I shoot an Arrow, it hits. I shoot another Arrow, it hits. But there’s a new problem: every time I land an Arrow, it pushes the fire thrower back, and he is not moving forward again. By the time I’ve hit him with 4 Arrows he’s too far away for me to target, and even after a minute of careful positioning and test firing, I discover that my Soul Arrows have a very limited range, and there’s no way I can kill the fire thrower with them.
This makes no sense to me; I’m sure he has to die for me to proceed. The only other path leads to a gaggle of skeletons, none of which can be killed, and then to a new tomb. On top of that, I shouldn’t have to throw away my body by falling into a trapped treasure room and not be able to recover it. There has to be a way to get to the fire thrower, but I can’t find it.
This is why I told the story about the April Fools’ Day test, because, like it or not, it informs my attitude toward progress in games. I don’t often look at guides. I am fine with figuring things out on my own. The problem I have is that, as in this instance, the way I play games doesn’t always conform with how other people play games, and, more importantly, how developers expect their games to be played. I often find that I’ve spent a lot of time training myself to exploit or manipulate a game’s mechanics or patterns in such a way that I eventually back myself into a corner from which I have difficulty finding the right way out. It’s not uncommon for me to accidentally sequence-break a game and never even realize I’ve done something wrong till I run into a complete dead and, and after a whole lot backtracking I find that I’ve been missing some important powerup or ability that would have made everything I’ve already done much easier.
I have a young cousin who likes to say that I go with the flow. He’s only half right: what I really do is easily accept situations I’m in. I mean to say that I’m not stubborn, really, but I can end up doing the same things a stubborn person might, because I don’t become frustrated with video games and will happily plug away at a task just because it’s what I think I have to do, even if it ultimately turns out that I’ve doing things the wrong way, or the hard way.
So understand that there are plenty of reasons for what I do next.
Where any other person, any person who is sane and wants to stay that way, would come across the sort of dead end I’ve found and decide to retreat until they find more appropriate challenges, I decide that I’ll just keep going. I’ll come back to this question later, when I have more time.
I don’t go back. I don’t return to the safety and comfort of the Firelink Shrine and try to find another route.
I move on to the next tomb.
Upon entering I do not find a boss, at least not right away. The initial space is filled with large pillars and stone coffins. At the end of the room a new, wide hall shoots off, and the giant demon statue sits firmly in the middle of that path. Maybe later. On the right side of the hall I find another room. Inside is a ladder, leading down to a room full of coffins, and skeletons. I get rid of them, still having to lead them out to the open air and kick them over the edge because they won’t die. There are holes in the floor, seemingly inviting me to fall through. Even I am having second thoughts about this venture now, so I back out for the moment.
Oh, and that statue that I thought might be a boss? It’s a boss, or a mini-boss, or the equivalent. When I approach, it slashes at me with its spear, and thereafter it tries to zap me with ball lightning every time I’m in sight. I fire a few Soul Arrows at it, but they don’t do any damage. Its patterns are basic enough that I can fight it, but I do so little damage to it with my club that I don’t see the point. Thankfully, it’s crippled, crawling around on only one leg, and is unable to leave the hall it’s guarding. Behind it I can see the sparkle of an item.
Back in the side room I’m trying to coax a skeleton out of a corner, because it seems more concerned with running into a wall than chasing after me. I’m moving around while my target is locked on the skeleton, and I don’t see that I’m getting dangerously close to one of the holes in the floor. I fall through. There is no way back. I am near the valley floor. In the room with me are another skeleton, and something else. Something that appears to be nothing but a set of floating eyes. The only way out is down, and I step off onto a lower ledge. Below me is even more bad news: the valley floor is covered with skeletons. Skeletons riding around in large, spiked wheels. There are at least 5 of them taking turns running into the rock below me.
I’ve got nowhere else to go, so I drop down. It doesn’t take long before I die.
Though I’m annoyed by this lack of progress, I do make a pleasant discovery. I can drop directly from one land bridge to the one below, giving me a shortcut I can use to avoid having to clear each tomb every time I come back.
At this point I no longer care the slightest about recovering my corpse: the progress of Souls is fleeting and ephemeral. What I really desire is the progress of conquered territory. I already know I’m strong enough to take down any number of skeletons or fire throwers, provided I can figure out how to get to them.
I also know there has to be something I’m missing about that 3rd tomb. Knowing me, it’s something really obvious.
I leave that problem stewing on my mind’s back burner and enter that last tomb once more. I manage to clear out every skeleton in the room with the ladder, then I clear out the ones in the room below. I find another ladder, and I keep descending.
I’m in the darkest room yet. I can tell just from how far I’ve come that I have must have finally reached the valley floor. At the bottom of this final ladder is a small, square chamber, and on my left, around a corner that gives me just enough space to stand without being seen, is another hallway.
I rotate the camera so that I can see what’s ahead.
I see him. I see a fire thrower. He’s standing at the end of this hall, flanked by a pair of skeleton archers. This is what I’ve been longing for. This is progress.
Before I can make my move, before I can run howling down the hall to deliver clubbed justice, a skeleton appears from what I assume is a doorway at the fire thrower’s right hand.
Then another appears. Then another, and another. There are 4 skeletons, in a tight group, strolling lazily down the hall, toward me. There’s nothing else to do; I can’t fight 4 skeletons on top of a fire thrower and 2 archers. I scramble back up the ladder and run back to the tomb’s main hall. After a minute or so the skeletons catch up, still strolling cool as you please. I see no choice, so I keep retreating, all the way back to the bonfire.
By the time I get there I think I’ve figured out what just happened, and the realization is chilling, because it means that all my scheming and gaming of the system has finally caught up with me.
Thinking back, it should have been obvious. It probably would have been obvious if I’d been planning ahead. When I was kicking skeletons off of bridges, I wasn’t kicking them into a void, I was kicking them to the bottom of the valley. When I first entered this section of the Catacombs I was so high above the valley that anything falling over the edge would crater at the bottom and die, and even if a skeleton I sent hurtling to the bottom recovered, there were impassable bridges, and their own general stupidity, preventing them from returning to their usual spots.
By the time I was kicking skeletons out of the 3rd tomb, over the bridge that Patches flipped, I was no longer hearing a death sound. I didn’t care, because the skeletons were still gone, but I should have known right then that I was painting myself into a corner.
What I ran into down there, at the bottom of the last tomb, was all the skeletons I’d been tossing to the valley floor coming right back up at me. I was now far enough down that they didn’t even die from the fall. Sure, it might take them a while, but eventually they would all come back.
That meant that even if I did kill the fire thrower down there, I would still be confronted with the skeletons I’d kicked out of the previous tomb, and they’d still be invincible as long as I couldn’t get my hands around that other fire thrower’s neck.
But, as I’ve said, it sometimes takes more than the obviously impossible to turn me around. Never mind all the stuff I couldn’t kill, there was one enemy down there that I definitely could kill, and nothing was going to stop me.
To lift my spirits some I decide to spend the Souls I’ve got in my pocket on another point in strength. With this I am able to use my zweihander, although only with a 2-handed grip.
Its damage is better than my club’s, though it’s pretty slow. As expected, I can work around that easily enough with the extra range it gives me, even if I still think the hitbox of every swing falls a little short of where it should. On top of the improved damage, even the lightest attack I can manage sends skeletons flying, which makes it even easier to knock them off ledges.
I return to the last tomb, and I clear out the skeletons again. I’m back in the hall with the fire thrower and his archer bodyguards. I know my time here is limited. Any minute now the skeletons I’ve been kicking down to the valley floor will have recovered so they can begin their long marches home. I have to kill the fire thrower before they arrive.
My 2-handed sword turns out to be just the thing. I am able to heat both archers and the fire thrower with each of its wide horizontal attacks, making the fight pretty easy.
When the fire thrower dies his corpse starts glowing. I rummage through his robes and find a skull lantern, which seems to be the weapon they use. I read the description. It says these guys are Necromancers.
That explains that.
Sure enough, a gang of skeletons comes through the door. I start slashing at them. I kill one, and it stays dead, but eventually one of them starts blocking, which throws my attacks off and drains all my stamina. I kill one more, and it doesn’t stay dead, before they take me down.
While I may have opened up another path, I am still bothered by my lack of success with the 3rd tomb. I have reached the point where I’m ready to go back and solve the questions I couldn’t before. I really don’t want to move on without killing that Necromancer and getting through the treasure room, and I don’t want to go to the valley floor when it’s full of invincible skeletons.
For a while I try to approach the problem laterally, hoping that my mind will catch on something while I keep my attention elsewhere. I even try to fight the demon statue, now that I have my big sword. I still do very little damage to it, and it nearly kills me in one hit a couple of times. Still not worth it.
Still lost, I go back over areas I’d already covered, trying to look for some passage I’d missed. I find vantage points from which I can peer at every angle with my binoculars. I even go back to Patches to see if he’s got any advice. He doesn’t.
That’s when I make a pleasant discovery. Every time I go near the waterfall I hear a tinkling, magical sound. It’s faint, but I can follow it to a source. In the corner below the ladder leading up to Patches’ nook is a wall that I’ve always found suspect. It’s just coloured wrong. But there’s a statue there, a statue that shoots spikes out at me every time I come near. Still, I’ve got nothing better to do, so I walk into the wall anyway. It disappears! I find a small cave back there, and inside is another bonfire. This one is directly across the bridge from the 3rd tomb, and will save me a lot of time getting back there when I die. I have to roll past the statue every time I enter or leave or it will hit me with spikes, but that’s a small price to pay for all the time I’ll be saving.
What follows is some time spent meandering, just trying to make something happen. Everything I’ve done so far has been fruitless, so it’s time to start trying things I wouldn’t do otherwise.
I make another discovery thanks to the (still) suicidal skeletons. Every time I return to the 3rd tomb from the bonfire under the waterfall I have to pass directly under the bridge where the Necromancer jumped to his death. He’s long gone, but his 2 guards are still there. When I walk below them, they go nuts and jump to their deaths. I know they’re trying to get at me, but they have really bad aim. Once, though, they do a little better, and one of them lands on the path behind me. It then immediately rolls away, off the bridge. But it doesn’t fall to the valley floor. Instead, it lands on a small ledge below the bridge, and then keeps going and falls to its death. But it gives me an idea. I can’t really jump, but its reasonable (at least to me, when I’ve got nothing better to do) to assume that I can fall down to lower ledges. I’ve already been falling from bridge to bridge without any negative consequences. I line myself up and take a run at the ledge. I land on it, then fall to the next ledge, which leads back into a tomb. There is a loot corpse inside, and I find a scythe. I am standing above the small room where I killed the Necromancer guarding a switch.
Outside that room are those stairs that end in a dead fall into the darkness. There are a couple of skeletons guarding those stairs. When they see me, panic, and one of them jumps over the edge. I expect to hear nothing for a while, then a death sound, but instead I hear it clank down on something solid. After dealing with the other skeleton, I get close to the edge and look down. I can see another corpse laying in the darkness. It has to be resting on something solid. I jump down. I find a Green Titan Shard, which is used for weapon reinforcement. Some sort of crafting or upgrading, I assume. The blacksmith mentioned that I could do that.
With no way back up, and with death below–even though the skeleton initially landed safely on this spot, it still fell again, and then died, and even if I could go further, I don’t see any more items–I finally get around to using one of my Homeward Bones, which warps me back to the bonfire.
I look around a bit more, but find no other paths. After a while I give that up again, and decide to head back to the source of my problem: the treasure room.
Now that it’s so close, I can better explore it. I watch the skeleton archers some more. The one high up above, its’ standing on a ledge. When I fall into the main chamber I can see a ladder leading up to that ledge. Up there would actually be pretty close to the Necromancer’s room. What if there’s some sort of opening? I try to climb the ladder, all the while being punctured by arrows. After a couple of tries I get to the top of the ladder, there isn’t anything to find. It’s just the archer, and solid rock walls.
I try the ladder to the opposite ledge, even though it’s nowhere near the Necromancer. Getting up there is even harder, since now both archers are shooting at me. There’s nothing up there, either.
When I finally find the way through it’s just as painfully obvious as I expected it to be. In the hall with the big skeleton is a broken wall, covered by shadows so that a player with eyes only for dodging past a large, dangerous-looking enemy, might miss it. At least that’s my story, because otherwise I’m just an idiot. I go through the break, into a tiny, dirt-filled room. I find a ramp leading up. Up to the Necromancer. Sure, he kills me when I get there, him and his skeleton guard, but I don’t care. I return, and I do a murder, and I like it.
After that, I can clear the rest of the tomb easily. I take my spoils back to the bonfire under the waterfall and invest my Souls in another point each of vitality and strength.
I’ve done it. I’ve cleared all the tombs. There is only one place left to go: the valley floor.
But that’s for next time.