When I started writing about Dark Souls it was as much an excuse to write as it was a desire to write about Dark Souls in particular. I have always had difficulty completing things that I start writing, partly because coming up with ideas is much easier than putting them down in w ords, and partly because I am that certain type of lazy perfectionist that grows to dislike anything I work on for too long, to the point where I’d rather trash them than finish them, or get it out before I get to that point.
Initially, writing about Dark Souls was everything I hoped it would be. I could sit down, play for a few hours, and then simply write about what I had done, what I had been thinking while I did it, and what I expected to happen to next. I didn’t have to worry about formulating ideas, whether I had enough of them to make something complete and coherent, or how long I would have to sit on it before it would be done. Every update was fire and forget, and I was happy with that.
I did think I had an interesting angle on the game, as most Let’s Plays I’ve seen are written (or recorded) by someone who is experienced with the game for an audience that is less experienced, or by someone who isn’t very experienced with the game for an audience that is nearly as inexperienced, or wants to see someone play before they decide whether to play themselves. Those are either guides or personality-driven documentations–the reader is interested because they want to learn more about the game, or because they want to see a particular player go through it. I had neither of those options available, but what I ended up with was also unique, in that I got to the game so late that practically everyone who would be reading knew more about it than I did. I think that helped recapture many player’s initial experiences with the game.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the game itself. Initial impressions from others were that I was coming off as a terrible cynic, which is probably true. The problem was that all I had for the game was hype–keep in mind that I had never even seen the game in motion before playing. I knew less about the combat and characters than I did about its supposed difficulty, which was a problem. The main reason I was dumb enough to go through the Catacombs first was because I expected the game to be that hard, so I was not cowed by an army of invincible skeletons when I really should have been.
My first major hiccup was the New Londo Ruins. Before going there, I had always been making some sort of progress. Even the baby steps I took through the Catacombs were such a big learning process that I had plenty to discuss. New Londo, though, was a big problem for me. I sat on those notes for days, I rewrote the entry at least 3 times, trying to find an angle that would instill any sort of meaning to it. I tried every sort of gimmick that came to mind, even going so far as to write a diary within my diary, where I documented every death as an hour of game-world time. Finally, I decided to just put down what happened and admit my defeat. Any worry that a lack of progress would be a turn-off was unfounded, which was nice. I suppose that was actually something that I should have included regardless, as everyone who played the game blind would have run into a wall at some point.
My progress through the game also informed how I would write. In the Catacombs, where I was dying often, I would write as I played. After every death I could tab out and put words to what just happened, what I learned, and where I was going. By the time I made it to Undead Burg, though, I was not dying often enough to make that feasible, and I was more and more eager to get to the next bit of content (usually a boss) that I could use as a chapter break, so I began to take notes instead. I played with a text file open, and would enter basic information, along with screenshot names (so that I could keep them in the correct order). Later, I could go back and use the notes and my screenshots to flesh things out. My memory works very well with such simple reminders, so I wasn’t missing as much as it may seem. The only time that failed me was my run through Anor Londo (after the Painted World, up to Ornstein and Smough). I accidentally erased parts of those notes and ended up writing small chunks of it purely from memory and screenshots, but at that point I was making such progress that I felt less awkward about glossing over every little action.
Here are some sample notes from my trip through Blighttown and the swamp below it. I ended up not using them, since I felt like exploring Demon Ruins instead, hoping that I could find a boss down there–another bit of panic play because I thought that just running through Blighttown backwards, and well after I had overlevelled it, wouldn’t be at all interesting to read about.
“more swamp more tape worms. i still have plenty of red moss. why couldn’t this be a field of broken glass instead?
one of the tapeworms drops an item, but i have trouble getting at it as the body flops around. i end up kicking it half way across the swamp before i can pick the item up. large titanite shard. i was thinking of leaving them alone if they weren’t guarding bodies, but maybe i should kill them if they have useful drops.”
About the tree that has the secret entrance to the Great Hollow (because I did notice it, but was in a hurry to get moving at the time).
“inside the tree is a lone body. plank shield, like the one i started with. could this have been me, in another life? it’s quiet in here. eerie. i think if i stayed here too long i would begin to hear my own thoughts. i leave.”
As for how I approached the lore in the game, that was also a matter of necessity. Up till my trip into the Tomb of the Giants, I would only glance at new items and then file them away, more concerned with stats and bonuses than what they had to say about the world. What I wrote about the things I saw was based mostly on what I actually saw: I wrote about Undead Parish from the layout and the atmosphere of the place, not from any descriptions of it. The possibility of getting details wrong was high, so I tried to keep it loose like that.
Then Tomb of the Giants happened, and I killed Rhea before I even met her. I knew who she was from dialogue with other characters, but that was about it.
It’s important for me when I’m writing that I enjoy the process, because otherwise I would never do it; I am a very slow write, and not a very good editor.
I drew inspiration from my time in Darkroot Garden. Even after writing that, I cringed, but in the moment it felt appropriate, so I don’t regret it. I thought I could extend that somewhat, so I wrote about Rhea and Patches, figuring that Rhea was probably the type of NPC that players liked, so I should do something special to make up for murdering her in the dark. I’d never written fan fiction before, and I still didn’t know anything about Rhea, so I did google her to make sure I had the right NPC and spelling. I also sampled a bit of her dialogue, to get a small idea of what her character was like. That’s when I discovered that Dark Souls doesn’t do a lot of explaining: none of what she says has anything much to do with where she came from, or her previous life. To me, that’s an invitation to put my own spin on things, as I was less worried about missing some crucial background information once I’d seen that there probably wasn’t any to miss. Even so, I tried to focus more on the characters and atmosphere over specific details, in my own attempt to mirror the feeling of the game. Not sure how successful I was, but it was fun.
Later, once I’d gotten further into the game and figured more of it out, I cheated again. Astute readers would have noticed that while writing about Smough I mentioned his cannibalism, yet that is only mentioned in his hammer’s description. Because I killed Ornstein last, I had no way of seeing Smough’s hammer. However, by the time I felt like writing that, I had killed Smough long ago, I had even beaten the DLC, I’d already figured out how to make boss weapons, and I knew how the rest of the game was going to play out. It didn’t seem like much to read a couple of item descriptions for a boss I had already killed.
All in all, writing about Dark Souls was a singular experience for me. I am not a player who cares about story in my games, or even atmosphere; I will happily skip through cut-scenes and dialogue in pretty much any setting. On my own, I would have muted the music, turned down the sound effects, and listened to late 90s Phil Hendrie while I mashed monsters without concern for flavour text. Having to pay attention, initially because I wanted to explain my reasoning, and later because I wanted to spice things up with some lore, changed how I played the game, which changed how I viewed it over time.
The most direct way writing about the game changed how I played it was how I distributed stats and the weapons I ended up using. At the beginning of the game, when I was still working them out, my main concern with stats was identifying traps, because there is always at least one totally worthless stat in every game. It wasn’t hard to see that Resistance was that stat in Dark Souls, so I knew right away to avoid it. Later, stats became a means to an end. Without foreknowledge, I could only test weapons as they came, so that every new find meant a new set of stats I would need if I wanted to try that weapon out. It so happens that most Dark Souls weapons require Strength rather than Dexterity, Faith, or Intelligence, so that I had new goalposts on a constant basis. I kept putting points into Strength because I kept finding new weapons that required more Strength, and I felt that I should give them due diligence. On my own, I probably would have stuck with something simple like the Winged Spear for most of the game and not even bothered to try other weapons. Eventually, I became stuck in what would be called a Strength build. At least I have a reason to play the game again with a build and weapons of my own choosing.
Was doing this Let’s Play fun? Yes, it was. I also think I got more out of some parts of the game than I would have otherwise, which is only slightly offset by it taking me about x400 longer to beat it than necessary. Writing over 190000 words and taking over 950 screenshots is (not surprisingly) time consuming in ways that playing a video game is not.
I would do it again, and perhaps, once all of the Dark Souls 2 DLC has been released, I’d give it another shot.