The infamous difficulty of From Software's acclaimed Dark Souls has evoked a spectrum of emotions ranging from crippling fear and self-doubt, through to fist-pumping success and unbridled elation as hardcore fans and new players alike shared those same feelings of heartache and, quite possibly, controller-throwing fits of rage.
Yet one was never truly alone when it came to the suffering; the game's online system and deliberately limited communication helping to dilute the pain when you saw the vague but helpful messages scattered about before a boss area wishing you 'Good Luck' or offering strategic advice, and where catching brief glimpses of the spirits of other players resting at bonfires served not only to re-emphasise the comfort and safety of these safe havens, but providing one with much-needed encouragement as well. All these other people in their different armour sets and weapons had already, or were currently, going through your exact same situation, whether it be a repetitive pummeling by the Capra Demon or - in the case of Smough & Ornstein - role-playing the character of a lifeless rag doll. Knowing that you were all in it together, albeit via parallel dimensions, helped to preserve a human spirit and keep alive an oft-tested and waning sense of self-belief during moments of severe sorrow.
The ability to summon help, though, would come at - quite literally - a human cost, with the need to find and consume Humanity items essential if one was ever going to engage in 'jolly cooperation' with another person, be it Solaire the honourable NPC knight of Astoria, or a random 'real' online player. But players wishing to turn into human form in the game would have to do so with peril, the act being the Dark Souls equivalent of painting a bright red target on your back and immediately paving the way for your world to be rudely invaded. No matter how tough an AI-controlled boss was, or how much grief the appearance of a Black Knight could inflict on your physical and mental well-being, you could always eventually learn their moves and attack patterns even if it meant a few self-sacrificed lives along the way. But as soon as the horrible words "Dark Spirit [insert name] has invaded!" appeared, the entire fabric of Dark Souls would instantly change from PvE to PvP AND PvE (because hey, the existing enemies in the game weren't going to suddenly forget about you).
Arguably more terrifying and certainly more unpredictable than any enemy thus far encountered, invaded players would then need to steel themselves for some of the dirtiest moves in the book, achievable only by unwanted and unwelcome (and bastard) human opponents. Moves that even the game's multitude of unforgiving enemies would reconsider performing because it would have been taking things too far. And yes, lag backstab, that mainly means you.
In fact, becoming human in Dark Souls was almost akin to setting one's Facebook profile status to 'Open'; inviting friends and trolls into your life in equal measure as summoned co-op players coming in to assist were matched by just as many aggressive ones relentlessly determined to bring you down in humiliation. I once memorably encountered both of these player roles from the same person (in Dark Souls, not Facebook) within the space of 10 seconds whilst at my wit's end down in New Londo Ruins, my would-be friend's summon sign fading away prematurely in front of my eyes before the same guy's name then reappeared in that dreaded invasion notification as he opted to, seemingly on a whim, invade and kill me instead. Never mind frustrating bosses or one hit kills, the magic of Dark Souls' online relationships lay also in its fickle allegiances.
But the spirit and community of Dark Souls really is something special. In the absence of traditional co-op matchmaking or even a means of regular communication while in-game (Xbox players did have a way around it with Voice Chat instead of the disabled Party Chat), honour and etiquette is heartwarmingly prevalent amongst summoned players who, most of the time, bow to greet you or 'praise the sun' via the game's menu-selected gestures. The quick transitions from camaraderie to opposition also dictates the rules of engagement: help another player defeat a boss and you could receive a "Thank You" message after the battle. Piss someone off enough with your very own invasions and you'd best prepare to receive a, well, not so nice piece of correspondence afterwards. And if you were really lucky, you could even come across an unforeseen behaviour, such as a respectful invader bowing before the clash of swords, perhaps even sending you a "GG" later on regardless of the outcome.
And then there's the sheer art and simplicity of some good old fashioned experimentation.
All in all, the human interactions of Dark Souls may actually represent a rather optimistic reflection of real life because, let's face it, no matter what, Smough & Ornstein will always absolutely hate your guts, and regardless of how cute you think Great Grey Wolf Sif is, he will always carve you up when given the opportunity. Whereas with actual people - as unpredictable and dick-ish as we may well be - it's those who showed you kindness that you'll always fondly remember long after Gwyn and co have been defeated, and the rage and the joy has subsided. And who knows, quite possibly a tale or two of the ridiculous or the hilarious to accompany it as well.
Got any memorable Dark Souls interaction stories? I'd love to hear them!