I stand in front of the imposing edifice that houses Anor Londo’s equally daunting Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough, and I am lost in its beauty.
It’s a curious facet of Lordran that the splendour of its most spectacular city is accompanied by unmistakeable feelings of emptiness. A jewel set in the cliffs that tower above even the lofty heights of the Undead Parish, it stands as lonely and solitary as the Chosen Undead. The stinking, swollen swamps and winding, grimy medieval streets that bay at the foot of Anor Londo seem so much more alive than the capital they surround.
Alive, of course, is a relative term; armies of undead paradoxically bring the various realms of Lordran to ‘life’. Their hostility pours from every filthy crevice and suffocates each pore of my being. It has been so since the last moments of my incarceration, when I learned to fear the setting that would play host to my plight.
Odd, then, that my first two hours of freedom were a triumph over the deadly Hollowed hordes that surround the Firelink Shrine. ‘YOU DEFEATED’ rang out after the Asylum Demon fell and Lordran heard that call as it heralded my arrival on black wings. Enemy after enemy fell to the careful swings of my Hand Axe as I crept purposefully through the ramparts of the Undead Burg. I became adept at traversing the myriad paths and shortcuts looking, cautiously, for all manner of hidden treasures that lay in expectation of being discovered.
There’s a haze, born as much from stench as heat, that haunts the middle distances in Dark Souls. Try as it might, though, that haze could not obscure the tantalising gleam that marked a treasure’s location. Soul, item, weapon or key are promised if the light can be reached, and it encouraged, nay demanded, a leap of faith into the unknown in defiance of the caution I knew should be employed. I stood, poised far above this taunting white light, trying to make indistinct and unscrutable mental calculations of distance and direction. I was sure I could make it, but it would have be so easy to misjudge the jump and fall to my death.
There, as I balanced on the precipice, Dark Souls played its cruellest card and I noticed the prompt “A: Read Message”.
Instinctively, my thumb pressed the green ‘A’ button before I realised I was doing it and I saw the message…
And I did… to great success!
I landed safely right next to the item and pressed the ‘A’ button once more to collect my reward. Then the hammer blow landed.
More specifically, the Black Knight Sword landed and I found myself
standing cowering face-to-face with a Black Knight, and newly devoid of half of my health. Panic set in as the reality of the situation became clear. My own mental haze was not quite sufficient to obscure the tantalising gleam of my only option: RUN AWAY!
And I did… to great success!
I rolled past the Black Knight and streaked along the arched passageway. There, as I fleed the terrifying animated suit of armour, Dark Souls played its cruellest card and I was faced with a choice. In front of me were two routes; on the right a staircase heading up to who knows where, and on the left a path curving away to who knows where. With no other information, and no time I made my decision, the same one I always make in such situations.
Be it because I am left-handed or some other arbitrary reason, the habit of resolving such binary choices in video games meant I headed left. Around the corner, the hammer blow landed.
More specifically, the jagged, crumbling edge at the end of a path to oblivion landed and I found myself
unable unwilling to to turn away from it.
The first loading screen I had seen in Dark Souls greeted my submission to its deadly intent. Moments later, as I stood back at the bonfire in the Undead Burg, I nursed my wounds. All told I was around 1500 souls lighter; a significant number, but nothing that I wasn’t able to make back in short time. I started to tell myself that it was stupid and rash to have leapt so willingly after the promise of an unknown treasure, and lamented the cost of my impudence. Then I remembered the item, and that I had not checked what it was before I unceremoniously leapt to my sweet, sweet death.
In my inventory sat the fruits of the ill-judged risk I was enticed to take by my own inner darkness and the prompting whisper of an unknown other player. My forbidden fruit, if you will: the Blue Tearstone Ring. Not an immensely powerful ring, but a worthy reward, and my first ring.
I was struck by the revelation that death in Lordran is impermanent. Far from a new concept in a video game, but an important lesson nonetheless; souls come and go, but items are forever mine. Caution is a necessary tactic, but it should not be at the expense of taking risks. From now on I will endeavour to employ a daring caution.
With that first death in mind, I take daringly cautious steps forward towards the fog gate behind which wait Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough. And Dark Souls plays its cruellest card…