The first rule of Dark Souls is: nobody can talk about a game after Dark Souls without somehow comparing it to Dark Souls. Of course before this everything had to be compared to Demon's Souls. But for a game that seems to be so tight to everyone's tongues it can be hard to sometimes explain why Souls games have this effect. It's hard to explain what it means to say: this is when the real Dark Souls starts.
So, you play Dark Souls and afterwards every time you read a review and a game is described as tough or challenging, or god forbid difficult, immediately you have to wonder whether the reviewer finished Dark Souls. The game has a level of sophistication in how it imparts it's obstacles that afterwards it can be hard to go back to "normal" games.
Either it's part of the slew of AAA titles that want to hold your hand and make sure you think what the developers wanted you to think at just the right time or a similar but equally as silly attempt to smash you over the head with "isn't this challenging? Look at how big these numbers are, this boss is really tough."
For a large portion of Dark Souls the game is playing a simple set-up with the player, they place an enemy right behind a corner out of view with several others in your line of sight. Everything is perfectly set up so that you want to attack this hapless enemy or two, and then you aggro another right as you think the battle is about to work in your favor. Or they place a pathway, who knows where it leads, but eventually you'll get to the end and find a treasure - with an enemy there of course.
This sort of design works well enough until they start dropping you into areas with all the enemies out in the open. It's just you and a load of golems, nobody hidden and its not a trap, just there is also a hydra launching water attacks all over the place. So they've set up these two designs, you have the encounters that weigh this methodical brand of dungeon-crawling and the encounters that seem to favor running and not necessarily picking a fight.
Then you get to Sen's Fortress. They start to mix the two types of encounters, but add in loads of swinging axe traps as you dart around on beams about a foot wide. You really want to be methodical, but you also literally have to run to avoid the traps.
What I'm saying is even after you finish playing Dark Souls this stuff stays with you. On further playthroughs you notice moments you couldn't have on your first run. Playing different types of characters, maybe a heavy-armored paladin or a light and sinewy thief, these encounters suddenly have entirely different expectations and the dizzying amount of possibilities some sections of the game create seem to mock the so called choices other games tend to create.
Whereas most games tend to offer players the illusion of choice to create this effect Dark Souls offers you choice from the beginning and whether you appreciate it or not is not Fromsoft's fault. They don't care if you understand why running around with 5 humanity is better than none or a dozen other points which make a difference you might not appreciate. The game was designed to speak for itself, and while that's obviously going to lead to some people getting stuck fighting skeletons for a few hours and then never playing the game again there are other people who would take the leap of faith. Though like Patches From's role seems to be to show you a hole, invite you to look inside, and then give you a shove.
I remember spending some long hours playing the game my first time through, I made the big mistake I think a lot of people do and really drowning in the game. Leveling my character up too much, farming up too much twinkling titanite, and generally not moving forward as quickly as a person should. When I went back to the game I was stunned at how quickly you can move through the first half of the game. There's no real point in grinding up levels, since the game will give you a wealth of souls when you hit your new game plus.
But playing the game again pulls you into all the mysteries of the game. Yes it can seem kind of oblique your first time through, but names and places begin to stand out. Item and weapon descriptions start to tell a story: if you're playing a game basically about getting unique weapons to help you through your travels what if those weapons are there for a reason? Why is it these pieces of armor and weapons all seem to have been used by people who are a part of this story? It is patly because that's a way to tell the story, but there's something deeper there too.
Though it feels like we can never truly pare down the history of the Souls games they always leave you feeling like that history has an impact on your journey. You might not feel like you're making many choices on your first playing of Dark Souls, just getting bigger weapons and better stats until you defeat your final boss, but all around the "Chosen Undead" are the remains of a cosmic genesis that unleashed something terrible. A dark and damning reality that has not just claimed the lives of so many heroes and adventurers throughout time but their souls.
There are these smells I associate with Souls games, too much caffeine and cigarettes, like how sometimes a library or a cafe can bring you back to an earlier place in your life. I have these moments gaming where I think of a sort of pure moment and Dark Souls is that experience.
I had played Skyrim, and as decent a game as Skyrim can be it was sort of a screen, a facade of dungeon-crawling. The epitome of what an RPG is yet very much not where RPGs should be heading. The wealth of experiences and stories Skyrim created also meant every moment had a little less shine than the one before until as a whole the luster of the game sort of loses out.
Though it is worth noting both games came out at the same time and the one-two punch of these titles pretty much decimated everyone's memories of RPGs in the modern era. I still don't know if it was a good time to be an RPG fan or a bad one. But it was definitely a moment where RPG fans were intersecting with the larger gaming fandom, where a sort of big tent was getting formed.
And now we live in a post-Dark Souls world. It's kind of like the post-Final Fantasy VII world, in that it splits everything in two with those who were hip to something earlier having to deal with all the new fans. There was a world that existed, where every game was compared to Demon's Souls, where you wondered if a reviewer had actually played that game through to the end when they said a game was tough, or challenging.
This is where the real Demon's Souls starts, with Dark Souls. And it's where the real Dark Souls starts, with this sort of nagging notion that you're going to be comparing every game to Dark Souls for a long time.