I spent the last days of 2012 and the dawn of 2013 in frustration. While shut in my home for the winter holidays, I lived like a crazed hermit obsessing over two specific videogames that led to a bizarre schizophrenia of gameplay. One of these games was 2011’s Dark Souls, a title that many people love to herald as one of the most gratifying – albeit punishing – games in recent memory. In my naivety, I folded into picking up a copy of the game with the mentality that “it couldn’t be that hard!” and was determined to conquer the game. Despite my resolve, I found the arduous struggle of navigating the menacing world of Lordran punishingly severe. Before even completing the first half of the game’s minimalist plot (ring two bells!), I concluded that anyone who truly adored this game had to be some kind of flagellant living in a grim medieval world of monastic gloominess.
Suffice to say I cast aside Dark Souls and swapped the game for my second obsession over the winter season: the 2012 reboot for Need for Speed: Most Wanted. I’ve always been savvy to racing games, so I foolishly mistook this seemingly unassuming title as a joyous reprieve from the oppression of Dark Souls.
I was wrong.
I’m pretty sure my home television set has never had insults launched so vociferously at it in all its life. The relentless power of Most Wanted immediately became clear after roaming freely around the city, crash after frustrating crash. While progressing through the open world of the game’s Fairhaven City, I eventually came to a bizarre conclusion that the hostile world of Dark Souls shared a kinship with Criterion Games’ Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Both games offer a straightforward focus on their respective gameplay, with the slick presentation of Most Wanted’s open road racing and Dark Souls’ fairly standard action RPG gameplay signifying a pleasing directness. There’s no pretension of any superfluous material, only solid controls in an overall well-constructed package. This package, however, happens to be incredibly frustrating.
I eventually alternated between the two games whenever I grew exasperated by either one, entering into a maddening vicious cycle from sword and shield abuse to flagellation running at 200mph. The experience of playing these two games back to back deals a powerful punch to the senses. In Most Wanted, the aggressively visceral sound design amplifies the thunderous roar of a turbocharged engine in the confined vacuum of a tunnel, transforming even lightweight cars like Porsches and Audis into raging bulls of steel. Coupled with the substantial heaviness of the cars, Most Wanted creates a jarring racing experience where typically weightless NPC traffic becomes a series of moving brick walls. Every single crash has brute force; from the company that delivered the crash-happy Burnout Paradise, this comes as no surprise. Nevertheless, Most Wanted accentuates the sensory experience with a split-second shock of light and color that registers with each disastrous crash. You really do feel the force of the game, especially when Most Wanted forces your car towards an inevitable police roadblock that will demand you to brace yourself for impact, ultimately treating you with the fireworks display of glowing sparks, shattering glass, twisting metal, and the banshee squeal of brakes.
Dark Souls shares this grating exhibition of sensory shock, especially when fighting the game’s formidable bosses. The first encounter with the devastating blow of the Taurus Demon in the crumbling stone walkway of the Undead Burg or the infuriating side-swipe of the flaming Bed of Chaos feels as dangerously palpable as any crash in Most Wanted. Succumbing to either Most Wanted’s enraging crashes or a health-draining scuffle with a Dark Souls boss are both extraordinarily demoralizing partly because your character (or car) is extremely fragile but mostly because the costs associated with respawning are so unforgiving. In Most Wanted, the respawn system frequently pushes your car from first place to last; this hindrance is especially vexing when the finish line is sitting in plain sight. Dark Souls’ system of respawning at the minimally scattered bonfires around Lordran forces you to retrace your steps back to where you died. Since enemies respawn each time you visit a bonfire (excluding bosses), Dark Souls pressures you to diligently fight these enemies once again and reclaim your lost souls (the world’s currency).
As I meticulously traversed Lordran and Fairhaven City, I found myself utterly bewildered by these worlds’ indeterminate quality. If you go to the Dark Souls wiki, the page even admits that it has no clue what Lordran’s history or lore even entails. Both settings embody an eclectic, purgatory-like world where individuals carry out an endless routine of punishment. These are abstract locales where fallen knights lose their marbles and cars zip around empty metropolises. The vague setup the game offers only obscures everything even more, making your gradual descent into hellish locales, crumbling dungeons, and even a featureless void all the more mysterious. In Most Wanted, the game makes no concession for narrative or even a plain raison d’être for the titular “most wanted” racers, instead simply throwing you into an Aston Martin and urging you to jump from car to car mid-pursuit. There’s an amusingly absurdist notion of the instability of identity in Most Wanted, with your constant car-hopping throughout the game reflecting the city’s own faux veneer of a familiar human city without any human faces (your driver even wears a helmet to mask identity). These two games feature a shared existential crisis at the heart of it all, witnessing your racer or your knight sentenced to endlessly contend for victory in a land stricken with outlandish bosses and obstacles.
One by one, I tracked down each boss in Most Wanted and have reverted to my last pathetic save file in Dark Souls to conquer a whole lot more. These two titles are stressful games that have momentarily found my brain lapsing into a defeatist mentality. I’ve even considered shelving these titles, but these games have always wound me back in the allure of the gameplay and the beautiful worlds of Lordran and Fairhaven before I could erase them from memory. I’ve found that nothing is more pleasurable in Dark Souls than emerging out from a grimy dungeon and into a splendid vista, the sunlight piercing through the clouds while a fellow Knight of the Sun basks in something so grossly incandescent. And in Most Wanted, the ecstasy of speeding down a glossy, rain-slicked highway while evading those pesky cops has been my recent joy in gaming. Both Dark Souls and Need for Speed: Most Wanted have burrowed into my memory as an odd couple, but there is true beauty in both of these games. I simply realized that the ceaseless suffering of gameplay eventually ceded to the pleasure of achievement and reward, and that the worlds of Lordran and Fairhaven are not so much purgatory as they are home.
Read the archived text at its original source, Pixels or Death (courtesy of Wayback Machine).