Games for Windows Live – a name more accursed among PC Dark Souls players than any of the hideous monsters they’ll encounter in Lordan. Connecting with other players appears to be a process akin to winning a latency-laden raffle. I’ve heard tales of people on the same network, even sitting in the same room, taking hours to meet up. Not only that, but there is no penalty for using character trainers online. None. There’s actually an invader with the name ‘GFWL Souls‘ who has the ability to slip into your session and murder key NPCs, changing from white phantom to red phantom at will, switching from saviour to killer in an instant. The only option is to hit alt-F4 when you realise what’s going on and hope you were quick enough. Emails to GFWL support might as well be letters to Santa. If someone told me the whole setup was running on a modded fax machine I’d believe them.
So I’m surprised when I press on a summon symbol and it works first time. A naked man with purple hair, clad only in a loincloth and wielding a greatsword appears. I wish I could remember his username so you’d have fair warning if you summon him, but I can’t, so I’ll refer to him as Dickwraith.
As soon as he’s summoned, Dickwraith hares off round the corner. I struggle to follow as he beats a direct path to the boss gate. His nakedness means that he runs faster than my character, he also ignores the enemies, who decide to take it out on me as I follow in his wake. We head up a hill with an entourage of irked monsters in tow. Near the top, there’s a narrow passage. Alone, I’d have inched in with my shield high, listening for any prelude to an assault. I’d soak up the atmosphere, let it burden me and paralyse me with a fear of danger and mistakes. Wary of being left behind, I plummet down the tunnel after him.
We reach a fog gate. These are the partitions between the regular areas and the boss areas. These are the veil between sustained dread and full on concentrated horror. I stop and fiddle with my equipment. Dickwraith is restless. He twirls in a lazy circle and makes derisory gestures. He’s done this before. I take a breath, adjust my grip on the controller, and step through.
I won’t describe the boss fight because that would spoil it for you like Dickwraith spoiled it for me. In short, though, he kills the boss in a couple of hits. He doesn’t take any damage. The bosses’ special attacks don’t stagger him. He’s a fucking hacker.
Getting help from a hacker leaves me with mixed feelings. I’m used to being invaded by them, toyed with, then killed in an ignominious fashion, such as being beaten to death barehanded or inundated in toxic dung pies. I’d never summoned a hacker before and I can’t tell whether Dickwraith’s motivations were altruistic or malevolent. On one hand, he helped me with a boss fight I might have spent hours stuck on. On the other, he made a mockery of the caution that had typified my Dark Souls experience. He’d run naked over my immersion. Had I been meta trolled?
This isn’t a case of multiplayer ruining an experience. In fact, the concept of players traversing planes of reality to help or hinder each other is woven into the lore of the world: there are specific covenants for players to join that change the online experience, such as the Darkwraith covenant, which encourages PVP trolling, or the Sunbros, who endorse ‘jolly cooperation’ to the hilt and actively seek to help others. I see it as a missed opportunity for symbolism that Dickwraith wasn’t masquerading as a Sunbro: he was regular white phantom.
Having a buddy normally makes things easier, but it’s no guarantee of success. Bosses gain health with each extra combatant, and for every skilled player I summon there’ll be several who are just as clueless as I am. That’s fine, though, it brings a sense of camaraderie. They’ve made the same journey as me. They’ve crept through the same hellscapes, fought the same monsters, and dodged the same traps. They, I hope, have died just as often as me. Even in the rare times I’ve been invaded and murdered by a non-hacker, I can still respect that they’ve worked hard to create the character they’re backstabbing me with. They’ve earned their right to fuck with people. Lordran is a desolate place and any shared experience, even a deadly one, reminds me that I’m not as alone as it often seems. I’m aware that all games have cheats and cheaters, yet with this infiltration seems more personal.
Jolly cooperation just isn’t same if your companion is an invincible hacker with juiced stats. I feel like a cheater by association. All I had to do was stay out of the way; I was simply following in the hacker’s wake. The illusion of Dark Souls, the supernatural dread, had been diminished, exposing the reality of programming and numbers. The feeling has never really left me: when I’m most frustrated, when an area seems impossible, there’s the knowledge that I could go online and whack my stats up to 99. It’s an easy temptation to resist, but it remains.
The boss never had a chance against a dweeb and his 200kb trainer.
This was rubbed in the other night when I attempted to beat the boss unaided with a new character. I was whacked around the arena. I felt like I was fighting a hippo with a coathanger. I alternated between getting naked and housing myself in stone armour. I died time and time again. People made fun of me on the stream I was running. Here was the frustration I’d feared when I first approached the fog gate beside Dickwraith. I learned, though. I memorised patterns and discovered tells. Attacks came in threes; explosions that could one-shot me had a wind-up; opportunities for my own attacks came. This time, when the final blow was struck, I felt like I’d earned the victory.