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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

10 years on, nothing has matched the devilry of Dark Souls PvP

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I am a dickhead. Yes! Wallow in my lack of caring for I am a bad man, virtually speaking, and for a decade now I have been killing you all in Dark Souls and its sequels in cheap, funny, and sometimes quite nasty ways. I am the master of the troll invasion.

Trolling usually has negative associations, but I’m talking about the good kind of trolling: a pure-spirited teasing of another player, an almost prankster-like approach to the cutthroat world of online PvP. I’m not some ganker that sits around in the Forest looking to beat down invaders with my mates. I’m… well, I guess I’m a bit of a clown, actually.

There are several things that make Dark Souls a unique PvP playground, one that a decade later is an influence on countless other online modes. The first is that it’s asymmetrical: the host has certain advantages, and so does the invader. There are dozens of possible weapons, spells, miracles and pyromancies that can come into play, as well as the environment itself. Hosts can gang up on invaders; invaders can hide from and harass hosts. This is not a duel, it’s not a boxing match. It’s a fight.

I didn’t begin my Dark Souls PvP journey as an amoral trickster. Like everyone else, my first weeks and months were spent devouring Lordran’s combination of epic scope and intricate interior design, collecting and familiarising myself with a vast range of weapons and tools, and dying over and over again. Every time I was invaded I’d end up twiddling on the end of XXXN00bkilla97XXX’s spear, and a total lack of cracked red eye orbs (the initial invasion item) meant I didn’t get into invading properly myself until I’d beaten the game several times.

When you play any game’s PvP mode, the first and eternal question is: how do I win? Having mastered Dark Souls’ PvE side I threw myself into the fray, favouring strong armour and fancy weapons at first before settling on a much speedier +15 halberd and buckler loadout (what a poking range, what an R2, what a dash attack!).

I played PvP like this for a long time: more-or-less straightforward fights. But one of the aspects of Dark Souls that, to my mind, never gets enough credit is the humour. It becomes more obvious the more you play: Yes, you die over and over, but sometimes it’s just a pratfall. All of the attention goes to the ragequits and throwing controllers around, but far more of us must have seen ‘YOU DIED’ and known the only appropriate reaction in that moment is to laugh.

Eventually that attitude came to dominate my PvP time. As you play you learn all these tiny things about the game, from the simple (‘pull hosts into enemy mobs for an easy win’) to the devilish (‘invite someone to fight on a narrow bridge and just stand still and block’ works amazingly well). One of the brilliances of the Souls series is its embrace of asymmetrical multiplayer—the invader is uninvited, unsought, and has all the world’s enemies on their side. They’re a prick, basically, and this is what I came to love.

It’s not about having the best weapon. It’s not even about winning, after a certain point. It’s just about whether you can screw someone over in a funny way.

Like, for example, tempting them too close to a giant worm.

Sorry, but I used to spend entire evenings pushing people off ledges: I’m the guy that pushed you off the Kiln of the First Flame’s beams, using the low-level miracle Force, because I hid behind a pillar and watched you walk up and… yes, I boomed you off the edge of a narrow walkway half a second after you spotted me. I did that for like a year to people, at times almost choking with laughter.

Still they never saw it coming. I’d sit in the Kiln and run for that pillar once, twice, 2,000 times. I would wait and you would wait and eventually you and your mates would traverse the beam and whoosh! Off you go, lads.

Yes, I’m a saddo. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

The next level of dirty trickery is a spell called Chameleon. It turns you into an object from the area you’re in. As an invader, the dream opportunity for this is Sen’s Fortress—because you turn into a statue, and the place is full of statues, and innocent fools just fly by.

The thing about Sen’s Fortress is that anyone going through it is already terrified. When ‘Invaded by Lord Murder’ turns up (note, this is not my ID) then folk get brown trousers pretty fast. You know this, so you hide. You turn into a little statue and let the fear build, watching their health bar occasionally appear through the scenery. And the real beauty? By the time they walk past, they forgot you even came in.

Hello my friend! Perhaps I met you fairly early, knocked you into a pit full of titanite demons and lizard wizards, then nailed you with a diving plunge. Perhaps it was a bit later—when you tried to take out those lizards on the walkways, I crept up and pushed you off. Perhaps it was on the top bit with the balls, when I stood at your escape route and Force-miracled you back into the runway.

Perhaps, on that final long beam right at the very top, I would suddenly land from the rafters and, cheap as chips, block you into the scythes. I used to line them up like dominoes, and every single one went down.

Damn right I’m proud. But all those trolly kills illuminate why Dark Souls PvP retains its fascination and influence even now—Deathloop is the latest big game to take enormous inspiration from invasions. There is more than one way to skin a cat. You should use every tool available, and you should never play fair.

I always found it bizarre that part of the Dark Souls community came up with chivalric ideas of how one ‘should’ PvP. Things like not healing, bowing, all that nonsense. You could not misunderstand this game’s character more. I’m not a cheat, but I’m a player who will use any advantage available and that is what Dark Souls excels at. Sly tricks: disguise yourself, hide behind corners. Not being obvious. Get every advantage you can and then, boom, it’s over before they know it. This is the nature of the beast.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a slick parry. Hornet ring equipped to make it hurt even more, natch.

Dark Souls PvP has always suffered from the purists. I’m not interested in a 1v1 for the sake of it–I want to scare folk. That is what I always loved about Dark Souls and why it remains such a special game. When you invade someone, you are a terrifying figure. And then the game gives you the tools to be something even more: a trickster, a troll, half-jester and half-killer.

There is one final, delicious touch to the role of invader. In almost every other respect, the game stacks the odds for the host: more healing, the summons, the warning notice. But if both host and invader die at the same time, you win. So let the wounded fools spam attacks, flailing out in fear, and take that fatal blow as your own blade strikes true. As your character falls so does theirs, except you won and return to your world with the prize, while theirs starts all over again. See you again soon.

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