‘Almost’ is an interesting word. When I was at school, dressed in paper-thin sports kit and forced to run the circumference of the playing field at the behest of sadistic P.E. teachers, the mental reassurance of ‘almost there’ was just powerful enough to keep an unfit nerd from keeling over. On the other hand, all the guys who ‘almost’ reached the summit of Everest before dying a frigid death – well, that just sucks.
Getting close to success before failing miserably is one of the worst things a human being can experience, along with anything Minions-related and dragging your scrotum across broken glass. It’s a feeling that crops up all too often in video games, as players accidentally and idiotically leap into a hole right before the end of a level, or get wasted by a troublesome boss with only a sliver of its health bar left.
The latter example is perhaps the most frustrating, scream-inducing, controller-throwing occurrence that can happen in a game, and no series knows that better than Dark Souls. Yesterday, I spent around two and a half hours dragging my balls over the broken glass that is Dark Souls III’s Dancer boss, and I’m glad no one else was in the house because I must have sounded like James Bond in Casino Royale’s torture scene.
As the twirly-swording bastard repeatedly and metaphorically hit me in the groinal area with a knotted rope, I managed to ‘almost’ defeat it numerous times. With only a few stabs needed to bring it down, I could smell victory like a dog can smell anuses, but the proximity of success only made the prospect of failure more worrying. Trembling, with beating heart in overdrive, I desperately rolled and rolled and rolled to avoid the boss’ flailing arms, praying to the deified Hidetaka Miyazaki that I might survive just long enough to land that final blow… But Miyazaki is a cruel spirit, and with the fear of imminent death lingering in my broken mind, I got sliced apart like a melon and had to start all over again.
Though I grunted like a tennis player and swore under my breath, the controller creaking in my vice-like grasp, I didn’t give up. Part of me wanted to rage quit, turn off the console and ride away into the sunset, but I didn’t. I sat there on my sofa a resolute warrior, like Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, and powered through the hours as the Dancer taunted me with its deadly ballet.
Like everything else in this marvellous series, I had to appreciate its exquisite design, but in those moments I hated the Dancer with a burning passion. Death was too good a fate for that prick. I didn’t, however, hate the game. The Souls series, including Lovecraftian spin-off Bloodborne, are infamous for their high level of difficulty, but (and I apologise, because literally every Souls fan yammers on about this) it is never unfair.
While they seem like it at times, no boss is impossible, with each one presenting you with a series of attack patterns that can be learned and reacted to accordingly. When you first encounter your adversary, you’ll get wiped within seconds like a pooper in a hurry, but as your mincing becomes as prolonged and repetitious as a John Cage composition, you’ll start to pick up on clues that will help you read the boss’ behaviour.
With time, these get wired into your brain, and you’ll start surviving longer. The boss will still deal out an obscene amount of damage, and have more HP than the HP Sauce factory, but you as a player will improve. There’s a lot riding on your skills of course, as a single cock-up or break in concentration will turn you into dungeon pizza, but knowing that gives a sense of personal, meaningful progression that few other games can boast.
Every time you almost win, and it feels like that little chip of boss HP is judging you as you fade into a loading screen, the crushing disappointment is always accompanied by a powerful determination. You may have just been kicked down for the umpteenth time, but that ‘almost’ victory reassures you that you are ‘almost there’. Just roll a little earlier; be a bit more defensive. Use the environment to your advantage. Play better.
Even when it feels like you’re freezing and suffocating to death atop a mountain, remember to listen to the sweaty, shorts-wearing kid inside your head.
You got this.
And thus endeth the Word of Tom.
Here’s my triumphant fight with the Dancer in full. Get rekt.