The first time I was invaded in Dark Souls was right before my third boss. Fog walls appeared closing off the route back to safety, and then a message notified me that a dark spirit had invaded. I couldn’t see anyone, but soon after I heard a quiet, muffled voice:
I heard it over and over. I progressed through the area fighting regular enemies, and right before the boss found something that hadn’t been there on my previous attempts: a player character, glowing red, with a head like something out of H.P. Lovecraft.
I don’t remember how they killed me, or with what weapon, but it only took one hit. At the time I didn’t understand any of what was happening. Over the course of that first playthrough, I figured out the what and how of that encounter. Another player had used an item to travel to my session and fight me. They’d been matched with me because of our similar level, despite a massive gulf in equipment quality. And I’d been vulnerable to an invasion because I’d used a precious item to restore my humanity, which allows both friendly and hostile multiplayer but fades on death.
Answering the “why” was a longer journey. It started with a level one character at the bottom of a lightless pit, and ended in a chair in a church at the end of the world.
The Darkwraith Covenant
I learned that my attacker had exploited the invasion system in Dark Souls, and I aimed to exploit it for myself. With a level one character, I maxed out my equipment and learned some of the most powerful offensive spells in the game. Then I beat one of the hardest bosses in the game: the Four Kings, at the bottom of the Abyss. Doing so allowed me to join a multiplayer faction called the Darkwraiths. Special amongst Dark Souls‘s many covenants, the Darkwraiths can invade other players without limit. Since I was at level one, I could freely invade any other player in the game and grief them with my superior equipment and magic. And if that sounds like a dick move to pull on new players, that’s because it is.
As someone who had lost many a PVP fight over my time with Dark Souls, I found some satisfaction in my conquests. I’d earned my power fair and square after all — they’d been gated behind difficult challenges I’d overcome through skill and careful planning.
But for a game with very limited in-game communication — a handful of gestures, mainly — it’s amazing what other players can get across to you. “Hosts,” as the game calls the owner of a given session, would run away in terror, artlessly hack away at me, or throw themselves off of cliffs rather than give me the satisfaction of a fight. Some would even disconnect the game to escape and preserve their humanity.
After a while of this, I realized I wasn’t getting anything out of it. And it was clearly not a positive experience for most of the other people involved — but not all.
Some hosts, presumably experienced players doing a fresh playthrough, welcomed me, waving and clearing out little areas for our brawls. One host was clearly much higher level than me, and dropped powerful weapons and stacks of the most precious upgrade materials for me. I think he thought I was cute.
I started leaving gifts for my victims — upgrade items, consumables, tokens of goodwill to indicate that the interaction wasn’t mean-spirited. My favorite gift was the single-use invasion items, which those players could use to spread the fun if they chose. Sometimes my targets would become friendly and I’d leave peaceably; sometimes they’d attack me anyway and I’d feel somewhat more justified than usual in destroying them. Sometimes they’d surprise me and summon a more powerful partner to take me down.
I came to realize how much of the spirit of the game lives in these strange, wordless negotiations — and that my favorites happened between players established by the game as enemies, who together found an opportunity to build a different kind of relationship, however brief.
Because these interactions are, by design, fleeting. Though later games offered easier ways to connect with friends, the original Dark Souls deliberately made it difficult to find specific players. Encounters were largely random, and at the height of the game’s popularity it was quite rare to ever see another player more than once. You had the span of one interaction to make an impression, and then the moment evaporated. Just as the lore of the series has gained a devoted following for its disjointed, elusive quality, so too did the multiplayer interactions bring a kind of dreamy transience not present in the single player experience.
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Bastardry as Art Form
After Dark Souls, I played all the Souls games, plus Bloodborne, and always fell back into my old patterns. I’d make characters who held most of the power in those interactions and try to use that power to shape the interaction into something different. Usually, it didn’t work; a lot of those invasions were just callous murder sprees. And honestly, they were very satisfying in their own right.
The environments of Dark Souls are so intricate and treacherous that a savvy invader can handily use the pitfalls and native enemies of their host’s world to kill their quarry without ever swinging a weapon, and setting up elaborate traps or tricks kept me entertained far longer than I’m comfortable admitting. But the interactions I kept seeking were surprises, not in the combat but in the kinds of interaction I could create — dance parties, item trades, fashion shows. More than whatever trinkets the game awarded me for winning, these were the prizes I pursued.
I don’t say any of this to undersell how much time I’ve spent being an utter bastard. To be honest, I’ve elevated bastardry to a bit of an art form, and I’m ashamed and proud of that in about equal measure. For every clip I’ve of saved a cute dance party there are a dozen of me launching an unaware host off a narrow rafter with an exploding arrow.
I can’t really excuse any of that — I won’t pretend the field is fair, or that getting surprise-murdered by space broccoli is improving anyone’s game experience. But the danger of hostile players is no less critical to the meaning of the game’s multiplayer than its harsh landscapes and savage enemies are to its gameplay. That is to say, griefing may be ultimately indefensible. However, the possibility of griefing, coloring every venture away from safety and every encounter with a new player, is a vital part of how Dark Souls cultivates its strange warmth and beauty.
“To Alive is to Be Vulnerable”
Later games changed the mechanics of player interaction, but I always liked the “humanity” metaphor of the original Dark Souls best. Humanity is the currency of multiplayer; it is spent to restore the undead protagonist to a human form — the only form where multiplayer is available. But it is precious and easily lost. Being summoned to help another player earns you humanity — so, too, does invading and killing a human player, stealing it for yourself.
As one item description reads, “To be alive is to be vulnerable.” And while that might sound like the tough-guy “git gud” mentality the Souls fanbase is so rightly reviled for espousing, it has a much deeper meaning binding the core themes of the game — what it means to be in a huge and hostile world, tiny and frail and alive, but not alone.
Invasions and summoning, covenants and informal agreements, have always been about the ways in which we are vulnerable in the game, not only as characters but as players forming an anonymous connection with one another in fleeting exchanges. Some of those connections are positive and some are negative, but they are built to be memorable, and to allow for a range of silly, beautiful, and infuriating human moments.
Most of my Dark Souls time is now spent in Dark Souls 3, as a member of the Spears of the Church covenant in the game’s Ringed City DLC. Spears are summoned to act as boss encounters for other players, protecting the series’ final area from trespassers. Naturally, I like the way the setup pitches the fight in my favor: unique spells, improved defenses, and a couple of strong enemies backing me up. There is a little chair where the Spear is summoned, and a little table next to it. I can’t sit down, and in fact the chair is destroyed by the protrusion of golden spears around me when I appear, but I like that it’s there. I certainly haven’t given up my tricks, but there’s something satisfying in having so specific a function as an obstacle for players to overcome. Even losing is gratifying, knowing that I’ve (usually) put up a challenging fight and that my opponents must feel good about winning.
My love of the Dark Souls series didn’t come from being good at it, but from discovering that I could be ok with losing, with recognizing failure as part of the work of improving, with keenly feeling my own vulnerability as a sign of growth. I can’t really communicate that to other players. But sometimes those players and I can build an experience together — and it’s the possibility of that kind of spark that keeps pulling me back to the game’s world.