It’s been five years since Dark Souls made its debut, and many fans still find it necessary to justify their love for the game. While Dark Souls is generally recognized to be one of the most significant releases of the last few years, there is still a healthy portion of the gaming population who may appreciate the impact of the title, but do not personally “get” why the Dark Souls fanbase is such an especially adamant group of supporters.
In turn, it’s hard for that same fanbase to explain their love of the game without things getting a bit personal. While there are always trolls on both sides of the argument, the general source of this frustration is the fact that Dark Souls fans want non-fans to feel what they have felt when playing the game. They want you to walk away from your time with Dark Souls elated by that same feeling of having just played something truly special.
Their problem, then, isn’t necessarily the intent of their arguments, but rather the approach. Although there is something inherently selfish about believing that you can convince someone who is generally uninterested in something to share your passion for it, there are certain aspects of Dark Souls that, perhaps, do deserve to be treated with the same level of near-universal acclaim as riding across Hyrule Field in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or performing the opera in Final Fantasy VI.
If you truly want to understand why Dark Souls is special, then you must venture forth into Anor Londo.
Of course, like so many things in the original Dark Souls, getting to Anor Londo will not be easy. Depending on your chosen path through the game, you’re looking at somewhere in the area of 20 to 30 hours of gameplay before reaching the City of the Gods. During that time, you’ll have waded your way through poisonous marshes; fought axe-wielding gargoyles, tried in vain to slay a dragon; and learned the hard way that the most obvious path is not always the correct one, thanks to some particularly cumbersome giant skeletons. Do all that, and you’ve still got to make your way through Anor Londo’s unofficial doormat: Sen’s Fortress.
Imagine if an Indiana Jones film took place in the world of Dark Souls. That should give you a pretty good idea of what makes Sen’s Fortress a nearly unparalleled source of pure frustration. Nearly every inch of this diabolical domain is littered with traps specifically designed to punish you for utilizing nearly everything you’ve learned up until this point. For the most part, death is a teacher in Dark Souls. Here, it is a practical joke.
Why would anyone willingly wade through this madness? Well, like in those same Indiana Jones films, there is a treasure at the end. Not an artifact or a chest of gold, mind you, but rather a creature known as the Bat Wing Demon that takes you away from this special corner of hell and transports you to Anor Londo.
Whereas most trips to a new part of the world in Dark Souls are cause for that nameless brand of dread that old men speak of when their pained knee indicates an approaching storm, your first trip to Anor Londo is one of the few times that the game rewards you in a more traditional video game manner. Anor Londo isn’t some dingy corner of the world devoid of light and hope that welcomes you with some new monster that will almost certainly kill you outright. It’s a glorious testament to the artistic ability of man.
It’s impossible to say whether the city was built of white marble to showcase the sunlight it bathes in or whether the sun itself was made to highlight the brilliance of Anor Londo. For a game that has, until this point, treated the faintest sliver of light as the last remnant of beauty, Dark Souls is uncharacteristically quick to thrust the full majesty of this city’s wonder upon you.
Yet, it’s all a lie. Anor Londo is not a great city upon the hill. It’s a standing testament to the hubris of a group of royals whose errors helped plunge the land into darkness. Its beauty is a trap greater than any found in Sen’s diabolical fortress.
Dark Souls isn’t big on telling its story outright (if it chooses to tell it at all), meaning that even experienced players often miss the fact that nearly everything in Anor Londo has been manufactured by the one god that still remains entombed in the city. Even the very sunlight is an illusion designed by the cruel god Dark Sun Gwydolin to fool you into thinking that your quest here is noble.
Most players will find a formal explanation of the evils of Anor Londo to be redundant, however. The luring nature of the city’s beauty becomes instantly apparent to them the moment they wander its streets. After all, what city of peace needs so many giant sentinels patrolling it? What land of hope would contain monstrosities disguised as treasure chests that wait to devour you the moment you open them. No kind and merciful god would ever reside here.
Of all of Anor Londo’s horrors, however, there are two which have come to define it. The first is a pair of archers that flank the narrow walkway that leads to your destination. Nearly impossible to fight from afar, you must instead walk the path they expertly protect while arrows the size of great spears fly at you in patterns so perfect that progress becomes as much of a dream as the idea of true sanctuary. There’s no story purpose for these two archers being there, mind you. They have merely been placed there to rob you of the very hope the developers had just granted you moments ago.
That is nothing compared to what comes next, though. Before you can truly claim you’ve bested Anor Londo, you must defeat Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough. In another life, the tall and agile Ornstein was the captain of an elite group of knights. The portly and brutish Smough, meanwhile, earned his keep as the royal executioner whose reputation for eating his enemies prevented him from becoming a knight himself. They are the formal bosses of Anor Londo.
This is not the first time that Dark Souls has tasked you with fighting multiple bosses, but never before has the task been so great. Separately, Ornstein and Smough are flawed. One is powerful but slow. The other is quick but comparatively weaker. Together, however, they are able to work in perfect unison. Just when you’ve altered your strategy to defeat one of them, the other punishes you for your insolence. Even if you do manage to defeat one, the survivor consumes the dead and morphs into a new form that possesses all of the duo’s strengths and none of their weaknesses.
Around your 30th attempt at defeating this pair, you’re going to start asking yourself, “Why?” Why do you care if you progress past this point or not? This isn’t even the end of the game. Why should you make yourself suffer through a trial that has so clearly been designed to make you overcome unfair odds?
“And to what end?” you’ll say. When have you ever been proportionately rewarded for your efforts – besides your first look at a city that’s quickly turned into the biggest nightmare yet? What has this game ever given you for all you’ve done?
It’s at that moment the lore and design of Anor Londo become one. This place may indeed be a house of lies and horror, but it is, more than anything else, a test of merit. Unflinchingly, and without a personal stake in your answer, it asks, “Are you worthy?” The only answers are yes and no.
This level, especially its final boss, represents the core appeal of Dark Souls better than any passionate argument ever could. Dark Souls is a game of obtuse mysteries and beauty, both overt and subtle; but mostly, it is a game that can beat you. Anor Londo is a temple to that concept. It’s every inch was designed to intimidate and impress you. Whatever Dark Souls is to you, those qualities have come together like so many bricks of marble to form this city. Rarely has a single video game level provided substance to the very soul of a video game experience quite the same way that Arnor Londo does for Dark Souls.
Oh, if you do manage to finally beat Ornstein and Smough, you are granted an audience with the beautiful Gwynevere, who proceeds to grant you the ability to quick travel throughout the world and sends you off on a kind of knight’s quest. Finally, an untainted reward in a game that so often denies you such things. This, however, is Anor Londo’s biggest lie. Gwynevere is another illusion created by the god Gwyndolin to trick you. If you take it upon yourself to kill Gwynevere, Anor Londo sinks back into darkness and suddenly contains even tougher enemies than before.
In any other game, such an occurrence might be interpreted as a punishment. Here, it is a sign that the city has finally bent the knee to you.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.