The best thing about Dark Souls can be the worst – its strange, semi-tangible online structure. A big part of it is an ever-present threat: despite this being a largely singleplayer game, at times your world can be ‘invaded’ by another player who wants to kill you.
There is nothing else like this. Invasions are the scariest, most exciting thing in the Souls games, because they’re beyond your control. If you stick Halo on and load up a Team Slayer match, you know you’re in for some competitive action. But there you’re prepared, there’s time to get into the mindset. In Dark Souls you can just be checking out the view, or even worse in the middle of a big barney, when the warning text flashes up.
There’s no time to get ready, and that’s what makes invasions such a thrill. As soon as the warning appears you decide how to play it, going hell-for-leather or sneaking around and trying to catch the bastard off-guard. It’s possible to summon other players to help, but the element of surprise often precludes this.
One day I was in the Painted World of Ariamis. It’s a gorgeous, melancholy location, a snow-coated mystery filled with creepy monsters. One of the scariest in Dark Souls, a kind of crow-stroke-harpie, makes its home here.
As is usual while playing Dark Souls, I was bricking it. Creeping slowly, teasing out enemies one at a time, doing everything possible to eke out my health and avoid dying. Mid-battle with a harpy, the legend appears on-screen: Dastardly Dan has invaded.
Now I don’t know about you, but that name cracks me up. I did the worse thing possible, took my eye off the harpy while laughing – and nearly all of my character’s health was gone in a flash, the creature’s unblockable grab as near as dammit doing Dastardly Dan’s job for him, as he got closer and closer.
I pulled it together, knowing that this monster had to die if I was to have any chance. Generally, if an invader finds you fighting another creature that’s game set and match. So an all-out assault ended with my character exhausted, on a sliver of health, with the monster dead. Just as its death-rattle sounds, who should turn the corner.
We eyeballed for a split-second. There were no bows. Dastardly Dan moved forwards with the telltale beginnings of an orange glow in his right hand – pyromancy, slow-moving but devastatingly powerful magic designed to finish fights quickly. He was in front of the only exit, there was no time to restore health, standing my ground was as good as suicide. So I ran at him.
Dastardly Dan threw his first fireball just before I dove past him – flames exploded where I’d been, and there was the whooshing ignition of more to follow. I rolled through the door as its frame took the full force, molten slag inches behind, and bravely kept on running.
The Painted World of Ariamis has a giant ruined tower slap-bang in the middle. I did not know at this time that the curling staircase going upwards within it is a dead-end, the only way up or down. I ran up, looked back, and Dastardly Dan was following.
I kept on sprinting, up and up, thinking about what I could do to shake this guy for long enough to heal up. I didn’t look where I was going, but it wouldn’t have mattered. As the walls of the tower became open-air ruins, the staircase continued upwards into nothing, curling round and ever-upwards. As I realised I was trapped, a harpy landed. Then another. I now had minimal health, two monsters in front of me, and Dastardly Dan behind.
Basically, I was fucked. I ran past the birds and turned to at least face doom. The birds began to swing with their clumsy but razor-sharp wings, I raised my shield, and Dastardly Dan began sprinting up the stairs. There’s no easier way to kill someone in Dark Souls than when they’re having to block attacks. The orange flame in his hand began to glow.
I still have no idea how he did it, but just as Dastardly Dan threw the killing blow he simultaneously fell off the stairs. The fireball smashed behind the harpy, but missed me. One of the harpies launched itself, I dodged, and it fell off the stairs too. I somehow managed to finish off the last harpy through the laughs.
When characters fall off ledges in Dark Souls both their arms reach for the heavens at once, a dainty and faintly silly pose that became Dastardly Dan’s goodbye wave.I don’t think I’ve ever pissed myself so hard. This is no small staircase – it took about ten minutes to eventually reach the bottom, where I found the thick red fug of Dastardly Dan’s bloodstain, and absorbed his souls.
Even though my only involvement in his demise was to run away lots, Dastardly Dan is the win I’m most proud of to this day. I think of him throughout that chase, sometimes, knowing he had a wounded player on the run and watching me tie myself up in even worse trouble. Did he feel a glimmer of guilt as he stepped forward to seal the deal – and stepped onto thin air?
We’ll never know. Because Dastardly Dan is dead, and I killed him. God bless From Software, god bless Dark Souls, and god I love invasions.