If the headline reads like a lame joke, that’s because it began life as one. “Imagine if they were hunting for Black Knights,” I remarked to a friend, watching tourists and students coast merrily up and down the South Bank in search of Squirtles and Goldeens. “Imagine if Dark Souls were an alternate reality game.”
What a reality that would be, eh? Instead of the pristine, corporate greys and levelled architecture of the Pokmon Go map screen, a baleful thicket of spires and graveyards, with bonfires the only place to store or cash in your progress. Instead of rustling grass and the confetti of Pokmon lures, a mess of bloodstains and Summon signs. Or better yet, no map screen at all, just a rapidly depleting Estus flask and somewhere nearby – behind the bus shelter you’re sitting in, or under the table – a rattle of bones and the hiss of breath through a visor. You wouldn’t open the Dark Souls Go app to scour the vicinity for untamed beasts. You’d fire it up to see how many times You Have Died on the way to the chemists.
As with a regrettable majority of my jokes, however, this one became more convincing the more I thought about it. For one thing, practically every video game creator or publisher on Earth right now is racking its brains over how to reapply the absurdly successful Pokmon Go formula, and if all it takes is a gigantic menagerie layered atop a more-or-less proven ARG framework, the Souls series is well ahead of the pack.
True, “gotta catch ’em all” isn’t a phrase that springs to mind when you size up the Gaping Dragon or weather the searing gaze of an Irithyll jailer, but every Souls enemy is strikingly designed if not exactly an object to cherish, and defeating the least of them is a rite of passage on par with upgrading your Zweilous into a Hydreigon. There’s also the deviousness with which these creatures are distributed – lurking in wait below precipices, above doorways or among the odds and ends of an ostensibly empty room. Ever stumbled on a Bulbasaur in a toilet? Wait till you notice that Basilisk glued to the ceiling.
I am, to be clear, not seriously proposing a Go adaptation of Dark Souls. But there’s much to glean from the comparison – what it reveals about the fraught, networked geographies of the Souls games on the one hand, and the sense of threat it lends to Pokemon Go’s sanitised, primary colour milieu on the other. The landscapes of Dark Souls are points of highly contested overlap between the physical and supernatural, the literal and the divine – environments where gods, monsters, the cursed and the exalted come together, do battle and forge uneasy alliances. They’re also sites of ceaseless negotiation between the local and the online, littered with the more-or-less palpable shades of fellow players and governed by mysterious codes of conduct, where straying into a certain forest or abusing an NPC shopkeeper may attract a violent retribution from across the ether.
The brilliance of the series – well, one of the things that makes Dark Souls brilliant – is that these acts of negotiation echo and facilitate one another. To tease out a particular backstory thread in Dark Souls is often to prefer a particular flavour of multiplayer, a particular creed. This is a game in which networked interactions are at once everywhere, surging from the dust when least expected, and events to uncover within the lore, with different strands of PvP and co-op the preserve of individual Covenant keepers, scattered across the realm. Later games have made that interplay between fiction and the digital more explicit. Dark Souls 3’s Watchdogs of Farron Covenant is both one of its more direct nods to spiritual predecessor Bloodborne, and an affectionate parody of the established Dark Souls PvP community – its warriors disdaining shields, a noob’s implement, in favour of a parrying dagger.
From has wrought a perilous entwining of online and metaphysical planes, where gods tacitly double as MMO guild leaders, and this is a marriage which speaks to the implications and hazards of an alternate reality experience that has a tendency to trample clumsily over boundaries – social, civic, implicit and otherwise. As Omari Akil writes on Medium, scoping out a rich neighbourhood for Pokmon is a lot more dangerous if you happen to be African-American. There are even reports of muggers using Pokmon lures to entice roaming trainers – a cruel reversal of roles indeed.
Faith leaders have expressed a mixture of enthusiasm and dismay at the way Pokmon Go has infested their sacred spaces with otherworldly beings. I walked past a church in Cardiff the other week which proudly advertised itself as a gym, promising weary hunters free refreshments plus a few choice exhortations about finding religion, if not Rhyhorn. Over in the US, the pastor Rick Wiles takes a less favourable view, commenting that “the enemy, Satan, is targeting churches with virtual, digital, cyber demons.” Amusing, for sure, but what to make of the presence of Koffing, a Pokmon that emits toxic gas, in the US National Holocaust Museum? The appeal and menace of Go is the oddly engrossing dissonance with which its rad fantasy constructs map onto things and places we know.
The app has also, by extension, reignited debate about what kinds of privacy are possible in the age of smartphones and persistent online profiling. It requires that you hand over an absurd amount of personal and tracking information, and thus joins a long list of programs that are tacit mechanisms of surveillance. Launching the app is a little like restoring to human in the first Dark Souls, exposing yourself to player invasion for the sake, amongst other perks, of more and better item drops. Is the discovery of a treasure in a crevice – be it that Eevee you’ve been scouring Devon for, or a Titanite Catch Pole – worth the risk of being discovered in turn?
All this is a testament, as if we needed another, to the enduring relevance of Dark Souls’ design. I hesitate to call those networked features a critique of the rise of always-online apps – as with most timely artworks, there’s a degree of happy accident involved – but the game is certainly a complex analogue for how many of us now think of landscapes in terms of mobile coverage and wifi hotspots. Its tightly nestled spheres of influence and unseen, alternately helpful and hostile community correspond disturbingly to ‘real-world’ cities in which human beings are continuously bathed in electrical fields loaded with information and monitored by satellites, not always with the noblest of intentions.
Where Pokmon Go’s candy-coloured presentation invites us to revel in such ubiquity of access, whatever the consequences, From has supercharged the vague horror of it all by re-imagining the inescapable web as a question of deities and their dominions. It’s not an alternate reality game and is unlikely to ever become one, but it is a game about the good and bad things that happen when realities collide.