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The Souls games (both Demon's and Dark) are monuments to loneliness. They generate it, incubate it, and then, when the player's feeling like the last human being in existence, they feed off it. Both games' ruined churches, dilapidated townships, and cavernous tunnels only get larger as you play, their depths empty but for the clank of your own armour off the sweating walls and the faint rustle of things couched in the dark.
But I've never gone to either game's world - Boletaria for Demon's, and Lordran for Dark - alone. I finished Dark Souls with the help of 70 hours of podcasts; I refused to set foot beyond the menu screens of Demon's Souls without my PC monitor angled toward my sofa, blaring something bright and cheerful in tone. In-game, I had moon grasses and estus flasks for my physical well-being; in the real world, I had comforting voices to maintain my mental state. Both held equal value in my adventuring pack.
Both games serve up their sensations of loneliness sliced thin, and they're gone before they ever become too sickly. Dark Souls' Undead Burg is a crumbling medieval city, its crenellations riddled with zombie archers. It's a sad place, more pitiful than truly malevolent, but walk down any infested corridor and it's clear from the sword swings that the locals don't want you there. Delve further into the game and you'll end up in the New Londo Ruins, deep below ground. The darkness down here is thick enough to hack with an axe, and the first ghostly enemies are so ingrained into the evil, foetid air that steel weapons go straight through them. Unlock the area's second stage by draining the Ruins' water supply, and the only way is down.
It's darker down there, the thick mud seemingly coming to life in the form of monstrously powerful orc-men and goopy, faceless manifestations of nastiness. Alone and near-blind, it feels like standing at the bottom of the earth. Until you find the stairs that lead further down. At the bottom of the New Londo Ruins, there's a hole that gives way to nothingness. With a special ring, you'll fall 40 storeys and hang in the blackness. Without it, you'll fall forever. On your own. In the dark.
RAY OF DARK
World 4 of Demon's Souls sticks with me in particular. It's one of the few with a broad skyline - but it's no inspirational sight. The sky is sickly and restless, wispy cream clouds against a milky blue backdrop. Linger too long for a look at the sun behind the clouds and you'll be lanced by strange, alien manta rays, impossibly navigating the airspace on lazy wings. They might share your world, but they're like nothing earthly.
Dark Souls' monsters are similarly ooky. The Lower Undead Burg's zombie ninjas look like Star Wars' Jawas all grown up and needing a shower. The Demon Ruins' egg-encrusted crawlers are so repulsive they make the skin at the base of my neck itch. Sen's Fortress and the Demon Ruin have guards that look human from far enough away - till you realise the former have four foot long snakes for heads, and the latter are more goat than man.