The Souls games are famous for a number of things — such as their approach to difficulty and their worldbuilding — but one of my personal favourite aspects is the messaging system that players can use. I played through most of Dark Souls II recently, so the following impressions are based on that game, but at least part of it applies to the first Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls, Bloodborne, and hopefully the upcoming Dark Souls III.
When you play Dark Souls II in its online mode, which is usually recommended, you will see plenty of telltale orange scribblings on the ground in most places you go in the game. These are messages left by other players, and they have various purposes, although they mainly fall into a few categories. The messaging system has spawned a number of memes already, such as posting (variations of) “don’t give up, skeleton” when you find a reclining skeleton somewhere in the game, or just posting “horse” somewhere, even though there are practically no horses anywhere in the game.1
The way these messages work is that a player selects the appropriate “leave message” option from the menu, and then composes the contents of the message by selecting from among a set of preset words and phrases, which can be tied together in various ways. It’s not possible to freely compose a message using a keyboard or other method of typing; you are restricted to the phrases and structure that were designed into the game. However, as we’ll see, a lot of the fun in these messages lies in making creative use of these limited options.
So, without further ado, here are some of my favourite kinds of messages in Dark Souls II.
1. The Helpful
The worlds of the Souls games are full of dangerous enemies, traps, hidden pathways, and different angles of approach for particular situations. Helpful players will use the messaging system to point out (more or less) obvious aspects of these to other players.
For example, Dark Souls II has a lot of chests containing items of interest, but some of them are trapped, or even monsters in disguise (Mimics). If there’s a message near a chest it could prove useful to check it if you suspect trouble. Of course, the message may just describe (roughly) what’s in the chest, a way of reminding other players to be sure to check it out.
Or, consider the various dangerous enemies you encounter in the game. Many of them have particular weaknesses that you can discover through trial and error, but you can also write down your findings for others to make us of as a hint. “Weakness: fire” or “try sorcery” can be lifesavers in particular situations. If all else fails, you can also “try beating to a pulp”. Heh.
Other cases where you can often find helpful messages are the numerous illusory walls in the game, difficult to see ledges you can safely drop down to off a cliffside, and spots where you can safely attack enemies with a bow.
Since playing the Souls games is often a somewhat lonesome experience — just your character up against a very hostile world — these helpful messages are simply reassuring as well. Others have been here before. You are not alone in your struggle.
2. The Red Herring / The Troll
The previous type of message is something of an enabler for this one. Many players will put down messages that appear to be helpful, but are actually false leads, or worse: plain old traps, just to mess with you.
Players will say “illusory wall ahead” or “try attacking” when a section of wall is just that: a wall that you can’t get through in any way, no matter how hard you try. Or they’ll put down “boss ahead” in a corridor that just leads to an empty room, getting you all pumped up for nothing.
You can generally smell a rat with these messages, but I still think they’re fun ways for players to keep each other on their toes. The uniform tone of the messages — courtesy of the preselected phrases — lends something playful to the whole thing. Sometimes you fall for one of these mischievous messages; you jump off a cliff to your death when a message suggested there’d be a ledge, rush headlong into a room full of enemies even though a message read “safe spot ahead”, but it’s OK. Like the rest of the game, these messages punish carelessness.
3. The Celebration
Bosses or otherwise tough fights are the climaxes of these games. You get your mettle tested, and you will generally need a few (or a few dozen — curse you, Fume Knight!) tries to get through a difficult battle and prevail. When these fights are over, you can bask in the calm, and suddenly you start to notice the messages of your predecessors spread around the arena: “I did it!”, “Hurrah for victory!”, “Praise the sun!”. Even if you are mostly playing through the game solo, the moments will remind you that you’re part of something of a community of players.
This highlights the unique approach From Software have taken to incorporating multiplayer aspects into their games. These episodes, whether it is being invaded by another player, teaming up to tackle an area or a boss together, or seeing the brief ghostlike images of players who happen to be playing in the same area as you right at that moment. All of it represents a multitude of parallel worlds and times that sometimes overlap. The fading and reappearing messages form part of this approach.
4. The Conversation
In a few rare places, you can find a bunch of messages, not just talking about the same object or area in the game’s environment, but actually talking to/about each other.
My favourite one can usually be found along the path that leads to the Shaded Woods. After the first bonfire, there is a narrow leaf-strewn path through the hills where not much happens: the perfect place for players to spruce up the place with some messages.
The first few warn you: “message ahead”, “be wary of message”, “message and then message”, and finally just a “message” or two.2 Apart from the surreal humour of the situation, there’s something about the fixed syntax of the message system that lends such an exchange a kind of dry wit.
Speaking of wit, there are a few ways in which homonyms can be used to make jokes, and players make plenty of use of that:
5. The Bawdy Pun
Of course the messaging system allows for a bit of wordplay. While no offensive or dirty words are included in the preset phrases, you can string phrases or words together using connectors like a comma, “and”, “therefore”, and “in short”. Oh, and “but”. Maybe you can see where this is going.
Two other words in the phrasebook with some obvious uses are “hole” and “rear”. Put them all together, and well… yeah.
Here’s a selection:
“giant but hole” [Just before the The Last Giant bossfight)
“tongue but hole”
And of course my own example above. It just goes to show that it’s hard to come up a messaging system where you can’t somehow make jokes worthy of a six year old.
Message ahead in short Praise the Sun!
For me, all of these kinds of messages add a bit of levity to the Souls games. While I love the generally dour tone and sometimes bleak and frustrating challenges in the games, it’s great to balance that with something light, and the messages add just that, whether it’s the hint you needed, a bit of trolling to remind you not to take the game too seriously, or just a bit of fun.