Title: You Died: The Dark Souls Companion
Authors: Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth
Illustrators: Paul Canavan and Angus Dick
Publication Year: 2016
This guest review is written by Ryan Nock.
I came to You Died: The Dark Souls Companion as a casual fan of the Japanese video game series Dark Souls (and its sister Bloodborne), and I was expecting the text to explore the craft, the development, and the secrets of the games. It’s not quite that book, though, and devotes its attention to the game’s fandom rather than its creation.
The Souls series is infamous for its difficulty, and you’ll see the words “YOU DIED” flash on the screen dozens of times as you learn how to play. The most casual encounters with enemies can kill your character repeatedly until you get into the groove and learn the dangers of the world and the attack patterns of the undead and other monsters that roam it. While you’re connected online, other players can scrawl notes from a limited set of available words to offer hints, and you can call on help from other players, but they cannot speak to you. Moreover, those same players can “invade” your game and try to kill you.
While yes, this is challenging, it has created an interesting sense of community, as players all struggling at the same time to survive the game and solve its mysteries. That community, which expanded from the video game to the internet and even into the real world, is the focus of You Died.
The authors, Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth, are both game journalists who had early access to games in the Souls series and were early popularizers of them in the West. Through this book (which doesn’t have a table of contents), they recount the history of how the precursor game Demon’s Souls came to the West through imports and fan translations, how its popularity led to the enthusiastic reception of the eventual release of Dark Souls, and how the fanbase proselytized the game firmly into the sphere of gaming pop culture icons.
Today, myriad YouTube channels highlight hidden bits of lore and showcase the skills of expert players, and the authors document some of the most famous examples of each. They seem to be trying to craft a sort of historical record of the game community, with whole chapters devoted to the time a Twitch stream crowd-sourced playing Dark Souls, or how one YouTube celeb got in hot water for collating insights into the gameworld’s mysteries without providing proper attribution to the messageboard community where that information was first posted.
Unfortunately, You Died is not adequately comprehensive as a reference, and as a documentary piece it doesn’t remain engaging all the way through. The presentation is a tad dry and perhaps a bit overlong; and, for a book about a video game, it’s a shame the only art is a series of black-and-white line drawings. I wonder if I, as a casual fan, am not the target audience. The authors assume the reader has beaten Dark Souls, and every once in a while I found passages of the book rather self-congratulatory, like the twelve pages detailing how one author got a 100% completion achievement. Rather than a unified book with a coherent through-line that builds to a satisfying conclusion, You Died is better read as a series of articles, which makes sense considering the pedigrees of the authors.
Still, there’s plenty to like. Entertaining vignettes recall how a couple bonded through co-op play, and how trickster players subvert the “invasion” mechanic to goof around and give rewards to would-be enemies who play along with their shenanigans. The chapters I found most interesting were the ones about the actual craft of the games – a biography of and excerpted interview with the series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, recollections of the translators who localized the games and the British voice actors who gave gravitas to a mournful story about a world where nothing can truly die, and musings of other game designers on what lessons they’ve learned from the Souls series.
One early and appealing chapter quotes from a long email chain that bounced back and forth among game reviewers who got advance copies of Dark Souls before it was released in the West. The reader is invited to witness their shared amusement and frustration as they work through the game, share tips with each other, and brag about their successes.
For my taste, there’s a bit too much on the community around the game – a still-active community one can easily learn about with some web searches – and not enough behind-the-scenes information. Dark Souls has a setting you have to dig your teeth into in order to really appreciate the game’s plot. Today, it’s easy for someone new to the franchise to hit up a wiki and have all the secrets revealed, and I wish this book had cared more about the unrolling of revelations in the games – the lovely “aha!” moments that cause pieces of the puzzle to fit together.
Also, the focus is almost wholly on Westerners, with scant attention paid to the fans in Japan or the other designers – artists, programmers, composers – who are all Japanese. What inspired these developers to create a setting so firmly rooted in a medieval and Renaissance European aesthetic? All the authors offer the reader is a few paragraphs on Miyazaki’s interest in Western fantasy, and I lament that the topic was not explored in more detail.
By chance, shortly before reading You Died, I finished another book about a pop culture phenomenon with a large community centered on unraveling mysteries. In 1979, the British artist Kit Williams buried a bejeweled golden rabbit and published Masquerade, an illustrated, riddle-filled book that served as a treasure map. In 1982 the rabbit was found, and in 1983 Bamber Gascoigne (a name which will be familiar to players of Bloodborne) released Quest for the Golden Hare. The book served as both a thriller, deftly portraying a cast of characters trying to locate the rabbit, and as an oral history of William’s creation of the puzzle and of the phenomenon of Masqueraders around the world trying to crack the code he’d crafted. Perhaps unfairly, I ended up comparing the two books, and I found Quest for the Golden Hare more compellingly written, though this could be a result of different journalistic styles separated by thirty years – or because I’m not exceptionally engrossed in the Souls franchise.
You Died certainly has its moments, and as a celebration of a fandom it has the potential to inspire appreciation within the community of people who love the game. Its content could have been tightened and condensed, however, and I think it would have been improved by a stronger focus on its Japanese origins rather than just its reception in the West.
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Ryan Nock is a writer and tabletop game designer at EN Publishing and product line director of ZEITGEIST: The Gears of Revolution and War of the Burning Sky, two adventure series for Dungeons & Dragons and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.