Life lessons from the Souls series, Part One: How to let go of that thing you wanted.
Ahh, Dark Souls...
FromSoftware's seminal 2011 title combines elements of RPG, metroidvania, and darkest-timeline Zelda to create something greater than the sum of its parts. The game is brutally difficult, insufferably opaque, and often quite frustrating. Nevertheless, this is action-adventure at its best.
Despite its brutalist presentation, Dark Souls can be a warm, joyous experience to play. The game is overflowing with integrity, impartiality, and respect for the player. The deaths are many, the losses are devastating, but with each blunder comes a new lesson. Dark Souls is a game that teaches the player how to fail, and how to learn from that.
When I play Dark Souls, I feel a mixture of of dread, confidence, and fascination. My hands shake, my heart races, and I keep thinking about it even when I'm not playing. This sometimes feels like more than just a game.
Occasionally, it can even be a source of poignant life lessons! Let me recount the sad tale of how I lost Havel's Ring.
On My Way to Blighttown...
There I was, standing in front of the doorway to Blighttown. My Pyromancer character (yeah, I know) had just defeated the Gaping Dragon deep in... The Depths, and I was flush with Souls.
I bought a piece of armor, the glorious-looking Armor of the Glorious, from Domhnall of Zena, a friendly/creepy merchant who was sitting nearby (most merchants in Dark Souls are both friendly and creepy). There's no way to know for sure, but it's possible that I bought this armor simply because it was shiny and cool-looking. I spent way too many Souls on it.
Unfortunately, wearing my shiny new armor made me lumber around like the Stay Puft Marshmallow man. This wouldn't do. This armor would slow me down, and I had a long road ahead. Blighttown is, after all, an infamous slog, and not to be taken lightly.
I figured that it was a good time to backtrack and see about boosting some stats. This leads us to our first life lesson.
Life Lesson #1: Anyone Can Be Anything!
Dark Souls has several classes to choose from at the beginning of the game. You can be the Wanderer, the Knight, the Sorcerer, etc. Each one with their own starting equipment and stats. In most games of this type, the decision of choosing a class is fundamental to the overall player experience. In Dark Souls, its kind of a trick.
Thing is, Dark Souls classes just don't matter very much in the long term. A player can grind to level up and augment any stat at any point, and every starting item can eventually be found somewhere in the game world. If the player has the patience for it, any starting character can be adjusted to create just about any sort of build.
Changing "classes" in Dark Souls is as easy as selecting different equipment and items, but these decisions come with their own consequences. It all comes down to the relationship between two important stats: Equip Load and Equip Weight.
Equip Weight: Total weight of all items/armor the player has equipped.
Equip Load: Maximum weight the player can carry.
Every item the player equips adds up to a total, the Equip Weight. This value is then compared to Equip Load, which acts as a sort of upper limit on how much the player can carry without slowing down. As the Equip Weight value gets closer to Equip Load, the more penalties to movement and agility the player experiences. Stamina regenerates more slowly, movement speed decreases, and even animations such as the roll-dodge change to clunkier, less dynamic variants (AKA the infamous "fat roll"). In other words, a heavy burden fundamentally shifts how Dark Souls feels to play.
Whether this is good or bad depends on the player's preference. Some players purposefully create builds where they wear heavy armor that makes them move like a tank. Others go "naked" and run around with no armor at all. This player is encouraged to make deliberate decisions regarding how they want to approach their character and play style. It's just another subtle feature that makes Dark Souls so damn clever.
There's something refreshing, and democratic, about this approach to equipment and play style. With enough time and patience, the player can transform their character into just about anything they want. They just need to have the right stats and stuff!
In Dark Souls, player characters aren't defined by their origins, but by their potential. The world offers infinite possibilities, a sort of safety net, to those who desire to change. In life, the world doesn't always offer infinite possibilities (or a safety net), but with enough patience and work, it's still possible to grow and change.
Meanwhile, Back at the Door to Blighttown...
As I stared at the door to Blighttown, I was faced with a conundrum. I could wear my Armor of the Glorious and lumber around slowly (and probably die), or I could find a way to increase my Equip Load stat to avoid the trade-off altogether.
Now, I could have just kept playing and grinding to level up my Vitality, which augments Equip Load slightly, but that would have taken forever - and been boring! NO, I wanted a quick, easy solution.
Based on my own past attempts to play the game (and also the Wiki), I knew I that there was one item within reach that would be a massive help in letting me carry more stuff.
That item, of course, was Havel's Ring.
Havel's Ring increases Equip Load by 50%, more than any other item in the game. Plus, because the ring's effect scales with the player's stats, it stays useful for a long, long time.
But, like nearly everything in Dark Souls, it's not super easy to get. Havel's Ring already had an owner, and he wouldn't part with it willingly.
Meet Havel the Rock
Hello, I am Havel the Rock. I will be smashing you today.
Locked away in a watchtower that connects early-game areas Undead Burg and Darkroot Basin, Havel the Rock stands vigil. Aggressive, relentless, and surprisingly fast, he will attack without hesitation and can demolish the player's defense in a single hit. He wears the heaviest armor, wields the biggest shield, and his weapon looks like a giant dragon's tooth (this is because his weapon is, in fact, a giant dragon's tooth called Dragon Tooth).
Havel the Rock is a boss, a formidable, totally optional, boss.
There are two ways to get into Havel the Rock's watchtower, both behind locked doors. If the player opens the lower entrance with the Watchtower Basement Key, he'll ambush from behind the door. The Master Key unlocks the upper entrance, but Havel will charge with startling speed at anyone who comes down the stairs. Either way, the player is going to face him in a confined space, not ideal when one hit can mean death.
Havel's size, equipment, and the cramped area in which the player faces him creates a different kind of encounter than other boss battles in Dark Souls. The fight against Havel the Rock is no grand, set-piece moment, but an abrupt, intimate duel. At least, that's how it felt the first time I fought this guy.
The First Time I Fought Havel the Rock
Confession time, I've tried to play Dark Souls before. It was a few years ago, when the game was only on PS3, but the memories are still hammered into me like so many blows from Dragon Tooth.
In my first encounter with Havel the Rock. I came in through the lower entrance, where his initial ambush took me by surprise. He smashed me to bits, a few times. But, I eventually I learned to dodge his overhead swing. I also learned to give up on trying to block him, as any hit left me staggered and dead with the next attack.
I ended up putting away my shield completely, and coming at Havel with nothing but my trusty halberd. Me and halberd, in all its stabby glory, were able to get lucky one time, and squeeze in enough attacks to finally bring Havel down. It was a close-quarters slug-fest, an intimate contest on equal terms that left me drained. It was awesome!
But there was something familiar, and tragic, about the whole thing. This sudden, unexplained duel felt almost pointless. Who was this guy I had just barely managed to defeat? Why was he locked in this tower? Under different circumstances, could we have been friends? I feel like we could have been friends.
After all, Havel the Rock isn't like most bosses in Dark Souls. He's no demon or giant monster, he's a knight. There's something oddly familiar about him. It's as if the game was trying to tell me something about this character. Maybe he and I aren't all that different?
Now, years later, as I made my way back to Havel's watchtower, these same questions lingered.
Some research/cheating on the Wiki reveals that, like nearly everything in Dark Souls, Havel the Rock has a story. And, like nearly everything in Dark Souls, that story isn't conveyed in a straightforward way.
Life Lesson #2: The Truth is Yours to Discover
There's altogether too much lore in Dark Souls to cover in this post. However, it's fair to say that the game's narrative is fixated on the past. Most of the game's characters are defined by it in some way. Those who are left to talk about the past may not be trustworthy, and everyone is living with consequences of decisions made long ago. If the player wants to understand the nature of the world and gain context for their actions, they'll need to piece the story together by learning about the past.
Just about everything in the game has a history. It's the lore of Dark Souls that really shines, and one of the most effective ways that the game conveys its lore is through items that the player finds along the way. Each one comes with a description that adds a small detail illustrating the history of the item's origin and the attitudes of the characters who made or used it. Enough items can tell a story that adds fascinating context to the player's actions in the game.
Havel the Rock is no exception. If the player collects enough items associated with him, they'll learn that he's more than just some dude in a tower. He is, in fact, a character with a backstory, motivation, and personality, and its a tragic one.
The first item of Havel's the player is likely to find is The Watchtower Basement Key, found in Darkroot Garden in the hands of a petrified Divine Blacksmith. This item unlocks the lower entrance to the watchtower, where Havel awaits.
Watchtower Basement Key
Key to the basement of the watchtower in the Undead Burg.
The basement of the watchtower forms a stone cell. There are rumors of a hero turned Hollow who was locked away by a dear friend. For his own good, of course.
With this one item, Havel's tragic story starts to take shape. We know that he went "hollow," succumbing to the curse that permeates the world, and became a mindless being. We also know that he had at least one friend. Could the petrified blacksmith have been that friend, the one who locked Havel in the Tower? Or perhaps is it the reverse, maybe the Divine Blacksmith was on his way to free Havel when he was turned into stone?
The next piece of evidence comes after defeating Havel. His ring, the whole point of this misadventure, has an interesting tidbit of its own.
This ring was named after Havel the Rock, Lord Gwyn's old battlefield compatriot.
Havel's men wore the ring to express faith in their leader and to carry a heavier load.
Aside from the fact that Havel's men also liked to wear rings which augmented their Equip Load stat, we learn from this ring that Havel the Rock had a special relationship with Lord Gwyn, the guy from the opening sequence who threw lightning and killed gods or dragons or something. Lord Gwyn is the final boss of the game too, so he's a pretty important character.
From just these two items, we've learned a great deal about Havel the Rock. Further into the game, the player will find additional items which upend our understanding of this character, and create more questions than answers. I'll get into that more in my next post, but for now it's enough to say that Havel the Rock is more than mysterious than he seems on the surface.
In Dark Souls, players can piece together elaborate stories involving the game's world and characters by collecting items, speaking with NPCs, and closely observing the world around them. The game's cryptic narrative is just vague enough to stay open to interpretation, and the rest is up to the player to discover on their own.
Likewise, real life rarely offers the whole truth. We mere mortals are left to piece together what we can from the available evidence and our own interpretation.
The Second Time I Fought Havel the Rock
This ledge. This %$&@#ing ledge right here.
In my second attempt against Havel the Rock, I wasn't feeling very patient. I had specifically chosen the starting class of Pyromancer to make things easy on myself (although, as previously noted, that really only matters at the beginning of the game). I wanted to find the quickest and easiest way of dispatching Havel the Rock so I could hurry up and get that ring so I could wear that shiny armor.
Unfortunately, things didn't go all that smoothly. I approached Havel from above this time, using the Master Key to unlock the Watchtower. I tried sneaking at first, but he usually caught on quick and starting sprinting at me with unnerving speed. I attempted to duel him as I had in my previous play-through, but my current character was a poor fit. My earlier character high dexterity and a long-reaching halberd. This time, I was a Pyromancer with a crappy battle ax - not ideal.
My flame attacks did some damage, but it never seemed to be enough, and my Battle Ax was all but useless against his defense. I just kept dying over and over again. This wasn't going well.
Eventually, as I so often do, I tried to research my way out of the problem and find an exploit that I could.. exploit. I learned that Havel is incapable of leaving his tower for very long. If he's lured out, he will turn around, re-enter the tower, and go back to his original spot on the lower floor.
With this info, my brilliant strategy was clear. I entered the tower, got Havel to chase me, and ran for my life to the stone staircase leading to the upper entrance of the tower in Undead Burg. This method didn't go quite as smoothly as advertised, as he still attacked me even outside the tower. The stone staircase seemed only to extend his range as he hammered me from above.
But I was slowly making progress, he was able to hit me once or twice, but I healed. I peppered him with crossbow bolts, exhausted my fire spells, and was even able to hit him with the Battle Ax once or twice. I'd fall back and watch as Havel lumbered back into the tower. Then, I'd get his attention and repeat the sequence again. It was all going smoothly for a while.
At this time it's important to note that the stone staircase leading to the watchtower in Undead Burg has a broken section. Brave players can jump off of here onto a lower ledge to find a Soul of the Lost Undead if they don't fall to their deaths.
And wouldn't you know it, but players aren't the only ones who can fall off the stairs at that broken section. I'm not sure how it happened exactly, but Havel was in mid-wing when dropped down onto the ledge below. He just stood there, trapped, unable to climb back up, jump to safety, or keep attacking. Havel was frozen, dumbfounded by a situation he couldn't understand.
I took this as a good sign at first. He couldn't kill me from where he was! I took up a post across from the ledge, and shot him with crossbow bolts until he finally died. Success!
And there, glowing with ethereal light amidst Havel's fading body, was Havel's Ring. My quick and easy solution had paid off. All I need to do was jump down there and get it.
That's where things went horribly wrong. I don't need to tell you that I was very careful not to fall off the ledge to my doom, but that's what happened anyway. I think the trick is to jump, not just to fall. I let myself fall, and watched helplessly as I bumped against the ledge that should have caught me and descended into nothingness. I died.
I think that's me going "poof" in the center there.
And this is where things got a little desperate. I REALLY wanted that ring. After my undead self reanimated, I returned to the scene of the crime, but Havel's Ring was nowhere to be found! I ran up and down the stairway, searched the watchtower, died again to reset the world, and even reset the game.
I ran all the way back to Firelink Shrine to check a certain chest that exists to contain lost items if the player finds themself in just such a situation. But Havel the Rock is an optional boss, and the type of protections that Dark Souls builds around key items don't work on optional treasures like Havel's Ring.
I started reading about cloud saves, and wondered if I could work around Dark Souls's permanent save system. I even considered starting over with a new character. Either way, I wasn't getting Havel's Ring, not mention wearing that shiny Armor of the Glorious, any time soon.
No matter what I tried, it was hopeless. I had died before I could grab Havel's Ring, and now it was lost to me forever. Quick and easy solution, huh?
Life Lesson #3: Take the Hard Road
In Dark Souls, nothing is ever quick and easy. Trying to juke the system, find an easy way through, or otherwise progress without mastering the primary combat mechanics will only get the player so far. Eventually, they are going to have to learn to parry, to dodge, and to engage with enemies on equal terms to progress.
My shortcut to killing Havel had led me down the wrong path. The game had set up a duel for me, and I had avoided the lesson. If I had fought Havel properly, I wouldn't have been in this mess. Instead, I had tried to trick the game, and the consequences were my own fault.
Dark Souls is a difficult game. Yes, there are tips and tricks for just about everything, but fundamentally the game wants you to... git gud. There is no replacement for hard work, after all.
And thus, in life, there are sometimes multiple routes to take. Those who take the longer, harder road often grow and progress more than those who opt for the quick and easy route.
Life After Havel's Ring
Bring it on. I'm ready.
After losing Havel's Ring, I was despondent. I considered giving up or restarting the game from scratch. I even consulted my roommate, a Dark Souls master of the oldest school, but he told me not to worry about it. According to him, Havel's Ring was overrated, especially for a Pyromancer.
Overrated?! How could that be? It would have let me carry more stuff!
Nevertheless, I decided to go back to the game and pick up where I left off. At this point, I felt I had nothing to lose, and wanted to pick a fight. I went down to Darkroot Basin, and started pestering the Black Knight who lived down there.
Just like the fight with Havel, I lobbed fire spells, and took a chance at attacking every once in a while, but I didn't try any cheap moves. I took some hits, nearly died more than once, but I kept at it and took him down on the first try.
Then, something amazing happened (at least I think so). The Black Knight dropped a very rare weapon, the Black Knight Halberd. This item can only be gained by some three enemies in the game, and two of them don't respawn. With impressive stats, and generally good reviews, players seem to love this weapon.
I felt vindicated, as if Dark Souls was making up for my loss of Havel's Ring. With the Black Knight Halberd in hand, I no longer had a reason to restart the game. Now, I had a new goal, something to strive for, to get strong enough to use the Black Knight Halberd!
With renewed hope, I returned to the gates of Blighttown. It didn't matter to me anymore whether I was "ready," and I didn't care about wearing the Armor of the Glorious anymore either. That was fortunate, because the Armor of the Glorious isn't of much use in Blighttown anyway. It's no good against poison, which is all that really matters when trying to get through that horrible place.
Blighttown is a creepy, unpleasant environment, and as I made my way through I noted that the Switchblade Sisters horror movie podcast I had playing at the time made for an apt pairing. I listened to the sordid events that transpire over the course of Bone Tomahawk and The Invitation as I fended off Infested Ghouls wielding decaying human bodies as weapons.
It was fairly terrifying, but it was the type of terror that one can learn to embrace. It was okay to be in this creepy place. It was okay to be a little scared.
And before I knew it, I was through. I had gathered all the items in Blighttown, and opened a path at the end such that I never had to pass through Blighttown ever, ever again. At least, not for a while.
And I didn't need Havel's Ring or the Armor of the Glorious to do it.
Life Lesson #4: Learn to Let Go
Among all the lessons that the Souls series can teach us, perhaps the most valuable is the ability to let go.
With its approach to stats and equipment, Dark Souls teaches players to let go of the idea of permanent classes. Anyone can become anything with enough time and patience.
With its cryptic story, the game reminds us that a straightforward narrative is not always the most effect, and to embrace the challenge of piecing together a story on our own.
The Souls series overall has a big lesson to teach in letting go of blocking with a shield in favor of riskier, and more effective, strategies. Shields engender passivity, aftera ll.
In seeking Havel's Ring, I learned to let go of my expectations. I didn't need that fancy ring to get through Blighttown, and the Armor of the Glorious is kind of useless anyway.
To play Dark Souls is to learn how to embrace failure. Any false move could be deadly and undo hours of progress, and that's the point. Over time, the player learns to accommodate the risk as part of the experience, to free themselves from fear and accept each moment as it comes. These are the moments when Dark Souls is at its most sublime.
Now, as I walk through the world of Dark Souls, I learn to let go of fear. If I die and lose my souls, so be it. I can get them back. Being overly cautious made me less capable as a player, less able to react and more likely to die and cause the loss I was so afraid of. I can't hide behind a shield and creep around forever. Better to let go and take the rest in stride.
There are real life lessons to be had here: patience, humility, tenacity, perseverance, how to fail, and how to let go.
Those of us who love games can become trapped by our own expectations. In this culture, it's not uncommon for some to throw fits when they don't get what they want (or worse). In the dark times we live in, there are many who would benefit from the life lessons Dark Souls has to offer.
It's good to want things, but if you really love something, be prepared to let it go. You might realize that you don't need Havel's Ring after all, and you might just get a Black Knight Halberd out of the deal.