There is already so much written about Dark Souls, and indeed most of From Software’s recent output, that I feel almost apologetic throwing another piece into the void. Yet, it speaks volumes about the way that From’s games get under the skin that it’s almost impossible to not talk about them, as many of my non-game playing colleagues will lament.

This has happened to me once before, with Bloodborne – my first proper click with a From game – where I felt instantly compelled to write about the true nature of its ‘difficulty’, a piece which failed to find a paying home because, rightly, people were fed up of reading about it.

And here we are again, a situation where I’m playing through the original Dark Souls for the first time, where I’m possibly even more obsessed with it than I was Bloodborne, and I need to say something about it, even at the risk of treading old ground.

And with that, let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way: Dark Souls is a bleak, brutal but rewarding experience, especially in that initial playthrough. It’s continually one step ahead of your skill level, and mastery of it, or at least any sense of being in control, forever feels mere inches from your fingertips. Any major success – whether the successful navigation of an area to the safety of the next bonfire, or finally overcoming a particularly troublesome boss – is fleeting, as Dark Souls will happily beat you down shortly after, leaving you to go through tense but thrilling cycles of despair, gritted-teeth and, eventually, success.

And while the feeling of overcoming what seems an impossible ask is undoubtedly euphoric, it’s been subtle, incidental moments of positivity that have struck a real chord with me.

The chosen undead stands before the Undead Parish's spire, which hides the first bell of awakening
The parish bell awaits…

My favourite of which became apparent as I made my way from the Undead Burg and towards the Undead Parish where, according to the shady knight at the Firelink Shrine, sits one of two bells I’d need to ring to progress through Lordran. It’s in these two areas where I feel that Dark Souls shows its true self, and where the most formative lessons happen. The parish is a deadly gauntlet and likely what makes or breaks most players, or at least makes them while breaking them.

For me, it was the Balder Knights – caped warriors of Knight King Rendal – that did the breaking. I had been conditioned mostly with weaker Hollows until that point, whom I’d learnt to combat without a second thought, and the Balder Knights represented the first proper combat change-up.

But in-between deaths, during every fresh approach to the parish, I would periodically hear its bell ring out. It felt nothing other than ominous because Dark Souls uses sound so sparsely, music even less so, that every step, every little scrape, and every incidental noise leads to a state of apprehension. It had me thinking, though: if the bell was ringing, surely the mission was already accomplished?

Of course, it wasn’t. Thankfully, though, it wasn’t long before I was ringing the first bell of awakening myself, at least once I’d found the area’s bonfire to use as a base from which to venture out, explore and grind souls, before ousting the gargoyles that were defending my goal.

Much later and farther into Lordran, and becoming far more obsessed with Dark Souls and its lore, I started to read about the areas I’d already conquered, and it was then I found out what those bells really meant.

What I thought were environmental clues that I was in the right area and, at worst, audible ways of unsettling me (which were working), were actually – in a ridiculously clever usage of Dark Soul’s asynchronous multiplayer – triggered by other players in their own playthroughs, ringing that first bell for themselves.

That blew my mind.

The bells were never there to strike fear or to foreshadow, but instead to signal the success of others.

And now, when at Firelink Shrine or returning to the parish to visit its blacksmith, the bell will ring out and I’ll smile for the ringer. Yes, it could be an experienced player on their second or third NG+, but I take delight at hearing it nonetheless and hope that if it is someone on their first journey, that they feel as elated as I did in that same moment.

Good on you, buddy. I know how you feel. Keep going. I believe in you.

The chosen undead is about to experience Blighttown
Welcome to hell

I was also so happy to have discovered this fact before my descent into the infamously difficult, plague-ridden area of Blighttown, because whenever its hidden bell rang out across the swamps below, I knew that someone had just completed the mission ahead of me. Sure, this is the area that everyone talks and complains about online, and yeah, it was tough going, but if the ringer could do it then I was sure I could as well.

Even as I’m approaching the adventure’s final stages, and the bells have long-since served their purpose, they never fail to give me a shot in the arm. They serve as a timely reminder that I too had found many of the earlier areas difficult, and that with the same persistence and patience, I can overcome whatever else Lordran can throw at me.