Death is very rarely a fun thing, but it’s often not how often you die, but why you die in the first place. Which is one of the things I absolutely adore about Dark Souls, death is often a combination of inattentiveness and sneaky design, rather than the game cheesing you out of a life because of some arbitrary desire for difficulty. So we’re going to look at a couple of places in the game for examples. One is a minor spoiler, so you’ve been warned!

Sen’s Fortress:

Later on in the game (and I’ll not say when!), you unlock a special place called Sen’s Fortress. The entire fortress is made of traps, evil snake guys, and will either have you raging at the traps or laughing hysterically with glee. Why is that? Well, the fortress is loaded to the brim with traps. Massive pendulums swinging about, pressure plates that fire horrible arrow barrages, massive boulders flying down corridors, and more. These are only a few of the traps you’ll encounter in the Fortress. Sounds like a pain, right? Not really, because like before: all of the traps may be borderline evil, but they are fair.

There are no traps in the fortress that will ever insta-gib you. There are traps that will surprise you, but they will rarely outright kill you. Every arrow trap has a pressure plate, the boulders have long ago rounded the corridors down and do make a lot of noise while they travel. Even the enemies that hide to ambush you will hiss and rattle once you’ve been seen. The beauty is that to a perceptive player, the traps are all right there and in plain sight, especially once you know what to look for. But that’s not what makes Sen’s Fortress such a blast to play through.

Lead enemies to their death, laugh at the results.

Remember when we established the traps are fair? That means if you’re clever, that can be made to work for you. Luring enemies into the pendulum traps to knock them away, or using the very deadly arrow traps to weaken or outright kill enemies is a great feeling. Once you know how the fortress works, you can twist the entire thing to your advantage, instead of the game’s, and cause more mayhem than you might believe. Even the boulder traps can be re-purposed, killing any enemy with the poor misfortune to be stuck on the path as a massive boulder comes rolling through, and there are more than a couple hidden areas that can be found using the boulder trap to smash through walls.

The important part of the zone is that the game will never outright cheat you into a death. Everything is not only visible to the perceptive, but also exploitable by the clever. This rewards players for letting them look around, turning frustration into fun as they spring the very traps that might have gotten them on any poor enemy that happens to be near.

Northern Undead Asylum:

This is the minor spoiler I was talking about. You can return to the starting area of the game, and this place is tough. All of the enemies have been upgraded, and there is even a bonus boss for you to play with. And if you rush through the Asylum, you will probably die and die horribly. There are several powerful Knights now, and the weak standard undead have had a bit of a power overhaul. But the game will never spring something unbeatable on you. If you go back to your old cell, there will be something nasty standing by and waiting, but the hallway favors your smaller weapons to his massive ones, if you use it to your advantage.

Which brings us to the overall theme of dark souls: “If you can hit it, and keep it from hitting you, you can win.” And that goes for literally everything. When I first started playing, there was a treasure safely tucked away behind a Black Knight. Keep in mind at that point in the game, the Black Knight could basically 2-shot me. And had an attack rotation where we would swing up to four times. A few deaths later, I knew his patterns, but my damage was too low. The battle would drag on, and I’d get sloppy, get hit, then die. Solution? Use items to cover my weakness. I farmed up enough firebombs to use instead of my attacks, and used those now.

"Welcome Home."

Even at this point, a Black Knight can kill me if he lands just a few attacks, but I have the damage to hold my own with my weapons. The same motto holds true then as it did now in the Asylum, hit it and don’t get hit, and reap the rewards. Which brings us to the Stray Demon, the optional boss of the Undead Asylum. Stray Demon can one-hit kill with three of his moves. Every other move does enough to stagger me away, leaving my character open to another hit. If I take damage at all in that fight, odds are I’m dead immediately after. I’ve heard stories of people double my soul level having trouble with this guy.  But I know his tales, I know his moves. I knew it, it was just a matter of finding the tempo. After many, many tries, I got it down and defeated the boss with little issues.

Most players can leave and come back after leveling up a bit more, to help mitigate some of the problems. Players who love the challenge can go earlier and attempt it. Death sucks, but there is a bonfire right outside the boss. Dying never feels like a cheesed event, but rather that I simply made a mistake and will have to try again. It’s never punishing, and rather feels like a time out for me to reflect on what went wrong.

Death can be an annoyance to some, but when it counts, knowing why you died is the most important thing. If you died because the game decided you are in the wrong place, that’s no fun. If you die because of a mistake on your part, half the fun is learning from that mistake and doing better the next time. And that is something Dark Souls does beautifully.