Review: You Died will enkindle your inner Dark Souls fan

Last Updated July 5th, 2021

Of all the various intellectual properties which exist within the gaming industry, few are as polarizing as From Software’s Souls series. The series, known for its dark fantasy settings, obtuse storylines, and punishing difficulty, either clicks immediately with a player, or it doesn’t. Some players see each Souls game’s unforgiving learning curve and lack of clear direction as an opportunity to relish, an appreciation for how games are “meant” to be played. Others see them as grueling tests of endurance, fraught with rage-inducing cheap deaths, frustrated howls of annoyance, and the scattered broken corpses of many a game controller. However, it’s hard to refute the fact that You Died: The Dark Souls Companion will make even the most frustration-prone gamer want to at least take a few timid steps into Dark Souls’ unforgiving world of Lordran.

From Darkness, Light

As you might guess from its title, You Died: The Dark Souls Companion, which is co-authored by Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth, is centered entirely around Dark Souls, the 2011 game developed by From Software which serves as a spiritual sequel to the previously released Demon’s Souls, and as the first game in the Dark Souls trilogy, which was recently completed thanks to the release of Dark Souls 3 back in March of this year. It might seem odd to the uninitiated, releasing a book in 2016 which is all about a game released in 2011, but that’s only because those same uninitiated likely aren’t aware of the massive fan community which has grown around the Souls series, or of the staggering number of players who still play the original Dark Souls to this day (yours truly among them).

You Died is structured in a way which makes it an engaging read even for readers who have never played any of From Software’s Souls games. The book tells a dual narrative of sorts, with MacDonald chronicling several real-life stories which relate directly to Dark Souls (such as how one fan used the game as a means of therapy to recover from a debilitating medical condition, or how the “Twitch Plays Dark Souls” experiment began and ended), and Killingsworth guiding readers through a narrative tour of each of Dark Souls various explorable areas, making iconic locations such as Anor Londo and Blighttown come to life in ways that even seasoned Dark Souls players will find captivating.

This dual narrative helps to turn You Died into a real page-turner, since the narrative descriptions of each in-game area, while often brief, help to immerse the reader in the deep, often sorrowful lore which exists at the heart of Dark Souls before leading straight into real-life accounts which prove just how much of a positive effect the game has had on people from all around the globe, despite its ominous overtones of dark fantasy and crushing difficulty. Reading about Blighttown’s infamously difficult layout, for example, in turn makes the subsequent story of how two gamers bonded over cooperatively conquering the swamp-covered Dark Souls locale and eventually fell in love and got married resonate even more strongly than if the reader just got the story without any context of just how tough Blighttown can be to survive.

On their own, each of the two narratives presented in You Died presents an exhaustive, yet ultimately narrow look at Dark Souls, but interwoven in the way that they are, they help readers to understand that there’s a lot more happening beneath the surface of Dark Souls’ difficulty, and it is these hidden elements which help to bring fans together and give rise to the very human tales of triumph, bonding, and personal growth which MacDonald covers. The book even covers other forms of extracurricular material which has spawned as a result of Dark Souls, such as the popular Dark Souls-centric podcast Bonfireside Chat, or the YouTube video series Prepare to Cry which discusses the oft-hidden back stories behind the characters and bosses of Dark Souls (and which was the focus of a recent piece I wrote discussing some of the game’s cut content.

Of Endings And Beginnings

Perhaps the strongest element of You Died is how much it shows that the Souls community is so much more than a bunch of masochists who enjoy putting themselves through each game’s grueling paces. It’s a community of scholars who seek to understand each Souls game’s well-hidden lore and secrets, it’s a community of friends who are always willing to lend a hand to newer players who are struggling with a particularly tough boss (the only thing more satisfying than taking down boss encounters like Ornstein and Smough yourself is helping other players do it), and, most importantly, it’s a community without whom MacDonald’s contributions to You Died would not be possible.

I’ll admit I am a bit biased since, by the time I read You Died, I had already fallen in love with Dark Souls, having beaten it once already and now being well into my New Game+ run, but I’m willing to bet good money that any gamer who is at least familiar with the Souls series would find a lot to love within Killingsworth’s narrations and MacDonald’s glimpses into the real lives of some of Dark Souls’ most dedicated fans. If anything, it might just inspire Souls veterans who have since moved on to other gaming pursuits (maybe more recent Souls games like Bloodborne or Dark Souls 3) to revisit the game which propelled the Souls series from a niche interest into a worldwide phenomenon. After all, the Chosen Undead isn’t going to get themself out of the Undead Asylum….