Review – You Died

I’ve written about Dark Souls here before, but I’ve never adequately expressed how much I adore the game. Dark Souls isn’t my favourite game, but it’s one of the few I find endlessly fascinating. I watch a few of the community’s personalities dissect the lore, I read wikis, the subreddit and follow the parts of the game which are still being uncovered and still being reported despite the game’s approaching fifth (!) birthday. This is all to say that reading You Died: The Dark Souls Companion by Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth has been a delight for me. The book ably combines personal stories of the authors’ experience with Dark Souls, interviews with community members prominent and unknown and serious discussion with people involved in the game’s development, such as its English translator. Given the range of material You Died covers, it’s an astonishingly successful book, among the finest tributes to one of the greatest games ever made.

While it isn’t marketed as such, You Died is a collection of essays. ‘Chapters’ mostly alternate between MacDonald and Killingsworth with little connective tissue between them or references to earlier essays. As such each essay (with the exception of Killingsworth’s reflections on every area in the game) can be read in isolation. The material can be broadly divided into coverage of Dark Souls itself, coverage of its community, and coverage of the game’s development and developer From Software.

In the first category are personal essays in which the authors reflect on how they came to play and love Dark Souls and especially how they struggled with, appreciated and conquered the game close to its release. Killingsworth has also written a series of great, meandering descriptions of each area in the game discussing their design and aesthetic. At the back of the book, MacDonald attempts to wrangle with Dark Souls’ lore, and succeeds in providing a summary of the competing theories and tentative conclusions about the game’s story.

The second category, about Dark Souls’ community, are primarily interviews. VaatiVidya, the person responsible for creating some of the most popular lore explanations, had an in-depth chat with Killingsworth and the result is one of the book’s highlights. They speculate about what makes Dark Souls so popular and what makes its community so dedicated. Killingworth’s writing is expressive enough that we get a real sense of the personalities of both the interviewer and interviewee, who are clearly passionate fans. MacDonald dives into the bizarre project Twitch Plays Dark Souls, interviewing the man who created it. Charming as these are, though, the best part of this section are the interviews with fans of the game who aren’t well known, and who’ve engaged with it in a unique way. One interview with a couple who played through Dark Souls when they were in a long-distance relationship is great, and MacDonald’s questions about little things like whether the game caused arguments (there was one) elicit great responses. My favourite, though, is an interview with Kay, a woman who had very little experience with video games before she tackled the notoriously ultra-difficult Dark Souls. Her point that Dark Souls exercises a different set of skills to most video games is well made: Dark Souls expects you ‘to listen, to learn, and to improve,’ and the main thing you need for success is patience.

The last broad category, about the game’s development and its developers, is the only one I can’t wholeheartedly endorse. I adore a few of the essays here, such as an interview with Dark Souls’ English translator describing his process and how the game’s creator, Hidetaka Miyazaki, supervises even the translation of his games. Miyazaki himself is the focus of a lot of this section, however, without much new information about the man, or much of interest to say on the old material. You Died uses a welcome light touch with its subject matter throughout, but essay with titles like ‘Final Boss: Understanding Dark Souls’ Creator’ can’t help but be self-serious. It’s tiresome to have so much coverage of Dark Souls dedicated to one (undoubtedly important) member of the development team, and the problem is exacerbated here since it has no new interview with Miyazaki. Anyone who loves Dark Souls will have already heard the anecdote in which Miyazaki told an artist to redraw a concept for an undead dragon, which appears frequently in news posts about the game.  It’s repeated here, however, along with lots of other information gleaned from earlier interviews with the man (albeit MacDonald is detailing her first-hand experience of many of those interviews). You Died avoids lazily categorizing Dark Souls as the product of one auteur, which is great, but it leads me to question why so much of the book’s material had to be about the auteur, particularly since it’s often speculation on the back of existing information.

As I was rereading the book for this article, I noticed You Died has no contents page. That’s a really unfortunate omission, since every reader will have their own favourite essays they want to read again and again, so searching through the book for one piece is tedious. Flicking through the book, though, is brightened by the exceptional artwork of places and creatures in the world, inserted next to Killingsworth’s chapters on every area. The result is an extremely attractive book you’re likely to pick up in a shop, even if you’ve only a passing interest in Dark Souls.

You Died is not an exclusionary book. It explains the slang so much of the Dark Souls community uses online, and is careful never to assume knowledge about From Software itself. Both authors write in a light, inviting style which includes plenty of humour whether they’re discussing lore or the quest to 100% Dark Souls. If you’re interested in Dark Souls, read this great book.