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This article may contain spoilers for Dark Souls.
Dark Souls’ Lordran is a horrific place. The undead walk the earth in search of their missing souls, devious and deadly traps reminiscent of medieval torture devices wait for unsuspecting adventurers, and fantastical creatures of demonic stature lurk in the gloomy corners of the world.
Most games would merely stop here, but scary imagery will only take one so far before the novelty begins to wear thin. Some titles might insert artificial frights with increasingly predictable monster closets that find their influence in B-horror films. Few, though, actually enclose the player in a ceaseless — even oppressive — dread that underscores a true terror we all genuinely fear: being vulnerable.
The slasher flick, though, is illustrative here as it is an experience that expertly exploits that feeling. This is most evident in a commonly used scene that depicts the brutal murder of a blissfully unaware couple who sneaks off for sex. That pleasurable act by itself is one of vulnerability — compounded by the fact that the murderer not only sees the victims at their most intimate but attacks them when they're most exposed (both literally and figuratively).
From Software’s Dark Souls likewise goes beyond the usual trappings of gratuitous gore and bumbling teenagers who test the patience of Satan. In many ways, Dark Souls’ online play underscores that kind of vulnerability from the slasher that defines intense horror.
Demon’s Souls first introduced us to the harrowing experience of a black phantom invasion, a selfish act where one player breaches the traditionally solo game world of another to hunt him down and kill him. For the raided, this results in loss of their characters’ physical bodies and transformation into apparitions, which means walking around with less than full health until they can reverse the condition.
This creates one of the most simultaneously horrifying and thrilling experiences in gaming, period. Demon’s Souls asks you to put something important on the line that’s not easily reclaimed: your maximum health, your ability to summon assistance, and all the souls you were carrying at the time of your death. And you never quite know when the Reaper might come calling.
Dark Souls has this, too, but adds so much more. This time, rare items are at risk, the threat of powerful enemies looms, and new ways to invade and otherwise negatively affect other worlds are at your disposal.
Using the Cracked Eye Orb is the most basic method. You’ll breach a host player’s Lordran by force, which alerts him to your presence — this is exactly how penetrating another’s game worked in Demon’ Souls. The Red Eye Orb, though, allows you to raid without notifying the victim that you’re now on the prowl, which gives you a distinct advantage.
Similarly, equipping one of two rings, The Darkmoon Blade Covenant Ring and Cat Covenant Ring, and being a part of the related covenant will automatically transport the wearer — without any announcement — to a victim’s world if that player is exploring an area specific to either accessory.
More insidious than that, though, is the Dragon Eye, which is obtained by joining the Dragon covenant (again, you must be a member to use it). This item specifically targets a player who holds a rare upgrade material, the Dragon Scale, required to reinforce certain special weapons. If the host answers the invader’s challenge, a duel commences. But if he fails, the intruder will take that item from his inventory.
The Eye of Death, as the name suggests, is even more oppressive. You need to be a part of the Gravelord covenant to use it. Other methods require that the victim be in human form rather than hollowed, but the Eye of Death targets both; in other words, you're never safe from this particular assault. The item infects other players’ worlds by causing additional, stronger enemies to appear (similar to having full-black world tendency in Demon’s Souls). The afflicted may break the effect by finding a sign dropped by the user of the Eye of Death, invading that player’s world, and slaying him.
But things aren’t all peachy for such online assailants. If you successfully kill such an attacker, you can use an Indictment to induct the player into the Book of the Guilty. Every report of such crimes against this individual increases his Sin by one. You can peruse the Book of the Guilty for nearby sinners, which grants access to information detailing their level attributes and equipped items, spells, and weapons. If you’re a member of the Darkmoon covenant, you can then use the Blue Eye Orb to invade a sinner’s world.
With so many additional dangers in Dark Souls’ online component, the thrill of world-breaching easily surpasses its predecessor. Each of these mechanics exposes you to the threat of other players online — sometimes forcibly so. You never quite know when a black phantom will enter your world and hunt for your souls, which keeps the tension high, the heart racing, and the thrill alive. Just as we can't look away from the carnage in a slasher film, the vulnerability that these systems express fill us with excitement as much as they do horror.