The following extract is from YOU DIED’s chapter “Chasing The Sun: A Tour of Lordran”. The book is out and you can order your copy here.
Most players’ first visit to Sen’s Fortress lasts about two or three minutes. The gate is closed. You linger on the front steps for a moment casting about for a doorbell that doesn’t exist. How vexing. Then you eventually wander back the way you came, unsure how to crack its perimeter, a state of befuddlement that lasts as long as it takes to open a browser window on your phone and search for the solution.
As we’ve mentioned, Sen’s Fortress doesn’t have a doorbell; it has two.
Only once you’ve rung the Bells of Awakening – one atop the Undead Church, one in Quelaag’s Domain – does a giant perched atop the fortress manually draw up the front gate by tugging an enormous chain-link pulley. For a long time I thought the phrase ‘Bell of Awakening’ was just a reflexive convention of the fantasy genre (e.g. Boots of Swiftness, Helmet of Clarity, Tunic of Luminescence), regal-sounding but meaningless. Now it seems obvious that the ‘awakening’ in question refers to the literal rousing of the only creature strong enough to permit entry. In the cutscene you can see the giant lift his head up from a drooped position when he hears the second bell chime. Wakey-wakey.
The pathway leading up to Sen’s entrance is a thing of beauty. Dense forest on either side funnels your eye to the imposing gateway directly ahead, which resembles a gaping jaw due to teeth-like spikes lining the bottom of the half-raised gate. You’re right to be nervous. Sen’s is a masterpiece of brutalist architecture. No ornate touches, just a wordless declaration of might and impenetrability. This is the proving ground, after all, for those who wish to set foot in the hallowed city of Anor Londo perched high atop the adjacent cliff.
If Sen’s exterior appears designed by a military tactician, interior decorating duties seem to have been delegated to the torture-porn auteur Jigsaw himself (was Dark Souls the game he kept yammering on about wanting to play?). Scythes tick-tock back and forth across lofty gangways, vying with each other to see who gets to send you on a fatal plunge to the basement far below. Coffins bearing the decorative torso of a silver knight litter the hallways, presumably housing the corpses of those whom Sen proved to be unworthy. Cages hang suspended on chains. Serpent-headed soldiers and mages patrol the corridors, which in combination with the ornamental coffins infuses Egyptian mythological seasoning into the game’s broth. Floor-plate booby traps send flurries of darts shooting out of the wall when stepped on. Treasure-chest mimics lie in wait.
Sen’s Fortress feels precisely like what you’d get if you had a gamer (or Rube Goldberg, for that matter) build your grimdark obstacle course. One feature in particular feels plucked right out of the classic arcade. In the upper level of the fortress, giants laboriously plunk spherical boulders through a rooftop hole onto a pedestal, from which a hammer mechanism sends them rolling down floor-wide grooves. The effect feels like being trapped inside a medieval pinball machine.
Since we already know that Miyazaki-san and his fellow designers enjoy laying traps for players in areas where they don’t make thematic sense, Sen’s background lore allows the game’s designers to completely drop the pretense of fair play and be as sadistic as they please. Maybe it’s sadomasochistic to say so, but it feels good to be toyed with in this way. Conquering the gauntlet of Sen’s Fortress feels like cheating one’s executioner. Remember how good it felt to thwart GLaDOS’ incinerator in Portal’s final act? It’s fun to imagine Dark Souls’ designers gritting their teeth in frustration as you emerge from Sen’s upper reaches with your head still attached to your shoulders.
(Illustration credits: Pencil sketch of Sen’s entrance by Paul Scott Canavan, pendulum blade drawing by Angus Dick. YOU DIED contains roughly 40 pieces of their combined work.)