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How Dark Souls speedrunners exploited death to create the perfect skip

Dark Souls: Prepare To Die
(Image credit: FromSoftware)

An emaciated Chosen Undead sprints down an ancient, ivy-covered staircase with a red-eyed attacker in pursuit. They've got a shield in one hand and nothing in the other, which isn't that surprising, given the other odd ways that speedrunners play games for very specific reasons. This is Dark Souls—the original—controlled by someone who understands the game much better than I ever will.

"We're going to try to parry this hollow on a very particular spot on the bridge. If done correctly, we clip the character out of bounds just enough to activate the death camera… but not not far enough to actually touch the kill plane. Believe it or not those are two different triggers." 

Excuse me, you're going to what now? This is the first part of the Sen's Gate Skip, a game-changing speedrunning trick for the first Dark Souls, being explained by Grimelios and executed by Regole at Awesome Games Done Quick 2020. After ejecting himself from the normal plane of existence, Regole runs across a bridge, down several flights of stairs, and through a hallway without being able to see much of anything as the camera is now floating overhead, making the game appear upside down at best.

With everything gone topsy turvy, the gate that would normally keep Regole out of Sen's Fortress just won't load. Up against the ghost of a gate, Regole runs on through, quits out of the game, and when he comes back the gate is right where it belongs—behind him.

Let's rewind to that death camera versus kill plane thing, though. Regole had to be standing in a very particular place. How the hell did anyone ever figure that trick out? I talked with CapitaineToinon, one of the speedrunners credited with proving that Sen's Gate Skip was possible, to find out how the heck any of them knew to stand on a particular step and whistle Ave Maria while rubbing their stomachs.  

The long and Hollow road 

It actually started with Bloodborne. Speedrunners for FromSoftware's PlayStation-exclusive Souls-style game found a way to trick the game into activating the death camera without actually killing their characters. Dark Souls 3 speedrunners picked up a similar trick for one of its DLC areas to bypass obstacles in the same way. 

"That skip was very hard," CapitaineToinon says of the Dark Souls 3 glitch. "I remember watching streamers practice it and it just rang a bell. 'Hey I should probably try that in Dark Souls 1 as well.'" Capitaine didn't need to think about targets for long. He knew that Sen's Gate would be a primary candidate to skip if he could pull it off.

"There was kind of a drama story happening in Dark Souls 1 where this skip specifically was faked by someone online. We call that the John Margeret meme." Someone else had claimed to have skipped Sen's Gate by jumping off a platform nearby and using a known out-of-bounds glitch. But the video was in atrocious 360p quality and music layered over the top of the game's sound made it nigh impossible to tell if they had edited their footage to fake it. 

"Nobody in the speedrunning community was able to reproduce this," says CapitaineToinin. "So this became sort of like the holy grail. What if we could one day skip the bells?" So Capitaine got to work attempting to actually achieve a skip for Sen's Gate. 

In order to create a skip that would actually work, Capitaine knew he would need to find the sweet spot—not too close nor too far from Sen's Gate itself. The lynchpin holding the trick together is taking advantage of how Dark Souls (and many games) load objects as you get closer to them. 

If you fall off a ledge in Dark Souls, it activates a camera as you drop, showing your character from the top down. It assumes you're as good as dead at that point. Your character dies shortly after. Anticipating that, the game stops loading new objects as soon as the death camera is triggered. If you're far enough away from Sen's Gate when the death camera turns on, the game will just decide not to ever load the gate or its collision. If you're too far though, the floor leading to the fortress won't be loaded either. Capitaine needed to find a place he could trick the game into not quite killing him just close enough to the fortress. 

To narrow the search, he used the debug version of Dark Souls that players had gotten their hands on by a stroke of luck (and a big whoops by FromSoftware). The developers accidentally uploaded a development version of Dark Souls on Steam, complete with debugging tools, that was quickly snagged and circulated by modders and speedrunners. 

This became sort of like the holy grail. What if we could one day skip the bells?

CapitaineToinon

"There's games sometimes where the release version of the game has the debug version accessible somehow. Sometimes it's completely separate," Capitaine says. "It's pretty rare, as far as I know, to have the full debug version that the developers use. That is a very specific case with Dark Souls—a very lucky one."

Using the debugging version of Dark Souls, Capitaine was able to flip on the game's death camera at will, stopping the load of new objects and collision data while still allowing him to walk around freely. Capitaine used this method to find the workable area for using the death cam to skip through Sen's gate.

"I knew, for example, that if you are on the roof of [the Bell Gargoyles boss fight] you're too far. So that ruled out the idea of 'what if I could find a way to fall off the roof and survive and keep the death cam.' That wouldn't work because I knew right from the get-go that it would be too far and I knew that if I was inside the room with the bonfire, I was too close."

Between those extremes, Capitaine still needed to actually find a spot to pull off a death cam glitch. Another video narrowed his search area even further—showing off an attempted skip very similar to what would become Sen's Gate Skip. This player parried an attack from a hollow at the bottom of the same set of stairs, triggering the death camera. However, their positioning also resulted in a character death, which they only survived with the use of cheats. 

"That video made me remember 'hey, there is a spot on the stairs where you can trigger the kill box.' So maybe if you try higher up stairs, it will work." That was the final clue that tipped the dominos for Capitaine. He just needed to pull it off without cheats.

"That didn't take very long. … At first I didn't really understand the difference between the kill box and the death cam. As soon as you understand and you connect the dots, It's like 'oh, I just try a bit higher on the stairs' and like two minutes later it worked."

At the time, Capitaine and other speedrunners were effectively looking for these death camera skips by touch, like solving a jigsaw with their eyes closed. They had an idea of how the game worked but couldn't verify their assumptions without better tools. These days, modders have whipped up a model viewer for Dark Souls that lets them dig into the collision data for the game, among other things.

Now, Capitaine can share a visual of exactly what it was he found. Next to the stairs where Sen's Gate Skip is performed are two collision planes. The top triggers the death camera and stops loading new structures. The bottom one kills the player when collided with. By standing on just the right step and parrying an enemy, speedrunners clip through the wall, colliding with the top plane but not the bottom, giving them access to the death camera without actually dying.

Dark Souls model viewer

(Image credit: CapitaineToinon)

Sen's Gate Skip isn't one of a kind. Other death camera glitches exist, including those in other FromSoftware games. The Sen's Gate Skip in particular ended up cutting off about three minutes from speedruns in one of Dark Souls' any% categories. That doesn't sound like a ton, but it's around 10 percent of the total run time, making it an extremely effective specimen.

Behind every Chosen Undead is a strong community 

When Capitaine pulled off Sen's Gate Skip for the first time several years back, Discord wasn't yet the dominant force for gaming communities. He largely worked alone with a small group of friends over Skype sharing leads and videos. It was a process of collecting various loose ends, poking at them, and finding ways to put them to use over time.

These days, Dark Souls speedrunners have a well-populated Discord server where they can share leads among themselves and get assistance from modders who are more intimately familiar with the game's innards. They're able to collaborate on theories more efficiently and document discoveries on the Speedsouls wiki. As ever with modding communities, Capitaine says that discovering new glitches and skips for speedrunning is a village effort.

"The speedrunner at the end that does the record is just one person out of the entire process. They're the face of the work of an entire community," he says. This year, Regole and Grimelios were the faces of Sen's Gate Skip, standing on the shoulders of a community of curious speedrunners around them. 

Lauren loves long books and even longer RPGs. She got a game design degree and then, stupidly, refused to leave the midwest. She plays indie games you haven't heard of and will never pass on a story about players breaking games or playing them wrong.