Peace in the Time of Demons 3

I have begun to under­stand play­ing Dark Souls as an expe­ri­ence of suf­fer­ing. The game is hell­ish – the world isn’t just unfor­giv­ing, but wholly mer­ci­less, espe­cially in the begin­ning. The sys­tems that I needed to under­stand to sur­vive were opaque, and seem insur­mount­able even when under­stood. You see, it’s not a rogue-like, though it bor­rows the pun­ish­ing dif­fi­culty and fre­quent fail­ures of that genre, but its diver­gence from the hall­mark of the genre – a com­plete start-over with every death – actu­ally adds to its oppres­sive­ness. There is no release valve for the pres­sure build­ing up in my rela­tion­ship with my avatar, no GAME OVER screen that asks me if I’d like to aban­don my game or con­tinue. I always con­tinue. If I quit, it’s a con­scious choice I’ve made after I’m back in my character’s body. It’s a small dis­tinc­tion, but an impor­tant one; there is no nar­ra­tive break for me to seize upon, so quit­ting the game means aban­don­ing my avatar after the ini­tial frus­tra­tion of defeat fades. It feels much more like giv­ing up.

I come to the game unpre­pared and imper­fect. There is no game that plays like Dark Souls (except for its pre­de­ces­sor Demon’s Souls), which plays a large part in its dif­fi­culty, but there is also no gen­eral win­ning strat­egy; mon­ster types are diverse and hard to pre­dict upon first encoun­ter. Learning Dark Souls means fear­ing the mys­tery of every hor­ror that emerges from the dark – but all too often, uncov­er­ing the myr­iad ways they seek to kill me means sub­mit­ting to death at their hands. One of the strate­gies that expe­ri­enced play­ers offer to new­com­ers is the “sui­cide run,” which entails run­ning into an unknown area, bait­ing every wait­ing beast and trip­ping every deadly trap, and watch­ing how your death unfolds so that, when you are returned again to your character’s flesh at the edge of a bon­fire, you’ll have a rough idea of what to expect. This acknowl­edges what the game requires of the player – treat­ing each death as a rung in your lad­der out of Hell. It’s not a climb that I enjoy.

Why, then, do I play it?

I have been ask­ing myself this recently. I had a sim­i­lar obses­sion with Demon’s Souls, but it wasn’t quite strong enough to carry me past the first 20 hours. Both games frus­trate me sorely – my vic­to­ries are hard-won and short-lived, because I know that just a few min­utes later I will encoun­ter some­thing that will destroy and leave me curs­ing at my screen. It makes me feel pow­er­less when most games make me feel pow­er­ful. For instance, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is dif­fi­cult, and its hero is pretty frag­ile, but I am given a mul­ti­tude of tools that make me bet­ter than the world. The button-press take-downs and invis­i­bil­ity and hack­ing prowess mean that the world is a play­ground of sorts, a series of chal­lenges that I ana­lyze and defeat. Such games allow me to take delight in my own mas­tery. Dark Souls doesn’t make me feel pow­er­ful, not ever. When I kill a boss, I feel proud, but it’s because I defeated some mas­sive crea­ture I had no right to, and it’s always weighted down with the knowl­edge that the worst is still to come.

When I think of myself and Dark Souls, the image that comes to mind is a monk with chest bared and crop in hand, end­lessly strik­ing him­self with the cords until his back is bloody and raw. It’s not a hard jump to make; Dark Souls’s aes­thet­ics are stolen from the Middle Ages, and my avatar is an armored knight with decent Faith that spends pretty much all his time dying at the hands of actual demons that inhabit crum­bling castles. Characters speak of God and the van­quish­ing of evil, and there are mir­a­cles avail­able to me if I pay to learn them. It feels like con­fes­sion and penance are suited to this world.

The “mor­ti­fi­ca­tion of the flesh” is typ­i­cally con­tex­tu­al­ized as penance for sin. The con­fes­sional act changed in the Middle Ages from what it was in the early church; it began as a harsh cas­ti­ga­tion from the com­mu­nity, intended to pro­tect the purity of the early Christian com­mu­ni­ties from the out­side world. Penance’s place was to re-purify, and were typ­i­cally expressed as a harsh set of activ­i­ties required for re-admittance into the Church, and a lin­ger­ing code of con­duct that, among other things, would for­bid the sin­ner from get­ting mar­ried, or enjoy­ing the priv­i­leges of mar­riage, from that point on. Punishment, and then denial.

But in the Middle Ages, con­fes­sion was pri­va­tized and became a per­sonal mat­ter between the self and God. The Christian tribe no longer had to main­tain it’s purity because much of the known world was the Christian world; the focus had turned out­ward, to wide­spread con­ver­sion of peo­ple out­side the soci­ety. By the four­teenth cen­tury, penance had been lib­er­ally soft­ened and, finally, encoded into the law of the church. This is when the prac­tice of self-flagellation cropped up among some ascetic com­mu­ni­ties, sourcing from both Christ’s whip­ping before the cross and the “lash­ing” pun­ish­ment from old Rabbinic law. Ascetic tra­di­tions had always included rules of self-denial (such as celibacy and fast­ing), but self-inflicted pun­ish­ment and suf­fer­ing appeared as the sev­ere end of that spec­trum. The church declared such move­ments here­sies, but it didn’t make them stop.

Engaging in Dark Souls is like engag­ing in my own mor­ti­fi­ca­tion of the psy­che, sub­mit­ting myself again and again to emo­tional and men­tal pun­ish­ment. It’s a bet­ter ana­logue to asceti­cism than a first glance might reveal; I’ve been play­ing video games for a long time, long enough for me to become pretty damn good at them, and for me to uncon­sciously draw con­clu­sions about myself from my own per­for­mance.

I’m reminded of one expe­ri­ence, when I was seven or eight, after I had just beaten Super Mario Bros. 3 for the first time. I was incred­i­bly proud of myself, and ran up both flights of stairs to my father. “I beat Bowser in Mario 3!” I shouted, giddy. It had, after all, been quite hard, and I had sunk a lot of hours into that game. My father was less excited. I don’t remem­ber exactly what he said, but it amounted to “But what do you have to show for it?” The impli­ca­tion was clear – that video games were a waste of time. I’ve put count­less hours into Final Fantasy 7, Sonic the Hedgehog, Halo, Dead Space, and there is often a voice within me that berates me for doing so, for devot­ing my energies to… what, really? Like some sort of dig­i­tal King Solomon, I look over my vast expe­ri­ences, knowl­edge and skill, and mut­ter that it was all for naught.

It’s some­thing that has stuck with me, along with other ves­tiges of my mid-western Southern Baptist upbring­ing. I can jus­tify play­ing games, but I still expe­ri­ence guilt and think that my time might be bet­ter spent doing some­thing “pro­duc­tive.” It is very much a reli­gious guilt for me, sim­i­lar to the guilt I would expe­ri­ence when I failed to wit­ness to non-Protestant friends or when I would fall from the nar­row path of right­eous­ness. It ties into an old, famil­iar knowl­edge that I am not good enough, that some­thing about me is inher­ently wrong, into my own “orig­i­nal sin.”

If it were just the guilt, of course, I wouldn’t play video games. But of course video games are fun, and the guilt is cer­tainly off­set by the pride I feel in gam­ing suc­cess. There is at least the solace that I am good at games. I under­stand basic strat­egy for any RTS game I encoun­ter, can pick up any given shooter and per­form quite well, and even hold my own in fight­ing games or Guitar Hero, and I do derive plea­sure in see­ing how my prac­tice and skill trans­lates across expe­ri­ences. To be clear, this is impor­tant to me; I am excel­lent at games, at devis­ing strate­gies and at exe­cut­ing them. It’s an impor­tant part of how I view myself, and it’s some­thing I can use to val­i­date all my wasted time. During those crit­i­cal high school years, I was excel­lent at two things: get­ting good grades, and games.

I am not excel­lent at Dark Souls.

I have been coded to under­stand game death as a fail-state. In some cases I can break out of this. In rogue-likes, death is almost inevitable; it’s a vital part of the expe­ri­ence, really. Because of that, those deaths are clean, and then I am given a fresh slate. But in most games, I am good enough that deaths hap­pen rarely, and when I do fail, I jump back in and suc­ceed on my sec­ond or third try. Something about Dark Souls’ inten­tional game-play and incred­i­ble dif­fi­culty makes each death cut deep.

Each fail­ure hits me hard. My first death occurs, unsur­pris­ingly, beneath the mas­sive ham­mer of the Asylum Demon, the game’s gate­way boss. It hap­pens again and again. I blame the devel­op­ers. “This fight is stu­pid, way too hard for a melee build.” Mostly, I blame myself. “No, you can’t afford three-hit com­bos! Stop being greedy! Two hits, then dodge.” It injures my pride, and the guilt catches up with me. How much time am I going to waste fight­ing this god­damn boss? But I keep on forc­ing myself back into that room, toward a vic­tory that will vin­di­cate the time I’ve spent. When I finally, ignobly, des­per­ately hack the mas­sive demon’s ankles to bits before it sweeps it’s ham­mer back into my frail body, and col­lapses for­ward into a heap, I actu­ally cheer and grin wide for a few moments until I’m ush­ered into the wider world, toward dozens of unique things that want to kill me in ways sig­nif­i­cantly more cre­atively and doggedly, and so simul­ta­ne­ously ush­ered into the dark­ness of my own dying pride.

These moments of vic­tory are sweet; they are vin­di­cat­ing. That’s part of the rea­son I keep on play­ing, I think. I enjoy sto­ries where the heroes have long odds. Besides, how this game makes me feel is appro­pri­ate for the hope­less, near-Lovecraftian world of Dark Souls (and thus it’s a world I find com­pelling), and it makes me want, so very deeply, to find some way of over­com­ing it. But I also real­ize that play­ing Dark Souls beyond a cer­tain point will also mean over­com­ing some of my own atti­tudes toward myself.

Mortification of the flesh is a very vis­ceral prac­tice, obvi­ously very focused on the body. It traces back to a very old dual­ism of soul and body. Christian meta­physics have sad­dled the body with sin, and the soul with good­ness; our deeper selves are divine and reach­ing for God, but our bod­ies incar­cer­ate us, and serve as the recep­ta­cle for our sins. This dual­ism can and does play out as body dis­gust and body hatred.

To be fair, though, there is more to asceti­cism than that. Asceticism is designed to bring on other men­tal (or spir­i­tual, if you swing that way) states. Without access to food, or in sick, fever­ish states, or amidst intense pain, the mind oper­ates dif­fer­ently. Asceticism does reveal stark truths about the body that we would rather avoid – its incon­stancy and fragility, for instance. It also pin­points the final des­ti­na­tion of the body – death. In so doing, it might uplift the “deeper” self from its tem­po­rary con­fines and allow the ascetic to “see the face of God.” Mortification is not with­out pur­pose.

Dark Souls shares that fas­ci­na­tion with the fragility of the body, and also has its own body/spirit dual­ism. The self in Dark Souls is some­thing more sta­tic than flesh. Every time the avatar is pushed off a cliff, sliced open by a trap, cut down by a stone giant’s sword or swarmed by demonic foliage, the body is dis­carded, but a new one reforms at a nearby bon­fire. There is no trans­for­ma­tion in this rebirth. The self is sta­tic, and each new body is the same as the old one. Being rein­car­nated in this way, in the hell that my knight finds him­self, is hon­estly hor­ri­fy­ing. It’s not a pleas­ant immor­tal­ity. Moreover, each bloody death is inten­si­fied by the length to which Dark Souls goes to make the player embod­ied in the avatar.

One of the great suc­cesses of Dark Souls is how weighty and real the avatar feels. The con­trol scheme is very delib­er­ate; each but­ton press entails a dis­crete swing of one’s sword, and once pressed the avatar is com­mit­ted to that action. Honestly, the avatar in Dark Souls might accu­rately be described as “plod­ding,” espe­cially if they are wear­ing heavy armor as my knight does. With each dodge, the avatar’s back hits the ground with force, and the recov­ery is any­thing but grace­ful. It’s not like most action adven­ture games, where a sin­gle swing might unleash a flurry of blows, and the avatar darts around with grace and dig­nity. In Dark Souls, one’s move­ments are effi­cient, per­haps bru­tal, but never beau­ti­ful. As such, the focus is often on the lim­i­ta­tions of one’s body rather than the capa­bil­i­ties of it, and this is one of the most impor­tant ele­ments involved in mak­ing the player feel less pow­er­ful and the ene­mies more ter­ri­fy­ing.

Regardless of play-style, the lim­its of magic and the aggres­sive­ness of ene­mies means that melee com­bat is some­times a neces­sity for every­body – this is a good thing, because it’s a very rich sub­sys­tem of the game and because it forces every­one to expe­ri­ence just how phys­i­cal the game world is. Spatial aware­ness is every­thing in Dark Souls com­bat. The space that one’s avatar takes up, and its rela­tion to demons and mon­sters, con­sumes a player’s aware­ness. When I play, I always edge just out­side an enemy’s antic­i­pated range if they’re my size; if they’re larger, I swal­low my fear and stay under­foot, where their range isn’t an advan­tage and where my maneu­ver­abil­ity is more valu­able.

This all com­bi­nes to make the player feel incred­i­bly embod­ied in Dark Souls. The game just feels right; when the player makes a choice, they see it fold out just as expected on the screen. The avatar’s body oper­ates like a body, and the nature of the game and the con­trol scheme forces an intense mind­ful­ness over it. Thus it’s all the more alarm­ing when that body is evis­cer­ated, all the more per­sonal.

I cir­cle back around to my ini­tial ques­tion: Why do I keep play­ing this? I’ve never thought of myself as a masochist. Many have said that the dif­fi­culty of suc­cess in Dark Souls makes the vic­tory that much sweeter, but that feels trite to me; in my play­ing, I’ve found some­thing deeper than just the con­quer­ing of obsta­cles.

I think the answer is found in the brighter side of asceti­cism, in the trans­for­ma­tion that suf­fer­ing gen­er­ates. Beautiful things can come out of suf­fer­ing. In the midst of the Black Death, when most the­olo­gians were blam­ing the state of the world on the wicked­ness of soci­ety, St. Julian of Norwich turned her suf­fer­ing (for she fell to, but sur­vived, the plague) into beau­ti­ful writ­ings that, in stark con­trast, focused on the love of God and a rad­i­cal inclu­sive­ness that remains rev­o­lu­tion­ary today. As Julian envi­sioned it, fail­ure and sin is the path to learn­ing and refine­ment, and is an intrin­sic part of liv­ing life – she didn’t even use lan­guage of for­give­ness, because that would imply that God needed to for­give human­ity for their nec­es­sary, edu­ca­tional mis­steps. Suffering widened her life, mak­ing her a com­pas­sion­ate vision­ary in an age of fear and loathing.

In Dark Souls, I find the antithe­sis to my pride and skill; this is a world where it means so much less than it usu­ally does. As a result, it lays my guilt bare; when I face my fifth death against a pair of stone giants, I am fight­ing guilt as surely as I am fight­ing them. It’s a guilt that I am wast­ing time, a guilt that, if I fol­low back to its source, is embed­ded in a deep dis­trust of my own behav­ior and urges and wor­thi­ness. It might even let me change that part of myself, but for now it has allowed me to iso­late it and con­tem­plate it.

Each death doesn’t seem so harsh any­more. I’ve turned play­ing Dark Souls into a med­i­ta­tive expe­ri­ence, a way of access­ing fre­quent dark nights of the soul, and I think that’s an incred­i­bly valu­able thing to have lying around. It offers me a sort of free­dom from my own iden­tity, allow­ing me a chance to, hon­estly, be bet­ter to myself than I ever have been. Now, as I walk through dark forests and am claimed again by death, I quote Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all man­ner of thing shall be well.” I wasn’t expect­ing Dark Souls to ever offer me an expe­ri­ence of peace.

Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at http://embers-at-night.tumblr.com/

  • A mag­nif­i­cent piece, and a unique angle on the ques­tion of fail­ure breed­ing frus­tra­tion. I’ve had a some­what sim­i­lar expe­ri­ence with Ninja Gaiden (for XBOX), although in that case the PC was far more empow­ered than your lowly knight​.In games such as these, where the chal­lenge to not only the player’s skill but also willpower is inher­ent, per­haps it is a safe con­clu­sion that such a refin­ing (although per­haps not in a strictly spir­i­tual sense) of the player is inten­tional. Like any great ordeal, the trans­for­ma­tion of the par­tic­i­pant seems almost par for the course.

    I also find the tale of St. Julian (of whom I hadn’t heard before this arti­cle) inspir­ing and com­fort­ing. Thank you for shar­ing this insight­ful reflec­tion!

    • Jeremiah

      One of my favorite game design­ers (Lori and Corey Cole of Quest For Glory) once said that the ideal game design should be bal­anced so that the puzzle/struggle gets the play­ing to the point RIGHT before they are about to give up, and then they suc­ceed. They said this gives the player the high­est amount of sat­is­fac­tion for com­plet­ing a trial… and I agree. A game that is effort­less had bet­ter have an amaz­ing story, cause that’s the only rea­son I’m play­ing it at that point. A game that has both a great story, and gives that sense of achieve­ment the Coles men­tioned… that’s a great and rare game.

  • Great arti­cle — the expe­ri­ence of doing some­thing you are gen­uinely bad at is valu­able, and Dark Souls’ steep risk/reward sys­tem and themes of death, rein­car­na­tion and “the Dark of human­ity” make it per­fect for this kind of purifi­ca­tion. My first char­ac­ter in Dark Souls was named Hildegarde of Bingen.

    Interestingly, the path you chose for your char­ac­ter (armored healer) is very well-suited to the medieval anal­ogy you describe: your char­ac­ter is slow, clunky, and built to absorb sub­stan­tial pun­ish­ment dur­ing bat­tle, then reju­ve­nate with prayer. This is how I beat the game the first time, and I expect most play­ers had the same expe­ri­ence. In future playthroughs as a nim­ble thief, or a sav­age ban­dit, or a frail sor­cerer, I found myself doing much more acro­bat­ics, mov­ing with grace and fran­ti­cally run­ning from peril rather than duti­fully march­ing straight towards it. Compare the speed and flu­id­ity of the rapier or the calm and col­lected cast­ing of a magic spell to the heavy tread of a ham­mer or the con­tem­pla­tive, inward-turned cast­ing of a mir­a­cle.

    As far as alle­vi­at­ing your tem­po­ral pain goes, it sounds like you are pro­vok­ing too many foes at once — you need to be stealthy when approach­ing groups of ene­mies like that pair of stone giants, just like plot­ting an ambush when play­ing a shooter.