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.