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.
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!
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.