Dark Souls and Finding Resilience Through Loss
January 25, 2017
It's likely you've been inundated with a lot of these half-baked cultural references in the past couple of months. In trying to make sense of and pragmatize our reality, it seems that we as humans are very predisposed to reaching into the realm of fiction to help parse things out. I can't promise that what I write will be any less hamfisted, but I'll try to make it worth your while.
I've been playing a lot of Dark Souls lately.
What that means is I've been sitting on the couch, usually with the lights off, often but not always alone, playing a series that has cultivated a reputation as being some of the most challenging video games in history. My time invested in playing this series began as one of entertainment and has now evolved into a mixture of something contemplative - after awhile I realized I spent a lot of time playing Dark Souls thinking about myself.
Here's a little background.
The Dark Souls games are developed by Japanese company FromSoftware. The first of the series was released in 2011. There are three games thus far in the Dark Souls series, and there's also a spiritual predecessor (Demon's Souls), and a sister series (Bloodborne) as well. The premise of these games isn't particularly straight forward. You play a character bound by some form of fate and predestination to complete a monumental quest, traveling through an intense and richly detailed gothic fantasy world where you confront horrors both profane and astounding. Most of the story is conveyed through cryptic dialogue or subtle descriptions in the game.
However, I'm not looking to delve too much into the game itself. Rather, what I want to focus on is a particular experience tied to the game's famous difficulty. As I mentioned before, the Souls series has earned renown as being an exceptionally hard game. A major part of this stems from how the series incorporates dying into an in-game mechanic. As you play through the game it is very likely you are going to die, and frequently too. You might be cut down beneath the weight of a sword, crushed beneath a rolling ball of skeletons, or immolated by a conspicuously nude but objectively tragic half woman half spider witch.
The game is hard.
"I have no intention to make the game more difficult than other titles on purpose! It's just something required to make this style of game. Ever since Demon's Souls, I've really been pursuing making games that give players a sense of accomplishment by overcoming tremendous odds."
The thing about Dark Souls is that a very large portion of the games' mechanics are directly linked to your character dying. Here's how it works - the structure of Dark Souls is governed by 'souls'. The more enemies you defeat, the more souls you gain. Souls act as a resource you can invest in your character to make them stronger as well as a commodity to trade for for everything from better weapons to items that help you regain your own humanity. Each time you die, the amount of souls you have collected are left at your place of death for you to retrieve. Should you die trying to do so, those souls are lost permanently. In one game in the series, players are additionally punished by having a fraction of their total health shortened, making the game harder.
Let me frame it like this. In Dark Souls, you work towards building resources that are instrumental towards your progress. There is a future almost inevitable circumstance (whether it be bad luck, lack of preparation, or even through some fault of your own), you will lose that resource. When that happens, you have no choice but to accept your loss and start over again. You have to, if you want to keep going forward.
Something about that notion feels familiar, doesn't it? It's real. It happens every day. It feels like sitting on the side of the road because your car broke down and you know that fixing it is going to burn through what little savings you had. It feels like falling sick and realizing the medication you need is going to taken out of your rent or food. In its own small way Dark Souls has encapsulated what it feels like to experience defeat, over and over again. The stakes do not have any resonate real life implications, but the sensation is the same.
Defeat feels like an an extremely strong circumstance lately. It seems as if each day ushers in a new hardship. It's especially difficult not to get tripped up on it and find yourself having to start over again. As the world appears to be regressing, the mere act of trying to push forward seems impossible.
However, there's something else that Dark Souls manages to capture well, something Miyazaki intended for players to feel almost as routinely as they felt loss and defeat. It's that "sense of accomplishment by overcoming tremendous odds". Moving forward can be difficult, but with each loss you begin to learn. In the game, it may be understanding how to avoid a trap, or learning how to defeat a particular enemy. You are taking the losses you have encountered and you are becoming more resilient through them. There's a very popular quote attributed to Malcolm X that summarizes this pretty succinctly.
“There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance next time".
I won't tell you that playing through the Dark Souls series will make you a stronger, better person. I can't make that promise. Nor can I tell you how to process your own life experiences. It's not in my interest to dictate how you should live or feel. What I can tell you is that I've spent a lot of time with this series and in that window I've developed and added a lot of utility to how I mediate my life. Navigating my own personal adversity has become its own monumental quest, and there are days when it feels like I am being crushed by a giant ball of skeletons. But with that, I am learning how to turn defeat into something positive.
As I am playing through the last and supposedly final iteration in the series I wonder how much I feel about the game was an intentional choice by Hidetaki Miyazaki, and whether or not that even matters to begin with. Still, I am loathe to not give thanks in some way or another, so I will leave this article with a toast from one of the game's more stalwart characters.
From me to you, Miyazaki-San.
"To your valour, my sword, and our victory together. Long may the Sun shine!"