Most retrospectives of the Dark Souls series focus on the difficulty inherent in each game. If not the difficulty, then about how each game’s story is actually really deep if you want to dig through tons of item descriptions and duct tape together the lore. These observations are not inaccurate, but the most important aspect of the first Dark Souls that gets missed a lot is the tone of the work and how it works in a way to both oppress the player and celebrates the victories however small they may seem.
I don’t often insert myself into the writing of these articles more than I have to, but this one’s a bit personal. I have struggled with clinical depression for most of my life, at least since my early teenage years. The first Dark Souls game is as good of a metaphorical depiction of depression as I can find.
A World of Indifference
Dark Souls takes place in the land of Lordran. It is a place of callous indifference as far as its inhabitants are concerned. The opening cutscene lays out some rather vague exposition concerning the various bosses and their place in the world, and then proceeds to drop the player into said world, expecting them to figure their own way toward a vague set of objectives. Ring two bells, that’s it (apparently). Lordran is not designed to make the player character’s life easy.
There are a couple of directions that the player can go, and eventually they will find themselves at the right place (or in a place where they are under-leveled). There are tons of stories about players going the wrong way and giving up simply because of the “Dark Souls challenge.” Eventually if the player perseveres then they are treated to a surprisingly interconnected world.
Lordran has parallels to the world we live in, I think. Especially the idea that none of us are a “special chosen one” and that the world will keep spinning whether we exist or not.
Don’t Go Hollow, Skeleton
The player assumes the role of a cursed human called a “hollow.” This race starts as human, but due to a curse they are stuck between life and death — unable to die but eventually doomed to go mad and be nothing more that a dried up husk when they lose track of the spark that kept them going. They can die and be resurrected over and over, but are damned to a “life” of rot and stagnation. Every non-hostile NPC spends much of the game acting aloof or dreary, adding to the sense of hopelessness to the world.
The main mechanic employed to allow the player to revert hollowing (which happens when you die) is to use an item that is literal humanity (or at least, an effigy that represents the player’s humanity). The character has to then go to a bonfire and choose “reverse hollowing” to regain their human form. These items are not very plentiful at least for a new player who may rely on them to get help for a tricky boss, once the player dies, the human form goes with it. On a purely mechanical level this item activates the online functionality, but deeper reading makes it clear that by using this item, the player is choosing to step into the wider world of society.
Depression and mental illness can manifest in this way. It’s easy to want to close oneself off from the world and just stay in bed. It takes honest effort to put my feet on the floor and go to work, or clean the house, or even do other things I enjoy (such as writing these articles or playing video games). And the effects of this choice are not permanent; each “death”, each setback can lead to “going hollow” and reverting back to the same old sad sack.
By the Light of a Bonfire
In Lordran, the most important areas are arguably the various bonfires scattered around the map. Each one is a beacon of safety and comfort for the traveling undead. Not only do they function as a checkpoint for the player to return to upon death, but they refill the player’s health items and allow them to level up. Bonfires are placed in such a way as to be just far enough apart that inexperienced players should just barely be able to reach the next one on the stock of Estus Flasks they received from the previous area allowing for miniature exercises in tension and release as the player fights through hostile, unknown territory to an area that signifies progress as well as safety.
This safety comes at a cost, though. Each use of any bonfire respawns all of the defeated enemies, resetting the danger each area may have held for the player, so if the player runs out of healing (or collected enough souls for another level) they are put in the awkward situation of “Do I keep pushing forward?” or “Do I go back, prepare and lose some progress?” It’s a tension that persists from the beginning to the end of the game.
Modern game design has shifted to a checkpoint centric design practice. Dark Souls eschews giving out essentially free progress for a system where every step forward is difficult and not assured, just like real life.
Sword and Shields
Many games live and die by their combat. If a game has bad combat, a player won’t want to spend several hours with the game. Dark Souls’ combat is a breath of fresh air from what many people would consider “third-person action.” The games that come to many people’s mind when they think of the genre are Devil May Cry or Bayonetta or many different games that have fast, responsive combat with long combo strings. Dark Souls is, by comparison, slow and methodical in practice.
There is a weight to each weapon, and the player is locked into extended attack animations each time they press the attack button. The player is then forced to learn each enemy’s attack patterns and strike when there is an opening, all the while keeping an eye on their stamina and health bars. One mistimed attack could lead to a massive loss in health. The game takes pride in punishing mistakes whenever possible, but for every punishment the player takes, there is a lesson to be learned.
Learning to pick oneself up after failure is a hard lesson to learn when dealing with depression. It seems easy to shift any blame for a perceived failure is focused inward. It’s very easy to be flattened by life and just stay down for the count. If one can find the fortitude to pick themselves up and learn from their mistakes, then they will be able to do things a little easier next time.
A Special Game
Dark Souls is a game that has become a classic and spawned numerous sequels, each one a classic. There is a lot for everyone to enjoy, and obviously comes highly recommended for players who haven’t indulged. As someone who has delt with major depression for my whole life, Dark Souls has taught me a lot about myself and how to deal with a random and uncaring world.
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