Until a few weeks back, I still was way on the other side of the Souls spectrum. Declare to me that "Hidetaka Miyazaki is a video gaming genius," and I would have simply shrugged my shoulders. You can tell, instantly, who isn't a fan of this genre. I know that person well enough. That person was me.
I'm new to games like Dark Souls III, but I accepted the challenge regardless. Once the first boss had fallen, after something like three hours, my hands were shaking. From that moment on I was a convert, an unholy new fan; I had reached the other side, feeling reborn. My heart pounded, the feeling of relief not unlike passing a ridiculously hard exam. I joggled my joints while walking apathetically in a circle. Many online forums, friends and colleagues have reported similar physical reactions after playing Souls games.
So I grabbed my dusty heart rate monitor out of my even dustier drawer, the one stuffed with all the sports gear I once thought was a good idea, and strapped in for 100 hours of gameplay. Does playing Souls actually stress the body out as much as I think it does; or is this all phantom strain, brought about by purely mental exposure to digital horrors? I customise my avatar as a "deprived" geriatric woman in a loincloth, a caveman club in her hand. Her rather deformed face is a result of living in the poisonous swamp region of Farron Keep, and I love her for it.
After said acid test of beating the first boss Iudex Gundyr – kind of a dedication filter for newcomers – the real experience of Dark Souls III begins. The lightweights weeded out, a wide and beautiful landscape opens up, full of references to previous games in the Souls series, and a host of inside jokes. I'm clueless to these nods, though, and do whatever I can to sneak through the first few hours of the game. I'm feeling excited about it, but the monitor tells another story. Fifty BPM doesn't exactly say: I'm having a great time, guys. Indeed, I might actually be asleep.
The regular enemies screeching and attacking you out of dark corridors, dungeons and deserted wooden huts are already tough as nails to beat. And yet, my pulse remains steadily subdued. I keep a camcorder trained on it, so as not to miss any spikes. But my heart rate doesn't even break 60 BPM until the second boss proper, Vordt, a fat armoured rat thing with frosty breath.
The first eruptions over 70 BPM occur later, between the Undead Village and aforementioned swamplands, ultimately because of the Curse-Rotted Greatwood, that giant tree beast with its disgusting grape-like growths on trunk and branches. As its "face opening", a part of its anatomy that'll make some think about genitalia that's overdue a bath, suddenly grows a wildly flailing arm with claws, my heart rate finally reaches a level comparable to that of person performing minor physical labour.
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The epic orchestral score of Dark Souls III surely plays its part during these moments, and heightens my stress level further, to where I'm hitting around 80 BPM. Here, a real-world parallel might be the pulse of a waiter in his restaurant's rush hour, or a delivery rider rocketing along on their bike with the benefit of a tailwind. The spikes are short, though, and bosses aside, and those moments where I'm incredibly close to death, only to pull it back at the last, my BPM is happy to remain unhurried. The small dopamine kick you get after finishing one of those grinding fights gives you an "active pulse", or "action pulse", even when you're lazily sprawled on the couch.
In Dark Souls games, the high difficulty obviously goes hand in hand with a high level of frustration. And here it gets interesting: after a seemingly never-ending quest to defeat the first Lord of Cinder with my trusted halberd, I die and feel like throwing the game right out of the window, along with the console it's in. Here my heart rate nears 90 BPM – and that's while looking at the loading screen. I would never have thought that crankiness could have such a strain on my body; that I'd "fret up" to such a high pulse.
Irritation, apparently, is more strenuous than concentrating on the essential timings of attacks and parries, while being sure to regularly sip from my Estus. The most pronounced spike in my heart rate doesn't happen fighting Wolnir with his stupid explosive jewellery, or because of the nasty Lovecratian jump scare on the bridge to Irithyll of the Boreal Valley, or facing goddamn fucking Aldrich, oh no. My heart pounds its way over 100 BPM when I lose a ridiculous amount of souls, a clutch that I've gathered over the course of a whole day. And all because of a misstep off a cliff. You can get all your souls back after dying once – kinda like Sonic and his gold rings, I suppose – unless you die again on your way back to the spot where you previous fell. Two consecutive deaths and it's see you later, beautiful in-game currency.
And that's what happens to me, and all my beautiful souls – souls so carefully farmed over many, so many, oh so many hours. My heart rate in an almost horizontal position now goes through the roof – it's basically like I'm having an orgasm, of frustration. So I guess it makes sense that I am actually screaming. Obviously all those numbers have no medical or scientific significance and are purely open to individual interpretation – and it might be that I'm taking video games way too seriously right now.
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A friend said to me about the Souls games, and I quote, "A few times I was in actual life-threatening danger while playing." But for the most part, that's clearly not the case – at least not in my measured experience. Dark Souls III is actually quite calming a lot of the time. It makes me wonder if even the most supposedly terrifying of games actually feature their share of meditative qualities. I've always found them to be soothing during life's phases of physical and psychological recovery. Next time, I'll bring an EEG into the equation. It'd be revealing to see what the brain's activity is comparable to while playing a Souls game: punishing arithmetic, or just fiddling with your own belly button fluff.
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