‘Dark Souls’ Was the Game That Brought Back My Childhood Nightmares
From Software's hardcore adventure fucking hurts, and it never stops.
I know the Capra Demon boss is hard, Blighttown, Ornstein and Smough, but for me the true difficulty of Dark Souls isn't presented in any of its ludic or mechanical challenges. For me, the struggle in that game is an emotional one. It reflects an intensely painful period of my life, one that, like the ghosts in New Londo Ruins, haunts me to this day.
In the United Kingdom, there are thousands upon thousands of cases of child abuse – fortunately, mine was relatively minor. Angered by divorce, my dad took it out on my sister and me. He drank, he disparaged, he neglected. From time to time he got physical. For griping that I wished I could stay up longer, as seven-year-olds are wont to do, I was dragged out of bed by my arm, pulled down the stairs and made to sit up all night. When my sister, all of 14, once refused to speak to dad over the phone, he drove to where we were staying, grabbed her and hit her.
It's difficult to communicate the intricacies of his brand of abuse – you really had to be there. But because of him, some other people and those years as a child, the mantra I carried into adulthood was this: everything is your fault. I developed a guilt complex. An unassailable truth, supplied by my father, catalysed a life of self-punishment and self-destruction.
No matter how small or insignificant, how removed from my possible realm of influence, everything that went wrong was because of my personal shortcomings. To an extent it's narcissistic, the belief that every problem in the world is directly caused by you, but it certainly doesn't manifest as pride. On the contrary, if I so much as spilled my drink, forgot to buy something on my shopping list or didn't hook up my computer correctly, I'd furiously and violently admonish myself.
Sometimes this meant screaming, shouting, calling myself fat, ugly, idiot, cunt. Other times it meant punching myself until I either got dizzy or my hands started to bleed. I couldn't stop my dad from drinking. I couldn't get him and my mum back together. I couldn't stop him beating my sister. And every time he told me I was useless, stupid and unloved I believed even more that if I could just be a better person, I could stop fucking everything and everybody up. As an older man, if I wasn't getting it right all of the time, I was taking dad's place and punishing myself.
It was a single conceit of Dark Souls' that almost broke me. Yes, it's swift to punish. But what hurt the most was how it made me live with and remember each of my mistakes. When you die in other video games, the action is essentially rewound, like a VHS tape, back to where you were before you messed up. Your death – your mistake – is deleted by the game. Nathan Drake might "die" a hundred times before the end of any Uncharted game, but as far as that virtual world and the other characters are concerned, his demise never happened – it doesn't become canon. Not so in Dark Souls. As an Undead, each time your character dies and comes back to life, it's within the context of the game's world and laws. You were able to come back to life, but you did die – the bloodstain left on the floor where you were killed is to remind you that you made a mistake, that you got beaten, that you fucked up.
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Nothing is forgotten by Dark Souls. That mark on the ground, the loss of any Souls you may have collected and your reversion from human form back to Undead force you to carry each of your mistakes. Unable to let myself off the hook, constantly and painfully aware of errors – or at least perceived errors – I'd made in the past, Dark Souls was the equivalent of my dad's voice, inside my head, making me want to die. It was the guilt complex, the self-hatred, crystallised into a game. Each mistake meant more name-calling. Each death meant more self-harm. At best, I'd describe Dark Souls as a kind of scream therapy, a full and fast embrace of all the pain, followed by an unrestrained and violent outpouring of grief. But in truth, there was no moral, no "but it got better". Dark Souls was agony, and whatever catharsis I might have felt whenever I finished a section, beat a boss or even reached the end of the game was nothing compared to the pain of revisiting, over and over, the reasons I hated myself.
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But within that experience there's a rare commodity in video games: truth. Dark Souls just fucking hurts. And even the parts that seem like closure are never true resolution. You finish the game and your character, finally, gives their life to re-ignite the world. You've done it! But then the main menu reappears and there's the option for New Game Plus. It doesn't stop. It never stops. Dark Souls, like living with this voice in my head – like life, in general – is fucking painful. And I admire it, so much, for not succumbing to easy sentiment or trite conclusion, for being, essentially, a simulation of life's unfairness.
Some people describe Dark Souls as masochistic. I don't. For me, it's a victimiser, a real piece of work. Arbitrarily, it picks on you, admonishes you and hurts you. It's my experience of being dragged through town, shoved in the car, driven back home and made to go to bed, just because dad saw something that reminded him of mum, rendered in a video game. It's just pain and punishment, dished out on a whim, to people who most of the time don't deserve it. It makes you hate yourself for something you didn't do wrong. By that measure, Dark Souls is as close as video games have come to representing life – or at least, a large portion of mine.
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