The Dark Night of The Soul

This here post was written by the awesome Tom Woods, who you can find drawing awesome things over on twitter here: https://twitter.com/TomWoodsArt, or making excellent videos as part of Hearts Bros here: https://www.youtube.com/c/heartsbros


2015 was rough. It contained but was not limited to: personal upheavals, self-doubt, questioning life-choices, career, spirituality, hobbies, friendships, pretty much every part of my existence, and while I’ve not figured it all out, I think I’m at least in the right direction, sometimes falling from the path to stagger through the thick undergrowth is the best way to move forward.

These deep, conflicting and raw emotions began in the winter of the previous year. It started with a dull ache and a feeling of melancholia, a lack of any real purpose, of resonance with anything I found worthwhile doing, or pursuing. I have a suspicion that a lot of people in secret feel this way about their life, especially when they’ve gotten into a pattern or habit cycle that is hard to break. I was working a dead-end job and at the same time pursuing something I thought I wanted to do for a living, sacrificing a lot of things I enjoyed in pursuit of it, only to end up silently miserable. This was the tar-like miasma I found myself stuck in when I first experienced the majesty of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Dark Souls.

Dark Souls is a video game. Yet, to me it is far more than that. I am sure many would agree with me around the globe, if you play it, and stick with it this game changes you as a person. It not only makes you re-think your ideas on what a videogame could be to tell a story, but also the entire artform in general. Not only that, I genuinely believe this game, has the subtle influence to change how a person views the precious amount of time they have in this flesh suit.

This game perfectly captures the feeling I had felt since the dawn of puberty and an influx of hormones, a struggle against sadness, against suffering, against a cold indifferent universe, against loneliness, against aggression, never quite managing to communicate to others just what exactly you want to say, do or experience with them. Of overcoming through gritted teeth, redoubling your efforts against life and sheer insurmountable obstacles that knock you to your knees.

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From Software have created a game that made me desire to be involved with video games again. I had all but given up on them in honesty. I had a PS3, but I wasn’t really using it, coupled with the fact that I had never enjoyed the seventh generation of consoles all that much.

But the whole while I was absent from gaming, a part of myself was being suppressed. A niggling feeling at the back of your mind while going about your daily life. The itch that cannot be scratched, or the thirst that cannot be quenched. Dark Souls was the the loose thread you tug on in curiosity that makes the sweater unravel.

Wandering through the decaying world of Lordran reverberated to my very core, this was a place I felt I had been my whole life, and yet had never witnessed at all. The Déjà vu of the moment was surreal. The twilight of a civilization, the erosion of a kingdom, a once grand Empire now reduced to ruin, only weird stragglers and shambling corpses eking out a meager existence in the shadow of a once glorious time. Shambling horrors lurking in the dank and dark while demons and abominations subsist on grime, filth and foetid corpses of the dead. I was sure I had been here before.

Dark Souls has a rough beauty to it. It’s finding a hewn idol of jade in a tired, northern mining town charity shop while sheltering from the autumn rain. Depicting some long forgotten deity, chipped and cracked, pieces eroded through time. Yet the mystery and hidden magic inside just resonates so deeply within you that you take it home and cradle and care for that heirloom. A quiet, stoic talisman, in a time of instant gratification, sensory overload and eternal adolescent comfort blankets.

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There is a deep, aching loneliness to Dark Souls, one that I believe everyone feels at their core. Even the NPC’s, charming and interesting as they all are, slowly hollow, go mad or die. One by one until you’re the only one left. There is absolutely nothing you can do about it either, it happens and you have to deal with it. Nihilistic and dark? Maybe. But I think it’s more of a subtle nod to the concept of suffering, impermanence and never ending rebirth in the Wheel of Samsara in Buddhism and Hinduism.

Nothing lasts in this world, or that of Lordran. Great empires rise and fall, ever eternal, ever cyclical. The light always goes out. The fire fades.

This existential loneliness is further compounded by seeing the specters of other players running about the world, they’re right there but you can’t talk to them and they disappear as quickly as they arrived.  

The game is at its best when you realise that you can summon other people to help you through the tough moments. There is no way to communicate with these people, aside from some simple gesturing and a couple of items. It’s a beautiful moment when you and another person from across the veil of time take down a massive slathering boss that had given you so much trouble by yourself, the final moments of them waving goodbye before they fade from existence is bittersweet. Chances are you will never see them ever again.

These moments in Dark Souls when you ask for help from someone are humbling, much like telling a friend what you’ve been going through after bottling all of your emotions and troubles up. A pressure relief valve when it all gets too tough.

The dualistic nature in Dark Souls means that there is another side to the coin, and you can and will get invaded by other players. When they enter your world all they plan to do is hunt you down and kill you. They represent chaos and the unpredictable nature of the universe. But you can still fight, and you can still win.

That’s the whole deal with Dark Souls, even at your lowest ebb, you feel like you can change and grow and improve and still overcome. It never feels entirely cheap (Well… Maybe the Bed of Chaos fight… but let’s skip over that) like some other games out there that boast a tough difficulty.

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The story itself is told through item descriptions and cryptic character dialogue. There is whole YouTube channels devoted to trying to piece together the lore and stories of the world of Lordran. Much like reality itself, it’s vague and has no real answer, you could spend your entire life searching for something and you will only raise more questions the more you learn.

Ultimately the questions are all you have, don’t ponder the imponderables as is often stated by people far wiser than me. You just have the experiences that shape you and mold you, but what an experience it is.

I am grateful for the existence of From Software’s masterpiece. I truly mean that. It has brought so much to my life, bonding with friends, re-evaluating my career and reconnecting with something I thought I had lost and in turn inspiring me onwards to something better.

You could play Dark Souls purely as an action-adventure game set in a Dark Fantasy world and you would have a bloody good time. But for those who want to take off the arm-bands and dive beneath the surface you may learn a thing or two about yourself and why you even like this medium in the first place.

 

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