The devastating smash of a Demon's Great Hammer. That was the first way that Dark Souls claimed the life of my frail, undead knight in 2011. Undoubtedly a unique death in my history of interaction with the medium, this is something that I've contemplated many a time.
I hadn't read too much about FromSoftware's game before I picked it up - Demon's Souls was still a mystery to me - but I was aware of its brutal difficulty after skimming several reviews online. Having never really sought out particularly challenging gaming experiences, I was more fascinated to see how I'd react to Dark Souls rather than how it played. What I didn't anticipate was how highly I'd regard it, nor how it would make me ponder my own death.
Dying In Dark Souls Is An Artform
IGN's Keza MacDonald put it best when she stated in her review of Dark Souls that "[m]ost developers take pains to protect you from failure. FROM Software (sic) turns it into an artform."
Dark Souls wanted to claim my life and I was strangely invigorated by that prospect. I knew I'd eventually get back to where I died, I knew I'd be faced with that monster once more, and I knew that, ultimately, I'd defeat it. This sense of potential accomplishment is what makes these games so compelling.
But how often do video games actually confront us with our own mortality? Sure, we die A LOT in video games, particularly when it comes to indie titles (like Super Meat Boy) or games we played as children, oddly enough.
But it's never 'YOU' that dies. It's Pac-Man, it's Mario, it's Sonic, it's Solid Snake, hell, even Sims die. There's a distance; a separation from the character's death and the death itself. In fact, it's never really death at all. It's a way of conveying the fact that you failed at predicting enemy movements, how wide a gap was or how damn hungry your character can get in a more honest way.
But then comes the moment after death.
Thousands of games over the years have simply informed the player the game was over. Death doesn't come into it at all and you can quickly reload the level and try again. Remember Jak and Daxter? Those games prided themselves on the fact that there were no loading screens at all between these two occurrences. You had no time to reflect on your demise, you were simply waiting to regain control and continue. That's not the case here.
FromSoftware punish you for dying. You'll hear the same music, your character's lamenting screams, and the words "YOU DIED" sear onto the screen every time. Your death isn't as violent as those of Resident Evil 4 for example, where you can watch a man in a pig mask saw through your character's chest, but that's "your" character not "you". Even still, some may have been able to distance themselves from the deaths of their character in Dark Souls; I wasn't.
Mortality & Video Games
Allow me to be perfectly blunt; death scares me. It always has. But I constantly think of it in peculiar ways. The main aspect of it that unnerves me potentially stems from my time with video games and cinema. I won't be able to do what American Beauty or Dark Souls permitted; reflect on life once it ends.
During one of the many loading screens after "I'd died" in 2011's Dark Souls, I was struck by my own inability to, one day, reflect on life, my accomplishments, my mistakes and what lay ahead. And rather than experience fright, I was more amazed by the fact that a video game had actually made me consider my own mortality for the first time - cinema, does it constantly.
Games don't like to talk about death. Scratch that. Nothing likes to talk about death. Long ago, game designers came up with various ways to avoid the topic despite watching your character die before your eyes multiple times.
But is it not important for art forms to discuss something that is inherently human, even if it's morose or uncomfortable? Death is a major part of Dark Souls. In fact if you don't die the game's difficulty increases seeing as you'll collect less souls over all and therefore level-up less. You need to die in order to progress, learn about the game, its areas, and its demons.
Death is a major theme of the Souls games. Even still, I don't think that Hidetaka Miyzaki (the director of Dark Souls) or anyone on the team desired to illicit this response in me - or make it particularly morose - but they sowed the seeds for the thoughts none the less.
That's why I love this game.
Dark Souls can be claustrophobic, painful, infuriating, cruel, pretentious, relentless and so much more. But despite all of that, I'm more engaged, alert and ultimately elated during playthroughs than I am with any other franchise. Though it's entirely sentimental, isn't Dark Souls a metaphor for, well, everything?
There are so many odds stacked against us in this world; corrupt individuals, invading players, dark caverns, terrifying foes - it can all be a bit overwhelming. But along the way you encounter bonfires, places of rest, stunning castles, you overcome seemingly impossible odds and become equipped with weapons to combat the darkness of life. And the best thing about the Souls experience is that we're all in it together.
Praise The Sun
You'll see messages left by others who congratulate your efforts, warn you of traps and instill confidence in you to overcome even the deadliest of foes. Friends and random strangers online will enter your world and help you tackle that which you find difficult. They'll bow with respect upon meeting you, stick by you as you stare into the face of death and literally jump for joy when they can alleviate some of your stress. To me, this all sounds like life.
Dark Souls teaches us something about our own existence, or rather reflects it. In this world we're surrounded by death, whether it be the arrival of Winter, the passing of childhood innocence, the death of the ego, or simple sadness; little deaths are everywhere. But we learn how to cope with them in our own ways, just as we do when playing the masterpieces that FromSoftware have created over the years. You get back up, you learn, you improve and you conquer.
These deaths along the way may frighten us and make us stop wanting to play, but with them we gain wisdom and new abilities to ultimately conquer even the most formidable of foes.
"Thou will understand one day. In thy twilight, old thoughts return in great waves of nostalgia." - Hawkeye Gough, 'Dark Souls: Prepare to Die'