To whoever finds this letter,
I don’t believe in fate, yet how is it that I decide by coincidence to write about Dark Souls the same day that it meets its 10th anniversary? There are plenty of other times I could have written about other things. Will this happen again in the future, with ever widening and repeating circles? No, that’s the narrative of fantasy, of Lordran and the pilgrimage of the undead to rekindle or extinguish the flame keeping that world alive.
And I, most assuredly, am not a part of that world. I am outside of such games. But Dark Souls is also Foucault’s pendulum; its rotational weight evidence of the Earth’s movement even while I stand still in relation to it.
This past year, I defeated Lord Gwyn; a great haggard beard of a being, who had aged like a towering oak that had succumbed to creeping shadows and rot at its roots. At the climax of the adventure, I was prompted to consider: Did I fight to end this tale? To say that this world has irrevocably gained from my presence which I must now leave? Or has it also seeped into myself, whispering into my erstwhile silent peripheries. Can mastery over a fallen world in which endless do-overs merely maintain the status quo with, at best, diminishing effects, still provide the kindling for a positive future?
I can always continue the adventure, the game both soothes and taunts, but it will be more difficult now, especially if we let you keep what knowledge you have gleaned.
This is a sensation that has felt especially relevant during the past year. I notice that my own beard looks ashen, my eyes a little hollow. I check to see if my cat limps like the old Great Wolf.
You see, this is not the corruption of a grandiose Age of Fire with reanimated plague corpses, but the Age of Pandemic, which has become tainted by an equally pervasive lack of enlightenment. Here, the great public seem determined to embrace a liminal state of existence, both contagious and unconcerned.
The grind, the compromised strategies, the coping mechanisms, treading the safe path, having a home-camp where you can shut it all out; it all feels somewhat familiar.
The difficulty of the game and the difficulties of those that live within the game blends into one; and in both instances Dark Souls continues to ask of me things that other games take for granted, like motivation. It’s not enough for me to know how to mechanically get through the adventure, but the game, like all the best horrors, asks me to reflect on why I am pushing myself through.
There’s always some transient notion of The Greater Good inflecting my motives, but there’s also that desire to see the wider-world, to be both of it and to once again master it if only for a pleasurable moment of victory before the next aggregation of blood, foam, bones, and screaming.
The game insists that despite my intent to save everyone, the situation is bigger than myself and my own journey through it. Dark Souls is a world where the very best can lose themselves. The Knight will go insane, the Monk will kill his ward, and maybe one day I will not have to explain a father’s death to his daughter. But the actions taken, to push through in the best way possible, define the role I inhabit. Stumbling, I can only try my best.
All horror games encourage confrontation, but Dark Souls entangles me in the imperfect. I am not strictly complicit, but I am also of that world, and as such cannot be entirely independent of it. Trying to just exist within such a structure is terrifying when it is impossible to be an outside hero.
The game feels like an existential struggle of Beckettian proportions. Murmurs of “You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on” bubble through the miasma. I like my games easy, and Dark Souls is not that. The confrontation between a finely realised world and the fact that I have to relive the same fragmented moments continually would ordinarily diminish the effect, but in Dark Souls, it is all grist for the mill. Yet, this is also reassuring, in its own grim sort of way. Repetitive effort makes sense; it can yield rewards.
Yes, the world appears to wait for me, as I stand still, one of the already dead. It is a temporary comfort. But I gain nothing; I affect nothing; I hide. Dark Souls is a lesson in grinding and moving forward when all around you have seemingly lost their minds. It is not the art of repetition without incident; it is the art of self-enforced repetition despite continued incidents.
I am not talking, of course, about repetition without improvement, which would be sheer ignorance or shameless insanity. Within the wider circle of daily life there are concentric nuances and variations. Each new tool is a new coping mechanism; a new strategy against the global situation. The art of pick yourself up, dust yourself off, put on your mask, and start to live all over again. I was wrong at the outset: we are all not outside such games.
I suppose, despite the darkness or because of it, this is why I think about Dark Souls this Halloween, and leave this letter for the next hollow to find in their own prison cell.
In its gloom, Dark Souls teaches us to let our past experiences steel us without fixing ourselves immutably in one spot; that communities will rise to support us; paths will open again and new ones will present themselves. We know the rote mechanics of how, we have carefully made it this far, now navigate to remember the why.
You must go on…