Dark Souls & Me
How Dark Souls saved me from depression
by Adam Wright-Johnson
During our passage through life we are destined to face challenges, lose loved ones to time, diseases, and death. We are plagued by the greatest curse of all when it comes to death: awareness. We are aware that we are subject to mortality and so are those we love, aware that our bodies will fail, destined to wither and return to the nothingness we arose from, and that we are on a clock with no clue when our time will run out. As a mortal species, awareness is a particular predicament that allows us to picture our own annihilation, and beyond that, one of the most terrifying things involved with being mortal and aware is that we can envision, knowing, that the world will carry on without us, although maybe that’s abstractly comforting. Through these very human fears we can develop a slew of mental complexes, often unable to grasp the fact that time is against us, fearing failure, and worrying that we will leave nothing behind of note, forgotten in the cycling of time.
Many of my mental issues stem from these very base fears. The idea that we are on the aforementioned clock rattled me as a teenager. I’d dread the looming certainty of death and my inexorable march through time towards it. Through it, I struggled to make connections with people, afraid to lose them or afraid to make the wrong choices upon befriending them. I was never socially active as a child, as growing up on a particularly rough estate in Birmingham, I wasn’t allowed out to play with the resident kids due to the very present dangers, so I spent a fair amount of time absorbed in Brian Jacques’ Redwall books, making friends in Mossflower Woods. I did, of course, begin making connections at senior school after moving to a nicer area, but none that I’d consider deep or close to me. I actually began skateboarding alone in the local car park, began making lasting connections through that, and eventually grew to be rather sociable. The focus of skating helped me overcome some of my more challenging moments as an adolescent, as I had something to commit to that wasn’t a team sport or a social activity, but as much as I saw it as a particularly secluded activity, I made friends.
Around eighteen I met my first love, Katie, and it’s through her that I was first confronted by living proof of our mortality as she passed a few years later following a protracted battle with a brain tumour. I realise this is a heavy start to a piece about a computer game, but I think it’s important to understand where I’ll be writing from and what went on in my life and mind before I found any release to deal with it. I watched as she worsened, unable to do anything. She completely changed both physically and mentally as the stresses of the cancer and its many treatments played havoc with her body and mind. Before the end she was barely recognisable, just the happy, brown, love-filled eyes I’d seen a million times before, destined to fade away. She may have been barely recognisable, but to her, I ended up totally unrecognisable. She didn’t know my name, who I was, why I was in her life, or why I sat beside her bed in devastated silence. The cancer took everything from Katie before it eventually took her, and my heart along with her.
I lost myself then.
I didn’t grieve. Couldn’t grieve. Something in me completely shut down and I was able to persist with my working life as well as skating, although I did revert back to skateboarding alone. To my shame, I never went to the funeral and it’s something I still regret to this day. I’ll regret it every single day of my life. It still shocks me that despite everything I saw her go through, I didn’t have the bravery to face her burial. I honestly can’t tell you what it was that kept me from it besides fear. Was it self-consciousness at being seen publicly overcome by emotion by people? Was it self-preservation, or was it simply that I didn’t grasp the enormity of what had happened? Was it denial? Was it the fear of looking in to the face of the singular end a human being inevitably arrives at? Whatever it was, after watching Katie bravely face cancer head on, not one of those reasons feel good enough.
I disappeared largely in to works of fiction. Not my own but the work of others. I spent uncounted hours playing games, watching shows, and reading books. At first it was the desire for company that forced me to try and find non-social avenues to friendship, as I honestly believed seclusion would save people from me burdening them with my profound sadness and despair. Robert Louis Stevenson once said that, “books are good enough in their own way, but they’re a poor substitute for life”, and whilst that may be true I do believe that when life is most tender, they act as a salve on an open wound. I disappeared in to worlds depicted by Raymond E. Feist and David Eddings, at McLaren’s with the group making up How I Met Your Mother, or trying to save the world from a gigantic meteor with Cloud Strife and company in Final Fantasy 7. The point being that I never felt alone. I made connections to some of those fictional beings that will live with me forever. I love Final Fantasy 7 and those characters so much that when they released the remake footage at E3, I broke down in tears at the sight of long lost friends.
Around the age of thirty, I randomly began losing my voice. I couldn’t speak properly at all: my voice would give out, become raspy and hoarse, and eventually just fail. My left shoulder atrophied and to this day I’m still unable to lift my arm above my head. My tongue collapsed, veering harshly to the left, and my left ear rang constantly, accompanied by pulsatile tinnitus. To say I was scared of these symptoms is an understatement. Lying down to sleep in the dark when you can hear your heart beating loudly in your ear causes a fear I cannot possibly hope to accurately describe. I’d hear it and my stomach would roll. When you experience so many strange things happening to your own body, it’s impossible to think of it being anything simple to fix. After various long days and an eventual trip to Accident & Emergency to speed up the process, I was also diagnosed with a tumour on my brain. Confronted with the fear of one’s own potential impending expiration is something that most humans will have to experience in their lifetime, but the fear for me as an adult was more leaving my loved ones behind, missing the big days, the happy moments, and ultimately, I feared the idea of my death lingering with my parents and causing them pain forever. I feared, having watched someone else go through the same thing, the failing of my memory, the loss of me, and the growing nothingness, the void of remembering nothing, knowing nothing, just an empty vessel waiting to die as Katie had become. I hate describing her like that, and it hurts my heart to write those words down, but it’s true. She was nothing of the compassionate hippy girl I fell in love with that loved to sing, drive, and explore wilderness. I was terrified to go through that, but I was also terrified to put the people I loved through those things that I had been through with Katie.
Fortunately, a month or two later, I had an appointment upon which they notified me of some great news – judging by the shape and growth of the tumour, they were wrong and it was benign. It was still a very serious issue, but it wouldn’t be the death of me. But that month. That month was the most horrific period of my life. I remember whilst being on the waiting list for surgery, my local GP called me to have a chat, just wondering how I’d been coping since the second diagnosis. I’d been taking anti-anxiety and depression pills for years before, but something he said really stuck with me. Whilst he was on the phone I was looking out of my bedroom window. It was summer, the tree across the street was in full glory, a truly beautiful day, but I was restricted to the indoors and away from the light, away from anything that might cause me another potent headache. But that day, during that call, something happened. He said, “You know, I just wanted to say how brave you’ve been through all of this. My wife and I (another practitioner I’d been seeing) have spoken about it and considering where you were, you’ve been amazingly calm. The surgeon at the hospital was impressed with your positivity.” I remember thinking how strange that was. I mean, I was incredibly grateful for the words, but brave? I’d been shitting myself for a year by this point having put off going to the doctor in the first place, but brave? I’d learnt that I wasn’t dying. I felt like I’d won the lottery and I didn’t understand why they thought I was being brave. “It’s still a very serious issue,” he continued, “it’s still a major surgery you’ve got to have.” Yeah, but I don’t have cancer, I thought to myself thinking of Katie alone in her bed. I said my thanks and the call ended.
It took a while to get to surgery due to the pandemic, and during that period, I struggled severely with depression. I was still obviously grateful for the lack of cancer, but the pulsatile tinnitus was taking its toll, as were the physical ailments preventing me from skating or playing football. The headaches prevented me from going anywhere. I couldn’t go to the pub or clubs because of noise, and I couldn’t be in groups because not only did light and sound give me headache, but I was hearing everything in mono due to the tumour ruining my left ear. The worst, though, came at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 when I lost two particularly close friends to suicide. I was crushed. I still am. I’d had similar thoughts, but again, I really lacked the bravery to go through with it. My main escape during this period, that which dragged me through until surgery, was Dark Souls, and believe me when I say this: Nothing has helped me more. Not love, not friendship, not other escapism.
I don’t want to sound ungrateful or undermine the work of the fabulous surgeons who worked on me for thirteen hours in order to remove this tumour from my head, because I really am eternally grateful, but it’s Dark Souls that saved my life.
I’m sure many of you reading this know what Dark Souls is, as why else would you have clicked on the link, but for those that were kind enough to read this that don’t: Dark Souls is an action role-playing video game.
Role-playing games are often different fundamentally depending on where they’re made. Western RPGs usually put us in to the protagonist’s role, we are asked to create our own character and pursue the in-game goals around doing whatever we like in a vast, explorable world. Eastern RPGs tend to see us controlling the actions of a collective with their own motivations and relying on us becoming invested in them as people and their particular journeys which are always woven in to a larger, over-arching narrative.
Dark Souls is a series of role-playing video games created in the Western style, with Western sensibilities, but developed by a Japanese company named FromSoftware. The Souls series confronts themes of cycles and reincarnation from the East mixed with the futility and nihilism of the West, blended with Western architecture. It’s everything, all at once, but still it retains its elusiveness, magic, and mystery. The games are notorious for their difficulty, with many players giving up very early on; and their lack of direct narrative, relying on the player talking to non-playable characters and reading item descriptions in order to piece together a deeply mysterious tale.
Hidetaka Miyazaki, the series’ creator grew up in Japan reading a lot of Western fiction, and often had trouble with some of the more difficult sections of novels due to his lack of English, but this sparked something in him: a creativity he had to cling to in order to fill in the gaps in the narrative, allowing him to take all the pieces he understood and create a story more personal to him. This piecemeal story construction is the life and soul of the series, and it has captured the imaginations of innumerable gamers across the globe, each coming up with their theories, questioning the phrasing of item descriptions to an almost obsessive degree, and creating personal narratives of their own. YouTube is stacked with Dark Souls videos of these theories, with the ever-growing community offering their insights, thoughts, and fellow theories to the ever-expanding narrative options. Personally, I find this a fascinating way to tell a story, and there is a story if one is perseverant, dedicated, and observant. This style of storytelling is addictive. Anthropologists have debated forever over humans having something they deem a hyper agency detection module that burdens us with a permanent desire to explain that which cannot be explained, or that which we lack current evidence to explain. Mankind has been creating gods, myths, legends, and mythical creatures for time immemorial, and a mystery always hooks us. Even simple magic tricks and illusions leave us with a pressing need to know how they’re done, so when it comes to more grandiose concepts and gaps in knowledge, we go in to overdrive trying to fill them in. Dark Souls very much triggers that in our minds, captivating us in mystery, enshrouding us in magic, but there is a story to be discovered.
Honestly, if I were to discuss the whole story this piece would roll on for an age because there are so many characters with tales of their own with thousands of avenues to explore, so I’ll stick to the main narrative and leave you to discover the rest. After all, that’s the real joy of Dark Souls.
In the beginning the world had no disparity, there existed no semblance of time and everything was static. Then, in much the same way as the Big Bang, the First Flame sprang in to being, bringing with it existence, and not only existence, but states of existence. Life and death, light and dark, heat and cold, hunger, pain, love, all came to be. Suddenly, the static, monotonous rock world knew change and life, constantly evolving, and this is the world we are now a part of.
“When the First Flame sparked to life, creating disparity, souls came with it. Souls were the very way in which the First Flame changed the state of existence, the means by which the Flame introduced disparity, and paradoxically, they’re not only the fuel for the Flame, but also a bi-product. A soul gives you clarity; the ability to think, but also life, allowing you to “be”, and just as there are all kinds of life, there are all kinds of souls. Many in-game bosses are special beings with special souls. The most powerful being the Lords, who possess Lord Souls.”
~ VaatiVidya, Dark Souls Lore Expert and YouTuber
The Four Lords are essentially the first powerful beings, each having discovered a vast wealth of power at the First Flame. The Witch of Izalith discovered the Life Soul, Lord Gwyn discovered the Light Soul, Gravelord Nito discovered the Death Soul, and the Furtive Pygmy discovered the Dark Soul. Each Lord used their soul to create their own realm, with the souls coming to define them, and soon they rose in might, eager to challenge the Everlasting Dragons that pre-date them. Following on from their war against the dragons, and their eventual victory over them, came the Age of Fire. This era was dominated by the Four Lords, each unmatchable in power within their kingdoms whilst the Flame lasted. But as with all flames, as even all things, the fire eventually began to fade, and with it so did the Four Lords’ power. As light gives way to dark, as did the Age of Fire try to give way to an Age of Dark, but it did not come to pass. It is at the Fading of the Flame and the ending of the era that you, the protagonist, find yourself.
Ever since the Flame began to wane, a dark ring of fire had begun to manifest itself upon humans as a sign of the Time of Dark burgeoning within them. This Dark Sign marks you as an immortal, though your constant revival comes at the cost of your own souls and sanity, until you eventually hollow. At the very heart of Dark Souls is a question: what caused this?
Gwyn, the Lord of Light, fearing the end of the flame, feared the Dark that would inevitably follow. At the beginning of time, as we know, the Dark Soul was found by someone simply named The Furtive Pygmy. The Pygmy divided the Dark Soul, splitting it in to many pieces which we call Humanity, which every human possesses within them. Dark Magic, also feared by Gwyn, is often described as fuelled by feeling so we cannot assume that the Dark is a bad thing. Some is positive, some is negative, but Gwyn feared all of it for the prophecy it foretold. Fearing the coming of the Dark, and by extension the humans that possess the fragments of the Dark Soul, Gwyn attempted to subvert the course of nature and hatched a plan to relight the First Flame. He succeeded, but so doing, he also committed The First Sin by cursing humanity with the Seal of Fire which shackled the darkness, the Humanity, within mankind. By this time, the shackles are all that humans know, and as their Dark Soul (their Humanity) is locked away within them, they must live their lives through White Souls, through which they retain purpose, and now must hold entirely separate from their person, unable to combine the two. Those that were around before that time, such as Manus (a boss within the game), had their humanity and souls writhe against the shackles, deform, and go mad, turning them in to the hateful demonic creatures we see them as now.
Our duty as the protagonist is to journey, collecting powerful souls in a crumbling world, our destiny to relight the flame by offering the souls to it, or simply to let the fire fade, letting Gwyn’s Age of Light die, giving way to the Age of Dark.
Now, I’m sure you’re wondering what any of this has to do with depression, and I can tell you: Nothing. Nothing to do with the actual narrative has any mental health metaphor or allegory at all, and it’s probably more in line with crushing capitalism, but that’s for another time.
The experience of playing Dark Souls, however, certainly has something to do with depression.
Dark Souls is an exceptionally challenging game, but as the game’s creator Hidetaka Miyazaki alluded to; it is not difficult for difficulty’s sake. It is a challenge that requires persistence and grit, determination and commitment, and the ability to learn from mistakes previously made. Its foggy narrative is sprawled throughout all manner of beautiful or oppressive landscapes that need not be thoroughly explored should you just wish to get through the game for the challenge, but should you spend the hours deep-diving in to every nook and cranny possible, examining the incredible vistas, or facing the optional fear-inducing enemies, the rewards are entirely satisfying whether you’re just looking for equipmental aid to take on the next boss or pieces of lore to knit the tale together.
The game is not complex to control, although it is difficult to master. Simple attack combos and dodging really make up the core dynamic controls of the game, and tying them in with your stamina bar, which each action chosen eats from, creates a measured respect for enemies, demanding your patience, control, and timing to take advantage of openings. The most threatening thing within the game is maintaining your stamina bar to either attack or dodge whilst being under heavy pressure from an enemy, a group, or from a boss. This calmness in the heat of battle becomes an integral piece of the kit required to not only complete the game, but to develop an understanding of the world around you.
“I think death is a crucial element when designing games around the theme of the satisfaction of overcoming overwhelming odds.”
~ Hidetaka Miyazaki
Despite the often seemingly overwhelming difficulty the game throws at you, with careful thought and learning, you will see a huge difference from, say, when you first come across a boss as opposed to the tenth time you face the challenge. As an aid to this, death becomes your friend, and whilst most games consider death a failure, Dark Souls forces you to unlearn this, as death is the most prominent way to learn. You will face bosses whose complex move sets can crush you without you getting a single hit in, but with careful studying, determination, and the rest of the things I isolated earlier, you will slowly find yourself finding gaps in their apparent impenetrable armour and attack patterns to the point that you can take them down relatively easily – to learn, though, takes time, and of course, death. Dark Souls’ portrayal and use of death as a means of learning flies in the face of other more lenient games that don’t require such careful balance as they are often created for a more linear experience and not so much of a challenge. After all, bosses in most games are just a barrier between yourself and narrative progression, but Dark Souls bosses are not so – they are tests to see what you’ve learned in your time in the world and to see whether you’ve mastered certain mechanics, but they also have a very poetic feel and are accompanied by either fierce or mournful soundtracks, further giving subtle and meaningful hints to that particular character’s background.
Dark Souls relies on a levelling system designed around the collecting of souls, whether they static collectibles or through taking souls from the many enemies littering Lordran, Drangleic, or Lothric. These souls allow you to increase your in-game stats including your ability to wield heavier weapons and stronger magic, increase your health bar, stamina bar, or your dexterity, but becoming good at the game doesn’t simply rely on these statistics. The construct of the game relies on you, the player, improving over time. Many challenge runs have been completed by committed players in which they are prohibited from levelling their stats at all and must rely solely on their in-game prowess.
The combination of reserved combat, perseverance against the odds, and the game’s commitment to providing a true challenge makes it incredibly satisfying to make even the smallest progression, or to finally topple a boss you’ve been stuck on for a while, because you know it then opens up unexplored locations and further adventure. The difficulty adds a sense of achievement to the exploration that I believe other RPGs lack. Take Skyrim for instance; Skyrim is a beautiful open world game in which the combat provides little challenge, and thus the world is easily explored with close to no limitation. This, in my eyes, takes something from the game. Earning your place in the world feels infinitely better to me personally than being given the keys to the world and just freely being able to have a look around. That’s not to say that games like Skyrim aren’t incredibly immersive and beautiful forms of escapism, packed with wonderful adventures, characters, creatures, magic, and visuals, but they lack the ability to make one’s own self feel good about their achievements. With that thought in mind, I believe it’s time to move on to the crux of this particular piece. “Finally”, I hear some of you silently cry, and with a smile at your persistence, I thank you for sticking it out thus far.
Maybe you have what it takes to link the fire?
A fiercely challenging game with terribly dark themes of death and decay really doesn’t seem like the setting one would seek solace in, but alas, here I am telling you it is so.
The images of the various settings of Dark Souls are often unsettling, with dank and dark corners hiding vile creations and evolutions bent only on your destruction, but underneath their demonic visages and rages are often a varied array of sad and emotive tales, ones not too far from reality. The world is crumbling around you and it is filled with monsters and undead humans who have lost their way, their purpose, and wander aimlessly, beaten down by the inescapable curse bestowed upon them. It’s easy to see the parallels between the hollow humans of Lordran and the hollow feelings one suffers when one is suffering with depression, stress, grief, or anxiety, not to mention as comparison for many of the humans lacking humanity we see in reality.
With depression, you lack purpose and drive; you wander aimlessly from room to room, simply just existing in somnambulistic emptiness, devoid of any motivation following endless battles with an enemy that simply will not let up. Depression is many things, but forgiving is not one of them. It bites and scratches, throws you to the dogs, exhausts you, and shuts you off from the outside world. It will not relent until you are unable to remember exactly who you were before it, every battle takes another little piece of your soul, eventually rendering you unable to carry on. Depression, in many respects, renders you hollow.
One key aspect of Dark Souls is the narrative indifference the game has towards you. In too many games you begin as someone of note, as a person with a world-altering ability or a narrative specifically created for oneself, whereas in Dark Souls, the game makes it apparent that there are many others just like you, relatively insignificant people in the world, striving for the successes that you are, and I think that’s important, because nothing is more isolating than being alone, and yet games make you feel alone by putting you atop a pedestal with abilities that others just don’t possess in a story that revolves entirely around you – Dark Souls doesn’t. You will see the phantoms of others roaming the landscapes, you can touch their blood patches to see their deaths (another example of the game not only trivialising death, but using it to instruct you), and you will even cross swords with other Chosen Undead combatants as you travel, both of you in pursuit of success, and these invaders will be either NPC or other real life human players from across the globe. Some will even invade your world to assist you.
Dark Souls offers two modes of play, although through the same narrative. The first is to go it alone, and the game makes it clear from the off that this is tougher but as so often with depression, it is difficult to accept help. Dark Souls allows us to adventure independently, and the strength we feel as we accomplish small things alone in a game made to challenge us helps in no small way to make us feel somewhat better about ourselves, but even should you choose to go it alone, some of the NPCs begin to become friends. They’ll offer advice, items, and touching parting words when your conversations come to an end, so even in your loneliness you still feel wanted, even in this hostile land where everyone is losing themselves, and you still feel as though someone is rooting for you. Siegward of Catarina will sit and have a drink with you before he invariably falls asleep, Siegmeyer will leap in to battle to protect you, Laurentius and Greirat of the Undead Settlement have kindly parting words, and Greirat will even sacrifice himself to aid your journey. The quote I opened this piece with has always stuck with me, and even when fellow friends feel low I sometimes say it to them. It somehow evokes a feeling of power in myself, personally; a desire to not go hollow, to not allow myself to further disappear in to the mire, and I think that the very conscious reaching out of these characters helps bridge a gap between loneliness and support.
But the real joy in Dark Souls is the lessons it teaches us about never being alone, and as someone who has felt mightily alone for large swathes of my life, I can tell you that this is an incredibly valuable and precious thing. Many games give you a companion, but most of those companions are NPCs that just follow you offering combat support and item storage. Skyrim and Fallout are strong examples of this as it is more prevalent in Western RPGs. Generally, the supporting cast of a Japanese RPG offer base companionship in battle, otherwise they’re relegated to cut scenes, but with Dark Souls, co-op is somewhat different.
“But, use this, to summon one another as spirits, cross the gaps between the worlds, and engage in jolly co-operation!“
~ Solaire of Astora, Dark Souls
Dark Souls offers a unique system of support. Firstly, your NPC companions are summonable by touching their “sign” that’s often outside their relevant story bosses, but the real magic is the spirit of cooperation that exists within the main narrative, and whilst the Dark Souls community can veer towards the toxic in terms of discussion, the majority are generally more than happy to help you along your quest by allowing you to summon them to your world in order for them to help you defeat a particularly difficult section of game or a boss. I absolutely adore this mechanic because of one specific thing: them coming to your world doesn’t help to progress their game other than with the souls they collect, so you get the sense that this person that’s travelling between worlds really wants to help you progress and they’re not in it to progress themselves or their own narrative, and that’s an unbelievably powerful olive branch to someone struggling with depression. Dark Souls encourages reaching out for assistance, it encourages the reliance on others, and it nurtures those crippled aspects of a depressed or grieving mind without you ever really being aware that it is. The game shows you how much help can trivialise even the most seemingly insurmountable challenges.
When I first played Dark Souls it was a real battle and I got about half way through before I gave up. It took years for me to pick up the controller again and dive back in, and it was at the depth of my despair post diagnosis that I did. As I fought my way through the world of Lothric in Dark Souls 3, I did inevitably become stuck, but I received help from a friend named Phil. During that period we fought our way through the entire game together, helping each other through the various landscapes and challenges the game threw at us. I couldn’t really speak to anyone else during that time, but Dark Souls gave a valued friend a way to reach out to me without me having to open up. We played for hours every day and I’d look forward to those hours every night, where I’d escape from my depression and despair in to a depressing and despairing world but fuelled by, with the help of a friend; hope. I had no hope in reality, but Dark Souls offered me a challenge, it offered me a focus, it offered me needed companionship and adventure, and it showed me a path to accepting help. The small victories gave way to bigger victories, and with each victory I felt stronger. My own personal First Flame which ebbed and faded became a roaring fire. Phil and I accompanied each other throughout all three Dark Souls titles and Bloodborne, one-hundred percenting each of them, and by the end of it I felt strong.
After doing it all, I reached out for help in real life because Dark Souls taught me that it’s perfectly fine to reach out, to rely on others, and that even the smallest victories along the path add up, that the small victories give way to larger victories, and that the larger victories are achievable no matter how impossible they seem.
Now, when I look back at my depressed points, I see the madness in maintaining solitude, and that even with so many hands ready to pick me up and dust me off, I chose too often to do it alone and fight an uphill battle against something I didn’t understand. Now, I’ve by no means escaped those days of looming depression and anxiety – I still have my bad days where I want nothing more than the world to swallow me up, but then I think about Dark Souls, and I think about the amazing people, real and constructed, that showed me friendship in aiding my journey across that fading world, and I smile, because no matter how isolated the depression tried to make me feel, how beaten down stress tries to make me, and how loveless the grief tries to make me, and how fearful the anxiety makes me feel, I know that I am never alone, that there are friends, known and unknown, at every turn, and that I will never, ever go hollow.
We are stronger together. We are stronger with loved ones.
Never forget that.
And don’t you dare go hollow.