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No. 21 - YOU DIED. So What?
Dark Souls and the Power of Pressing On
Hey all. You might have seen my note about taking a break from Substack.
I’m technically still on that break, but the keyboard beckoned me back quicker than expected.
This is the essay I was supposed to publish last week, when a wave of nausea and self-doubt hit me. I’d been working hard on it for the better part of two weeks, feeling more dissatisfied with my words as the deadline approached, searching for a deeper meaning behind the text that failed to manifest. I might say this essay was the reason I had to take a break, but I’m sure it was just the climax of a malady that’s been affecting me for some time.
Having said that, it’s important to me that I finally hit Publish on this one. It may be rougher than I’d like, but if I keep tinkering with it the thing will stay in my files forever.
After all, as the subtitle says, this is an essay about the power of perseverance. What would it say about me if this was the one I gave up on?
If I asked you for a list of your proudest achievements, beating a video game probably wouldn’t sit very high on that list. If that’s true, I’m willing to bet you’ve never played Dark Souls.
For the uninitiated (or the unbaptised, to steal’s word), Dark Souls is a role-playing video game set in a dark fantasy world, famed the world over for its brutal (and in the minds of casuls, unfair) difficulty.
The latter is a stupid, reductionistic description, and there’d be plenty to say about its world-building, the quality of its characterisation, and the level and equipment design.
But yes, Dark Souls is hard. And it’s precisely because of that difficulty that the game is such an enriching experience.
I say the following without any trace of exaggeration: playing Dark Souls was among the most special experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
And beating the game is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I know it may be hard to understand. After all, Dark Souls is “just” a video game, and in some circles video games are still considered childish, certified time-wasters.
If you subscribe to that belief, it’s not my place to change your mind. But when I say that video games have the power to affect lives, I speak from experience.
Today, I want to share some of that experience.
Beginning their journey into Lordran (the fantastic kingdom that serves as Dark Souls’s setting), a lot of players have the same reaction. What the heck is this crap?
Dark Souls is not the kind of game that prompts awe-filled stares. Its drab, PS2-era graphics and clunky controls are enough to drive away most casual gamers (or casuls, to use the Souls community’s not so gentle term). Though an RPG, it’s a far cry from the glamor of other famous games of that era, like Final Fantasy XIII or Skyrim. There are several classes to choose from, but they all start the game dressed in rags, and with only a broken sword for a weapon.
My first thought was that the game looked unpolished. Raw. But in reality, it’s all deliberate.
This is Dark Souls’ first message to the prospective player: you’re small and weak, and this world is a dangerous one. Still want in?
And the game wastes no time before hammering that point all the way in. This is what the tutorial boss looks like:
Looking at the blobbiness of this Asylum Demon might prompt you to exclaim that the rumours were true. That this game, a game that forces you to fight a towering Beelzebub armed only with the hilt of a sword, is bullsh*t.
But right from the start, something else becomes apparent. Something of crucial importance, without which the magic of Dark Souls wouldn’t work. The game is as brutal as it looks, but it is also fair.
Try to fight the demon with your broken sword, and you’ll likely get your butt kicked back to you (though not necessarily). What you’re meant to do instead is take a left, and head back inside the corridors of the Undead Asylum (the tutorial area), which you’ve just left for your first glimpse of the world outside your prison cell. In a little while, you’ll stumble upon your first real, class-specific weapon, which will even the odds against the demon when you finally face him for real, at the end of the tutorial.
This is the crux of what Dark Souls does so brilliantly. It presents you with a challenge and does its best to make that challenge seem impossible, so that once you beat it, you feel invincible. You get a little glimpse of that in the fight against the Asylum Demon. But the fight is neither complex, nor really difficult enough to really drive that home just yet.
After the fight, a Giant Crow carries you to Firelink Shrine, the game’s central hub and haven, and the world opens up.
Here, and for the first few hours of the game, confusion abounds: where are you meant to go? The game tells you almost nothing. There is no map, and no quest log.
These first hours, I imagine, are when most players quit. Confusion and apprehension reign. The enemies are deadly, and you still don’t have a handle on the controls, so you might die some stupid deaths. You might curse at the screen, and throw your controller out the window and all the way into your neighbour’s house. Just make sure you don’t hit their pedigree dog.
But if you keep at it for just a little longer, I promise, at some point, something will click. Slowly, ever so painfully slowly, you’ll get used to those pesky controls. What once felt clunky will begin to feel precise, like a well-kept vintage car. And you’ll begin to develop strategic reflexes: walking slowly, with your shield up, expecting ambushes at every corner.
Thusly, you’ll begin to learn the most important lesson Dark Souls has to teach. More on that in just a moment. First:
Hand on heart, by the time I got halfway through the game, I was no longer the same person that had first booted it up. In the first ten hours or so, I’d faced some of the most terrifying bosses the game has to offer. And believe you me: I died. A lot. I died so many times I started seeing this screen in my dreams:
Perhaps the hardest of those early bosses was the Capra Demon. He’s an optional boss, which means you don’t have to beat him in order to progress, but most players won’t know this as he’s very easy to stumble upon. And that’s exactly what the bastard is banking on: your surprise.
My first time, I died in about three seconds, as two dogs jumped me right after I entered the boss room, and the gigantic boss himself clobbered me over the head with his two gigantic cleavers. My second and third tries lasted maybe a few seconds longer, but finally ended on the exact same screen. I didn’t know what I could do. Did people really beat this guy?
But by now I had played the game for a while. I was freshly returned from my first brutal fight with not one, but two difficult bosses. I would not be that easily deterred.
I watched countless YouTube tutorials of people explaining ways to beat the Demon. I had all the information, yet the fight still felt impossible. But I kept trying. For whatever reason—I suppose the game had sunk its fangs into me by that point—I kept fighting the Capra Demon. And I died. Again, and again, and again, and again, and again.
But at some point, I noticed something. With every death, I was getting better. I was no longer succumbing to the same moves that had killed me a dozen times before. By now, I was consistently able to significantly damage the demon before he did me in.
So far, I’d felt like the game had abandoned me in this deadly world to fend for myself. It didn’t seem like Dark Souls was meant to be beatable. But for the first time, I was seeing clean through that illusion.
The game provides you with everything you need to see your journey through. It almost never gives you more than you can take. And when you do make it, you’ll be a better version of you. A stronger, more confident version, with a better idea of what you’re capable of.
That’s because, from beginning to end, Dark Souls wants to teach you a lesson: that you should never, ever give up. That no matter how mind-bogglingly hard a challenge might seem, you can, and will, overcome it, if you but try, try, try.
My first glimpse of this lesson had come earlier, when I defeated the Bell Gargoyles. But I’d done so with the help of Solaire of Astora (in the form of a summon—a spirit the game allows you to call forth for help with some bosses), so it hadn’t quite sunk in. It was finally and definitively beaten into me when I bested the Capra Demon. This time around it was just me—the lowly Chosen Undead—against the huge cleaver-wielding demon and his two rabid dogs. The imbalance of the situation was evident.
And yet, I won. I slew the Capra Demon. And the feeling of empowerment I got from it was quite unlike anything else I’d ever experienced.
Don’t give up. This is Dark Souls’s brilliant lesson, and the game proves itself a wonderful teacher.
A person who finishes Dark Souls will remember this lesson long after they’re done with the game. It’s a lesson one carries with them into the rest of life. Like reading a novel by Dostoevsky or Stanislaw Lem, playing Dark Souls will alter your perception of the world. You’ll find yourself more resilient, more patient, more willing to put the time in.
Let me share one last little story.
If you’re at all like me (and since you’re reading this, I’m going to bet that you are), at some point in your childhood you wished you could fight a dragon. For me it was while watching 2007’s Beowulf.
It took several more years and me becoming an adult, but I finally did it. In Dark Souls, I fought a dragon.
And before you get in my face and tell me “Plenty of games allow you to do that! Do you not remember the final bosses of X, Y, Z…?”, let me say this: I’ll keep up the spree and bet one more time that none of those games captured the sheer scope of a fight like this the way Dark Souls did when it gave us Kalameet.
Black Dragon Kalameet. The name still gives me chills. By far the hardest fight in the original Dark Souls, it was also the most badass. I mean, just look at the guy:
To be able to even fight Kalameet, you have to enlist the help of Hawkeye Gough, a legendary archer, to shoot him out of the sky for you. By the time you face him, he’s already wounded. And he will still kick your butt to high heaven.
You find Kalameet by dropping down a ladder into a sweeping ravine. The fight takes place in that tranquil valley, amid the sound of waterfalls and creatures running to and fro. The arena is gorgeous, and deceptively peaceful. And as you gaze upon the huge, scaled form of the black dragon, it feels like fighting the forces of nature itself. And Kalameet is strong enough to keep that illussion going. In gaming slang, he is OP. He can slash, pound, sweep, and breathe fire (with that fire looking like a glimpse into the universe, as if the boss was strong enough to tear the fabric of reality just by huffing a little bit). Moreover, since many of his attacks are magic-based, Kalameet was also highly resistant to magic damage.
I haven’t told you what build had I chosen to roll with, but I think you can guess. It was a magic build.
Once again, the deck was stacked against me.
My strikes felt more like nicks, and none of my hard-earned spells were worth their long casting time. About the fifth time I died, I wanted to give up. After all, Kalameet was a DLC boss. I could finish the game without stepping foot inside that ravine that felt like a wet hell ever again. There was nothing forcing me to fight Kalameet. Like the Capra Demon before him, this scaly nightmare was entirely optional. More than that, he felt downright impossible. Was it my fault that creating a magic knight had seemed cool forty hours before? No, it wasn’t. It was just bad luck. It was my build’s fault, not mine, that Kalameet was kicking my ass. So I could quit fighting with a clear conscience.
And the Me that had yet to beat the Capra Demon would have readily agreed. But since then, lots had happened. I’d fought two bosses at once, then did it again; I’d bested a dragon already; and I had easily slain the universally-hated Bed of Chaos. I was no casul anymore: I had gotten gud.
I knew I had it in me to beat Kalameet. He was just like all the other bosses I’d fought until that point, a behemoth built to scare me with its size and damage output, until he became what all the others had eventually become: an obstacle in my path.
I died, died, died. But I was making progress. Soon, I was slashing off 25% of his HP before succumbing to claw or fire. Then, it was 50%. With every attempt, and every hour that passed, I got better. Until, a few days later, I finally did it: I got Kalameet down to his last sliver of health.
I don’t remember if I took the time to savour the moment then. Probably not, seeing as I was still being chased by a 20-foot tall dragon unaware of his impending death. In any case, allow me to take a few seconds and do so now.
There’s him, big and black and shiny and all-powerful. And there, down below, there’s me—a small and sickly Chosen Undead. He’s killed me a hundred times already. According to most, this is the hardest boss in one of the hardest video games known to man. And I’m no great player, not even a good one most days.
By all accounts, I should be the clear loser.
Yet here we are, him and I. In a second he’ll be lying dead at my feet.
How did I manage the impossible? How did I best this seemingly undeafeatable enemy, when at first I could barely get a scratch on him?
You can thank the human brain. The amazingly adaptable human brain.
Playing Dark Souls, I realized that our brain is capable of much more than we tend to think. Whenever we fail at something, we tend to say “I can’t do it” and move on. For some reason, we have this notion that we’re static, that just because we weren’t born with a natural talent for something, we’ll never get good at it. But that’s not really how any of this works, right? The fact that you aren’t capable of something today tells you nothing of what you’ll be able to do tomorrow, or at the end of the month.
The brain learns best by doing. When you fail and fail at something, the brain will pick up on the things it needs to improve in order for you to succeed. The thing is, most of this learning happens off-screen, when we’ve paused the thing we’re struggling with.
When I was banging my head against Dark Souls’s difficult bosses, I was giving my brain information about them: their attack patterns, their timing, their range, their phase shifts. But the most important progress didn’t happen as I was playing. It happened when my head hit the pillow at night. The next morning—and this was quite surprising to me at first—I was better. I could do things that just twenty-four hours before had been unimaginable.
Dark Souls is amazing for showing us our own power. For giving us the space and tools to destroy our misconceptions about what we can and can’t do, what we can and can’t learn how to do.
I’m reminded of a famous Neil Gaiman quote thatrecently used in a note.
Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
The value of Dark Souls resides not in the fact that it shows us dragons can be beaten, but that they can be beaten by us.
Nowadays, whenever I’m trying to learn something new (two recent examples being driving and jumping rope), I don’t think about the mountains of books I had to study to become a lawyer. I think, above all, about Dark Souls. I think about how, with time, difficult things become easy.
And I remember how much we can all accomplish, if we just keep trying.
If we just keep pressing on.
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