Sometimes it pays to focus on the dark side of gaming. Hayden Donnell shares the harrowing story of his own crippling addiction to Dark Souls.
I’ve been going to therapy lately. A therapist will tell you many of your self-destructive behaviours can be traced back to seemingly small past traumas. Schoolyard bullying. Smacking. That scene from The Neverending Story where the horse dies in a bog. You internalise the hurt, winding it around the black recesses of your psyche, and eventually it comes out in the form of useless, harmful habits. It’s important to revisit your traumas with the help of a professional to figure out how they’ve affected your adult self. It’s hard work, but it’s work I know I have to keep doing, because one day I will figure out what terrible event led to me becoming addicted to the Dark Souls video game franchise*.
My problems started when I was working at the NZ Herald about five years ago. The paper’s gaming editor, Chris Schulz, brought me a copy of Dark Souls II and asked if I wanted to do a review. He told me Dark Souls was known as one of the most difficult RPGs ever released. That sounded terrible for someone with already fragile mental health. As I wrestled to find a way to say no, a deeper, more primordial voice stepped forward in my mind and spoke: “Sure, I’ll give it a go”.
Dark Souls counts the number of hours you spend on the game. I spent more than 400 on Dark Souls II. Giant portions of my life were sucked into its yawning maw. The game was poison for someone with a pathological aversion to mistakes and failure. The first few deaths I took in my stride. At the 10th, I lost a little composure. By the 50th, I hated myself with the burning fury of 1000 suns. I wished every affliction on Earth upon the worthless skin sack I called a body; the mushy bag of decomposing peas I called a brain. I was overcome with loathing for every second that brought me to my position on my couch at 3am on a Wednesday morning. Then I pressed x to reload the game.
Eventually my wife hid the disc somewhere. I pleaded for her to tell me where it was. She wouldn’t. I responded by waiting for a while, then buying Dark Souls III.
Why did I do it? At least a heroin addict gets reliably spaced waves of pleasure out of their addiction. It could take hours before I got the endorphin rush that came with beating a boss in Dark Souls. In between those fleeting moments of joy were hours of unrelenting misery.
Maybe the pain of failure made the feeling of success more intense. The shadow proved the sunshine. But there was an error in the calculation. The sums were imbalanced. The counterweight inadequate. It’s more likely that something in the game’s meaningless toil appealed to a my negatively-tuned mind. Dark Souls never really seemed to have a coherent story. Nothing made sense. Some of its hardships seemed pointlessly cruel. It was a metaphor for real life – only with more vaguely medieval princesses saying things like “betwixt” and “thine” – and something about its needless, inexplicable torment gave me comfort.
While I failed though, I learned. Dark Souls III only took me 100 hours on the first playthrough; 70 on the second; 60 on the third. I started to get good. The weight that once seemed so large began to lift a little easier each time. Something unfamiliar started breaking through: hope.
This month I played my last hours of Dark Souls. I clocked its final bit of downloadable content. A weird knight with obvious medical problems crawled along the ground asking me to give him my dark soul, in what could be one of the most clunky bits of exposition in gaming history.
I chopped him apart with my sword and stood in a grey desert wasteland.
Then something strange happened: I realised I was alone. Ennui washed over me. For the first time I felt an urge to reach out.
The Dark Souls games have a function where you can summon yourself into other gamers’ worlds using something called a Red Eye Orb, in an effort to either kill or fight alongside them. I activated my orb. Nothing happened. Hours went by. The orb wailed plaintively into the internet.
I started to wander through the levels I’d spent so many hours on, hoping I’d eventually be summoned into the world of someone who understood my experience; someone who could validate it. That reply never came. Every other player had moved on. The streets of Londor were completely barren except for me; a man who’d clocked a game and lost his dark soul. All my achievements were ashes and sand. There was no-one out there but the old familiar monsters.
* Not a real reason for therapy.
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