By now everyone and their grandmothers are probably sick of hearing their mates talking about Dark Souls III, which has not long ago come out for the vast enjoyment of the gaming masses. Once again we praise the sun and engage in jolly cooperation! If you’ve played it or if you know someone who’s played it – hell, if you were on any geek and gamer media these last couple of months, you’re probably heard enough about it to fill in your own Encyclopaedia Daemonica.
But I’d like to talk to you about the first Dark Souls and what it means to people who are struggling with depression.
I had come to the franchise by playing Demon’s Souls, and whilst being irritated by the unnecessary possessive ‘s in its title, I loved the game. Before you call me a hipster, I never finished it. My game copy was mysteriously lost by a friend. I never got round to obtaining another one and for a few years there was this large gaping hole where my little black heart used to be. A few years later along came Dark Souls to fill the dark void…
…with more darkness.
You can see where this is going.
Both games can teach the rest of the industry a valuable lesson about story-telling, set design and engaging gameplay. The creative minds at From Software (from From Software? From Fromm? Fr- fuck it) in each instance created a beautifully bleak world that is literally dying and you as the silent protagonist have to cling to that last ember of hope. In Demon’s Souls, it is by literally fighting demons. That in itself is an apt metaphor for those living with depression, but it goes deeper than that.
The gameplay and essence of the plot are fairly similar in both games. You challenge foes that are larger than life, fight demons and dragons, siphon their power and die, die and die again only to come back with a vengeance. On and on until you succeed. It instils in you at the same time a constant fear as every corner could spell your doom but also a kind of reckless abandon because even while death has its consequences, it is by no means the end. Eventually, after dying enough times you will prevail against even the toughest foe.
Admittedly, once you’ve killed the God of Dragons, every time you hear your friend bragging about slaying a wyvern in Skyrim you scoff, roll your eyes and proceed to preach of the untold power of demon souls (see, that’s not so hard?)
The story of Demon Souls (I refuse to add that stupid s) revolves around a corrupt king who summoned Cthulhu and – as we all know – that never ends well. Cue the knights in polished armour retrieving their swords from mothball-filled cupboards and with their shiny new shield, traverse the demon fog and… die. You know the drill.
And you love it.
Dark Souls took the same concept of die, fail, die again, fail again, fail better but changed the story. This time there’s a different Godot at the end of this funhouse of constant death and despair and while demons are still the enemy for the most part, they’re just parasites feeding on the dying remains of a world that’s growing darker. Your power does not come from the souls of demons but from the undead. Those who bear the cursed dark sign and are doomed to never die but are reborn again and again to struggle against insurmountable odds.
You are one of the undead.
And you have to fight to maintain your humanity. Those who are undead eventually lose their sanity from the constant pain of death and the agony of living and the never-ending cycle of trying to accomplish an impossible task. Those who lose their humanity are called Hollow. You too can become Hollow and you have to battle demons and crazed undead to maintain your sanity and recover your humanity.
Through playing the game and paying attention to the world around, you learn that other undead go Hollow when they have lost their purpose or have given up. One of the first characters you meet, Oscar of Astora was on pilgrimage to fulfill the prophecy but through failure lost his will to continue and became Hollow. His is a tragic tale and an example to you, the protagonist, of what happens to those who lose their will to go on.
And that is the best metaphor for depression I have seen in a videogame or indeed in any story. Due to its interactive nature, a videogame can make the player face the silent demon of Depression like no other medium.
You are nothing. A lone Hollow undead waiting for the end of the world in the Undead Asylum. You’ve got nothing but a broken blade and the key you receive from Oscar. Then you get up on your feet and you drive that broken blade through the thick hide of the demon keeping you locked in there. Time and again the demons and monsters with their gigantic weapons and merciless attacks put you back down. Sometimes the fight seems too hard. Sometimes the monster is too strong. You lose faith from being reminded that you are so small and insignificant compared to the massive demons in your path. You want to give up, you want to sit down and never get up.
And that’s when you go Hollow.
Unlike most role-playing games of its kind, Dark Souls is not a power fantasy. You may upgrade your equipment, imbue yourself with great power and learn powerful spells, but one good slash from Sif the Great Wolf and you’re minced meat. The knights in shining armour go Hollow and lose faith. Even noble heroes like Havel lose their humanity. And Oscar, he of the pure heart who rescued you from the Asylum, even he lost his purpose. There is no hope here, only the will to endure.
But it is only in contrast to the darkness of this dying world that true heroism can shine. Like Solaire, the knight obsessed with finding his own sun, his strange optimism is a light in the oppressive darkness. And by kindling the bonfires you keep the flames lit and the embers of hope alive. One by one, you vanquish the demons within and without. Then you push the door open and move on to the next until you find that final light at the end of this nightmare.
I don’t know if anyone else pays attention to the doors in Souls games. Before and after a boss fight, you often have to push a massive set of double doors open to enter the new area. In that moment, your character braces against these unnecessarily gigantic doors that make the Duomo of Milan’s gateway feel like the catflap to a demon portal. In that moment, with the entire fibre of your being, with the full strength of your will you push against that obstacle to traverse the fog and face your foe.
Ask a friend who’s dealing with depression how hard it seems to open a simple door.
Only they know what demons lie at the other end.
If you suffer from depression or if you know a friend who is, I urge to talk to them. And if you’re facing this demon, talk to someone. You are not alone. Like in Dark Souls, there are friendly beings willing to lend a hand to recover their own humanity and yours. Solaire may be mocked for his optimism, but you can find your own sun and emerge un-hollowed. So find a friend and engage in jolly cooperation! Kindle the bonfires, steel yourself and brace against that demonic door with all your might. And out of determination, stubbornness or sheer spite you will open it and defeat the demon beyond.
Praise the sun!