Imagine: you’ve spent the better portion of your afternoon exploring a darkened catacomb, lit only by the fire of your torch. Scimitar-wielding skeletons leap out at you from the darkness while ghostly skulls scream at you from above, attracting the attention of monstrous, horned demons that begin to enclose upon you from every angle.
Somehow, you deftly dodge their attacks and put them down in turn, one by one. You’ve been here before. This time, you were prepared. Having felled your enemies, you are able to turn down a corridor that, last time, stopped you a few inches short. What seems like an insignificant number of steps forward feels to you like a massive personal achievement — until you step on a trap and find yourself impaled. You’ve died. You lose everything you’ve gained in an instant. You are sent back to where you started, having to do it all over again.
Because the third game in the trilogy was recently released, it seems an apt time to reflect on what this series has meant to so many. Sure, the Dark Souls series is a well-crafted trilogy of action RPGs set in a gothic fantasy landscape, with a compelling narrative and a unique delivery method for imparting in-game lore, well known for its brutal and unforgiving difficulty. But is this really what has made the game so popular? What is it about this series that has resonated with so many?
The player’s character in Dark Souls III is, as the game identifies, an “Undead”: an unfortunate being that finds themselves bearing the curse of the “Dark Sign.” The curse grants immortality, but at the cost of your sanity. Your character can never stay dead. They are always returned to a bonfire, where they are doomed to repeat their Sisyphean ordeal over and over again, until eventually they die one too many times and it takes its toll on their mind. Those that have tried and failed one too many times are referred to as having gone “hollow.” The Undead are drawn to various locations in the series, usually by the false promise that in completing the quest given, the curse can be broken.
And that is where the Dark Souls series is less about any of the compelling lore, or immersive fantasy backdrop. What makes the series so interesting is the personal story it tells. And that story is yours. In playing the game, it implicitly asks you a very personal question: why go on? Why do you do this to yourself? You know the world is a brutal and unforgiving place, you will die many times, failure is assured, and you will lose everything, over, and over, and over again. So why do you press on in the face of overwhelming despair?
For anyone who knows depression, these questions will seem very familiar. In fact, the world of Dark Souls III itself probably feels very familiar. It is a world that is not just indifferent to you, but actively hostile to your existence. The feelings of loss, suffering, and being endlessly trapped in a cycle without hope are the quintessential symptoms of the condition. Not everyone may awake each morning aware of the curse of the Dark Sign, knowing they must defeat towering enemies with little hope of success or reprieve, but to those suffering from mental illness, this is what facing the day can feel like. The “hollowed” are a constant reminder of this: shambling zombies that merely go through the motions, having been left as walking husks from their inner torment.
Often, from the perspective of a person dealing with emotional suffering, just giving up seems like the best available option. The Souls games are littered with non-player characters that have done just that. They give voice to those that have given up, expressing the utter hopelessness that characterizes the bullying voices in our heads. My personal favourite, Saulden the Crestfallen, is a prime example. He has lost everything, his family and friends, and just like you, set off on the quest to break the curse, only to realize how fruitless the endeavour is when he grasped the sheer magnitude of the task.
Saulden has given up, and he reminds the player character of this often: “What we call the curse is traceable to the soul. Do you see what that means? To be alive … to walk this Earth … That’s the real curse right there.”
Saulden understands that the origin of the curse of the Undead springs from the very thing that makes life possible in the Souls games: the soul itself. The curse and life are interwoven; they are inseparable. And so it is in facing existential depression. It is a consequence of the nature of being. So we ask ourselves, why? Why do we keep going? What is your reason? Why persist? Saulden has given his answer. But Dark Souls implicitly asks these questions of its players. What motivates you to keep playing? I can’t answer that for you; it would defeat the purpose. For me, it’s the knowledge that I haven’t seen everything yet. That what comes next might surprise me, despite what the affliction tries to convince me of otherwise.