Lighting the Bonfire: ‘Dark Souls’ as an Allegory for Depression

Dark Souls

When I first came up with the idea for this article, I was determined that it would be my best work yet. I wanted to be able to tell a story so clear that no questions could be asked, that there could be no doubt in anyone’s mind what I was saying—and that was probably my first mistake. Because when it comes to mental illness and the processes inside people’s minds, there is no real way to simplify what that feels like. There also isn’t a catch-all description that fits everyone’s experiences.

I want there to be.

While working on this article, I thought about what it would be like to have someone who felt the same way that I did and being able to connect with them, only to be paralyzed by a rush of fear. Maybe it was all in my head and maybe my arguments would only sound like a ridiculous jumble of words to anyone who read them. As much fun as video games can be, depression is never a topic that they’ve been able to tackle well.

I can’t say that I blame them. Look at this article that is meant to be centered around depression. It is a mess and I’m only at the fourth paragraph. The problem with depression and video games is that it’s not something that’s fun. Depression also isn’t something that can be conquered as simply as one would complete a level, so it almost feels like that—in order to properly create those depressive feelings—some of the fun must be sacrificed and replaced with something else. Depression as a mental illness is one that is both widespread and consistently underestimated. It is rooted in common feelings that most people experience and because of that, people will equate their brushes with sadness or a single episode of depression with what depression is for other people as well.

So when I say that Dark Souls is the most brilliant allegory for depression that I’ve ever seen in the gaming world, some of you will disagree and you are welcome to.

To play Dark Souls is to live in a constant state of failure. My first attempt at the game had me rage quitting and it was only on my third try that I really felt like I was getting a handle on the game. Your only options are to try, die, and then try again. My character was a cleric and I hoped that she would be able to be a light in the darkness, but the further I went into the game, the more I found myself being weighed down by it.

I was in Blighttown, a sprawling maze of wooden platforms precariously placed above an underground swamp, when I realized that there was an oppressive heaviness to the area that weighed down on me. It was in Blighttown that I came to a sudden realization that the uncomfortable feeling in the back of my mind was this niggling thought that I would not be able to save everyone—or even myself. I had set out on this journey with a lofty and ambitious goal, but here I was down in the dark abyss with poison sapping my strength and mutated monstrosities seeking to tear out my heart.

I was little more than a small piece of the puzzle, useless in the grand scheme of things while there were other chosen undead who could fulfill the prophecy as well as I. You see their ghosts sometimes in the game and you know that they are pushing forward like you are. They are going through the same motions, meeting the same people, and even if the NPCs that you meet are generally unhelpful, there are one or two who will help you. But did they help all the others, too?

I am the chosen undead, but I’m not the only one who could be that chosen undead, and that makes me both special and nothing in the grand scheme of things.

Dark Souls

To fight your way through the Dark Souls world is to be alone. The world is crawling with people, but it is difficult for you to interact with them. The rest are hostile or strange to the point of making a person uncomfortable. All of those people and all of those ghosts that you see have the same struggle and the same path as you. You would think that means you would have many traveling companions, and perhaps you do without realizing it, but that does not do anything to lessen that feeling of isolation.

There are many people who are suffering from the same illness, and yet it is easy to feel like you’re alone and that there is no one suffering these trials with you. While there are small interludes where you may be around other people and you can summon NPCs and players to help you in boss battles, you are alone as you wander through the darkness. The world becomes more strange and more hostile the further you wander away from your starting point, and I started to take my failures in the game as an inevitability. Of course I was going to die. Of course I was going to fail. All I could do when I inevitably failed was to try to retrace my steps and pick up the pieces as best I could.

Dying is not permanent in the Dark Souls universe. You are an Undead. You are dead in every sense of the world, but you’re still walking around, and you still retain some of your humanity. Even though you are dead and the living world—not knowing how to handle your illness—has shunned you, there is still a wide world for you to explore. You have been isolated so you can’t drag others down into undead status with you and all you can do is try to move forward in your quest.

As the game progressed, I became used to the cycle of dying and reviving. That is the nature of the undead: to keep dying until you’re hollowed out. When you go Hollow, every part of you is gone and you have no humanity left. Only when you have nothing left to give are you allowed to die completely.

I found myself thinking about this as I played the game. How could people possibly manage to survive in this world? The world is empty of noise, often quiet and without background music. The large environments are expansive, but crumbling and in a state of decay. Everyone who you talk to speaks slowly as if every word is being forcibly pulled from them and you are no different. You are as bad as any of them because you know the truth. It’s said right in the opening prologue of the game:

“But soon, the flames will fade, and only Dark will remain.

Even now, there are only embers, and man sees not light, but only endless nights.”

And I became afraid. Down in Blighttown, knowing that I still had so much further to go into the game, I began to despair. When faced by such an inevitability, I wanted to run away. The game felt like a wasteland of pain and suffering, and to keep going was madness. This is where Dark Souls shines, where Lordran comes alive, and where you realize that if one wanders the wastes long enough, there will be a way out.

Dark Souls

In Dark Souls, you are fighting against the darkness around you, but also the shadows within yourself. The questions come and then keep coming: am I good enough? Why should I keep going when there’s no point to this quest? Does anything I do matter?

But even as it takes away, Dark Souls tries to move you forward. Your quest is lofty and important even if it’s shared with other people. It is this quest to return light to the world that can give you purpose. That’s how people survive in Lordran, and it is their only true protection from going hollow. A purpose can help to make a person strong, to buffer them against the debilitating effects of the darkness, and when they lose that purpose, that is when people truly go hollow. 

So find your purpose, arm yourself with hope, and step out into the world ready to praise the sun. And one day, if the gods are kind, you too shall have the chance to be as grossly incandescent as the sun itself.

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4 Comments on “Lighting the Bonfire: ‘Dark Souls’ as an Allegory for Depression

  1. Amazing post. It never ceases to amaze me how much of a mirror games can be for so many mental illnesses.

    Like

  2. Ran into this article by happenstance. A great read and very true to me at least. I’ve dealt with depression for longer than I care to imagine. As such and putting over 4000 hours, yes four thousand, into it. I’ve grown as a person from it and as a gamer. Blighttown is that turning point, or great reckoning, that your life is hard and is only going to get harder.

    Same as where you come to the same realization in real life. I look at life like I do dark souls. I’ll step foward , get knocked back and step foward again. Over and over.

    Like

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