Last time on WISP, I talked about a horrible game I found super traumatic. This time, I’d like to talk about a marvelous game I found somewhat less traumatic.
Why did I stop playing Dark Souls? I beat Lord Gwyn, that’s why. Here’s someone else doing the same thing, if you want to see what it looks like:
I was using a battle axe, but, you know. Same dif.
And anyway, that was the second time I quit playing Dark Souls. The first time was because I found the game overwhelming. Not like Overwatch overwhelming, but still. Let’s talk about some background.
That was the same year as Skyrim.
I remember my students being quite excited about Skyrim, but don’t recall a peep about Dark Souls. But since then, I’ve come to associate the two games rather strongly.
Both are action RPGs, like The Legend of Zelda: that is, they are RPGs in which combat is done in “real time.” You swing your sword by hitting a button, and you can move around while in combat.
Traditional RPGs, in contrast, take their cues from Dungeons & Dragons. They are turn-based, you select your actions from a menu, and you can’t maneuver your character around while fighting (which isn’t true in D&D).
“But what is an RPG?” you ask.
RPGs are role-playing games, like the aforementioned D&D. Translated into the world of video games, they focus on “character customization” and “character growth.” Mario only has two power-ups — the mushroom and the fire flower — and has both from the first level of the game.
In contrast, the character you play in an RPG gets more and more powerful as you go along. Instead of progress meaning “getting to the end of the level,” it’s character growth that counts.
Furthermore, you often have to make choices about which of the available skills or talents to improve (to “level up”) as you go along. Do you want your character to be faster or stronger, to be better at using a sword or a bow, to have more intelligence or more health?
Anyway, both Dark Souls and Skyrim are action RPGs. Ancient dragons are key to the lore of both games. In both, you fight skeletons and undead soldiers.
And in both, you start as a prisoner.
That, however, is where the similarities end. Skyrim‘s world is being invaded by dragons, and in the middle of a civil war between imperialists and white nationalists. But the world, along with its music, is beautiful. It is filled with bustling towns, friendly NPCs (non-player characters; the characters controlled by the computer), resources to gather, and wildlife to hunt.
It is also filled with bandits, dangerous giants, assassins trying to murder you, dragons trying to murder you, and all manner of other monsters. But you can always find an inn where you can sleep for the night, kids running around, shopkeepers complaining to you about their husbands, and so on. It’s a world where you could totally imagine settling down and raising a family and being deeply happy (except for the dragons).
The world of Dark Souls, in contrast, is the world of a horror story. It’s how Skyrim would have turned out had it been directed by Tim Burton. Zombie soldiers roam every inch of the countryside, not just the crypts. For most of the game, you are the only sane person in sight. You are desperately alone.
In spite of your sanity, the threat of insanity looms over you. In fact, you yourself spend most of the game as a zombie. You can unzombify yourself for short periods, but as soon as you die — which happens a lot — you immediately return to your horrible-looking zombie form.
The world of Dark Souls is a world of ruins. It has no bustling villages, no children, no families. It looks post-apocalyptic, with the threat of an even worse apocalypse on the horizon. It is a world without hope.
So, the world of Dark Souls is one of terror and despair. Instead of seeking to explain to you why I stopped playing it, therefore, I owe you an explanation of why I played it at all.
Why I Started Playing Dark Souls
If you ask gamers to name the most difficult video game, they will tell you: Super Meat Boy.
Or they’ll say Dark Souls.
That is, they’ll say those are the hardest games that are actually good.
Both Super Meat Boy and Dark Souls were released during my non-gaming years. So, when I started up again, they were the two scariest games that had become part of the universal gamer’s experience. If I wanted back in, I was going to need play them. And if I didn’t want them looming over me as my shame, I was going to have beat them both.
I’m proud to report that I have now done both. But I’ll talk about Super Meat Boy later. Once I’d started Dark Souls, furthermore, there was the added issue of the game’s horror. I had to beat it or it would haunt me; it would become a trauma because it had defeated me. So I needed to face my fear; beating it felt like a small part of being mentally healthy.
It helps, of course, that Dark Souls is a fantastic game. It has the best combat of any game I have ever played. To do well in the game, you have to “git gud” at it. This requires learning to not panic — which is good for developing the virtue of courage, learning to dodge, parry-and-riposte, and back stab; learning to pay attention to your stamina meter — since you can’t attack, dodge, or block if you have no stamina; learning when to use your weapon’s faster, light attack, slower heavy attack, and slowest jumping attack; learning when to kick away an enemy’s shield and when to two-hand your weapon; etc.
It’s a mix of strategy, timing, and “reading your opponent,” making the combat simultaneously cerebral and a matter of physical skill. And that is a lovely combination. It feels good to get good at something. Becoming awesomer feels awesome.
The Value of Skills
“Yes, but skills are morally neutral,” you might respond. “If they are going to have any value one way or another, they’re going to have to get it from what they are for. So, being good at murdering is bad. Being good at whistling is neutral. And being good at saving lives is good.”
If you said that, Kant would be proud. But I would have two questions. The first would be, “Why assume that skills are morally neutral? Why not think they are intrinsically good, and only lose that goodness when they are used for something bad?”
Consider Aristotle’s virtue ethics, which treats being good and doing well as the same thing. To be a good human, or horse, or tree, is to be good at doing human, horse, or tree things.
“But what about viruses, and cancer? Is it good for them to be good at doing virus things, and cancer things?”
Good point. In light of that objection, I think the fundamental assumption of Aristotle’s theory is that there are some things that it is worth being — some ways of living that are worth doing. The human way is one, the dog way is another, the flower way is a third. But the virus or cancer way of being isn’t.
Now consider my second question: “Even assuming that skills derive their value from the ends to which they are put, why assume that games — the end in question at the moment — are morally neutral (or even bad)? What if games are a key component of a good human life? What if they are one of the ways good people are supposed to spend their time?”
I think to be human is to be a game-player (among other things), and thus getting good at games is something worth doing. Consider athletes, for example, or chess masters. Is their pursuit any less noble than the musician’s, or painter’s?
I know, there are different types of games, and some are better than others — so being good at some will be better than being good at others. And it is likely that there are bad games, at which being good might be bad. (I say “might” rather than “would,” since it may be that the same skills might be key to playing good games well, and the bad game may simply be co-opting them for its own nefarious ends.)
“But even if we don’t look down on people who devote their lives to athletics, or music, or art, we still think there are more important vocations. A doctor, in saving lives, is more important than a chess master.”
Thus, we come to our ultimate point of disagreement. I think the job of the doctor gets its importance from the jobs of athletes, musicians, and artists. A doctor’s job is to save lives. But what makes saving lives worth doing is that lives are worth living. And what makes lives worth living — what makes a good life — are things like games, music, and art.
“You contradict yourself, Tillman. Earlier you said that skill is intrinsically good; it doesn’t need its end to be good in order to gain goodness — it just needs its end not to be bad. Now you’re saying that the skill of life-saving derives its goodness from the purpose to which it is put.”
And you make a good point. I clearly have a lot of thinking and theorizing left to do on this topic. But let’s not get distracted by your insightful objections. Let’s instead just all agree to agree with me. Is that too much to ask? No? Didn’t think so.
Anyway, my main point was that playing Dark Souls was worth doing at least in part because doing so meant getting good at a good game — and getting good at good games is good.