Playing ‘Dark Souls’: Desperate Acts and Our Shared Humanity

After five days trapped between an eight hundred pound boulder and a canyon wall, dying of extreme thirst and malnutrition, Aron Ralston amputated his own arm with a dull two inch pocket knife. Carrying out this impromptu surgery took time and tenacity. Ralston first broke his radius and ulna and then carved and chipped away at his tissue and tendons for about an hour before pulling himself free. Then, in a state of delirium, Ralston rappelled down a 65-foot wall and walked out of the canyon.

Since Ralston’s agonizing ordeal, he has become an inspirational speaker, and for good reason — it takes a uniquely strong person to survive the impossible. Yet according to Ralston, the exact opposite is true. You, yes, you, my humble reader, would chop off your own arm too if you had to. In fact, Ralston’s story is so compelling for this exact reason. It forces us to ask ourselves, would I be capable of such a seemingly inhuman feat? Could I really confront the pain and horror of self-amputation and survive? In his award nominated film 127 Hours, which is based on Ralston’s experience, Danny Boyle answers with a resounding yes. Boyle punctuates Ralston’s escape with a shot of ancient paintings on a canyon wall and a montage of people celebrating, running, swimming, and generally living. Instead of exalting Ralston, he places him within a long history of human accomplishment, a representative of the spirit that we each have to endure and overcome immense challenges. The film is a triumphant celebration of human tenacity.

Since their inception, the sensations of empowerment that games have evoked in their audience only slightly mirror the universal humanity depicted in Boyle’s work. How many millions of player have faced ostensibly insurmountable odds and overcome? How many of us have, at least, defeated the boss or safely navigated a level? Time and again, we have all become heroes. We certainly share that much in common. But too often our heroics are born of something entirely nonhuman. Our champions may possess innate powers, gifts from gods, talking swords, magical incantations, or numerous otherworldly endowments. Few video game characters represent very well both the frailty and fortitude of mankind evidenced in Ralston’s experience.

Of course, games generally do convey some sense of personal empowerment through our improvement as players. Games are inherently educational. Any game with a modicum of challenge demands commitment and patience. Over time, we become accustomed to play conditions, and so games push back, asking us to reach ever dizzying heights of success and failure. Staring at a puzzle in Portal, for example, could leave you dumbfounded. A few minutes of experimentation and a couple leaps of faith and suddenly you understand the solution, you have deconstructed a system and hold its contents in your mind. You earn a victory by exercising your mental faculties to overcome an intimidating challenge.

Yet the stakes remain low, not quite capturing the universality of Ralston’s actions. We can put ourselves in Ralston’s shoes, and if not enact the act of hacking away at bone and sinew, then at least contemplate the decision to commit such extreme acts: the self doubt that must come with horrifying decisions, the regret, and the stern resolve mustered to drive out a gnawing sense of hopelessness. Ralston’s story is special not because he overcomes an obstacle, which many of us do in minor ways every day, but because he overcomes such a harsh obstacle, under terrible circumstances, and at great cost. In order to evoke the feelings of such responses, games must plumb the depths that difficulty has to offer to tap into the universal humanity within extreme acts of desperation.

When playing Dark Souls, I am enveloped by a persistent sense of dread. I feel no comforting aura from the unseen developers, no guiding light to correct my path if I go astray. I am alone, scared, full of self-doubt, and not entirely sure I want to keep going. It is the closest that I have come to a pure sensation of futility and hopelessness in a game. Now, I can play games with the rest of ‘em, but I feel like a coward when I venture into the haunted ruins of Dark Souls. This is a game in which every misstep can prove fatal. Even the simplest enemies, the ones you have killed countless times, always remain life threatening. Bosses can fling you aside before you learn anything about their weaknesses. This is a game defined by its unwavering insistence on player commitment and patience. Chris Dahlen recently wrote an exquisite article on Dark Souls’s difficulty. His description of player responses to the game could easily describe a universal truth about mankind’s ability to overcome astonishing circumstances:

We tend to fixate on challenge because that’s how we cope with it: we try to measure it and gauge it, we wonder if we can handle it, and then we slowly prepare to confront it. We lower our expectations and, at the same time, raise our skills through practice, until finally the mountain that looked so high from the base seems kind of small and cozy once we’re at the top. (Chris Dahlen, “The Great Big Puzzle Box: A Close Look at Dark Souls’ Ingenious Difficulty as Witnessed by One Dead Guy in Sen’s Fortress”, Save the Robot, 2 January 2012)

Dark Souls offers a shared sense of the exaltation of human capacity in the face of despair. So playing Dark Souls is like chopping your own arm off? Well, yes. The game asks more of you than you would expect, and the act of giving in, of dedicating yourself to a struggle on the edge of futility, rewards you with a unique sensation of accomplishment and sacrifice.

Like Boyle’s work and Ralston’s biography, the game also represents our innate human ability to defeat immense challenges, even when alone and filled with self-doubt. The sword strikes and dodges that take out enemies and allow the player to avoid reprisal are your own feats of dexterity, but the warnings and messages carved into stone by other players connect your personal experience to a much larger shared experience. An inscription of “Good luck!” left by a player in passing reminds you that although you stand alone on the edge of your own journey others have faced the same uncertainty, made the same mistakes, and persevered. The warm glow of player created messages drives me on more than treasures. They illuminate a path of suffering, one I doubt that I can overcome. But then again, doubt is as human as bravery, fear as human as determination. To venture into Dark Souls, even for a moment, is to remind yourself of a universal truth: everyone has the capacity to transcend expectations, even you. Others have done it, and we are all human.