Thursday, 12 June 2014

Dark Souls, Depression and Me

I thought I knew what I was going to want to say about Dark Souls before I started playing it. I knew it started in an asylum, usually coded in games and other media as a place of incarceration for the mad, and it centred around a concept of undeath as a meaningless and hollow existence of repetition without humanity. I had heard fans talk about it as a bleak world in which you struggle against madness, that this was coded as a descent, and I assumed that I would be writing about damaging representations of mental illness, of stigmatising depictions of the mad as violent, worthless and degraded. There is still, possibly, that article to be written, but having played it for some 25 hours by now that isn't the article I want to write. Dark Souls is a strange, elegiac game that borrows from the structure of RPGs but isn't one. It is slippery and gossamer, and it represents without representing. It is beloved of people I know to be depressed and I think I now know why.

The weirdest thing is how nothing changes. Even when you kill a boss the world just gets emptier. The rush of a major victory, a completed project, is swiftly swallowed by the continuation of life's grinding work and daily battles. Worse, it can never be revisited, either for the joy of a challenge or to test oneself again if the battle is felt to have been unfairly won.

I talked before about how I play role-playing games when depressed to experience the feeling of change; to know that change is both possible and meaningful even in some abstract sense. Dark Souls denies this bodily. There are changes happening within the world as you play - small subplots that play out around you and helpful souls who can be gathered around the Firelink Shrine, but it is thin and these people all seem as tired and despondent as you. They know that their actions too can only destroy, that they exist in a world centred on your own self destructive impulses and that all that they can do is watch and help and leave you to it. Their attempts to do more are what left them hurt, trapped and afraid, lost somewhere in the maze of your psychodrama; their release yours alone to grant them.

I'm on citalopram right now, which means that my lows are of a different quality to those I might have unmedicated. I am also in a low, or have been for the last week or so. Taken together this means that my motivation and concentration is completely shot, but at least I'm not having to deal with self-loathing and intrusive thoughts in any great respect. In this situation a good mechanical grind of a game is exactly what I need which is probably why I've been playing Dark Souls every night this week whilst for the month before it was much more on and off. But it is difficult to tell if the emotional distance of the game is inherent or a product of my medication.

I think that it is inherent to the game. The weirdest thing is how nothing changes. Even as you accrue rare weapons and pick up pre-placed item-drops the world just gets emptier. A corpse you looted reverts from a glowing beacon of promise to a dull reminder that what you got was probably not what you wanted anyway.
Hollow
Hollow and hardy.

I have been playing the game primarily internally. I found myself rereading Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman and will probably reread Robert Rankin's Sprout Mask Replica trilogy too as a supplement to my internal life with the game. I think I look more interesting, more embodied in myself, when I am hollow than when I am human. But there is nothing in the text to support this, beyond the mechanic of struggle. Humanity is a face, a front. It is something that must be maintained against all odds, that can be lost with a single mistake and is ultimately worthless for anything other than material gain. I find it better to embrace hollowness, to be at one with the world and not fight it. To allow my mistakes, the lows which I know that I will always have, to be themselves rather than the thing that destroys my careful house of cards, my constructed 'normal' life, my fa├žade of sanity. "Because the best shield is to accept the pain, Then what can really destroy me?".
Still human after all these years
A pretence at being real.

For all of this, I don't really know anything about myself, or rather my character, in this world. It is strange, pertinent maybe, that I am referring to my character as myself as this is something I usually never do with RPGs. With RPGs I play characters and I make decisions based on what they would do, not me. I started with this in mind whilst on the Dark Souls character select screen but the brutal lack of choice coupled with the continuity of experience implied by the death mechanic has eroded any distance between my own and my character's point of view. We are contiguous in what we see and what we feel. We explore this world together and at the same pace - she is not a distinct being, able to benefit in her final form from my knowledge as a player and my manipulation of her timestream through judicious save states and cancelled futures. Where I fail she fails, and where she picks herself up again I must do the same.

And of course, the weirdest thing is how nothing changes. The same enemies patrol in the same patterns as ever. The joy of a new face, of a different experience is subjugated, it is singular and can be used up and when it is the world just gets emptier. The world gets wider, and one day it will be an experience that is completed, its limit reached in both time and space, but at its core is loss.

In this way, it is like life.

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(I would like to point to the article by Line Hollis in issue 1 of the Arcade Review as a brilliant piece of writing that explores some similar themes.)

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