Why is a game about despair so uplifting?
Image: From Software
Depression is horrifying.
For many, it feels like nothing, as if some unseen force has stripped away the sufferer's ability to feel. There is no joy or sadness, no pain or pleasure, just nothing. It feels as if you're going hollow.
Dark Souls fans know what that's like. The Japanese game developed by From Software and released by Bandai Namco in 2011 is a brutal exercise in trial and error. Players control the Chosen Undead, a hero fated to die over and over again as they make their way through a dying kingdom called Lordran, killing Lovecraftian monsters lurking in the dark.
One wrong move can mean a swift death, and when you die in Dark Souls, all the monsters you defeated return. Even worse, the Chosen Undead drops all their unspent experience points and loses a little of their humanity. In Dark Souls, this degenerative state is called being Hollow.
Strange then, that a growing community of gamers credits Dark Souls with helping them cope with depression. A few even say the brutal game saved their life. How can a five year old game famous for its depressing setting and brutal difficulty help people with mental illness?
Hamish Black—a 25 year old from Scotland—was on tour with a band when his depression got the better of him. "I tried to kill myself twice in one week," he told me. "It wasn't a good time for me at all."
Black had dealt with the symptoms of depression since adolescence, but it wasn't until his early 20s that the illness became unbearable. After his suicide attempts, he went home to get better.
"I was understandably under close supervision and I was just trying to recover," he explained. "I had a lot of time to focus on just trying to relax and decompress. That involved playing video games. And weirdly [that] involved playing what is largely considered one of the most stressful video games ever created."
Black played Dark Souls before but put it down after reaching one of the only safe areas in Lordran. "I always found myself getting to Firelink Shrine and then going towards the catacombs and getting my fucking arse handed to me."
But this time was different. "The situation I was in made it resonate with me," he said. "The first time I played [Dark Souls], it came across as this game that wallowed in death and the macabre. Just grim things that sucked the life out of everyone."
Black's suicide attempt changed the way he saw the game. "There's a recalibration that goes on in your head regarding life and death. That was my last suicide attempt because something triggered in my head that said, 'I want to fight this, I want to survive.''
Dark Souls is all about survival and perseverance. The game's marketing goes out of it's way to let players know how hard it is. A later re-release of the game is called Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition, which you will, a lot.
But every death is a lesson. Bosses that once seemed impossible become trivial after the Chosen Undead has died enough times to learn all their attack patterns. The maze-like wooden hellscape of Blighttown is daunting until the player dies enough times to have mapped its twists and turns.
"Dark Souls isn't as grim and macabre as the marketing made it out to be," Black explained. In fact, he came to think of the the game as a celebration of life. "The amount of times I died in the game became comical. It trivialized death. Death was no longer the thing that mattered. It's about living and persevering. Even if it's in this world that feels completely indifferent to your presence."
Black felt he'd found a game that understand what he was going through. He was like the Chosen Undead, surviving and thriving in a world indifferent to his presence. "Having a game reflect that idea to me was one of the biggest reasons I feel I've avoided a relapse," he said.
He's not the only one. The Dark Souls subreddit is an active community with new posts everyday. A popular topic of discussion is how the notorious game helped players deal with tough times. One player, Paul Delaney, shared his story three months ago.
"I've struggled quite a bit with depression and currently am going through a fairly rough patch," he wrote. "I can honestly say that I've found Dark Souls to be one of the most therapeutic games that I've ever played."
When I reached out to him through Reddit, Delaney told me he often thinks about what it is about Dark Souls specifically that's helped him.
"Depression can feel like you're in a bleak world that's ending," he said. "You get up and you have a choice. Do I try today or do I just duct tape tin foil over my windows and stay in bed all day? Waking up in the morning can be like waking up next to a bonfire after you've died in the game. You have to decide whether you go on or not."
Players make a decision every time they get their ass kicked by a boss or an environment in Dark Souls, Delaney said. Do they keep going, or are they going to never play again because it's too damn hard? To be more specific, he said Dark Souls helped him because it put me in situations that felt impossible.
"I can reflect on what I've been through in the game and I can tell myself, 'Hey, you beat Ornstein and Smough [the bosses in the game where many people quit]. If you can do that, you can get out of bed today and try to be a decent human being.'"
That idea of perseverance in the face of darkness was a recurring theme when I talked to Black and Delaney. It's cited in most of the depression related Dark Souls posts on Reddit. Controlling a fantasy character physically going through what you feel like you're going through mentally can be a great comfort.
Just as comforting, though, is the community. Black wrote out his thoughts and feelings about how Dark Souls helped him and posted it to you YouTube. He went online to see if anyone was reacting to his video and stumbled on a group of people who felt just like him.
"I've seen so many people talking about this game and how it changed their life. It's so reassuring," he told me. "It's beautiful in a way that I haven't experienced in a game community before."
"The community is as beneficial as the game itself," Delaney agreed. "No man is an island. It's a beautiful thing that this strange, bleak game can bring people together. I remember being pretty overwhelmed by the response to my Reddit posting. There were quite a few people who told me they could relate and I felt camaraderie with people I'd never met before."
Players go to Reddit and other message boards for tips beating bosses and to share their stories of triumph. When a player is having a tough time with the game, other gamers chime in with a familiar phrase—don't go hollow.
These anecdotes are heartening, but it's not just gamers who feel that video games can help in the treatment of mood disorders.
Sally Merry is the head of psychological medicine at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. She's spent the past few years researching video games and other interactive media as a treatment for mood disorders.
"Dark Souls sounds good," she told me when I asked her about the game. Merry is one of the few researchers in the world to study the effects of video games on depression. Youth suicide and depression rates are high in New Zealand and the government there often funds studies that might seem odd in other parts of the Western world.
Merry and her team created Sparx, a simple fantasy game that teaches players the basics of Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy that focuses on changing behaviors to improve mood.
Her study proved that Sparx, when combined with other forms of treatment, did no harm and in some cases actually helped out kids suffering from depression. "We're one of the few gamify programs [that applying game design to other types of activity] with evidence that it works," she said.
"There's heaps out there, but it's mostly not tested. In the back of my mind, an unanswered question is—Sparx works, so maybe playing games generally is good for mental health."
"We're just at the beginning," Merry explained. "There's a lot of unanswered questions." She was optimistic about Dark Souls, but the difficulty of the game worried her.
"I would wonder what happens with the people who might struggle, with actually doing it, and you might have the potential to do harm," Merry said. She also cautioned that games such as Dark Souls and Sparx are most helpful when combined with traditional therapy.
Black wants to see more research done as well and he agrees that the game works best when combined with other forms of therapy. He's using CBT to help manage his symptoms. But for Black, Delaney and many others the truth is clear—Dark Souls helped them reckon with their depression and the community gave them a safe place to share their experiences.
"The conversation is one of the most necessary things that has to happen before we can move forward in our understanding," Black explained "The fact that Dark Souls has enabled that conversation shows the power of art to teaching us something about the human condition. The interactivity of games, Dark Souls especially, contributes a great deal to that."