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The Virtual Life: Embracing The Bad Times Through Dark Souls

by Javy Gwaltney on Jun 29, 2016 at 10:00 AM

In this week's The Virtual Life, I'm jabbering on about interactive escapist experiences and Dark Souls. And me, I guess.

I have a coffee shop close to my apartment called Caffeto. To get there, you go down two flights of stairs, walk a block, take a right, another right, walk two more blocks, take a left, and suddenly you've arrived. It’s a nice little place, adorned with paintings of pirate ships and ragged furniture, but the way there is filled with danger, mostly because it gives me time to think about things. Today, as I stepped past shattered and graffitied sidewalk, I found myself thinking about the old life and who I was before I moved to Minnesota in the winter to take this job.

And now, inevitably, my mind turns toward Lordran.

In the old life, my home was a townhouse. I lived with someone else. We had two pets. It was hot outside all year long and I could count on a single hand how many times in my life I’d seen snow that stuck to the ground.

I was a teacher. I was good at my job. I was also, like most teachers I knew, absolutely miserable because our employers couldn’t pay most of us enough to pay our bills, much less buy groceries or insurance. Every weekday I drove the one-hour commute there, taught some bored freshmen how to construct and critique arguments, drove back home, and spent the rest of the night playing games or binge-watching Netflix’s latest show.

Halfway through my second semester of teaching, I popped Dark Souls into the disc drive of my PS3. I had already played through the game before, understood its insistence on making you earn your victories through many, many failures. But I felt drawn to replaying through it for some reason, so I created a new character, and became hollow once more.

Lordran, the setting of Dark Souls, took a different shape this time. It was no longer just a spooky kingdom filled with all sorts of baddies that I had to get before they got me. Instead, it was an absolutely haunting place, a world of the dead and the damned, a realm of silence. I actually took the time to examine my surroundings. The algae green stone bridge guarded by the fiery Hellkite Dragon, the mountains of bloated blue corpses that lay at the bottom of New Londo Ruins. I witnessed a kingdom that had, perhaps in another age been one of great beauty and wonder, fallen so short of its promise and sunken into ruin.

I saw the unhappiness of my life reflected back at me in fragments, being fed to me in bearable installments, and I was engaging with it in a battle doomed to fail because I was confronting that misery without actually confronting it. Instead, simulating confrontation through an interactive assemblage of fantasy archetypes. But that was important for me. It gave me strength to get to the good things that lay just around the bend: creating interactive fiction that people really dug, leaving teaching to write for the likes of Paste and Playboy, and eventually taking a job with Game Informer.

There’s this idea that has inadvertently or otherwise cropped up in criticism, not just games criticism, where escapist experiences aren’t important. They’re fluffy, dumb things that couldn’t possibly have any meaning or value outside of dumb thrills or passing entertainment, like how Michael Bay’s Transformers films are popcorn movies or how Call of Duty's run and gun formula is simple, "dumb" entertainment. There is an art to creating escapist experiences that’s often not observed or given its due respect. And beyond that, even games that you wouldn’t necessarily include in the pantheon of all-time greats can still have a profound effect on our lives. For example, my friend Phil Owen wrote a beautiful, devastating piece about how Danganronpa 2 helped him say goodbye to his dying father and deal with grief.

Danganronpa 2's subtitle is "Goodbye Despair." Its story is about holding onto hope through dark times. Our hero character is struggling to have faith that he and his friends will be able to persevere and survive through it all, as they fall one by one around him – this was obviously something I could relate to and draw strength from as I, severely depressed as I am on a good day, sat in that chair waiting for my dad to die.

Sometimes, as silly as it sounds, it’s easy to forget the human experience is not a universal one, and that we are all different entities constructed out of our own personal experiences and socio-economic circumstances. Each and every one of us prescribes different amounts of emotional and logical value to objects and experiences we come across in our lives. Someone might have some kind of deep moving emotional attachment to Watch Dogs, a game I truly despise, or Bubsy 3D. Unlikely? Sure. But it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. Besides, who am I, the guy who chose Tales From The Borderlands over The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt for his Game of the Year, to judge anyone on what they find meaning in?

Perhaps in the end it’s as simple as the right game at the right time, and for me in the fall of 2014, that game was Dark Souls because it allowed me to get away from my troubles without really getting away from them. Lordran is, to me, just as much my home as that little townhouse in the heart of Georgia was, filled with memories good and bad, and an essential part of my experience as a person, cracked and broken in more places than the human eye can see, but also housing pockets of light burning well into the neverending night.

What about you, reader? What games have gotten you through the hard times? Tell us about them in the comments section below.