The Yoga of Dark Souls
Dark Souls was introduced and described to me, over and over again, as “the hardest game that you’ll ever play.” I saw gif after gif of a tiny player character being killed with one huge blow by an unseen monster, sitting somewhere off-screen. So many players would go on and on, laughing about how they spent hours replaying the same sequence. Everything that I had ever read about the game or seen online indicated to me that the game was pure masochism.
The game always intrigued me, still. It's not something totally outside of what I normally like. I often play games with swords and magic and monsters as opposed to games with guns. The dedicated fan base impressed me, too, and when I started to see more people talking about the lore of the game, I was even more curious about it. However, I wrote it off as something for only hard-core gamers, among whom I did not count myself.
I finally bought it when a friend described it as "Zelda for adults.”
It sat on my Steam library unplayed for couple months. I was still scared of it, believing that it wasn't worth the stress. I had too much schoolwork to do, and this game just seemed like extra work. I told my friend that I play games for fun, and he urged me to play, but told me that “fun” isn't the way to describe this type of game. Great.
Long story short, I ended up playing the game—but not without my buddy sitting next to me, prodding me to finally start it up and laughing derisively at every one of my inevitable missteps. The very first combat situation in the game sends you into a bossbattle, totally encumbered by your too-heavy armor and with only a broken sword in hand. The game teaches you right away that it will often present you with unbeatable obstacles, and the only recourse is often to change direction.
What’s interesting, though, is when the player outsmarts the very first boss level, suddenly the game feels very winnable. It’s not that it got any easier, really, but it does become less frustrating. By defining itself as a game of difficult and sometimes seemingly unbeatable challenges, the player understands that that’s what the game is asking you to accept, and promises that through persistence, it will always treat you with fairness.
When I say “fairness,” though, it’s important not to confuse that with “vindication,” or even “justice.” The fairness of Dark Souls comes from the players relationship with the game, one that is established early on.
Not a single enemy in the game is just fodder. Each enemy is difficult, and deserves your respect. Even the “hollows,” though in appearance and frequency similar to many video game minions, manage to pose a threat to a player who underestimates them. Sure, as the game moves forward, certain weapons or stat boosts allow the player to move through them more quickly, but with essentially finite HP after each death, a single landed blow could squander your ability to move forward. And that’s nobody’s fault but your own. The game demands to be played cautiously and defensively. It demands your attention. But in return, it give you gratification in knowing that you can only progress by playing well. In that, simple progress is truly gratifying. When this can be said about moving past simple "fodder" enemies, it shows just how delightful the game makes victory over a boss.
One of Dark Souls' better known attributes is its tendency to put a huge, seemingly impossible boss in front of a player and, with no hints or help, ask them to try and defeat it. Failure is inevitiable, but not because the boss is large and has high HP (although that certainly does help), but because the game forces the player to take the time to understand each opponent. Not unlike the "fodder" enemies, bosses telegraph their movements. If the player watches closely enough and takes the time to learn about their opponent, victory can be achieved through practice and patience.
That leads me to make a weird connection, but it's one I've stood by. I'd argue that Dark Souls is like yoga. In some ways like a morning sun salutation, and in others like a dedicated yogi's inversions and contortions. There is a certain zen in performing an action over and over again to the best of your abilities and then realizing all at once that you're markedly better than you were before. Maybe you just feel more smoothness and rhythm in your actions, like a daily yoga sequence performed to the rhythm of your breath that stretches muscles over time. Or maybe you achieve something that when you first tried, felt impossible like finding your center in crow pose and breathing naturally. There is the slow build of ability, and then often sudden flashes of achievement. The pain becomes pleasurable--stretching a muscle or dying again and again at the same enemy--because you know that through it you can have those flashes of achievement.
In all, I'm glad my friend prodded me to play. He's right, though, it's not a fun game necessarily. But yoga isn't fun. It's fulfilling.