Suffering: The Hero’s Journey, and Depression

I recently stumbled upon an intriguing and paradoxical claim: a brutally, punishingly hard video game series called Dark Souls was helping people navigate their lowest, most vulnerable and painful moments in life. As a clinician I felt compelled to explore this further and after testing (read: throwing my controller out the window), I found the subtitle: Prepare to die, to be far from hyperbole.

Let us review some of the bright, happy images of the game:

Hauntingly beautiful and well crafted, no doubt, but hardly a paragon of joy and positive wellbeing. Suffice to say, I was initially perplexed. I was, of course missing the bigger picture, and the pieces I was missing can be found in Nietzsche, Jung, and Peterson.

What is Dark Souls? A game set in a post-apocalyptic world of pain suffering and death so morbid in nature it can only be trumped by the grim reality that you are meant to play and replay sections of the game over and over again until you master that particular area. The protagonist, if you can call him/her that, is tarnished with some form of Undead Curse which has plagued humanity, causing certain humans to continually resurrect upon death. The gameplay mechanic is actually quite simple, you explore this dark, gothic world full of undead human/creates, whose entire ambition is to kill you…again and again ad nauseum. If you die, and you will, you get sent back to an original point in the game and lose everything you have collected until that point. You have the small ray of hope that if you make it back to the point of death, and somehow survive, you may reclaim all which you lost. Likely, you will have to call your losses a write off. There is no save function in the traditional sense, your only hope is to make it from one checkpoint, to the next. You are forced to play again, and again, until you defeat your foes and progress to the next checkpoint, always marked by lighting a bonfire. During this panic, adrenaline fueled exploration you run into bosses, which apparently are evil incarnate and can kill you in one blow. Such bosses are not located in close proximity to a bonfire, meaning you must masterfully defeat all foes in your wake with such grace and panache you get to the boss with enough health to somehow survive for two minutes, before you are killed again.

The utter Nihilism, the deflation to your self-esteem and inability to progress do not seem to go hand in hand with people facing depression or an existential life crisis. But that was because I had the game all wrong. I was not thinking phenomenologically. It seems to me that the game was a metaphor for the Hero’s Journey, and by extension, life. Once you embraced that, the game suddenly made sense. Every defeat became a renewal of character, “Can I dust myself off, pick myself up, and do it again?” It was not Nihilism, it was mastery: “What lessons did I learn in face of apparently overwhelmingly prejudicial odds?” This change in cognition is practiced and preached as a matter of course during psychological intervention to aid individuals currently experiencing distorted cognition.

The truth of the matter is this: life is hard. It’s unfair, it’s cruel and it’s painful. These are truths outside of our control, we can choose to accept and embrace this, or we can drown in our ‘poor me’ victim of circumstance mentality. It does not matter how justified you are to feel victimised, or how real your trauma or life struggles are, at the end of the day, only you can decide how you experience this pain, and what you will do with those experiences. When I played Dark Souls and died within the first few minutes, I reset the game, this time equipping myself with the biggest shield I could find. Every single battle was anxiety provoking, I was terrified I would make a mistake and die. I would hide behind my shield and every now and then attack as quickly as I could, before retreating to my shield. I did not enjoy progressing through the game, it was a slog of anxiety fueled fear that I would die at any moment and have to start all over again. Then it occurred to me what I was doing: I was playing a bloody game and not enjoying myself. I was doing it to ‘win’ for no other purpose then to say I did it, I was not enjoying the experience of the journey itself. I dropped the shield, picked up the biggest sword/axe thing I could find, and I stopped holding back. It was liberating. I was confident, I was strong, I was fast, and crucially, I was better than I thought I could be. The game was trying to teach me this mechanic very early on. Sure, you have the safe option, you can hide behind your shield/mother/excuse/trauma/anxiety, or you can stand up for yourself, push yourself to experience that which terrifies you, and see what happens. Like in life, the risk is high, but the rewards? Often impossible to quantify.

Mechanically, dying in the game is a metaphor for failing in life. Serious failure and subsequent unpleasant consequences in life can create anxieties or traumatic memories, your brain thinks you experienced a near death experience or serious threat to survival, and is going to protect you against that happening again, even if it means making your life miserable with controlling behavior and distorted cognition. When you ‘die’ in game, you are not given the option to try again or give up, it automatically loads you back at the last fire, in which you stand up, and try again. You will face your fears, and you will beat them. In life, as in the game, your actions have very real consequences, if you screw up, you pay for it, often dearly. You can balance between risk and reward, but a gamble is never going to be risk free.

The heroes journey is a well-known trope and as a concept made popular once more by Jordan Peterson, but which has its origins within the works of Nietzsche and Jung. The notion describes a journey within each person represented as metaphors in mythology as a calling, requiring you to step out of your comfort zone and sometimes into the darkest most terrifying place you can imagine. One might initially, or permanently refuse this journey, but during some internal struggles find themselves facing their deepest fears and pushing themselves beyond their previously understood limits. Often this ability to dig deep can be prompted when the cause may seem greater than the individual. This journey often involves a metaphorical death of the perceived self, until one embraces a new self, based on integrating a darker, unconscious aspect of the personality which one attempts to suppress. In learning to integrate the conscious and unconscious, you become stronger, more fierce and ready for the journey. The journey often involves failure, and sometimes you need to hit rock bottom, the metaphorical death of the self, before you can rebuild to be your true, actualised self. Ingeniously, the Dark Souls games have integrated this sense of death into their game mechanic. When you die, you lose a part of yourself, you change fundamentally, never to be that person you were one bonfire ago. But with that loss and change comes strength, power, knowledge, and some really medieval looking weapons.

Once could further analyse the meaning of fire regarding knowledge and awareness, or various other archetypes and tropes, but this has been covered elsewhere. Instead I would like to end by leaving you some quotes by individuals who felt Dark Souls helped them with their depression and suicidal ideation:

“Dark Souls isn’t as grim and macabre as the marketing made it out to be…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.”
“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.’”
(Quotes taken from: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/4xav83/dont-go-hollow-how-dark-souls-is-defeating-depression)

To find such meaning and sense of purpose in a video game obsessed with darkness, evil and death is exactly what Nietzsche, Jung and Peterson have stated repeatedly about the phenomenology of internal struggles: it is through suffering and pain that we grow and thrive. On that journey, we will be faced with chaos and the dark part of the self, which is not to be ignored, it is to be integrated and conquered. This makes you fierce. Even if that ferocity means something as simple as getting out of the bed in the morning.