‘Dark Souls,’ Dark Money
How the video game represents financial hopelessness.
I’ll never forget the first time I played Dark Souls, a video game that is unapologetic about its extremely high difficulty and seemingly designed solely to troll and punish gamers. I felt confident because I’ve always been really good at video games, but after shamefully dying in the tutorial, I turned the game off. I quickly learned that, above all else, this game wasn’t fair. Oddly enough, I couldn’t stay away. As I hoarded the in-game currency I’d earned, I began thinking about how familiar it felt to my regular, sometimes desperate, freelance writing life, and how Dark Souls was a possibly accidental but definitely accurate portrayal of what it’s like to need, earn, and spend money.
Dark Souls proudly flaunts its difficulty in an age where people can Google quick and easy guides to any and all games. You can’t make Dark Souls easier or harder. The game’s default is an excruciatingly high challenge level and seeks to reward only those who can overcome its immense challenge.
Across the series, players explore demon-infested worlds with a character of their own creation, wandering from area to area with little to no direction from the game. You slay monsters, look for treasure and try not to die. You piece together a story through short descriptions and an intense attention to detail, and find allies to occupy your home base so they can sell you things and talk to you in a world where almost everything wants to kill you. And, of course, you look for money — lots and lots and lots of money — which in this game takes the form of “souls.” In the Dark Souls series, souls are usually gone as quickly as you get them, and are hell to earn back again.
In Dark Souls, there is really no easy way to make money. There are literally thousands of questions on gaming messages boards across the web about easy ways to acquire souls in the game. There are also thousands of answers, some meticulously, and mathematically broken down. Much like life, the well-thought out ways to get money often require immense amounts of investment before you see any profit. Others require significant self-discipline, like the kind that helps people not go crazy doing repetitive tasks at a job that they hate. So you can either go the mathematical route, and follow a strict path of going from point A to point B — with progression depending on completing each point in order — or you can grind and fight monsters that give you a small amount of souls, over and over again until it adds up.
The choice of route is all too real for many people. Nowadays, there are entry level jobs that require outrageous amounts of experience. There are the jobs that are easier to get but that chip away at the fire within you that makes you human and makes you want to live. In Dark Souls, players can use their hard-earned souls to buy items, weapons, and armor, spells and skills, or to boost their abilities. However, it is excruciatingly difficult to impossible to equally spend your money in all of those areas, unless you’re okay having a tiny amount of everything and not being really good at anything.
The ability to invest in yourself, buy what you want, and learn new things is hindered by the money you do or don’t have. I have yet to see a (relatively) young person who doesn’t come from a privileged background living a life with the traditional markers of success: graduated from college; lives independently; has a car; continues to invest in education outside of formal institutions (i.e. books, online classes, seminars, etc.); has the clothes, TV, video games, and decor they want; and travels or does fun things that people like to do. I’ve seen many people who have some, but never one who has been satisfied in all areas. Like in Dark Souls, characters either have great armor and weapons, or have great spells and stats, but never the full package.
It’s common for the game to become an obsession spurred by your own personal success in its world. Travelling a short distance in the game is an ordeal; if an enemy happens to get lucky and kill you, you lose all of the souls you’ve earned. All of your hard work goes right down the drain. You can get them back, of course, but you have only one opportunity and if you die before you get them they disappear forever.
You tell yourself to save your souls. But then you find a new area. You don’t know how tough the enemies are going to be. You know there are going to ambushes and you know there are going to be monsters hiding. Your souls are always at risk and you know that, so you decide to spend them. Except you skate through the next area without a problem and ended up spending your souls for nothing. So in the next area you decide to save them, only, you die right away.
We always fear that we’re running out of money. We call ourselves broke when we have enough money to pick up burrito bowls every other day at Chipotle. We spend money when we don’t have it and have money when we don’t need it. We allow ourselves to be influenced in how we save and how we spend. We save when people scare us. We spend when people scare us. We’re creatures ruled by fear, fear that we don’t have enough, that we’re lesser than others, and that we’re missing out on life. Ultimately, we end up the losers.
We may not be on a dangerous quest to save a doomed world, but Dark Souls feels like life. It feels like an impossibly difficult game that was made solely to hurt us, solely for us to lose. It reminds us how making money is never “easy,” how difficult it is to actually invest in ourselves, how sometimes life is just awful. But for every time we fall, and lose everything, there’s that glorious chance that we’ll succeed and defeat our foes and claim the prizes that we, battered and bruised, have worked so hard for.
Jayson Flores is Gay on a Budget’s founder & editor, an Aries/Taurus cusp, bigender, Latinx, vegan, femme person, and the biggest Buffy fan you know. They’re now writing for Bustle, PRIDE, and RESIST, and serving as an Assistant Editor and Columnist at The Rumpus. Passionate, deeply feeling, sometimes angry, mostly emotional. Follow them on Twitter @gayonabudget.