I trudged through filthy waist-deep water. Giant rats boiled from the grimy walls and burst out of barrels; each sudden encounter diminished my dwindling health. I stumbled blind, step by step getting further from the sun, further from safety. I was too far from my last bonfire, there had to be another one around here soon. A place to rest. Instead, I fell down a hole, crashing into a deeper layer of the sewer surrounded by giant frogs who farted on me until I died.
A noble end to a noble hero.
I reloaded at the last bonfire with miles of progress between me and all the souls I’d accumulated. Perhaps worst of all, I only had half of my health bar. I don’t know what those frogs were eating down there, but their gas cursed me to fight back through that sewer all over again with half the strength I’d had the first time. At this point, I thought maybe Dark Souls wasn’t the game for me, quit the game, and walked away.
I am not that much of a coward, I’m only afraid of two things:
I’m afraid, constantly. This means never quite being able to relax. I’m on edge all the time. Even when I’m supposed to be resting my brain spins out, conjuring horrific what-if scenarios. What if a spider scuttled across my barefoot right now? What if there’s someone behind me, holding their breath as they discreetly sharpen their slitting knife? What if my upstairs neighbor falls asleep on their oily rag collection with a lit cigarette in their hands? Because of a combination of Asperger’s syndrome and a mild anxiety disorder, I’ve always been nervous about everything. Just going outside to meet up with friends can be a terrifying ordeal. My brain translates every group of people into a potential threat, every voice into someone looking for a fight. Every laugh is directed at me for reasons I don’t understand.
I’ve worked on this before, translating my fear into the stories I write. I don’t know if my fear of everything makes me a better horror writer, but I do know that it’s actually easier for me to write a horror story than it is for me to experience one. Especially when it comes to games. When you’re writing a horror story, you’re in control and have power over the nightmares inside. Horror games, on the other hand, can keep springing jump-scares on you until your nerves burn themselves out.
They don’t even need to be jump-scares either. Resident Evil was the first true horror game I ever played and it scared me so badly I couldn’t even get past the first zombie. You stumble across him, munching on a dead body and are forced to watch as he turns slowly towards you — gaping eyes, mouth dripping with blood. I saw that, forgot how to breathe, and switched the system off, never to play the game again. It gave me nightmares for weeks.
This was years ago, but even though I’m an adult now, I’m still ridiculously easy to startle. Even in my favorite game, the outwardly tame Skyrim, I panic at the sight of those photo-realistic giant spiders the game throws at you every few dungeons. In one case, Skyrim literally launches them at the camera as you fall helplessly down a waterfall. The first time that happened, I almost needed a change of pants. The second time, I tried to prepare myself for the spiders by getting as drunk as possible, but the sight of those hairy, wiggling legs dropping on top of me sobered me up so fast I could have landed a space shuttle. At least, that is, if I weren’t so afraid of heights.
So you could maybe see how Dark Souls isn’t the game you’d choose if you were me. It wears its ghoulish and haunting atmosphere right on its blood-flecked sleeve, but it didn’t earn its reputation as a great game for its horror elements alone. If it had, I may have left it alone. But I first heard of it due to its fan-rivalry with Skyrim, a game which — grotesque giant spiders aside — I still love. I wanted to see how the other side lived, or died, in this case.
Dark Souls drew me in right away. The level design is superlative. Every area seems to loop back around on itself in a way that rewards exploration. It withholds specific details about its story, leaving you hungry for more lore. The combat is fluid and intuitive, with a plethora of weapons and fighting styles to choose from. It’s challenging, but there’s something transcendent about beating a tough boss or a tricky area, a combination of relief, triumph, and empowerment that makes all the struggle worth it.
Plus, you get internet bragging rights if you beat the game. As a massive coward, the internet is the only place I can feel safe enough to brag.
After beating the first few bosses, I could see myself really coming to love the game. At least until I hit that sewer level and got half my health farted away. It just seemed like such an insurmountable challenge. The oppressive atmosphere the game worked so hard to cultivate got to me in a big way.
It didn’t help that during my first playthrough I was recovering from a massive anxiety attack caused by my job. I worked at the front desk of a hospital ward and it seemed like every day I was dealing with furious and desperate people I had no actual power to help. I’d had one rude and abusive comment too many and my brain just folded completely.
As much as I was coming to love Dark Souls, it wasn’t a good fit for my life at the time. I was taking tiny, baby steps into an oppressive world with monsters around every corner already — I didn’t need to be playing a game where this was the case as well.
So I shelved it, and like the first Resident Evil game, I decided it wasn’t for me.
A year later I was browsing around the internet, as I’m often prone to do, and I discovered a Let’s Play of Dark Souls by someone who knew what they were doing. With a degree of separation between me and the controller, I thought I’d watch it at least until they got to the sewer to see how they handled it.
Turns out there’s a merchant who hangs around near the entrance to the sewer who sells the cure for the frog-curse. I’d been so panicked and desperate to get through the sewer that I hadn’t bothered to fully explore the area around me. If I’d only looked around just a tiny bit more, I’d have found a way to solve the problem in front of me.
So I wrote off my previous save file as a dry run and started a new playthrough. This time I was prepared. I knew where the enemies were hiding and if I got stuck again, I promised myself I’d at least look around for a solution before hiding from the game again. Everything was going great — at least until I got back to that sewer. Something about being alone, miles from the sun, set my heart racing again but I refused to let my fear control me this time. With renewed clarity, I saw the hole I’d fallen into a year ago. With new-found courage I resolved to leap across it. But with fumbling, idiot fingers I missed the jump and blundered into it again, splashing down into that nest of intestinally-distressed frogs.
There was a temptation, an almost irresistible temptation, to panic. To start flailing at the controls, overcome with dread. But I’d already been down that road. This time I took a deep breath and forced myself to calm down. Even if I got cursed again, I knew where to find a cure now. That simple fact made it easier to focus on what my flatulent opponents were doing. Turns out you can roll out of the poison clouds and kill the frogs in a few hits. I fought my way back up to where I’d fallen and found a door I hadn’t checked before. There it was: the bonfire I’d been searching for last year. I was safe.
Safe, of course, until I had to fight a bus-sized monster made entirely of teeth. But even he wasn’t invincible. He could be beaten. I only got eaten a few dozen times before I sent him the way of the frogs and I conquered the sewer level.Dark Souls doesn’t pull any punches. Enemies will leap, screaming from the shadows, and bosses will smash you into paste over and over again. But death is how you learn the game. When you die, you’re restored back at the last bonfire, disappointed but unharmed, equipped with fresh understanding. You can be killed, but you can’t be stopped, and there’s always a way through the game’s obstacles if you just look around a little. In fact, the only way to “lose” the game is to give up on it — like I foolishly did a year ago.
In a weird way, Dark Souls trained me not to let my fears take me down. I learned to look around for other ways out if I was stuck. I applied that skill to life outside the game. Despite being afraid, I started looking for other jobs and was even able to swallow my fears and go for an interview. Much like the fart-frogs and the tooth dragon, the interview could also be defeated. I got the job.
Conquering Dark Souls didn’t make my fears go away. They’re still there, attempting to block my progress through life. But I have learned that there is always a way through that fear. There’s light on the other side of the darkness, and overcoming fear can make you feel pretty damn badass.
I found a key on the tooth monster’s body. It opens up a door deeper in the sewer to a place called Blighttown. I haven’t explored it yet. I’m saving that for another day, but it can’t be as bad as the sewers right? Right? Right. I’m ready.