For centuries the general thinking was that the world was flat, but by late antiquity the world was commonly accepted as being spherical. Although it is a myth that Christopher Columbus proved that the world was round, it was much easier for seafaring cultures to conceptualize the earth as round, because they were able to measure and base their perceptions on additional observational evidence. And so it was for the next 1800 years or so we labored under this second delusion.
Two weeks ago the English version of the video game Dark Souls came out. I was one of the nearly 280,000 people who bought it the first week, and it has been growing in popularity ever since. The game is in many ways a traditional “dungeon crawl,” with the emphasis on the “crawl.” Your character dies in Dark Souls, a lot! The game is billed as “Probably the Second-Hardest Game You’ve Ever Played,” by Matt Peckham of PC World. I can attest to that.
The world of Dark Souls is one where the Flame that lights the world has almost vanished, and the player awakens to find themself as Hollow, or undead, in an asylum for the undead in the north of the world. Over the course of the game’s beginning, you fight your way through other groups of other undead, dragons, and demons in a quest that presumably has something to do with restoring the light and warmth to the world. I say presumably because the game offers few instructions, and emphasizes the experience of “throwness” in the game world.
You can save your progress at bonfires, and use the soul and humanity fragments you win from killing creatures to level up and restore yourself to a human being. However, each time you do that, the dungeon resets, and every single creature you killed returns to life, and I swear they learn from their experience of fighting with you. The game is not an MMO in a traditional sense, but you are connected to other players in some interesting ways. You can see their last moments of a fatal battle as their specters dance through your game, and if you are human, you can summon the spirit form of another random player into your world to help you fight.
This is a story about that. (Although all identities and locations are heavily disguised to protect privacy.)
I had been trapped in the Undead Burg for about a week. My pyromancer had been slowly leveling up but was very weak. I had a wooden shield and battered axe that I had scavenged off of one of the fallen undead. I had lit a second bonfire and managed to learn how to dodge the firebombs thrown by zombies as I tried to make my way to the Taurus Demon. But usually I ran out of life and health flasks before I got to him, and when I did he one-shotted me, and seemed little more than irritated by my chops or fireballs. What’s worse, there was this horrible Black Knight that kept ganking (slaughtering) me halfway there. I knew the Knight was guarding some nice treasure, but I could only get him down to half-health before I would be sent back to my bonfire, stripped of all the soul points I had accrued. My axe was getting battered, and was probably going to break at at any time.
I looted a scrap of humanity from a undead, and ran back to my bonfire. I offered it up to restore my human form, and when I did I noticed for the first time some glowing white runes written on the floor. I later discovered that these are summoning runes, which can only be seen when you are fully human. I clicked on the runes, and a few seconds later a warrior bathed in golden light appeared. Chibi was his name, and he was one of those transparent spirits summoned from another game somewhere to help me. We couldn’t speak or chat with each other, but he signaled his friendly intentions by hopping up and down and I by running around in circles.
Chibi was level 53, and I was level 8, so I followed him as he tore through groups of undead that had taken me hours to get a handle on. I was excited and emboldened by his prowess, but I still felt uneasy when I saw that he was actually making towards the Taurus Demon. As we ran by the tunnel that the Black Knight hides in, I had an idea. I stopped, and after a few minutes Chibi turned around and came back. I ran to the tunnel mouth and began hopping up and down vigorously. Chibi ran down the tunnel past me, and began attacking the Black Knight, while I hung back and hurled fireballs. Within a minute the Knight was down, and I looted a magic ring, and then with surprise the Black Knight’s Sword! Compared to my axe which did 40 points of damage, the magic sword did 200!
We continued on to the Taurus Demon, but since I wasn’t skilled enough yet to equip the new sword, the demon took a lot of damage from Chibi and then at about 25% health killed me again. This sent me back to my bonfire, and Chibi back to his own game. But I had a new sword to inspire me, and I was about to set out to level myself up to use it when my PS3 blinked that I had a message from Chibi. I hadn’t realized people could send each messages, and when I clicked on it I read, “Sorry. I killed it right after you died.” I wrote a message back saying, “No worries, killing that Black Knight was a great help.” I added Chibi as a friend on the network, and then realized I could open a chat window with him. We spent the next half hour chatting.
Chibi’s real name was Taylor, and he was an iron worker in Montana. Taylor was 36, and had just got a promotion at his factory which he was very proud of. He worked 12 hour shifts and came home and gamed. He did not tend to go out of the house other than that. Taylor lived by himself, and had moved from to Montana from Pittsburgh 4 years ago, when his girlfriend and their unborn child had been killed in a car crash. He had not talked for three of those years.
Taylor credited therapy with helping him recover from a depression that nearly took his life, and a grief I could not imagine. Although he did not credit playing video games as helping him, I asked him if he thought they might have. He said he didn’t know, he really couldn’t remember those years of his life. Rather he remembered them the way trauma survivors often remember things, as memories of facts with shards of feelings sticking out of them. He didn’t want to burden me with doing “work” and I told him not to worry about it. He asked me about my life and family, and was very open and accepting of my story which was very different than his.
By now it was midnight in Massachusetts, and although it was earlier in Montana, he had a morning shift at his factory. We logged off and I went to bed.
In the days that have followed I have leveled up my pyromancer to 25. I can handle the Black Knight’s Sword and sliced through that Taurus Demon and a Red Dragon to boot. I have moved from the Undead Burg to the Undead Parish, discovered bonfires and short-cuts, and somewhere along the line I have learned how to play Dark Souls. I occasional see the anonymous flickers of other players flash through my game, nameless imprints of their last battle in some game somewhere in the U.S., Japan, or the world. I have seen Taylor come online from time to time, and although I haven’t sent him a message I have no doubt that I will at some point.
As I talked with Taylor I imagined how my colleagues often thought about gamers. I wondered if they would have focussed on how many hours he played video games and his isolation rather than his resilience, helpfulness and initiative in Dark Souls. Would they focus on our focus on violent games or sword size? Or would they note the themes of repetition compulsion, our attempts at mastery, our playing out the endless cycles of life, death and rebirth?
The world is not round, it is hollow and full. It is not the one world we think we perceive, but hundred of overlapping worlds, layer upon layer of human struggles and stories, connected by time and feeling and, yes, technology. There is a world where therapists from New England live, where iron workers go to work in Montana every day and look forward, not back. There is a world where pyromancers run through abandoned cities and struggle to release a fire that will warm the world, where warriors grow stronger over time and adversity. And every once in a while, if you have an open mind and heart, light from one of these worlds bursts through, and warms the other.