Destigmatizing Mental Illness: The Gritique* of Dark Souls



Image credited to Corowkei, CC BY-SA 4.0

In-game screenshot of the crisp twilight of Anor Londo.

Dark Souls is considered to be the most prolific video game of the 21st century. In the year 2011, FromSoftware, Inc. created an extremely innovative and aesthetical gameplay style, which, in turn, conveys the power of resilience to the player. Yielding bosses are fought and often considered to be assessments of both the acquired luck and skills of the player, culminating in their dedication to reach the final credits of another Dark Souls experience.

“Every soul has its dark, much like how The Chosen Undead himself can represent mental illness.”

Despite the driving motivation present, many people have indefinitely put away this wondrous game to seek solace after bashing their head against a brick wall from earning nothing in return. After all, why would one waste their time playing a game that does not reward them in the material plane? This acts as more than a reflection of oneself, but a subtle example of social Darwinism. Only the resilient shall survive and triumph in the end.

Dark Souls displays its world, Lordran, to be a decaying husk of its former self. The player character can view dozens of hollowed husks across the lands in between. Each and every one of them represents other players who have given up on their hopes and dreams throughout the many toils of Dark Souls.

Dark Souls is a complex masterpiece that goes on to show that interactive entertainment as a medium is more than a few pixels shaped to be a plumber jumping over reptiles. Dark Souls represents our lives; every event shapes us as people. The only question that remains is what can we endure until we go hollow?

The true difficulty of Dark Souls stems from the restrictions in PC (player character) motion. The PC moves rather slowly to a degree in which simply moving the d-pad (arrow pad) to control the former of the three main protagonists of the Dark Souls trilogy, The Chosen Undead, soon becomes a major inconvenience.

Director of Dark Souls, Hidetaka Miyazaki, developed the concept of movement restrictions to act as a barrier to success for the player. In an interview with a Japanese podcast, Miyazaki stated, “I’m a huge masochist, so when I make games like these… this is how I want to be treated!”

Difficulty is what makes Dark Souls an iconic franchise in the gaming industry. A big part of why the gameplay is quite unique is the fact that there is no way to fight back against the many pursuers in the game. As per usual in many horror games such as Dark Souls, you are constantly being chased by in-game enemies. This, in turn, builds tension and stress over time as the player attempts to solve puzzles in Dark Souls.

A great example of this tension is when the quinary antagonist of the Dark Souls trilogy, Yhorm The Giant, is fought in a clash that utilizes a newly introduced weapon as a gimmick upon which the fight is based. The opening cinematic of the game not only introduces the world, but also acts as an essential mechanism that allows the PC to teleport throughout the featured locations in Dark Souls through bonfires.

Perseverance is of the utmost importance in Dark Souls as it becomes blatantly apparent that the key to success is drive. Throughout Dark Souls, the player & the PC build power, which allows for exhausting tasks to be fulfilled. In essence, the growing hunger of the player results in the culmination of many aspects. Yet the true glory lies in the devouring of triumph and ecstasy. The PC realizes over time that if one were to put enough work into the game, clock enough hours into the world of Lordran, they will be rewarded benevolently, therefore we as a player base could take what’s rightfully ours.

Many people consider video games such as Dark Souls to be meaningless nowadays. Many consider them to be toys for children. In essence, they are a portal of power that transports the soul back to their childhood. These calming sensations are the reasons why many people appreciate the many arts of Dark Souls. Freshman Liam McQuade goes into detail as to why video games are experiencing a cultural rebirth in the 21st century.

“Mental illness has been a dominant issue among us adolescents. The Covid-19 pandemic, especially, has been a driving force for these feelings,” said McQuade. “One way that many others, including myself, have ‘escaped reality’ is through video games.”

McQuade brings up an interesting point in that it is human nature to avail our need to seek solace in our leisure. Video games are meant to be fun at their core, rarely does one ever strive to provoke insight on its audience.

I happen to be quite a fan of the Dark Souls games, and they can definitely be used as an escape from our world. One can figuratively transport themselves into the protagonist, The Chosen Undead, and view them as a reflection of who they really are. Every soul has its dark, much like how The Chosen Undead himself can represent mental illness, as shown when he cries walking along Anor Londo in the crisp twilight. This is a clear representation of how many people feel throughout their lives, especially due to current events. I remember finally beating Gwyn, Lord of Cinder. I was truly overjoyed to have overcome such an obstacle, and it gave me the motivation to confront my own obstacles in the real world. His [The Chosen Undead’s] greatest pal, Knight Solaire of Astora, even remarks on nihilism and how damaging one’s consciousness can be.

Solaire as a supporting character draws importance from the lessons that Dark Souls yearns to teach. It’s no surprise, then, that Solaire conveys the general simplicity of nihilism to the PC in terms of both his actions and dialogue. This character is considered to be a fan-favorite to the Dark Souls community. One notable member of said community is Charles White, a graduate student who studied human sciences who plays Dark Souls for fun. He is more popularly known as a Twitch streamer who goes by the username of “Cr1TiKaL” White studies Dark Souls critically to determine whether the allegories presented could be applied to the real world. Yet many doubt him as it is common for many people to view video games as only video games.

“Knight Solaire is sporting more armor than a battleship,” White said. “He could parry swords and block shields, but the only thing that can pierce this steel is sadness.”

No one is invincible, in life we are all faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges that pose a threat to our hopes and dreams. We live in a society that often alienates those who are not the same as everyone else. It’s okay not to be okay, that’s what we all need to understand. The key to creating a society in which there is no shame is to understand that we all have shame. Every single person will encounter their Gwyn in the course of their lives. The real question is whether we will go hollow, or surpass our expectations in triumphant valor.


*Gritique refers to a column of critiques by Giovanni Lombardi