10 Years Later, the Most Controversial FromSoft Game Still Hasn’t Left My Mind

Don’t you dare go Hollow.

screenshot from Dark Souls 2
From Software

I didn’t get Dark Souls at first. After hearing buzz about this punishing, inscrutable game geared toward real sickos, I decided I needed to get in on it. But when I found my only choices were to spend entire days getting sliced to slivers by the skeletal bastards in the graveyard or meeting a similar fate fighting different bastards upstairs, I gave up. I didn’t see any reason to play this punishing game.

Then Dark Souls II came out. I figured it might be a bit more approachable and picked it up on its release date, March 11, 2014. While it turned out to be just as inhospitable as its predecessor, something was different. I fell in love with it.

From Software

Part of that is because Dark Souls II came at the best possible time for me, by which I mean one of the worst times of my life. I had just finished grad school, some time after realizing that going to grad school at all had been a tremendous waste of my time. My mental health can be fragile at the best of times, but this was a period of being truly lost, without the money for therapy or medication, when I was still in the throes of what I wouldn’t recognize for years was some extremely painful gender dysphoria.

It was a time when I felt like everything I needed to do to get better was just too difficult for me to even attempt. And along came a game all about the value in attempting seemingly impossible things. Dark Souls II starts with a cinematic that I still find equally beautiful and haunting.

“Your past. Your future. Your very light. None will have meaning, and you won’t even care. By then, you’ll be something other than human.”

From Software

The voice that speaks these words in the intro is describing Hollowing, the process by which cursed humans turn into soulless husks in the Dark Souls mythos. The player character is one of these cursed individuals, destined to forget their life and their very identity as they turn into a monster. But despite these words being about a fictional condition of the game’s setting, they seemed eerily close to how I was feeling.

Chronic depression is more than just being sad. It makes it hard to imagine a future not clouded by its own presence, and saps your motivation to get better. In many cases, including mine, it can cause memory loss and a pervasive sense of disconnection from reality. In other words, I felt that I had lost my past, my future, my light, and become something other than human.

Just a few minutes after this introduction, you find yourself in a cabin with its narrator, one of a trio of old crones. They mock you openly, taunting the fact that you’re set to become a Hollow and teasing that, “You’ll lose your souls. All of them. Over and over again.”

Finally, something clicked. The Dark Souls series isn’t about making you feel weak, it’s about making you feel strong. By putting up a seemingly insurmountable challenge, it dares you to push past defeat in order to claim victory. You’ll lose your Souls over and over. But to do that, you need to keep trying. By beating Dark Souls II, I proved to myself that I could keep trying, and that doing things that seem impossible was an effective way to show myself that I wasn’t helpless after all.

From Software

I don’t want to overstate the effect. At the end of the day, no video game is going to solve life’s problems. But by embodying a person doomed to go Hollow and fighting my way to freedom, I felt a charge that I hadn’t in a long time, and that bled into my real life, too.

Dark Souls II feels like the most personal journey of the series. Where the first and third games are concerned more with the world’s metaphysics and the echoing events surrounding its mystical First Flame, Dark Souls II follows one person on a desperate quest to escape the Hollowing.

That’s reflected even in its world design, which was widely derided after the game’s release. Its map is infamously nonsensical, and its detractors especially point to a part in the game where riding an elevator up from the top of a windmill somehow lands the player in a castle built into an active volcano. At the time, I took this for granted. It’s a video game, it doesn’t all need to be logical. But as Waypoint’s Austin Walker, among others, has suggested, it’s also an expression of the game’s themes of decay and fallen kingdoms. To my mind, it also seems a lot like the disorientation of a depressive episode, when you can never quite remember how you got to where you are right now, or what you did just before.

From Software

And, in the middle of this game about futility and confusion, sits Majula. Where Dark Souls had it Firelink Shrine full of despondent wanderers, Dark Souls II has Majula, a village next to the sea constantly bathed in light. Like most of the game’s world, it’s in a state of utter disrepair, populated by outcasts. The only intact home left has a bloodthirsty skeleton in the basement. It’s not ideal. But it’s where the last people trying to make life work in this broken world congregate. Some have surrendered entirely, others try to help you the best they can, most are just bent on selling goods for some spare Souls.

Against the rest of the world’s bleakness, Majula is an oasis. I still think of it from time to time, the warm yellow glow of the setting Sun covering the town as waves lap on the shore. I spent an awful lot of time in Majula just staring out at the ocean with the Emerald Herald (the game’s most important NPC) and feeling a sense of peace. For all the countless defeats and hard-fought victories that make up the game, when I think of Dark Souls II, I still think first of Majula — a reminder that there are still things worth fighting for in a ruined world.

Dark Souls II is available on PC, PlayStation, and Xbox.

Related Tags