I was going to make a top ten games of 2013 list. Then I sat down and thought for a bit about how the new generation of consoles is officially in swing, and started thinking about the past generation of gaming at large. It had so many ups and so many downs, like so many other things, and I started thinking about the ways that gaming has affected me, especially as a child.
I’ve been a gamer for a very long time. I started in late 1990, if my memory serves, on an NES that used to belong to my brother. I played more than enough of your mainstays: Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, Super Mario Bros. 3, Skate or Die 2, A Boy and His Blob, Zelda, The Adventure of Link, all that buisness. From an early age I identified myself as a “gamer,” and was proud of my growing collection. As time went on it became a crucial aspect of my identity, if not the most prevalent characteristic I was known by. It was more unusual to see me around my college campus with nothing in my hands than it was to see a PSP or some other handheld. I didn’t live in my parents’ basement or isolate myself, either. I was social. I went to parties. But I was still a nerd. That’s a common enough theme of this generation anyway, I suppose, but I’ve realized just how far beyond recreation gaming has come for me.
After all, it’s not uncommon to hear all the stories of escapism in art of various forms. Ancient stories told of heroes, things everyone aspired to be. Those heroes took the shape of characters in novels, and movies, and now games. So I decided, instead of making that list (I’ll do that later), I’d tell you instead about the game that I fairly recently realized meant the most to me. It did me the most good. It essentially saved my life.
A couple of years ago, things were going pretty well for me. I was Assistant Manager at a Gamestop, I played the saxophone in a ska band that had growing popularity, I practiced parkour, was moving into a charming house, and was approaching my graduation from college. I felt like I really defined myself in a small series of pillars: big gamer, writer, parkour enthusiast, and sax player. While I wouldn’t consider myself completely amazing at any one of those things, I was good enough at them to truly enjoy partaking in them, and even consider one of them a career path (hence, here I am writing).
And then it all changed. All at once. I was practicing some aerial stunts at a trampoline arena. Nothing crazy, pretty basic stuff, really. And one backflip went bad, I though I was going to land between two trampolines, on a small padded divider. “No problem,” I think, “I’ll just brace instead of bounce. No harm.” Well, I missed the pad by a few inches and didn’t bounce back. Instead, I forcibly removed both of my ankles from their sockets. It hurt rather a lot. I ended up in a wheelchair for the next several months. I had to go on disability from work, a nightmare in and of itself, and obviously couldn’t attend any shows or practice any more free running. I was able to convince some—but not all— of my professors to let me do most of my work from home. I was otherwise bedridden. I had lost a portion of myself in that accident. I had never before suffered such a grievous injury. Suddenly, one of the most basic tasks, walking, was out of reach. I could still move around. I scooted, wheeled, and even hand-over-hand monkey barred my way around some places, but just not being able to stand up was really hard to deal with. My band moved on without me, though they had the good grace to wait until I was on my feet again to tell me I had been replaced. For the first time ever, I began struggling in one of my English classes. For the life of me, I couldn’t keep my grade up. If I didn’t pass the class, I wouldn’t graduate that semester. The majority my identity had come crashing down around me. Suddenly I was good for nothing, not outlet to play, I doubted my writing, I couldn’t walk. I was suddenly very vulnerable.
But just before the accident, I had purchased a game that came to carry me through: Dark Souls.
That may sound counter-intuitive. Dark Souls is well-lauded for its incredible challenge. The game demands laser focus throughout, and when mistakes are made, they are often fatal. The random invasions from other players keep you on your toes, even when you think you know an area well. Many just don’t have the tenacity to fight their way through it. I, however, am rather a glutton for punishment in my games. I often play on the hardest difficulties available when starting a game. I’ve been known, on occasion, to artificially scale the difficulty up by imposing my own limitations on how to play. I can also tell you one thing about being unable to walk: it give you plenty of time to play video games.
And so I did. I played a lot of Dark Souls while I was hurt. I had shut myself off from a lot of what I used to enjoy. My initial reaction as I rolled on my back and looked at my uselessly dangling feet was not so much that it hurt, but how terrible it would be to deal with that injury. Starting Dark Souls shared some of the same characteristics. While I had played a little bit of Demon’s Souls, this is a game that shares very few characteristics with its contemporaries. All the hours I had put into the Monster Hunter games had prepared me for some aspects of it, but it really is something else. Rather than hacking and slashing at everything in sight a la Devil May Cry, this game forces you to manage stamina and maintain a strong guard or situational awareness. The game does little else besides tell you what each button does, it never illustrates how best to use what’s available to you. It never stops the game to, say, show you the prime moment to parry an enemy strike. The game doesn’t even so much as give a guideline for the best way to advance your character. In the end, everything about your character is up to you as the player to decide.
So I soldiered through. Hilariously enough, I actually took a wrong turn fairly early on and ended up in a very dangerous part of the game (Blighttown, for those of you who have played, skipped the Undead Burg entirely). I died hundreds of times. I slowly figured out which weapons work, and which don’t. I fought my way through insurmountable odds (those damned archers in Anor Londo), and in doing so, was strangely able to come to terms with my new condition. The sadness and depression that had come with my incapacitation and subsequent loss of all the things I had once held so dear persisted; it was all around me as I finally took to crutches and finally walked on my own again. But by overcoming the seemingly impossible odds in Dark Souls helped me to realized that this, too, was another challenge to overcome. My legs were my Capra Demon, my ailing class was Smough, its professor Ornstein. As I trudged froward, step by step, so too did I conquer the four Kings. Slowly I learned when to parry and guard, when to dodge, when to roll with the punches and swing back. Every creature stood in my way. They tried to kill me. To defeat me. They stabbed me. They burned me. They did everything they could to stop me. There were times when I had to stop; times when I couldn’t bring myself to continue. But no matter how badly beaten, I always returned. I found it most poignant that it seemed to be the times when you had lost all your souls and humanity, and had nothing to lose, you often played at your best; you were at your best when you had nothing left to lose. And that became me: the chosen undead. Beaten and broken, but soldiering on through a world that wanted nothing more than for me to lose myself like the rest.
And this is why Dark Souls is the most important game I have ever played. What’s yours?