Dark Souls and Life: Lessons from Lordran and Beyond

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Michael Jordan is the most oft-quoted athlete of modern times. Though he is known for his ultimate greatness on the hardcourt, he spent a lot of time thinking about failure. To quote him, he said that “I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.” For a long time, I’ve believed in the exact opposite. I could accept not trying, but I couldn’t accept failure. In many aspects of my life, I preferred to not try rather than to fail at something. It has led me to miss out on a multitude of things that just needed me to try. That is something that I’ve had to learn over time. I’ve had to learn to allow myself fail. For me, From Software’s Souls series became the perfect allegory for the change in perspective I was making in my own life.

The first game I’ve been really excited for this year was the release of From Software’s final piece to their Souls series, Dark Souls 3. While I only really dabbled in Dark Souls 2 and never played Dark Souls or Demon Souls, I fell in love with last year’s Playstation 4 exclusive, Bloodborne. This led me to delving into the third installment of the beloved, hardcore action-rpg series with glee. See, what sets these games apart, besides their poorly explained, yet thoroughly developed lore, is their difficulty. I know, I know, not another think piece that centers around the fact that these games are hard. It seems almost reductive to come to the last entry in the series and write a piece about how hard these games are but that is just it; they are the only modern games that I feel respect the player enough to let them learn through failure, much like adults do in the real world.

As I started Dark Souls III, I began musing that playing these games is like learning a different language. While at face value they seem completely opposite skills that have very little to do with each other, beneath the surface, both employ a similar set of skills and values to become successful. In my lifetime, I’ve spent time learning multiple languages. I’m currently only fluent in English and Spanish, but I can passably understand French and I read it fine after spending six months learning it in France. Now, in my experience, the best way to learn a language is to be forced to use it. Language classes help to tweak grammar and teach you new words but at the end of the day, you won’t really be able to use it unless your can order a sandwich from someplace, or figure out how to ask about directions. Much like languages, Dark Souls is a game about doing; for all the hints and tips that you can get online or in a guide, the only way to actually get better is to play. Both undertakings are all about pushing you outside of your comfort zone. You’ll never get better at speaking a language if you never actually talk to someone and you’ll never find out what is around the corner if you don’t try to make your way to it in Dark Souls. Not only that but, in learning how to play a Dark Souls game, you pick up on the language and syntax of the developers who, while avoiding hand holding, give you enough clues to find your way through their devious devices and encounters. There is no big objective arrow or a map even, but after playing previous From Software games, you pick up on their style of level design so, even if you’re in a new area, you can use the same tools and rules that you’ve picked up to help quell the confusion and allows you to unravel the location methodically. Utilizing that previous knowledge, each area then becomes more about gathering items and practicing enemy move sets rather than figuring out where the game is trying to get you to go. In essence, much like language, you get the broad idea easily but you need to practice to get the details and semantics right.

Now this idea of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is one that I try to live my life by now. I think the most personal growth comes from putting ourselves into situations where we don’t necessarily think we’ll succeed in. This plays into the idea of the growth mentality, which can come off as one of those cheesy, motivational speaker ideas but I think is one of the things that people should really take to heart. The idea, for those that don’t know, is that the growth mentality is a mindset where, instead of thinking “I can’t,” you think to yourself “I can’t yet.”. Now this is something that, to be honest, I was not blessed with when I was younger. I thought that those who were good at this would always be good that that and those who weren’t were cursed to struggle. In retrospect, that is totally, completely naive. Dark Souls is the epitome of the growth mentality. Sure, maybe there are some talented players who feel at home immediately when first picking the title up but, for the most part, all players at one point felt that curse of inability, that sensation that they are just not good enough for this game. But, much like in life, the key is to push through that barrier. A friend of mine wants a tattoo of some of the iconography from Bloodborne because, in his words, the games are a metaphor for life.  Life is about this growth mentality. Without belief that you can get better, that you can learn something, you’ll get almost nowhere in life.

What From Software games taught me is the principle of willpower. They taught me that grit and determination in the face of failure is the only response that will lead you to take that next step. It seems cliche, but they taught me that success is not defined in winning but in falling seven times and getting back up for an eighth time. That type of mentality is built into the way you play the game. The reality is, you will never beat an area on your first try. Even with the help of guides, you can still really easily underestimate an enemy and very quickly get outmatched and outgunned. But, with each successive death, there comes opportunity to adapt, to innovate, and to learn from previous mistakes. That therein is the lesson that I think has been lost in our hyper-competitive culture. Death in Dark Souls is just another step in the journey to completing the game successfully. As Michael Jordan also said, “My attitude is that if you push me towards something that you think is a weakness, then I will turn that perceived weakness into a strength.” When you think you’re terrible at the game, the only way you can turn it around is to push yourself to try again.

Now, the most important step in all of this is to apply what I learned to how I live. As I continue to play Dark Souls 3 and inch towards the end, I am reminded that the way I approach this game is the way I need to and have been trying to approach life. In 2011, when I was overweight, I saw a treadmill and just thought of how hard it would be and how I would never be fit. Now I am probably in the most athletic phase in my life. In 2015, when I lost my first job out of school, I just thought of how much of a failure I was. Now, I’m excelling in a new position and am off to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland to complete an MSc. Dark Souls doesn’t just teach you about life; it is life in a nutshell. Through countless setbacks, the only way to get better is to push on and try again.