At the beginning of this year (following a pretty hectic evening in hospital) I was diagnosed with stress and anxiety issues.
I was warned that if I didn’t get these sorted – and soon – I would end up having a heart attack before I hit 30 years of age.
Naturally, this has been traumatic for me. After my initial diagnosis I did all the usual stuff; talking, exercising, relaxing and I even made a point of playing slower-paced games for a little while, all of which helped but after a couple of weeks what was originally stress quickly turned to boredom.
I began to feel as though I lacked conflict or challenge and it goes without saying that I couldn’t risk looking for that challenge in my day-to-day life because of the health risks.
So, I looked through my library of as yet unplayed videogames and chose one that, based on previous experiences with the series, I knew would offer what was missing: Dark Souls II.
Fast-forward to today and I have played one-hundred-and-thirty-six hours of the game, it is my third platinum trophy (the other two are Demon’s Souls and the original Dark Souls), I have completed it three times and the in-game counter says that I have died three hundred and twenty two times.
I work full time and have a wife and child as well as a backlog of games that easily hits hundreds (thanks Steam), but I don’t regret the hefty time investment. I believe that my time in the world of Drangleic has acted as a stress reliever for me and, looking back on it, I can clearly see that my state-of-mind at the time is reflected in the way I played. Maybe that sounds crazy.
My first few hours were slow, I built my character to be sturdy and resilient and the goal was to be defensive, to be able to take a few hits if required. It was the traditional sword and shield, edging forward an inch at a time approach that new players often take with the original Dark Souls.
I was constantly nervous, unsure of myself (much like I was in real life). Between the game’s resting points (the famous bonfires) I would take advantage of the limited respawn counter introduced in this game and clear out a few enemies at a time until none were left, effectively carving a clear path to each boss.
Once I reached each boss I would then co-op with other players in their games before challenging the boss myself, I would learn the patterns, strengths and weaknesses in their world first so that I knew what to expect when I went in. I almost never died taking this approach, twenty hours playing like this and I died three times which exacerbated my attachment to Dark Souls’ primary resource and currency – souls – probably because I’d not really lost them before.
I was playing conservatively and was constantly stressed about the idea of failure. I hadn’t felt this way since my first death in Demon’s Souls (when From Software’s intentions were made clear to me) and I rarely played this way through original first Dark Souls.
My issues outside of the game were manifesting themselves to me through the way I was playing and by the second half, when upgrading a single stat was costing me 50000 souls I actually had to put the controller down a few times and do something else. I was getting chest pains, the same I got before going to hospital at the beginning of the year.
It seemed thoroughly ridiculous for me to suffer in such a way when engaging in what is supposed to be a recreational hobby, but I recognised the symptoms and walked away, at least for a little while.
I would always return though because I wanted to see the journey through, it was never far from my mind. I continued to play this way, only racking up another ten or so more deaths up until very late in the game when without really paying any attention opened a chest only to have it kill me in one big chomp with a sizable amount of souls sitting in my inventory.
This was a Mimic, an enemy RPG fans know well and an enemy that Dark Souls fans know to be cautious of, I wasn’t cautious and I made a rookie mistake! I hadn’t de-spawned the area yet, so I fought through it again in an attempt to get back to the place that I died so that I could pick up the souls I had lost and continue on with my adventure.
A few enemies before I reached it however, I was invaded by another player. A blue skinned woman apparently dressed as a butterfly but with a hat resembling the very enemy that killed me before. She was fast so I struggled to hit her at first, she would roll, whip me, roll, whip me and so on. Her pattern never deviated though and I adjusted my approach so that I would be positioned behind her after each roll and then instigate a backstab and, after a few attempts, she died.
I had won the fight, so I ran towards my blood stain a little more and then… I died too. She had poisoned me but I hadn’t realised!
With the couple of hundred thousand souls I had previously accumulated I should have been devastated but instead I sat back in my chair and laughed to myself.
I died because I made mistakes but I made mistakes because I was stressing about something that didn’t need to be stressed about. Somehow this too felt analogous to the rest of my life.
Soon after the Mimic and Mimic hat, butterfly lady invasion I respecced my character. Rather than sturdiness I chose to focus on speed and I rolled a dexterity build with a focus on hitting fast and often rather than hard but with a high defense.
I died a lot at first. I rolled off of dragon-infested cliffs, off of narrow, watery walkways and right into wrath of archers and casters, but I was having fun, and just about every death was a laugh.
The souls held no meaning any more, they came and they went and every night after a stressful day elsewhere became me generating these stories of silly little mistakes, player skirmishes or epic successes. I began to take risks again in-game and I felt better for it.
After I completed it I played through again and respecced again as a caster and the next time through as a ‘jack-of-all-trades’. I began exploring the systems, armour and spell configurations. Using the tools this game gave me to make little stories to tell friends and family or even to just recall when I need a little pick-me-up.
It has become an unlikely playground for me and a tool to appease my amusement, a toy of sorts and, I guess, a game in the purest sense of the word.
When I play Dark Souls II now I don’t feel stressed and I don’t feel like I’m pointlessly spending hours because I’m getting fun out of the moment-to-moment gameplay and creating anecdotes to share outside of it.
My experience with Dark Souls II has been an odd one. It was much different to what I had with Demon’s and Dark Souls, not because of how they changed the world, the lore or the mechanics but because of where I was when I went into the game and where I am now that I have come out of it.
It has reminded me that playing a game can be done as conservatively or liberally as you choose and that the mindset you approach the game with, has an impact on what you get out of it.