Let Me Tell You a Story #8: My Soul Is Dark, and So Is My Video Game

I’m late to the party, but I’m finally playing Dark Souls, because wanting to start a writing career wasn’t masochistic enough for me.

I kid, I kid.  Well, a little.

I’ve logged about three hours of play time, and I haven’t killed the second boss yet.  My death count is eleven.  Last night, the game actually brought me to tears, I was so frustrated.

And yet, I’m making progress.

This won’t be news to anyone who’s played it, but learning to play Dark Souls is an iterative process.  Everything about the game is difficult but entirely fair.  The enemies wield the same weapons the player has access to, with the same move sets.  You can kick a skeleton off a ledge to its death instead of slashing it with your sword or frying it with your spells…but they can kick you off too, if you let yourself step too close to the edge.  Everyone plays by the same rules.

Every choice you make, from the big ones like “Which direction do I go, left or right?” to the tiny ones like “Do I swing now, or kick first to try to break the enemy’s guard?”…they all have impact.  They all have consequences.  And it’s incredibly easy to die as a result.

But you start over from your last bonfire (i.e., checkpoint) and have the opportunity to retrieve the souls (i.e., experience) that you dropped on death.  You have to make it back to where you died, learning from your mistakes so that it doesn’t happen again.

The in-game experience levels up your character.  But the nature of the game, that requires you to replay your deaths until you get better–there’s a skeleton around this corner, I have to have my shield up when I turn or he’ll gut me–is the leveling system for the player.  An iterative process where, even when you fail, you still learn something.

Just like writing.

I cannot get over how alike they are.  It’s amazing to me that learning to play this game–and consequently unlearning nearly everything that every other game has taught me–is such a parallel to the journey of the new writer.  Experience is the best teacher.  The game’s philosophy is “Yes, you’ll be bad at it when you start.  So here’s a system specifically designed to reward your progress with huge chunks of souls, but ‘punish’ your failures by making you do it over until you get it right.”

And it is so satisfying to get it right.  Because it’s hard.  Not randomly, arbitrarily hard in a way the player has no control over, but hard in a grim, patience-building, grit-my-teeth-because-I-will-defeat-this kind of way.

Just like writing.  Because who gets that perfectly right the first time?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some unfinished business with a certain Taurus Demon.  I’m going to jump from the top of a tower and drive my sword into his head over and over until it dies.  Or until I do.  Again.

Because it’s never “Game Over”–you can’t run out of lives.  You can always keep trying.

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