I enjoy running and, for oddly similar reasons, I enjoy playing the Dark Souls series. And yet, I am a poor runner and not a particularly good Dark Souls player, either. To be clear I do not run or play Dark Souls out of a desire to eventually “git gud”, to prove my mastery, or to show my chops as a runner and a gamer. I will never be a great (or even good) runner or Dark Souls player. I enjoy both of these activities, in large part, because of the unique way that difficulty builds my relationship with landscapes.
If that sounds weird, let me explain. I have been slowly working my way through Dark Souls 2 after watching hbomberguy’s defence of the game. I went into the game with the impression that there is no hope in Dark Souls 2’s narrative. Despite the player’s heroic efforts in the face of punishing difficulty, the world remains trapped in an endless cycle of destruction and rebirth. In spite of this nihilism, I enjoy the game immensely. Not only is technically proficient (the art design, sound, and the feel of the combat all meet the high standards of a Souls game) for me it is the sense of place makes the game special.
Ian Bogost in How To Do Things With Video Games provides a helpful explanation of why one might find Dark Souls’ environments more compelling than other games. Bogost applies to videogames Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s theories on how one’s relationship with the landscape changes with technology. Using Schivelbusch’s analogy, those traveling by train, have a different experience of their environment than those who walk or travel by carriage. “If the carriage functioned more like a landscape painting, the railway functioned like a cinema camera. The traveler perceived the landscape as it was filtered through the machine ensemble” (46-47). Bogost goes on to posit that “games restore the experience of resistance and adventure that rail (and the airplane after it) had removed from travel, even if only through simulation” (47-48).
Dark Souls fosters a slow, personal relationship with its environments, like the carriage in Schivelbusch’s analogy. It is a relationship different from the type one normally has with the day-to-day world – one seen through car windows and peer at from inside buildings. When navigating the “real world” I am often fixated on Google maps, mostly oblivious to everything else around me.
Not all games, however, will “restore the experience of resistance and adventure” to the landscape in the same way or to the same degree. It is, for example, easy to stay glued to a game’s minimap or simply to move through the environment from one quest marker to the next. The Dark Souls series, though, has neither mechanic. In order to avoid being killed by even the lowliest of enemies, the player is required to carefully memorize environments and enemy locations. In order to progress I often played methodically through different locations several times and, as a result, I can trace locations in Dark Souls 2 such as the Forest of Fallen Giants, or the Iron Keep by memory. This is the common, well-known Souls experience.
What strikes me is that I have a similar relationship with the environments in Dark Souls as I do with the routes I run. I don’t mean to say that these are simply environments I know and am familiar with. I remember my route to and from school as a child in the same way I know and remember the levels of Super Mario Brothers. I can still recall the details of both and they both hold warm, nostalgic places in my memory. My experience with my running routes and environments in Dark Souls are phenomenologically different, though. These are landscapes I have earned.
I have often thought of running as painting the landscape with my pain. Individual trees, bridges, traffic lights, or stairs become sites of my tiny internal struggles to keep one foot in front of the other. Similarly, in Dark Souls the ladders, walkways, tunnels, and bridges are sites of the minute-to-minute struggle of trying to stay alive, make minor progression, and squeeze out a few more souls. Both running and Dark Souls are masochistic in this way, but they are also series of small victories.
Sometimes, of course, I have a bad playthrough of Dark Souls. I lose all my souls and have nothing but wasted time and frustration for all my efforts. Sometimes I have a bad run, too. There are times when I can’t go faster or farther than before and have probably done more harm to my body than good. So it goes.
I continue running and playing Dark Souls, though, not out of a desire to “git gud” in part because, unlike my day-to-day life, they allow me to put that “experience of resistance” into landscapes. For example, when I see the hill in the photo above (which is often about ¾ of the way through my route) I remember feelings of exhaustion, but also feel the motivation it gives me knowing I am almost done. Most importantly, perhaps, when I see this hill, I know I can get passed it and make it home. Similarly, when I retread environments in Dark Souls 2 (as I did to get the screenshot for this post) I remember the anxiousness I felt trying to survive during my first playthrough, yet I also know I can reliably make it safely to the next bonfire. As long as I can continue building these experiences into landscapes I will keep running and playing.
Bogost, Ian. How To Do Things With Videogames. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
Dahlen, Chris. “What Dark Souls Is Really All About.” Kotaku. 01 Jun. 18, https://kotaku.com/what-dark-souls-is-really-all-about-5874599
Hbomberguy. “In Defence of Dark Souls 2.” YouTube. 15 Apr. 17, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRTfcMeqhig
Super Mario Brothers. Nintendo, 1985.
Mario_Bros._World.png. Super Mario Wiki. 13 Feb. 16, https://www.mariowiki.com/images/3/39/Mario_Bros._World.png
Super Mario Brothers. Nintendo, 1985.