Despite writing about video games for a living — and spending most of my life playing them — I’ve never really believed in their healing power.
I read books like Jane McGonigal’s simply fantastic ‘Reality Is Broken’ with an air of cynicism — not because I doubted that games *could* help people, but because it was something I had never personally encountered.
So imagine my surprise when I realised a game series I have been playing loads in the last few years was helping me deal with the mental health problems I suffer from better than counselling, medication and CBT. Perhaps mostly surprising of all was the fact that the games that were helping me were From Software’s Soulsbourne series.
On their surface, the Souls games are not ones you’d peg as having an uplifting message. These are, after all, deeply bleak games that exclusively take place at the end of an era — maybe even the end of the world. They are set precisely when shit is getting *really* real.
Not only do they appear depressing, they’re not exactly approachable titles either. These are titles that don’t really explain anything. You often wander around the world entirely lost, initially not sure what any of the mechanics really do or indeed how much of the game actually works.
But — upon reflection — these games train you to think in some very specific ways that I feel have had positive effects on my mental health.
Lesson One: You can do it
Depression often tells us that we are unable to do things. It creates mental blocks that make it impossible for us to even contemplate doing some things — getting out of bed in the morning, going to work, leaving the house to see friends… But what Dark Souls has taught me to do is break down a problem before trying to tackle it, or try an understand and overcome a negative thought process.
This is largely due to the fact that the games don’t really explain anything. The player needs to figure out what to do, how to defeat a boss or particular enemy.
In Souls releases, the player — a measly human — is facing ridiculous odds. Not only have you normally charged with saving the world, there are often enormous barriers in your way. The bosses in the Souls games are terrifying and the player has the fate of the world in their controller caloused hands.
When you first see one of the games’ grotesque bosses, the gut reaction of any sane person is sheer panic. Show me someone who tells you they didn’t shit themselves the first time they came up against the Gaping Dragon and I’ll show you a damn liar.
The odds are when you first try your hand at one of the boss fights, you will be dead within seconds. You’ll probably break the controller in two then complain for a bit about how utterly broken and unfair the game is. But you’ll be back — the second time you may get it down to half health, at which point some super-powered second phase will take effect.
You’ll probably die (more on that later), but now you’ve got the knowledge to effectively get through the first half, know some of the bosses attacks and be able to dodge and eventually kill them.
The Souls games effectively teach you that anything is possible. Any time you go through a fog door and see some monstrosity for you to put down, you know that it won’t be easy, but that it is possible. And, for me, that was incredibly empowering given that I have to put up with voices in my head telling me that I’m incapable of doing something 99 per cent of the time.
Lesson Two: Asking for help is okay
Mental health problems do have a tendency to isolate you and make you feel worthless. In the middle of a bad episode, the thought of leaving the house or even having contact with another human being is bad enough, let alone me going to someone to ask for help. But this is an essential part of handling problems like these.
The Souls games — while famed for their challenge — have also fostered one of the most amazing communities I have ever come across in video games.
The games are difficult, sure, but there is always help at hand if you know where to look and are willing to ask.
Within the games themselves are the multiplayer mechanics, whereby players can summon other gamers into their world for help. Or you can be summoned to someone else’s world to give them a hand. This is a system I didn’t really explore much in the original Dark Souls — not until Ornstein and Smough I don’t think. But I started to enjoy the game more once I admitted to myself that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but realising that you need support from someone going forwards.
There’s also Dark Souls’ basic communication system, which lets players leave and read messages on the ground. A lot of the time, players will be trying to trick others into doing dumb things. The messaging system in the game is primitive and simple, but lets you know that you’re not alone in this, and someone else is suffering through the exact same situation. It’s a nice reminder that no matter how bad things are, other people are going through the same thing and are succeeding.
Lesson Three: It’s okay to fuck up
With my day to day life, any single failure or moment where I don’t achieve what I set out to feels like I have entirely fucked up as a person. I catastrophise and imagine the worst possible outcome from a single, ultimately insignificant, event. But Dark Souls helped teach me that failure is a lesson
The Souls series is almost entirely about death and those playing the game are going to die. A lot. Their bloody demise is waiting around every single corner. It will probably be very unpleasant, but quick. The now infamous ‘You Died’ screen will appear. Back to the bonfire.
Because the Souls games don’t really tell you how they are played, death is used as a tutorial. Basic lessons like how players shouldn’t just weigh on in with their sword, instead using a shield and playing more defensively — aren’t taught by a conventional tutorial, but learnt from experience. Players learn form being brutally murdered by enemies. Thus, death goes from being something to avoid to being a learning experience.
This is far from a unique premise — death *is* arguably a learning experience in any video game. But because of Dark Souls’ unique opaqueness, I feel that is more a means to educate the player than most others.
And after taking on a certain enemy way too many times, suddenly you can defeat them.
Ultimately, like any treatment for depression, anxiety and all the rest, your milage may vary with this. CBT and anti-depressants never helped me, but the Souls games have made my life better in some small way. It’s entirely possible that this entire article is mad conjecture, and that the reason I feel better is that the worlds of the Soulsborne games are so irreversibly fucked that my life and problems don’t seem quite so bad.
I just hope that Miyazaki’s masterpiece has helped other people from going Hollow.