Dark Souls as a metaphor for recovery from addiction



[Header image by JanPhilippEckert]

[Once we promoted a story here where a community member drew allusions between a struggling relative’s dementia and a specific character in Dark Souls. Now once again we return to the game, where community member Dr. Amphibian reflects on his struggles with alcoholism and how he put off Dark Souls until he was at his lowest point. ~Strider]

With the impending release of Dark Souls III (just a few more days…), I thought now might be an appropriate time to put this out there. I am new to blogging/actually using this website, but have lurked for many years now.

The first time I completed Dark Souls was right after I got out of rehab for alcoholism, my second time in an institution within about six months. This was at the end of 2013. I tried several times to get into DS from the day it was released, but could never get far due to being heavily intoxicatedevery day. So I would sell it, and then a few months later I realized I would get the urge to revisit the game and give it another shot.

I had only seen the Undead Burg, Undead Parish, Lower Burg, and some of Darkroot and the Depths, but it wouldn’t get out of my head for more than a few months at a time. For whatever reason, the relentlessly bleak world and vicious monsters of DS grabbed something in the back of my mind and would not let go. I found myself purchasing used copies on several different occasions because the price went down substantially pretty soon after launch. I would tell myself “Alright, gonna do it this time,” and then I’d just end up selling it again after a week or two when I had no other options for booze money or I had just decided that the game was impossible and I would never sink the time into getting good enough to overcome it and what’s the point of doing it anyway because video games are actually a waste of time and there are better things to do (drink until I fall asleep on the floor) and etc. etc.

I will not go into great detail about my drinking experience or my time in the rehab facility; I don’t feel it is necessary. It’s really not an exciting story. In a lot of ways, the paths of most addicts are largely the same. Man gets drunk every night, wonders why his life is full of chaos and shame and guilt, drinks more to be able to deal with it, which of course only amplifies the problems, people fall away, man feels less and less like a human, only option is to seek professional treatment, and so on. All I can really say is that I was anywhere from quite drunk to wasted out of my mind every single night for about six years in a row, and when I got to the treatment facility after a particularly grueling and shameful ten-day binge (“vacation”), doctors told me that I actually really should have been dead. So I dodged a bullet there.

When I got out, I had to figure out some way to occupy my time. I have several other hobbies, but even thinking of putting in the effort to begin to try to practice them sober seemed like the worst thing in the world,so I decided to go for the best time-waster of all: video games. I had to have something because the liquor store was a two-minute walk from my house, and resisting the urge to just step outside and go grab a bottle of liquor was the hardest thing for quite some time. The pull to the liquor store was almost physical; I had learned to love the ritual of going to the store for alcoholand also probably a bag of some shitty pretzel rods or something(usually several times a day in increasing states of drunkenness). I figured Dark Souls would be the perfect thing to keep me distracted for a few weeks while I began to figure out how to live life as a normal human being.

Going in, I had the mindset that I was going to beat it simply because I had decided to just like the other thing. It was rough at first, but I had been through the first few stages so many times while drunk that they were more or less permanently imprinted in my brain. Slowly but surely I was able to get past the hurdles in the game that I could not before. I figured out how to not get blasted by the goddamned Hydra every time I stepped into the Darkroot Basin. I made it through Sen’s stupid fucking Fortress and killed all of the snake men. I suffered through Blighttown and its horrible N64 graphics. I spent some quality time with the archers of Anor Londo and got to know them quite well. I was developing the skills necessary to prevail. Finally. I began to actually understand how the game worked.

That is to say themost important skills in the game, I realized, were not skills that actually had anything to do with video games. Sure, you had to be able to control the game. But the things that really take you places are concepts like patience, perseverance, thinking critically about choices instead of acting completely on impulse, refusing to fail, understanding that many goals are attainable once you make the choice to attain them, getting back up no matter what, and knowing that it’s okay to ask for help from time to time. And of course, the message at the end while my character burst into flames was very clear to me: No cute, feel-goodrewards for achieving success. You did it. That’s it. I don’t need to say that there were plenty of parallels for me at the time in real life.

We all tend to romanticize the past, and I am fully aware that I projected my own personal issues into an experience that is “just” a dark fantasy video game, but looking back now, it is no wonder as to why Dark Souls was such a special experience and perfect symbolic analogue for what was occurring in my personal life. I am not saying that Dark Souls singlehandedly is the method by which I was able to magically stop drinking far from it. In no way am I saying that if you or someone you love has a substance abuse problem that all you have to do is play some video games and you’ll smile and feel great and forget about everything! No. It takes work and conscious effort every day. And almost any addict will tell you that there are plenty of days when theywould like nothing more than to drink (snort, shoot, whatever) themselves into a stupor. Luckily I haven’t.

For an interactive experience, Dark Soulswas exactly what I needed at the time. I do not hesitate to say it is the best modern game I have played.

Praise Miyazaki-san and his team. And of course, praise the sun.