Learning to Die

"Dark souls" | Art by PabloFernandezArtwrk. Used with permission.
I love the Dark Souls series, but I didn’t always. Dark Souls was introduced to me in an interesting time of my life. I had just graduated high school and was starting my four-year Bachelor of Arts degree. I had moved out of my parents’ home on my own for the first time. I didn’t see it then, but this was the time I was deciding who and what would make me uniquely myself.

A friend introduced me to Dark Souls, and within the first hour I was ready to give up. It was difficult, didn’t explain much, and I was constantly failing. I had my friend Colin sit next to me and watch me play through the game just to encourage me, to keep me going through the initial grind of learning the game. The first time I kicked the ladder down, making a shortcut to the undead burg bonfire, everything changed. I found the Claymore, I beat the Gargoyles. “I can do this”, I thought.

I see this as a defining point in my life because I couldn’t handle the pain of failure. I was taught from an early age that I shouldn’t expect too much of myself. I wanted to succeed at school and work, but when they told me I couldn’t, I believed them. I entered into college having acted out these beliefs about myself for years. The fear of failure crushed me beneath the weight of self doubt and robbed me of my will to even try.

Oscar of Astora, the first character you speak to in Dark Souls, sends you on your way with a prophecy about the undead and some Estus Flasks, an undead favourite. Yet, when you meet him again, he will attack you, having lost his mind and his purpose even as you carry it on yourself. And I can hardly blame him. In Dark Souls, the age of fire is ending. The Darkness is inevitable. You can choose to prolong the fire, embrace the dark, or simply go mad and hollow before it all comes crashing down. With those options, who wouldn’t simply give up?

In Dark Souls, you’re going to die and that’s part of the game, not an exception to the game.

Oscar is my favourite character; I think it’s because I see myself in him. A version of Oscar is in every Souls game. Oscar is pictured in all the promotional material, even the game cover, and is clearly meant to be the Chosen One. He’s on a journey to fulfill the prophecy, yet fails at the start. I couldn’t help but see myself in this, destined for greatness yet failure would keep me from it.

Most narrative driven games are intended for you to finish the game by completing the content, and beating the bad guys. If you die, you fail. When you fail, the narrative is interrupted because you did something the game didn’t want you to do. The game doesn’t want you to die, it wants you to complete the content. Often the screen goes black and you respawn to an earlier point, as if the game wants you to undo your mistake like it didn’t happen.

This is a logic hurdle for people who play Dark Souls for the first time, because they assume that whenever you die, you played the game wrong. But that’s not true; in Dark Souls, you’re going to die and that’s part of the game, not an exception to the game. Death isn’t failure, rage quitting is failure. Giving up is failure. Letting excuses dominate you is failure. The assumption that the mistakes you make are somehow wrong or not a part of the grand scheme of things does not exist in Dark Souls. Each death you die in Dark Souls is a part of the story. Dark Souls taught me that failure is just the beginning, each failure in the game (and in my life) makes up the substance behind each success.

Oscar failed because he gave up; not because he couldn’t do it. According to deleted audio found in the game, Oscar was originally intended to journey with the player throughout the game, and eventually battle them to see who would fulfill the prophecy.

So, I donned Oscar’s Elite Knight Set, grabbed his Astora’s Straight Sword, picked up the Crest Shield, and I beat the game as him, and for him. To this day, I name my character Oscar of Astora in his memory. I went on the journey Oscar could not. Little known to myself, I learned what it means to mature as a person  and in my faith as a Christian. If death is our only inevitability, then failure is worse than death. If death is not the end, death is just another stepping stone forward. So I pick myself up and journey onward, for Oscar and for young Justin, both of whom gave up. Both of whom saw the journey as too much and went hollow. I see my many deaths and many failures as puzzles pieces of my own story; a story that turns my despair into meaning, failures into strength, and darkness into light.

Justin Koop

Justin Koop

Guest Writer at Area of Effect
Justin is a writer, audio engineer, songwriter, drummer, and biblical scholar. Most of all, he loves young nerds and geeks, and wants to see them mentored into healthy, Christ-centered lives. Justin has loving support from his wife, Annie, and their daughter, Freya.
Justin Koop