The Great Hollow: Clinging to Failure
Depths: Buried Stories
Blighttown: Marx's Realms of Freedom and Necessity
Anor Londo: Saving You from Earning It, Saving You from Heaven
The Kiln of the First Flame: The Fire Out There Up Ahead
How do you say something new about Dark Souls, anything worth your reader’s time?
The series, which began with Demon’s Souls in 2009, and will continue, spiritually, with the upcoming Elden Ring, is known first for its extreme difficulty. These games are punishingly, fuckingly hard, and the players who play them have an annoying habit of needing you to know it. To talk Dark Souls is to necessarily talk the discourse of the fandom that surrounds it, infamously reduced to the phrase “Git gud”. You’ve been playing the same stretch of Demon’s Souls for the last few days, dying over and over from these out-of-reach flying manta rays shooting crystal bolts at you while golden skeletons with curved sabers roll for your ankles? Well, brother, you just need to git gud.
As an ethos, git gud has a folksy practicality that elides the realities of access. Can’t fly an airplane? Git gud. Can’t crochet a sweater? Git gud. Git gud-ers believe that the immediate cause for failure in any life, real or virtual, is an unwillingness to get good at it. In this regard, Git gud-ers share an ethos with libertarians: both want to believe in the total responsibility of individuals, which necessitates the collapse of complex structures and relationships of responsibility. You keep failing? Well, it’s not the system’s fault. You only have yourself to blame.
I think the only way I can talk about Dark Souls is through ideas of “earning it.”
I should say now I have no idea what it is in this phrase. Perhaps more crucially, I have no idea what it means to earn.
I have no idea what I’m talking about, which tells me I need to talk about it.
THE GREAT HOLLOW
The pull of a quarry like the pull of reins. These great, unnatural gouges in the earth. The crosshatching of precise, annihilating lines in the tumbling chaos of nature.
The basalt quarry at Mt. Tom has sheer cliff faces that reach over fifteen stories into the sky. It sits to the northeast of an abandoned ski lodge, where ruins of slab concrete and corrugated metal are marked by graffiti.
JAKE LOVES HEAVEN
FUCK ̶Y̶O̶U̶ ME
I run the trails of Mt. Tom nearly every day. No matter the conditions: in thigh-deep snow; in thunderstorms; in 100 degrees. Mt. Tom has become an inescapable pattern in my life, so much so that it and my life are really the same. When I had to move at the beginning of the pandemic, the first thing I considered was whether or not my new apartment was in driving distance of the mountain. Where many people become bored and listless when they discover their lives have fallen into a pattern, wanting to break out, I become monomaniacal, almost ascetic in my adoption of them. I crave familiarity. I cling to it. A pattern is something to cling to.
The top of the quarry surveys two landscapes: the sweeping Connecticut river valley, curtained by clinking traprock ranges, and my mind. I near the edge of both. Valley and mind. The atmosphere, on bright days, throws distance at you for miles. Springfield ripples through clots of pollution to the right. Mt. Holyoke’s Gothic spires rise from treetops to the left. And below, a wiccan circle of stones dashed in the quarry’s heart.
I know that if I were to kill myself, I’d do it up here: a clean, obvious leap.
There isn’t comfort in this knowing, nor is there design. “Having a plan”, as the literature describes it, isn’t predictive of whether or not the plan will ever be carried out. When I was in therapy, I would tell my therapist I thought about killing myself the way I thought about many things I never did: about driving a red sports car at high speeds along the California coast; about scuba diving in underwater caves; about flying a single-engine plane. I thought about these things but never planned, much less wanted, to do them.
“Intrusive thoughts”, my therapist offered, but that seemed redundant: all thoughts intrude, that’s what thinking it is. A poking through the lousy walls of unthinking.
I’ve never been good at meditation, which offers its practitioners the possibility of replacing thoughts with a thoughtless awareness of now. Be here now, my yoga instructors always demanded of me, though I could tell they were sometimes the biggest hypocrites, playing favorites with people like my friend John who could flatten his heels to the floor in downward dog. Their favoritism intruded on the now. My teacher emailed my friend about secret yoga retreats in Greenfield. Advanced classes. Advanced nows. So I’m not her favorite, I thought in corpse pose. At least, I thought in corpse pose, I’m not that dude with the ponytail who farts in the corner.
A majority of people who attempt to kill themselves never attempt to do it again. And a majority of suicide attempts end in failure. Most people who walk to the edge of their minds turn around.
They find something to cling to. Maybe it's the failure itself.
The placenames in Dark Souls have become a running joke. They appear on-screen in bold letters when you first enter a new area, accompanied by an ominous, Law & Order-sounding drone. The placenames are the first hints as to what awfulness awaits you. They are dramatic and unsparing, overwrought and poetic.
THE PRISON OF HOPE
SANCTUARY OF THE LOST
THE VALLEY OF DEFILEMENT
They are also the opening gestures of an entirely gestural style of storytelling, one that relies on mood, inference, innuendo, mumblings. To understand what is actually going on in Dark Souls would look, on the outside, like an exceptional kind of madness—I would know, since I’ve watched some of the fan videos that make the attempt.
I will make the attempt, without referring to outside texts. I will cling to myself.
Dark Souls is set in a dying world. You play an “undead” human, a kind of Pinnochio who, instead of being made of wood, is made of flesh. The made part matters—you are a tool and a likeness; a tool of the gods, a likeness of the gods. You can die, of course, but you can also return from the dead. Games like Mario have no idea what to do with the existential stakes they always set. Mario dies again and again, at your bad playing, but the game’s broader story requires you to forget all those deaths, or to make of them a kind of apocrypha. Dark Souls makes death, which is the most natural state of play, not only actual, but canonical.
You really died.
Now do it again. Die again. Die better.
What are you dying for? Well. And—. Fuck. I actually don’t know. I seem to be dying for the gods, but I also seem to want to become a god myself. I can’t say. The game doesn’t say. Or it does, but elliptically, and through the most impenetrable murmurs.
Dark Souls aestheticizes not-knowing, it makes not-knowing beautiful. Innuendo, inference, impenetrable mood become the signs and signals for an unfamiliar, even anti-intellectual, kind of beauty. Not being able to explain something is generally considered a sign of failure, but in Dark Souls failure is largely the point. The sign fails. The signal fails. The story fails. And the player absolutely fails. Again and again.
The lead designer of the games, Hidetaka Miyazaki, cites H.P. Lovecraft among his many influences, and it was Lovecraft who gave a name to the weird literary tradition, writing:
“The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”
For Lovecraft, the weird story was an attempt to show all storytelling as attempts—tries that were, more or less, doomed to a quotidian kind of failure. The natural state of the universe, according to Lovecraft, is a gathering, unmanageable chaos.
Miyazaki would rather the player of Dark Souls arrive at their own answers, miserable and meager as those answers may be. Major elements of the plot, if Dark Souls can be said to have such a thing as a plot, are entirely missable, hidden in corners of the world the game has little interest in steering you towards. Imagine never finding the white whale: that’s Miyazaki’s gamble. This storytelling ethos feels radical in a streaming environment designed to keep you hurtling forward. A night spent on Netflix often feels to me like being sucked down one sinkhole and into another. By comparison, a night with Dark Souls might have the effect of repelling you backwards, spitting you out and further off from where you’re supposed to go. Imagine a book that could close you.
Imagine a book that could close you.
Storytellers who don’t expect you to read to the end of their stories, much less care if you bother to try, are either insane or too sane for my insanity to tell the difference. There’s a whole lot of myth-making surrounding the unread writer, whose resuscitation, often after death, takes on a moral urgency that eluded them in life. Melville, we know, was under-appreciated, Moby Dick’s recognition as the great American novel coming decades after his death. Kafka didn’t live to see the adjectivication of his own name. There is cold comfort in knowing that some of the best storytellers never lived to tell their tales, so to speak: they died only to have others tell them for them. Storytelling as a kind of burial suits Dark Souls, after all, since the world of Dark Souls is dying and you, the player, are already dead. This is why, when you do stumble across a new thread in the world, an inkling of meaning, it can feel hallucinatory and unstable, like a breath of life gushing from a crack in a casket.
I once had a depressive student who showed up day after day to my office hours, which was already unusual, because he never understood my assignments nor what I wanted from him. He wanted not only to be told what to write, but why he was writing it, and what writing it would do for him in the long run. I never know what to tell students like this, other than that the task is probably doomed to fail, and that they might find some comfort in developing a relationship to this doom, this failure. Come back now, you hear?
Office hours have a kitschy, nearly Rockwellian aura surrounding them, of warmth and comfort, where the student is expected to leave knowing more than they did coming in. But that kitschy aura dispels their more common purpose, which is to circle around the failure and the doom like some desperate pack of creatures.
In his final paper for the class, this student arrived at a Dark Souls-ian despair: on the final page, buried deep in the dungeons of his argument, he wrote that I would never read this far, and that I would never, in particular, read this sentence, so what was the fucking point? I made a comment in the margins—“But I did read this far, I did read this sentence!”—knowing that my students rarely read my comments, because they rarely download them. He never downloaded them, which signaled he’d received the deeper message, which might have been that an audience doesn’t exist for most, and in any case having an audience would never be enough. It’s never enough.
It? What is it?
But I started all this by saying it was a descent into understanding Dark Souls through understanding earning it. What does earning mean? (We’ll leave it aside, for now.)
This question will inspire lots of different answers, depending on who’s asking it, and where the question is being asked.
Elon Musk asks, “What does earning it mean?” to a crowd of tuxedos and ball gowns at Davos, while the champagne fountains lisp prettily.
Billionaires like Musk believe that they have earned their fortunes, just as almost everyone in that Davos crowd, by virtue of their inaction to stop it, believes that some fountains should gush champagne. There is waste, and then there is waste—the champagne fountains could not possibly wet the lips of every would-be champagne drinker in the world, so why begin to bother? And the wealth at Davos is so vast that my idea of champagne fountains would produce waves of that throatless, noncommittal rich-person laughter, at my expense. Vast wealth like Musk’s requires a politics of death and hopelessness shrouded as fiscal responsibility: the problems of the world are so pervasive, so unintelligible in their scope, that it would be madness to pay them, in the literal or figurative sense, much attention. And Musk, it turns out, doesn’t even believe in saving this world. In an interview on the Lex Fridman Podcast, he channels Carl Sagan’s famous quote about the Earth-dot. Musk reads the Sagan aloud,
“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. […] Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.”
Musk then laughs, saying, “This is not true.” He looks up from his notes to Fridman and says, “This is false.” That he elides Sagan’s next line is both telling and typical of Musk’s grandiose grift. Sagan isn’t finished, writing, “The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.” Sagan doesn’t neglect the technical possibility of a future where you can settle a planet like Mars; he views it, instead, as a colossal misappropriation of resources, when we already have a perfectly suitable planet. Musk’s capitalist futurism doesn’t see the misappropriation of resources for the trees, because Musk doesn’t imagine all lives holding tickets to his Mars rockets.
You have to earn your seat.
Ideas of earning are socially constructed. An obvious statement, perhaps, but then it can be difficult to remember that things that seem so fundamentally obvious can invite fundamental disagreements.
The elephant in the room is, I feel almost embarrassed to say, capitalism. Even writing this word surely pricks the hairs on the backs of some reader’s ears—another one of these fuckers? I am not an economist; I care too much about people to try to reduce them to a game of numbers and predicted behaviors. People are predictable until they’re not; that slip in predictability is actually my domain, the domain of fiction and story. And I was never formally trained in economic theory: the kinds of people who took those classes in college were the kinds of people who seemed invested in anything but kindness.
Karl Marx remains a largely misunderstood character. Part of that misunderstanding must come, I think, from the domain of his so-called expertise: talk of economies used to send me into fits of despair. It all felt so hard, and so unintelligible. But the fundamental ideas of economics aren’t hard at all—those ideas are easy enough, enmeshed in a web of relationships that’s unintelligible because the web is so large, and the web is the world. Though I worked for $7.50 an hour at a Barnes and Noble after graduating from college, a wage so meager I survived off $2 frozen cheese pizzas from the Jewel/Osco, I was largely unaware of the books in that store that described the conditions of and reasons for my despair. I imagine I wasn’t so despairing then, either, as I am now: in my early twenties, time seemed so plastic and immense, and I’d not yet experienced its ravages firsthand.
My mother’s various, debilitating health problems, and her sudden, unexpected death, provided the stages for my own economic awakening, if you could call it such a thing. Time had finally gotten to me. I’d imagined time doing this, since I was little: I prayed to God to take me instead of my mother, there was no horror worse than imagining the experience of her death, and that horror had finally come to pass. I felt the passing of it—the horror of passing, of how little there is, in the end, to pass. And then even that littleness ends.
Marx’s configuration of and approach to time is perhaps as influential as Einstein’s (and Einstein was, himself, a socialist, which might be the ultimate political condition for someone who understands time for what it actually is). For Marx, there are two realms of existence: the realm of necessity, and the realm of freedom. The philosopher Martin Hägglund describes these realms in his wonderful book This Life, noting that “the starting point for [Marx’s critique of capitalism] is what it means that we are living beings”. The realm of necessity is the ugly, shitty stuff all living beings do in order to survive, which includes, of course, actual shitting (and the consumption of stuff to shit out later). But few living beings need to spend all their time focusing on survival. Dogs play. Birds sing. Yes, much of this behavior is probably necessary for survival, in an evolutionary sense—play teaches us, in simulative space, how to survive real problems in real space. But even the birds and the dogs waste their time doing, well, nothing. No species is perfectly productive. Marx argues that humans are different from other animals in that we can “relate to [our] activity as a free activity.” We humans can look at everything we do, from singing to shitting, and ask, “But what the fuck is the purpose of my life?”
The question, for Marx, is transformational. Only the ghoulish would say we exist purely in the realm of necessity, that is, we exist to merely survive; most people, I imagine, will tell you that we also exist in the realm of freedom, that is, we exist in order to get to the good stuff in life, the things we tend to think of as giving our lives meaning, which includes play, sex, movies and TV, and so on. Marx wants us to reduce the realm of necessity, and maximize the realm of freedom. An economy that values all human lives would necessarily aim to make all human lives freer, which would mean all human lives would have more time to pursue what makes life meaningful in the first place.
None of this is fundamentally difficult to understand. I run a seminar with my college students about the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom, and they all agree that they want to be able to do the things that give their lives meaning. They want to smoke the good stuff, drink the good stuff; they want to lift and be lifted themselves. They understand the indignities of the kinds of jobs young people usually have. When I ask them to describe shitty work experiences, the stories come so naturally, and so easily, of deranged bosses micro-managing them; of evil platitudes, like “If you can lean, you can clean”; of harassment from managers and customers alike.
Inevitably, we make our way to the value of their labor.
Are they paid a fair wage?
Always, someone in the room will say, “We earn what we deserve.”
“Do you think all labor should be paid a living wage?”
“These jobs are for teenagers.”
“But aren’t teenagers supposed to be in school? Who makes your Big Mac during the school day?”
For Marx, an economy that can’t even provide for the realm of necessity will eventually eat itself alive. And to mention that we have to subsidize low wages through social welfare programs like food stamps and Medicaid, does little to sway those students who believe some people just don’t deserve better. Some people, in this line of thinking, could never earn a living wage, because they themselves have not earned a reason for living.
It should be little surprise, then, that Elon Musk publicly states he has little room for the realm of freedom.
Musk would like you to think that he has “little time for recreation”, that he does not care about the realm of freedom, in part because the holders of capital need wage laborers to buy into the idea that if they work hard enough, and give enough of their labor to capital, they too could be the next Musk. That’s the bad-faith take on Musk. Perhaps, in good faith, he isn’t talking out of the side of his mouth. Perhaps Musk really doesn’t enjoy the good life. If that’s the case, then Musk should be free to do with his life what he wants—he just shouldn’t take the rest of us down with him, or, as it were, off to Mars.
But Musk, contrary to what a dirty Marxist like me might claim, isn’t wasting his wealth; his wealth is so enormous it can move an entire economy; it can, he claims, save us all from ourselves. The great derangement of vast wealth might be that it makes people like Musk believe they’ve earned not only their wealth, but the reins of the economy too, which includes the tiny laborers yoked to it. Musk shouldn’t be behind the reins or wheels of anything, especially for the CEO of a company that has solved the problem of dangerous drivers by creating a new problem: cars that are dangerous without drivers. Musk's other great idea, of boring huge tunnels beneath our cities for single Teslas to drive through on tracks, solves the old problem of throwing your money into a hole in the ground: it's only a problem if you aren't throwing enough of your money into it.
Have any of your problems been solved yet by Musk’s wealth? By Bill Gates? By Jeff Bezos? I’m an adjunct professor, and I see my economic future as a bleak flat plane, diminishing into an airless horizon. On clear nights, I sometimes like to star-gaze with my binoculars. I see Mars, a redness in that dark vacuum, which would take the better part of a year to reach by rocket, and whose environment is so hostile, any inhabitant would need to live beneath its red rock to shield themselves from the constant radiation that pummels the surface.
A basement life. A pressurized prison. A dead planet.
How does a world die?
Among Dark Souls realms, Blighttown might be the most reviled. Blighttown’s reputation for being punishing, in a game already so punishing, also has something to do with its performance on the Playstation 3, where frame rates plummeted into the low teens. The realm was, by some measures, quite literally unplayable, breaking the designers’ promises of brutal fairness elsewhere in the game.
Blighttown is a towering construct, a ziggurat of failure, a town of rotting planks, haphazard construction, crumbling infrastructure. It’s a maze of ladders and twisting gangways, hovering above a literal pit of poison: far below, a swamp of brown water and sickly marsh grass awaits any hapless hero who should happen to slip and fall. If you survive the fall, unlikely in a Souls game, the swamp water will probably end you, dealing as it does poison damage within seconds.
As in everything with Dark Souls, the punishment of Blighttown isn’t tangential to or a corollary of the experience of playing the game: the punishment is the game. The world of Dark Souls is brutal, and that includes the life in its cities, which are polluted and poisoned. There is no pleasure in this world, only a towering death.
The city represented to Marx the concentration of capital, a divergence from “the idiocy of rural life.” This is a slur of the original German—‘dem Idiotismus des Landlebens entrissen’— which more accurately refers to “the narrow horizons” of people in the countryside. Capitalism feeds on antagonism or what economists might more neutrally call “competition”. Competition between the cities and the countryside, between laborers, between companies, between nations. Marx wanted to bring to the front the inherent contradictions in capitalism, chief among them that it requires a working class of the employed and the unemployed, a constant antagonism between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. The minimum wage worker at Dairy Queen knows that if they fuck up, if the Blizzard falls from the cup when they flip it for the customer to demonstrate its gravity-defying value, there is always a pool of people ready to take their place (and keep wages low, and profit high).
The largest contradiction under capitalism, Hägglund writes, “resides in its own measure of value. […] Capitalism is therefore bound to increase the realm of necessity and decrease the realm of freedom.” Think about it this way: have you ever been praised for doing nothing? Our entire society is based around the deranged notion that doing nothing is like working to earn your own death.
Our entire society is based around the deranged notion that doing nothing is like working to earn your own death.
Death and decay really work Marx up. In Capital, Marx writes that “[c]apital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” The bloody suckage of capital should be obvious to anyone who has worked that Diary Queen job, or whose spines have been corrupted by standing all day in Barnes and Noble, kinds of labor that destroy the body, and where dignity, of the body or of the soul, is beside the point.
A dead or dying world, a world of vampires, in other words, has other derangements. In a dead or dying world, the unemployed are seen as vampires of the system, feeding on taxpayers, who have to subsidize the costs of keeping the unemployed alive, for a time. But remember that capitalism needs a pool of Renfields, so to speak, bodies and bodies of the unemployed to sweep into jobs and keep wages low. Hägglund names this derangement, pointing out that “when people in our society are not needed for wage labor and we regard this as a problem that needs a solution (“unemployment”) rather than as an opportunity to be seized”, we are in for a world of trouble.
A world is dying, dead, when it can no longer see that real value lies in our freedom to choose what we want to do, instead of having to devote our lives to doing what is necessary for survival. On a fundamental level, Marx wants to change our idea of value, which is, for most of us, impossible to see as anything other than what capitalism teaches us to see. This is perhaps why we feel our lives are valueless most acutely when we are unproductive. How many friends have you seen go on social media to say a day is ruined because they “produced” nothing by its end? I am probably that friend—I swing through depressive moods when writing doesn’t come to me, when I can’t “produce”. A therapist once told me, after I’d hammered again and again the idea that I was in therapy exactly because of my economic conditions, which seemed to me like an endless downward spiral toward a poisonous pit like Blighttown’s, the pit being poverty, this therapist once said, a bit impatiently, that perhaps I should be blogging.
He was both wrong and right, and you can blame him for this piece just as much as you can blame the larger system that demands I make something out of my days.
A world is dying, dead, when it can no longer see what’s valuable. As Hägglund puts it: “The revaluation of value discloses that socially available free time—rather than socially necessary labor time—is the real measure of our wealth.”
Time isn’t money. Time is free, or at least it should be, in a society that values it and the people who live inside it (time).
Earning…time? Is time…it? What could it mean to earn our own time? Does time belong to anyone? Is my time not…mine?
My gaming group came together under the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Analog space had become impossible to move through safely, and so we moved into digital space. We started with Fortnite, whose contingent space the games critic Tevis Thompson has written movingly and beautifully about. Thompson writes that Fortnite’s genius lies in its relationship to what he calls contingency, which he describes as something leading irrevocably into something else. Water running down the mountain. The glacier that carved that mountain. The meteor that wintered the world into those glaciers. Contingency also, of course, has something to do with time. Thompson writes,
Because what I am finally seeking is a new relationship to time. It’s what this whole essay has been about. For a control-freak perfectionist procrastinator like myself, this is no small thing. I’ve always sought to control time and contingency. I’m a former gamemaster who used to roleplay without dice, so resistant was I to chance. I’m still the fool who yearns for radical change and then struggles to walk out the front door. In the airless room of myself, I can pretend that the world is not passing away every moment, every single moment, never to return. Even though it is.
The world never returning—that’s Fortnite’s bold gamble, that players will keep hurtling forward with it, as the designers destroy, delete, and throw away their own creation. They are, of course, replacing what they’ve thrown away; there is no game with a radical enough relationship to time and decay, I imagine, to allow itself to devour itself, for there to be no game left at the end.
Thompson identifies the plasticity of time, that we can “pretend” to play with it, to mold and pause it, we can seem to store it in our pockets, for a later time. But time doesn’t stop, or if it does, we can’t stop with it—we hurtle forward. What’s ahead of us we know.
When my gaming group tired of Fortnite, we moved on. We tried out Starbound, a two-dimensional adventure game where you play as an explorer, traveling on a spaceship through a procedurally generated universe, landing on hostile planets where you mine deep beneath the surface, extracting resources and items to keep hurtling forward, to the next planet, and then the next. I both love and hate these kinds of games, because their feedback loops are both obvious and extractive. The game is the feedback loop. Mine, harvest, sell, upgrade, repeat. Mine, harvest, sell, upgrade, repeat. Starbound doesn’t necessarily have an endpoint, though the various tools you use to extract resources are finitely upgradeable. Your good drill can only drill good to a point. Beyond that drill point, the point of the game is yours to make something sharp out of.
Unlike Fortnite, Starbound can be played alone and offline. I didn’t need my gaming group to accompany me, and so I set out on my own. I became monomaniacal in my pursuit of the feedback loop, the patterns in the larger pattern. Remember how I love a pattern? I quickly advanced beyond my friends, who, when we met once a week, were still showing up with their primitive bows, their idiotic swords. Me? I had a fucking flamethrower. I sprayed the air above their heads with fire.
Starbound is also a base-builder, a style of game where you can use modular building blocks to construct complex structures. Our universe was contained on a shared server, so we could visit each other’s homes regardless of whether or not everyone was online. My friends had comfy hobbit holes, burrowed into the earth, lit with warm torch light.
I had a towering castle, capped with a throne room that, if you dared to ascend the golden steps of its looming dais, set off a security alarm.
I began to feel like the Elon Musk of friends. A planet-mover. I felt the inequities of my capital relative to theirs.
My friends didn’t have the time I had to devote to the game.
I noticed that when I tried to give them things, weapons, say, or resources, they hesitated to take them. They hadn’t earned them. The game was teaching us that my flamethrower had value because I had labored for it. I had put in the socially necessary time. Accepting my gifts would destroy the entire feedback loop of the game, it would destroy the game itself.
(Greg, who hated the game from the beginning, was the only one who had no hesitation in taking my things.)
So I started leaving my gifts instead. I would teleport to their homes when they were offline, invading their hearths like they were my hearth. My Muskiness had no boundaries. I opened their chests and drawers. I saw their pitiful wares, their pitiful stores. I wept for their poverty, my bounty. I left them things. Magic wands. Flamethrowers. Ballistics. Rare minerals extracted from planets with environments so hostile, they couldn’t possibly visit them yet with their equipment. I buried my largess in their drawers; if they found it, all well and good, but they could never accept it if they saw me do it.
Didn’t they see what I’d done for them? I’d destroyed the feedback loop to save them the time. I’d ruined my time so they didn’t have to ruin theirs.
On some nights, I would login to visit my lonely castle. I would ascend its many staircases. I would sit on my throne, watching the quick day/night cycle of the game world, the evening blushing into night, the night paling to day, as the night in the real world outside my windows passed far more slowly, as if it wasn't passing at all.
I would sit on my throne, watching the quick day/night cycle of the game world, the evening blushing into night, the night paling to day, as the night in the real world outside my windows passed far more slowly, as if it wasn't passing at all.
Anor Londo looms above the world of Dark Souls. If you look up, early in your journey, you see only a castle’s curtain wall, the castle it’s protecting obscured, out of sight.
The world of Dark Souls is dead, dying, decayed. Early in the game, you travel through poisonous pits like Blighttown’s, into the darkness of the Catacombs (which becomes darker still, pitch black in fact, in the Tomb of the Giants), into the fetid sewers of the Depths.
Anor Londo is different. When you finally reach it, yanked above the curtain wall by a team of hideous gargoyles (don’t ask), the reveal is stunning. It might be gaming’s most astonishing reversal. Anor Londo is gorgeous, streaked in evening light, its architecture a slur of white marble Gothic structures. Where the world below was ruinous, its infrastructure rotted and crumbling, Anor Londo looks, at first glance, like a medieval vision of heaven. Should such a heaven loom over such a hell?
When I visited Notre Dame, I was stunned by its elaborate vision of beauty, its Gothic complications an articulation of the impoverishment of man faced with the bounty of God. I couldn’t help but imagine what the rest of Paris looked like beneath the mullions and tracery of its famous rose window, nor what the people in its time must have made of it in relation to themselves. Were they worthy of it? What madness allowed such beauty in the same neighborhood of such suffering?
In short order, the rose-tinted beauty of Anor Londo fades. It is, like the rest of Dark Souls, brutal, decayed, rotten, dying. The eternal evening light is actually an illusion, one that you can dispel by slaying the god responsible for casting it in the first place. Doing so sends Anor Londo into a tumbling darkness far more consistent with the world it looms over.
The contradiction is built into the world. Brutalism doesn’t spring from what’s good. The rot has a center, and from the outside, it can look beautiful.
THE KILN OF THE FIRST FLAME
The Kiln of the First Flame is the end of Dark Souls. It is, according to the lore buried in the game, for the player to find or never find, the place where Gwyn, the Lord of Cinder, sacrificed himself, to keep the flame lit in this dying world. So long as the flame remains lit, the dying world is not dead.
The flame might be our oldest symbol of earning it, and of it not being enough. The flame will go out. Maybe we do not deserve the flame in the first place.
At the end of the Coen brothers’ masterpiece No Country for Old Men, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tells his wife about a dream he had the night before.
Okay. Two of 'em. Both had my father.
It's peculiar. I'm older now'n he
ever was by twenty years. So in a
sense he's the younger man. Anyway,
first one I don't remember so well
but it was about meetin' him in town
somewheres and he give me some money
and I think I lost it. The second
one, it was like we was both back in
older times and I was on horseback
goin' through the mountains of a
night. ...goin' through this pass in the
mountains. It was cold and snowin',
hard ridin'. Hard country. He rode
past me and kept on goin'. Never
said nothin' goin' by. He just rode
on past and he had his blanket wrapped
around him and his head down...
...and when he rode past I seen he
was carryin' fire in a horn the way
people used to do and I could see
the horn from the light inside of
it. About the color of the moon. And
in the dream I knew that he was goin'
on ahead and that he was fixin' to
make a fire somewhere out there in
all that dark and all that cold, and
I knew that whenever I got there he
would be there. Out there up ahead.
Ed’s dream haunts me. His father, long gone, lighting the way for him. Lighting the way for what? Death? He was up there. Up ahead. Where? In death?
When I’m most afraid of death, I think of Ed’s dream, and I think of my mother. I think of her already being there, having lit the way. Out there up ahead.
When I tried to save my friends the time I had spent in Starbound, I was trying to save them from earning it. Wasn’t I?
We are doomed to ideas of earning it, so long as we are doomed to a world that values the wrong things.
Most of us understand there is something fundamentally valuable about our time. Most of us simply do not have the means to extract that value, to revalue value. We are worked to death, and when we’re not working, we feel dead.
But play interests me because play is where we go to do things we don’t want to go and do, necessarily, in the real world. In play we can kill, we can lie, cheat and steal, and outside of play we aren’t killers, we aren’t liars or cheaters or thieves.
It seems to me that play might be one place where we begin to play at revaluing what’s actually valuable. Returning to time, again and again. To earning time. To earning the freedom to do with our time what we actually want to do with it.
In a conversation about difficulty, my friend Jed, who I had once tried to give my flamethrower, and who had looked at my flamethrower with something bordering on despair, said that he tends to avoid games that punish you. Games that take, in a manner of speaking, your time from you, again and again. Games that waste your time.
Jed was right. Those games are terrible because they waste our time. But everything we engage takes our time from us. The inevitable precondition of our existence is that we lose our time, and that our time is losable in the first place. Our time is valuable because it is scarce, and because we only have one shot at it in this life. Most games cheat death, and so they also cheat our relationship to death, which is one of dread and fear if, like me, you believe there’s nothing after all of this. Nothing to be frightened of, after all. Most games don’t have the capacity to make us feel fear or dread, to make us aware of what time we have in a way that is productively unproductive. Those games devour our time, and they devour us too.
But then, no games make me feel dread or fear in the way that Dark Souls makes me feel dread or fear. In games like Starbound, the feedback loop—extract, harvest, sell, upgrade, repeat—is the game. Dark Souls has its own feedback loops, certainly; you live, die, repeat yourself a thousand times, through the same loops.
I have walked the same marble paths of Anor Londo hundreds of times, turned the same agonizingly slow gears to raise bridges, waited the same agonizing minutes for everything to fall in place so I can head forward, to my death. I have felt the waste. I have felt the time passing. I have thought, “This game is sucking me dry. This game is a vampire.” I have never been so angry at a game as I have at Dark Souls. The Four Kings, deep in the deepest part of the world, in the Abyss, brought me to the edge of my mind.
I texted my friend Andy, who was also playing the game at the same time, to tell him I was giving up. I couldn’t do it. I could not beat the Four Kings.
“Have you tried the Havel armor?”
“No. That armor makes me fat-roll.”
(Fat-rolling, the name fans have given when your gear is so heavy, your avatar doesn’t so much roll as belly-flop across the ground.)
I tried it. It worked.
“I fucking hate this game, and I fucking love it.”
The game in Dark Souls isn’t the feedback loop, the dying over and over again and getting back up again. Fine, the game is that, but that is the lesser game inside a better game. The better game is the failure. Full stop. The total experience of not being good enough. With nothing being good enough. With never being capable of earning it. And yet proceeding all the same, or not. There are things in Dark Souls I simply cannot do, enemies I cannot beat. I will never be enough for this game. This is how Dark Souls can be that rare game that is far better when you aren’t actively playing it. I discovered, in fact, that the further I was removed from the experience of play, the better and better the game grew in my mind.
The game in Dark Souls isn’t the feedback loop, the dying over and over again and getting back up again. Fine, the game is that, but that is the lesser game inside a better game. The better game is the failure. Full stop. The total experience of not being good enough. With nothing being good enough.
Failure isn’t something we’re trained to accept in life, much less in games. The unemployed are viewed as failures: they sit on the margins of productive society, waiting to be let back into an arc of success, of productivity and wages, of a chance at transcendence, at capital. When I ran my friends through a tabletop role-playing game called Mörk Borg, set in a dying and hostile world similar to Dark Souls, my friend Kevin said he enjoyed it, but he didn’t like his character being always just at the edge of death. Of failure.
“That’s the game, though. The risk. The real risk of not being good enough.”
What if we can never earn it? What if it will never be enough?
I'm back at the basalt quarry. It’s the coldest month of winter, and we’ve had several weeks of heavy snowfall. These paths aren’t walked that often. In the snow I see my footprints again and again, my old loops, the pattern of my days. I see that my footprints never get that close, to the edge. Never enough. Failure. That failure can be a kind of grace doesn't escape me. There is something terribly hopeful in that configuration.
I once told my therapist that I worry that if I ever killed myself, my friends would think I’d done it for all the wrong reasons. They would never get to the end of my death, just as my student was certain I would never get to the end of his argument. My therapist was listening, because I paid him to listen. But a captured audience isn't the same as a rapt one.
But a captured audience isn't the same as a rapt one.
As Kafka was dying from laryngeal tuberculosis, his disease made it impossible for him to eat anything. The swelling in his mouth was extreme enough that he could no longer find nourishment, and he would ultimately die of starvation. Around the time of his death he was working on “A Hunger Artist,” one of his best stories. That story is about a man, famous for his ability to go long periods without eating. He is famous—for a time. People gather around his cage to watch him be hungry. And then the time shifts, and the attitudes of the time shift with it. By the end of his career, his employers have forgotten he’s even in the cage.
Finally the cage caught the attention of a supervisor, and he asked the attendant why they had left this perfectly useful cage standing here unused with rotting straw inside. Nobody knew, until one man, with the help of the table with the number on it, remembered the hunger artist. They pushed the straw around with a pole and found the hunger artist in there. “Are you still fasting?” the supervisor asked. “When are you finally going to stop?” “Forgive me everything,” whispered the hunger artist. Only the supervisor, who was pressing his ear up against the cage, understood him. “Certainly,” said the supervisor, tapping his forehead with his finger in order to indicate to the spectators the state the hunger artist was in, “we forgive you.” “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “But we do admire it,” said the supervisor obligingly. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then, we don’t admire it,” said the supervisor, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I had to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist.
After the hunger artist is found dead, they replace him with a young panther, and the crowd comes back. This panther, with its “noble body, equipped with everything necessary, almost to the point of bursting, also appeared to carry freedom around with it. That seemed to be located somewhere or other in its teeth, and its joy in living came with such strong passion from its throat that it was not easy for spectators to keep watching. But they controlled themselves, kept pressing around the cage, and had no desire to move on.”
Kafka died in terrible pain, he did not go cleanly. He died unknown to others, himself, I like to imagine he would agree, first among them. We don’t earn our deaths, not even the most despicable among us, not even the most despairing. What could we ever pay for that? Nothing would be enough to earn it, and yet nothing is enough to escape it.