Dark Souls, Identity, and Internalized Failure


The first time I played Dark Souls, it broke me. I actually cried.

I’m one of those silly gamers that has built some kind of identity around being good at games. I learn quickly, and especially at action/adventure games I can usually pick up a controller and be good at a game within a short learning curve.

But here I was dying over and over to the second boss of the game, making no progress, gaining no new skills. And there was my friend blithely running through dungeons in no armor.

I wasn’t going to go to bed until this thing was dead, but as I got more tired, I started to internalize my failures more and more. The point was clear, I wasn’t actually good at games; I’d been unknowingly living the fake geek girl lie my whole life—here was the proof.

I couldn’t even kill the second boss.

At age 7, my after-school daycare had a Super Nintendo with Street Fighter II. I preferred Mortal Kombat, but the daycare didn’t carry it—probably due to the violence and controversy. But Street Fighter was still fun and the boys would bounce around excitedly, ooh’ing and aaah’ing as various players won and lost. I was up.

I chose Chun-Li, the only female on the roster. I was fighting against John, a 10-year-old who always won. He chose Ryu, who everyone knew to be the best character. I had never fought with the big kids.

“John, go easy on her. She’s just a girl.”

That was the first time I ever realized I was the only girl in the group. The other girls were all off in a corner quietly playing with Barbies.

“I don’t care if she’s a girl, I’m not going easy! She’s going to lose.” I didn’t say anything. I knew I probably would lose.

John won the first round, killing me with a dramatic Dragon Punch. I fully expected to lose, but something in John’s smug smile and the way the boys mimicked Chun Li’s death cry made me furious. I somehow won the second round through blind rage and pure luck. The boys hooted in anticipation around me. The last round was close, but I won with something anticlimactic, probably a low kick or something; that wasn’t the part that stuck with me.

I was euphoric. The boys jumped excitedly around me, congratulating me. I had a reputation for being good at Mario and Sonic, but those weren’t competitive games; this was the first time I had demonstrated that I was good compared to other players. I had beaten the best Street Fighter player, and an older kid at that.  And that’s when John jumped up angrily.

“You’re pretty good for a girl,” he declared angrily. “But you only won because I went easy.” He stormed off. The next boy to take up the controller beat me.

In that moment it was all taken away. I remained good at videogames “for a girl” into college.

None of the guys around me were internalizing their Dark Souls failures in the way that I was. They figured the game was hard, or maybe they hadn’t optimized their character, or that the designers were sadist assholes, but the problem was with the game or maybe with their strategy not with them as players. They never once thought that they might not be good at the game, much less that they might not be good at videogames in general; so why did I feel that way? My partner couldn’t understand why I was getting so angry with every death. I couldn’t even beat the second boss.

I didn’t yet know that Dark Souls has a reputation for being a punishingly hard game. I didn’t know that everyone dies—repeatedly—and that the only way to overcoming that is to learn. I didn’t know that gaining knowledge is the real leveling process, or that every Souls player has to pay the blood price with countless deaths before they can carry on. I also didn’t know most of the fights are trivial in co-op.

Everyone told me I would love this game. But I didn’t feel it until the euphoria of killing that second boss.

It was the same euphoria I’d felt when beating John. Before I was good for a girl. Back when I was just “good” sans qualifiers. I had mastered this boss. And I was myself again.

Each boss was another cycle of depression and euphoria, but the emotional highs and lows of each grew less dramatic. Slowly, eventually, I stopped internalizing and started realizing that all games rest on an individual skill curve unique to particular sets of mechanics.

The only reason I had been able to pick up other games so quickly is because they all imitate each other. Games are designed around the idea that designers should default to “conventions” so that players feel comfortable with things like controls. In fact, many consoles require that designers do things like put the “back” functionality or the “pause” menu on a certain button. So with all games imitating each other, skills in one often translate to others of the same genre. And the more games you play, the better you become at other games, even ones you’ve never played before. You develop systemic understandings that translate easily from one game to the next.

But with Dark Souls the systemic vocabulary I had built from previous action-adventure games was actually hindering my progress. Non-boss “trash” enemies aren’t supposed to be powerful, but in Dark Souls they will kill you if you mistime a single attack. Your shield is supposed to infinitely protect you from attacks. Starting area enemies aren’t supposed to be that smart, and bosses aren’t supposed to kill you in one hit. But then again, it does kind of make sense that a dragon should be powerful enough to kill you without much thought—I mean, it’s a dragon.

As soon as I stopped internalizing, I got better. Combat is slow and clunky, which to me read as realistic, but eventually I mastered the timing of waiting, parrying, and dodging. Eventually I got good.

Eventually I was me again. Good at games. Full stop.