Dark Souls 3’s Relationship to Mental Health

In a society that values power and achievement, young people sometimes struggle to find their way to those outcomes. As a result studies show increasing incidents of mental illness among youth. According to a federal study (Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 2018),  depressive episodes among teens rose from 8.7% to 13.2% between 2005 and 2012.

Dark Souls 3 is a fantasy role playing game made by FromSoftware. Having sold 13 million copies, the game has a cult-like fan-base. At the 2017 Game Awards it  was nominated for four different awards, including Game of the Year. 

Many popular video games today are power fantasies, meaning they enable players to embody characters with powers greater than their own, empowering them to accomplish unimaginable things. Rather than elevate its players, Dark Souls in stark contrast, makes its players feel weak and insignificant. While power fantasy games speak to the gamer masses, Dark Souls provides a refuge for  the 20% of youth (NAMI, 2019) struggling with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.

 Dark Souls is known for its extreme difficulty and its dark and depressing tone. Many of its themes reflect the thoughts and feelings of people with mental health issues like depression. 

This paper highlights the darkness and tragedy shared by Dark Souls and those experiencing mental illness. In addition it exposes the stigma of mental illness and how that plays out in our social structures. Finally, it illustrates how the game offers players relief by providing possible coping mechanisms useful when dealing with their real-world mental illness.

The main objective in Dark Souls is for a player to perform an act called the “linking of the fire.” Successfully “linking the fire” lifts the curse of the undead, but only for a time. So just like the tragedy of mental illness, “linking the fire” is a dark, daily grind that never fully disappears. The flame like mental health challenges ebbs and flows. The character you play as is called an unkindled. Unkindled are people who had previously attempted to link the fire, but failed and were burnt to ash. The fate of the unkindled is analogous to the way many people feel about depression. People with mental illness often experience anxiety, insecurity and a sense of never being good enough. A Dark Souls character, Hawkward the Deserter echoes similar sentiment when he suggests “We unkindled are worthless…And they’d have us seek the Lords of Cinder…We’re not fit to lick their boots,” referring to the Lords of Cinder, responsible for linking the fire.   

During Dark Souls players often fight alone, perpetuating a sense of being isolated and weak with seemingly endless waves of enemies trying to kill you. There is almost nobody left in the world who is sane, and players only company are horrifying creatures. This pervasive sense of isolation while playing Dark Souls mimics the isolation and social exclusion felt by  many people facing mental illness. According to Oliver Drakeford Therapy 80% of teens report feelings of loneliness, and nearly a third of teens report these feelings as persistent and painful. 

Historically, society has placed a stigma on people with mental illness. Despite our growing understanding of it, many negative views of mental health issues still stand. Media in many cases contributes stigma against mental illness, by perpetuating fears that people with mental health issues are dangerous. Media reports often link mental illness with violence, or portray people with mental health problems as criminal, evil, or very disabled and unable to live normal, fulfilled lives. That said, other forms of media, such as video games like Dark Souls offer opportunities to educate, raise awareness and increase support for those with mental illness.  Overcoming hardships is an essential part of the game. The game’s mechanics encourage players to face their troubles. During the game players face monstrous beasts that seem impossible to defeat. And when a player is victorious, the game rewards him/her with a sense of overwhelming accomplishment and the words “Heir of Fire Destroyed” is blasted over the audio track, increasing the player’s strength. 

Furthermore, Dark Souls also gives players the opportunity to seek and receive help from others. In game, you can use things called summon signs to get help from others in order to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. These summon signs only appear when another person playing the game decides to take the time to help somebody else.

Dark Souls connects many of its themes to mental health issues today. Of course it’s not the only work of culture to do so. For example, the book Still Life Tornado by A. S. King reveals the struggles of a teenage girl, Sarah, overwhelmed by the challenge of an abusive home life. In addition, the movie Frozen, introduces a main character Elsa who believes her ice powers make her a bad person. So she creates a life of isolation to keep herself from feeling anything. Finally, an online community called The Mighty (themighty.com) surveyed it’s more than 2-million members who all face mental health challenges, about songs that helped them deal with depression. Mental health is a serious issue facing young people today. Fortunately, many elements of our culture, like music, books, movies and video games offer avenues for teens to learn more, find coping strategies, and discover they are not alone.

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