I’ve posted this in the past, but it seemed relevant to today’s post.
A few years ago, the faint trill of Majula’s Theme whispered me awake at 5AM. In the video game Dark Souls 2, it’s a reminder that you’re home, safe from danger. That morning, it was a gentle alarm, nudging my wife and me from slumber. I nudged Jena, reminding her that we had to run up and down a mountain that day. After a quick breakfast and coffee to brace ourselves for the physical calamity that was about to befall us, I found myself with a few extra moments before conquering what I had once considered impossible.
The music of Majula was still whispering. I had a dragon to slay.
Sinh, the Slumbering Dragon, the slayer of Sir Yorgh, a toxic nightmare that had besieged the Sunken King’s once mighty land and loomed three times the size of my home. He was also a cloud of 1’s and 0’s that only existed when I powered on my PS3.
I only had one shot to defeat him before I had to go. In my previous attempts, I’d barely hit the colossal boss. But this morning, something had changed. I was knocking it down one peg at a time. Climbing further towards victory, and though he baited me, just out of reach, I wouldn’t let him. One foot in front of the other.
The dragon fell, and then so did the mountain.
And that’s why I love video games.
Depending on where you are and what you’re doing, life’s obstacles can seem insurmountable. Impossible. And without a clear goal, life can leave you to wonder and worry over vague, frustrating questions about your future and your happiness.
Video games say “The hell with that noise” with a clear goal. A task for you to achieve. A “good ending” to unlock. Defeat the boss. Rescue the princess. Move fucking right. Who cares that you can’t find love or that you hate your job when you’ve already beaten Sephiroth and saved the world?
It’s escapist, sure – but don’t we all need that in some way? It’s comforting to know, in the back of my head, that “This game was made to be beaten, so it can and should be won!”
Because that’s not necessarily the case in real life.
Maybe I got soft because games say you can win and life doesn’t come with that guarantee, but… shouldn’t I approach it that way? Shouldn’t I assume that, no matter how impossible the goal, it can be accomplished if I try and try again? That if I push hard enough, I’ll get through it?
Devil May Cry 3 was the first game I played that “pushed back”. This over the top hack and slash adventure game with a slick style was rough, and I found myself dying repeatedly on the second level. I fell into a slower groove with this game, conquering its complex and cool combat system and crushing difficulty through sheer persistence. Fuck easy mode. This game dared to challenge me? Please. I knew I could beat it. I knew it was possible. It was made to be beaten, right?
And then I met the asshats. Agni and Rudra.
I had felled weaker enemies one after another, but the bosses had so far been a one-on-one affair, and though the power balance was always in their favor, I never had too much trouble with them. But a two-on-one boss fight? For a week, my hands couldn’t keep up as I got trounced over and over again. It felt unfair. It felt impossible to beat…
And then I beat it.
And it was fucking amazing.
I kept chasing that thrill, both in the gaming world and the real one. If something seems impossible, maybe it isn’t if you try, try, try, try, try (and try) again. I could get in shape, be a writer, and get the girl if I just kept going. The second two did happen. The first… not so much. I toiled away at a desk all day, the fat slouching and making a permanent home in my gut. But hey, two out of three ain’t bad, I told myself.
And though I had a wife, family and friends, I still found a pleasure in fighting the bad guys on my own. I wanted to beat Agni, Rudra and all the unfair combos that games could throw at me because… I don’t know, maybe I needed that reminder that anything I did, no matter how crazy, was possible. And my dream game that delivered that in spades was the original From Software masterpiece, Dark Souls.
At the start of Dark Souls, you’re isolated, alone, with a broken weapon, dread and doom lurking in the shadows. It mirrored my own feelings at the time. I was feeling isolated and alone after losing a friend, and as with Dark Souls, there were no instructions to tell me how to survive the ordeal. Just “Keep fighting, and don’t die.” And in a way, Dark Souls proved to be an effective therapy. Victory was uncertain and shrouded in difficulty.
But it wasn’t impossible, and that’s what got me through it.
It challenged me through trial, error, practice, and persistence. I started as a frail husk, not even human, toiling in an environment determined to kill me, and I watched myself grow into a fearless powerhouse, a warrior capable of smiting down the greatest foes. I walked through battle after battle, no opponent able to harm me. I was riding high.
Until I arrived in Anor Londo and met Agni and Rudra 2.0 – Ornstein and Smough.
And once more, I found myself in a 2-on-1 slaughterfest.
Ornstein and Smough are internet famous for their difficulty, coming right at the end of the second act of the game, challenging everything you’ve learned so far, putting your reflexes and all you have become to the test. Though the fight was unfair, I had the ability to summon someone to help me.
But I wasn’t interested. If I could beat Agni and Rudra, I could beat Ornstein and Smough. 2-on-1 suits me just fine.
But this time, 1 was less lonely, because I had my wife there to cheer me on.
Jena isn’t into video games. But the dying world of Dark Souls was like a painting, twisted and broken by the ravages of time, but one you couldn’t look away from. Every area and enemy told a story of a time long since past, and the deeper you delved into the painting, the greater the story became. She was especially invested in this fight, this wall preventing us from venturing further into the tome. She wanted to see it through with me. And she was the ultimate cheerleader, her scream of delight when I defeated the deadly duo them greater than any trophy I’ve ever received from a game. It was a hard won victory, and I was glad it wasn’t alone for a change.
Jena cheered me on through more than that. Years later, I finally braced myself to get in shape “for real” – this time, picking up running, which Jena had recently taken a shine to. Gone were the days of hitting the keyboard with my fingers like a punching bag before moving onto the Playstation. I now ended (or sometimes started) my days transitioning between running and walking, training for a Halloween themed 5k I’d signed us up for, our Mario and Luigi costumes at the ready.
As we trained, I tripped and stumbled a lot. I cursed and hated it, swearing that once this 5k had come and gone, I was done. Agni, Rudra, Ornstein, and Smough were all pushovers compared to how much my legs ached and cried with every workout. But I made a commitment, so I gritted my teeth and kept going, hating every second of it. I could beat this. I could do this.
And so I did.
And after months of training and crossing that finish line, I celebrated by going out to buy real running shoes. Running was hard (and it still is, really), but the masochist in me had come to enjoy the pain. Well, not quite. I didn’t like running so much as I loved having run. It was a fair fight, 1-on-1, me versus something bigger than me. And every victory filled me with a rush, an elation different than the one that video games gave me, but equally wonderful.
I actually received a medal for my time in that first race. I came in 3rd place. And looking at the time, I would have gotten second if I hadn’t slowed down when Jena was flagging a bit. But she got me there. She was my cheerleader and I wanted to be hers. Besides, I liked the idea of us finishing together too much. For a change, I wanted to be the 2 vs. the 1. Hand in hand, together, we crossed the finish line and overcame.
After that 5k we did an 8k, and more recently, a 10k.
A lot has changed since then. I’ve moved, I’ve made new friends and lost some others. Life has proven to be just as difficult as before, and just as unrelenting. Which is why video games are still a constant source of motivation for me, such as From Software’s follow up title, Bloodborne.
Like me, the game had changed. Evolved. It was more confrontational. More demanding. Gone were the days of plotting and picking your attacks like a chess player. Bloodborne is a game of coordinated, unrelenting aggression.
And persistence. Lots of it.
No boss embodied this more than Rom, the Vacuous Spider. Keeping your distance? Rom would pelt you with powerful ice blasts. Getting too close? Her army of spiders would overwhelm and devour you. You must dodge back and forth, shifting your attention between Rom and her kin. Countless attempts ended in disaster, mostly because I found it so difficult to track the spiders and Rom simultaneously. I couldn’t watch both at once. It was new variation on the 2-on-1 fights that had always given me trouble, and the hardest one yet.
But like with running, I now had someone on my side. Jena was on the front lines, playing my second set of eyes. She watched Rom and warned me of incoming attacks and where they were coming from, while I focused my attention on clearing out the spiders. We worked together. Rom and her spiders were just one foe, and we were two. We overwhelmed her, and as my blade descended in the killing stroke, I released a satisfying roar of victory, my hands shaking as a wave of blood splattered my character.
Grueling and violent, but God, how satisfying it felt.
Video games taught me the fight isn’t always fair. Nor is it even. And maybe they’ve fooled me, telling me that I can win.
But I wish to be the fool.
I would rather believe that life’s big problems are conquerable through persistence than resign myself to the idea that victory is an impossible daydream. It may not always be fun or even exhilarating. But it’s not impossible. Pain and hardship are surmountable obstacles. It may take time, but just persist. Learn. Adapt. Consider.
One step at a time.