A few years ago during an online counseling session with a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist, we discussed how playing video games would serve as a way for me to escape the otherwise constant anxiety that was going on in my brain. I could transport myself to a completely different world and focus on a challenge I knew I could tangibly overcome as I took control of an avatar that didn’t have the worries and neuroses that I did.
Games as escapism isn’t a new concept, but the therapist was clearly not a fan of it – believing that the time I spent shutting down my existential worries to focus on the game was not only time spent away from facing my anxiety, but that it did nothing to stop me being anxious both before and after game time. Once I turned off the game, she asked, did my anxiety come back? It did, of course, but I was still pretty shocked to find a therapist trying to tell me that the precious little time in my day where I was anxiety-free was a bad thing.
The game in question was The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I will maintain to this very day that it was a huge help to me in terms of showing me the power of escapism and I will forever cherish it for being my safe place. Being Geralt, hunting monsters, talking to locals and exploring The Continent not only stopped me from thinking too much, but my headaches would go away, my dizziness would subside, the tingling in my limbs would be unnoticeable, and I would feel a sense of enjoyment and adrenaline that meant I no longer felt exhausted. In recent months, I’ve started to feel like my therapist may have seen more of a benefit to me playing games if I’d told her I was playing Dark Souls III instead.
Despite the fact that I’ve completed Dark Souls III already, when I go back and play it now I am still absolutely on edge almost the entire time. Dark Souls III isn’t me escaping my anxiety, it’s a virtual manifestation of it right on my TV.
One of my biggest anxiety issues is to catastrophize almost everything that I can perceive as a potential threat – no matter how miniscule, or even made up, that threat is – until it spells certain doom for me and my existence. From expecting to get kicked off the pitch as a 13 year-old playing football to being trampled in a mosh pit as a 17 year-old punk – I will expect the worst, push through the fear, and be pleasantly surprised when I return home absolutely fine having had a whale of a time. Dark Souls III has already shown me its worst, and yet it still has me thinking that I am going to be scared, defeated and enraged at every turn.
Much like that Chimaira concert in Glasgow (you know, where a weedy English kid like me goes to a metalcore gig in Scotland and gets stabbed because people can smell the England on him) way back when, nothing in Dark Souls III is going to literally kill me. What it will still do is have me edge my character around every corner with cautious trepidation because I know what’s coming and I know that I probably was killed by it the first time round.
You’d think I’d be better prepared and know I can tackle everything it can throw at me, but something about From Software’s game design prevents that mindset from taking over for me. Make no mistake, that is absolutely not a bad thing. Even the most minor of enemies in Dark Souls can make you come unstuck, as can even the most insignificant of problems to an irritable and anxious mind. While speed-runners will tell you that running from those enemies is actually the best tactic, running from things is one of my real life traits that I refuse to employ in Souls.
Anxiety may still dominate my sleepless nights and make me feel physically exhausted, achy and dizzy, but a key thing I’ve learned to cope with it is that submitting to it is not an option. Whether it be strenuous physical exercise, a job interview or even writing an article for a games website, I have to try and live my life in spite of my anxiety, and not wait for it to pass before I feel I can live the life I want.
I will never have played Dark Souls III enough to be at a level where it isn’t going to make me tense and potentially irritated, but I will also never let those feelings diminish the joy I get at the end of a tough boss battle or when cashing in a mound of souls to create a new build with exciting new weapons and gear. I love Dark Souls in spite of the way it keeps me on edge, maybe even because of it.
When I said that Dark Souls III is a virtual manifestation of my anxiety, I wasn’t referring exclusively to the hardships and misery – it also mirrors that feeling I’ve had over and over again that, almost always, nothing is as terrible as I’d made it seem in my head. It’s such a bizarre thing to take pride in, but the feeling of finding a situation that gave me anxiety wasn’t actually all that bad, and was actually enjoyable, almost makes me appreciate the good times that little bit more. They weren’t just good, they were the opposite of what I expected. Think of it as enjoyment multiplied by overwhelming relief.
Stepping outside of an anxious scenario, I can usually find reflective clarity as an additional coping method. Despite me saying that I’ll never be at a level where I’m going to be casually engaging a chat feed while speed-running the game, I have obviously gotten better at Dark Souls III since I first played it, and beating some of the bosses solo – even on my first attempt – will provide that aforementioned sense of overwhelming relief. Not only was that boss nowhere near as bad as I remembered while walking up to its arena, I actually defeated it with relative ease. Reassurance may not be how I go into some scenarios, but it really can work in retrospect as a way to go back to that anxious thought process and debunk it in hindsight – something I’ve done for as long as I remember.
It may be the tool of the noob, but Dark Souls‘ co-op system is another excellent reflection of coping with anxiety. I can actually remember a more naive time when I didn’t even know how the summon system worked, and I assumed that anyone I summoned could, and would, kill me. You can probably imagine the immense comfort I felt when that first bowing phantom showed up to help me kick some ass. Hell, even a lot of the red phantoms will start their invasion by greeting you with a gentlemanly salute before they try and ruin your fun.
It’s the overwhelming sense of empathy that summoning a phantom in Dark Souls gives you that can actually feel sorely missing in real life. Speak to a therapist and, nine times out of ten, they probably won’t have suffered from what you’re going through. Summon a phantom in Dark Souls, and you can bet that poor bastard had to slog their way through that boss at some point. They get it, they know you need help and they know exactly how to help you. A feeling of anxiety – even when speaking to someone qualified and professionally employed to help you – can often still feel like an isolating experience. You can acknowledge a therapist’s sympathy and listen to their advice, but they can’t jump into the boss arena that is your brain and pepper that fucker with Soul Darts alongside you like a Phantom can in Dark Souls.
Some players will tell you that you should feel bad for seeking help with a boss, but for someone like me it really is soothing to see a stranger – someone you may never even speak to – jumping and celebrating with you after you have overcome your shared obstacle. Much like in real life, when you’ve experienced feelings of worry, desperation and despair about something, there are few feelings more rewarding than being able to tell someone else “I’ve been there.”
I regularly play Souls online with a friend of mine, and guiding him seems to help make my trials and tribulations with the game feel all the more redundant. It’s classic drama triangle stuff; no longer am I the lonely victim, I’m the rescuer – the empathizer who’s suffered so that my friend doesn’t have to. I’m calm, I’m Daddy Cool. Even though I’m going through the exact same things in the game that made me tense, the pressure on myself is lifted and my new perspective is the empowerment to help someone in need.
So, as much as Dark Souls III still has me anxious a lot of the time, it’s an anxiety I can beat. It’s an anxiety that people can genuinely help me with, and can be reciprocated to help others. It’s an anxiety with a tangible light at the end of the tunnel and a palpable sense of pride in my success. Real anxiety is definitely not as easy to conquer as the Soul of Cinder, but using Dark Souls as a perspective, warts and all, certainly does feel more rewarding than running away to Novigrad for some sexy times with Triss Merigold. I’m glad that not every game presents itself as such a mirror to my worrisome mind, but when one does, and I come out feeling victorious, I’m all the more grateful for it.