Anyone who’s played the Souls series, or its spinoff, Bloodborne, can tell you with assured confidence that these games are fairly stressful to play. If one were to try and pin down the operative emotion that motivates players forward, often at an agonizingly slow pace, it would absolutely be fear.
In a franchise where there are deadly (and I mean deadly) enemies around every single corner, where the floor is wont to crumble beneath your feet with just a slight cracking noise as warning, and where even a treasure chest can pose an ominous threat, feelings of fear, stress, and anxiety are a pretty common malady. As if that weren’t enough, every time you reach a white fog gate (which denotes a boss encounter), you can be almost certain that you’re going to be dead as dust within a good thirty seconds.
Which begs the question: why on Earth would anyone wanna put themselves through this again? Yes, each game features a New Game + mode, but after surviving the heart-stopping gauntlet of a Souls game once, why would you ever want to go back for more punishment? Well, it’s a good question, and there’s a good answer too.
Though it may sound crazy, replaying a game like this is actually therapeutic in a lot of ways. Why? Well, because you, like everyone, have likely faced fearful situations in your life–situations that you persevered through, worked hard against, and eventually overcame. Looking back at them now, you probably wonder what made a lot of them scary in the first place, but scary they were. However, one of the central experiences of the human condition is that of facing our fears and conquering them. Difficult and harrowing though it may be, the act of facing something that causes us distress and overcoming it is something which builds character and gives us a greater feeling of strength and security.
This feeling of growing stronger and braver is incredibly empowering, and the Souls series taps into it very acutely during replays. Bosses that once terrified you, that caused your pulse to race, your palms to sweat, and your breath to quicken, are now just a small obstacle for you to surpass. You know their attacks, you know their movements, and you know where to strike. Similarly, areas you once crept through with the utmost caution, scanning around with the camera, flinching at every noise, gasping audibly at every new enemy, are basically a cake walk in comparison.
For anyone who’s ever struggled with mental illness (as this writer has), and made progress forward, the experience of replaying a game in this series has very much the same effect. Whether it be depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or some other affliction, people who have suffered from mental illness will be able to tell you all about the steps they’ve been forced to take in order to find happiness, achieve their goals, or even function at all as a normal member of society.
The experience of making your way through a Souls game is a mirror for these often difficult struggles, and echoes the old adage of therapists: feel the fear, and do it anyway. In the same way, replaying these games, now with a slightly stronger character, but more importantly with a better understanding of this world and how to survive in it, fills the player with a new found sense of confidence, and one that can be incredibly addictive. Even Demon’s Souls, which released in 2009, and Dark Souls, which released in 2011, still boast a relatively high number of active players that will attest to this fact. There’s just something incredibly enjoyable and fulfilling about steam rolling a game that first took you 80-100 hours to complete, in a small fraction of that time due to your prowess and experience.
It is the opinion of this writer that, though the series is obviously well-designed and balanced in an excellent way, the chief psychological reason why players keep coming back to it 3, 5, 7, or even 10 times after their original playthrough is down primarily to this element of the experience.
And is it really so surprising? Doctors and scientists have been telling us for years about the fantastic benefits that video games can have on our coordination, brain activity, and mental health, so what’s one more? Rest assured that the example of the Souls series is just one among many that will come to the forefront in coming years, especially as gaming continues to become an ever-increasing part of society.
Still, it’s just one more reason to play one of the best new franchises to emerge in years, and certainly motivation to grab the newly released Dark Souls III for one more go. If you think you can handle it, that is.