Dark Night (After Night After Night) of the Soul
Is a 100-hour video game ever worthwhile?
Still courtesy Namco.
You can accomplish a lot in 100 hours. You could read War and Peace, for instance, then follow it up with Thus Spoke Zarathustra and a few starter courses in a new language. You could watch Melancholia 40 times and still have time to squeeze in a screening of Shoah. You could also drive from Los Angeles to New York and back again, or complete 20 weeks of training and then run a marathon. Or, if you preferred, you could also play through the video game Dark Souls from start to finish.
Dark Souls, a medieval fantasy game, was one of the best-reviewed titles of 2011. It was given perfect scores by the Telegraph, 1Up.com, and GamePro, and was named as “game of the year” in Slate's year-end “Gaming Club” by Michael Abbott and Tom Bissell. What happens in Dark Souls? You control a reanimated soul trapped in a violent purgatory. To escape you must seek out and kill phantasmagoric demons waiting in the distant corners of the world, thus proving your worth to the primordial snake gods who keep watch over the place.
In more than twice the time it would take to read Tolstoy's historical fiction, Dark Souls leaves one's head overflowing with useless junk like the difference in attack stats between a Great Axe with a fire bonus versus a Great Axe with a divine bonus. These bits of occult nonsense don't have an internal logic. In one early section, you'll fight a pair of gargoyles who live perched high up on a bell tower in a castle. These gargoyles, you discover, are especially vulnerable to lightning damage. Why a creature that lives on the medieval equivalent of a lightning rod should be vulnerable to lightning damage is not explained. Every victory in the game is built on a similarly dumbfounding bit of nonlogic.
Dark Souls takes so long to play because it refuses to tell you its basic ground rules, then kills you over and over again for failing to understand them. As a player, you proceed not by thinking through problems but by randomly trying anything and everything until something haphazard sticks. The game is teaching you, but it's not teaching you anything worth knowing. In roughly 40 hours of reading, Tolstoy covers the range of human existence: love, premature death, villainy, class, the limits of friendship, the crucible of debt, the idea of humans as helplessly caught in the tidal forces of history. Dark Souls leaves you with the intimate knowledge of when to roll out of the way of an ogre's club swing.
Encyclopedia-length games have flourished over the last decade. Dark Souls is joined by time swamps like Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Fallout 3, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and MMOs like World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic. While each of these games offers a unique experience, they are identical in their offering of a seemingly endless amount of terrain to wander through. (They also all keep track of how long you’ve been playing, an insidious part of each save file that persistently reminds you just how much time you’ve already invested.) One hundred hours is just the halfway point for an Elder Scrolls game, and in WoW that amount of time would barely qualify as a tutorial. Many aim for a kind of artistic holism, striving for breadth and sweep by creating worlds where, in addition to fighting lizards with scimitars, you can marry, become a merchant, pick flowers, gamble, unknot complicated political dilemmas through conversation, or just spend hours wandering through the wilderness in contemplation.
There is something in these efforts that shouldn't be dismissed. The 100-hour game is not a pointless exercise because it's a game, but only because the relative meaning of its experience is almost always diluted into a thin, tasteless nothing by the time you’ve invested yourself in completing it. Imagine if War and Peace were 5,000 pages instead of 1,400, and imagine if, whenever you came to a word you didn't understand, a gust of wind appeared and pushed you back five pages, forcing you to reread everything you'd made it through up until that point. How long would you last? And what would be the point in trying?
When making the case for Dark Souls, almost every defender stumbles into the affective fallacy, wherein the value of a work is tied to the emotions it dredges up from its audience. "No game shocked my system so violently or gave me a deeper sense of satisfaction in victory or despair in defeat," Abbott wrote in the “Gaming Club.” The Onion A.V. Club's Dave Wolinsky wrote that "Dark Souls' audacity at shoving you into an adventure, giving you a colossal world to explore, and forcing you to earn every speck of progress is downright exhilarating."
What no one talks about when they praise Dark Souls is what it means—what immemorial questions of human nature its difficulty and disorder evoke. Instead, the game is good because playing makes you feel good, and that goodness is amplified by the recent memory of having been very bad at the game, of taking wrong turns and mistiming attacks against zombies. Think of Dark Souls as a self-esteem kit for people who can take marching orders from giant talking snakes called Kingseeker Frampt and Darkstalker Kaathe without withering a little inside.
There is real beauty in Dark Souls. It reveals that life is more suffering than pleasure, more failure than success, and that even the momentary relief of achievement is wiped away by new levels of difficulty. It is also a testament to our persistence in the face of that suffering, and it offers the comfort of a community of other players all stuck in the same hellish quagmire. Those are good qualities. That is art. And you can get all of that from the first five hours of Dark Souls. The remaining 90 or so offer nothing but an increasingly nonsensical variation on that experience.
Hidetaka Miyazaki, Dark Souls' creative director, said in an interview with the British magazine Edge that his game is intentionally “masochistic.” Indeed, more than any other medium, video games blur the distinction between a depicted act and participating in the act itself. Dark Souls insists that players participate in their own undoing by burning hour after hour in search of the small burst of relief that comes after each round of punishment. Everyone who has played a game of this length knows too well the hollowness that waits at the end, brain numb, uncountable weeks and months piled on the trash heap at their backs, and no idea of what to do next. Why did I do that? Why did I keep playing? What was I after? Where am I now?
These are questions victims ask, people taken advantage of, left with less than they started out with. The purpose of art is the opposite of this, to leave you with more at the end than at the beginning, to give you something you can carry with you. There's no reason video games can't provide that, and many do. But none of them take 100 hours.
Michael Thomsen has written for the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, Billboard, n+1, Bookforum, and the New Inquiry. He lives in New York.