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Dark Souls Needs to Die: My Complicated Relationship With the Series That Helped Me Beat Cancer

How a quest to master Dark Souls and cope with cancer became a personal curse.

Feature by John Learned, .

It's tempting to look back at a series of games like Dark Souls and do a macro-level farewell; to peer over your shoulder at the last eight years or so since Demon's Souls became a sleeper sensation to retread that library of think pieces and critical fawning that the games, though deserved, have accumulated. In fact, that's what I was asked to do for the piece you're reading right now; give it a once-over, say goodbye. After all, I was a fan, you know. A true believer.

But you'll have to excuse me, because some farewells aren't so simple or so easy. Souls games and I have a complex relationship, and letting it go shouldn't be so wistful as, say, not looking forward to another release year in and year out, annual as the franchise has become. In fact, when I take a step back here, I might not be a fan at all. My relation to a bunch of video games has become, in its perverse way, adversarial. I don't like playing these games. I need to conquer them.

So when I say this, just know that I mean it more than almost anything I've ever written: Dark Souls needs to die. In April of 2010, I was diagnosed with lymphoma, and as on-and-off illnesses have churned months into years, it's no longer a way to cope-it's a curse.

Demon's Souls was released in North America in October of 2009, a little less than six months before my diagnosis. You could say that I literally fought my way through the ruined Kingdom of Boletaria, taken aback as I was with it's challenges. In fairness, I went through it in the most difficult way I possibly could, unbeknownst to me and my infantile fumbling through its dense character growth. If you were in the thick of it at the time, you knew as well as anyone that if you gave Demon's Souls enough time (and maybe a bit of homework), you'd find the diametric opposite to every video game for nearly every console of the previous generation.

Demon's Souls saw what was contemporary and spat in its face. Instead of plucky, mouthy protagonists, it quietly spoke of unending cycles of power and pitch-black disposition. It taught the value of overcoming great struggle in a world of safe, focused guidance in design. To tangle with Demon's Souls was to stare into the abyss and know that it would stare back; you had to play its way or not play at all. I venture to guess that nobody was really prepared for a game like this in 2009 –I certainly wasn't-and hitting the summit my first time was like finishing a PhD in thermodynamics (probably). This was by design. You needed to work for every win, and acquiesce to the fact that it would come at the cost of a part of you, such was the monastic devotion it took to complete it. I was satisfied when it was finished, but it burrowed in me in a frightening way. Other games came and went, but my thoughts would find themselves drifting back to the horrors I had lived through.

My relation to a bunch of video games has become, in its perverse way, adversarial. I don't like playing these games. I need to conquer them.

Then I found lumps in my neck that wouldn't go away. Funny, "things that don't go away" is often how cancer begins. Chemotherapy every other week meant a specific diet, not that most things looked tasty. Radiation everyday thereafter meant that when food finally did, I couldn't keep it down anyway. I would feign a certain, almost peculiar ego about the whole affair. Cancer beat me? I step on cancer's neck was the joke that became almost reflexive. But, I suppose, like Demon's Souls, you never know if what you're doing is enough. You don't know that the chemo is taking; don't know if the radiation is doing its work; don't know what your loved ones are going through as they watch you wither in a chair and vomit before the drugs even hit your system this week. Everything is a challenge to overcome. When your urine is red from medicine, every battle is a struggle.

So I took Demon's Souls by the scruff of its neck, dug deep within myself, and said you son of a bitch, I'm going to break you in two. I can't have a drink with my in-laws' on the weekends. I can't eat half of the food that I used to. I try to work out like the meathead that I am, but I'm not stupid and knew even that would fall by the wayside soon. It wasn't a matter of controlling my situation. I wanted my wife to work, to see friends, to have her life away for the moments she would take to herself. But day after day, on my own, I wanted to destroy something, because putting on a brave face is just that. Demon's Souls, in its own strange, meticulous fury of a video game, wasn't my coping mechanism. At least, not in the way you may have read other stories like this. Demon's Souls was something much darker than that.

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Soon enough, I knew the game backwards and forwards. Soon enough, I was testing different builds. Soon enough, I had seen it all. Sundays were spent in near silence grinding for levels to find the limit of my characters' strengths. Post-chemo Fridays were meant for finding interesting ways to kill interesting bosses. There wasn't a system to it, but it wasn't far off. In her support, or maybe even for her own sake, my wife stopped asking how I felt after treatment. She would ask, "How's your game?" Fine. Great, even. I had lulled the Old One to slumber several times over. I would repeat the cycle and repeat the cycle and repeat the cycle. I had learned that Demon's Souls, for all of the oppressive times it killed me, was teaching me something. I suppose like cancer, it had plenty to do with fragility.

She had watched me in my worst moments; my skin pale and flushed, my body thin and gaunt (though with abs that I'll never have again), and still, this strongest person I had ever met gave me a present when it was over. It was two months after our first anniversary, and I had killed Allant yet again and watched the credits sequence with great ceremony. Miyazaki's name fluttering across the screen as I, for whatever reason, stood to attention like a trench gunner. Now weeks after my body had recovered from the last round of treatment and days after a positive prognosis from my oncologist (a sweetly English gentleman), I try the game she had just bought me –the Greatest Hits re-release of Borderlands-and watch my PlayStation 3 die unceremoniously in a Yellow Light of Death. Here we are, I thought. It's over, and there's no greater metaphor for it.

But cancer, the motherfucker, is a clever adversary.

Get married. Beat cancer. Go drinking. It's not like these things were planned–maybe the first thing-but it's how they shake out. When you get through a life-threatening illness, every beer you taste will seem like the best beer you've ever had, so you'll have plenty. It was a year-long party, and in no way did it need to stop. Friends came in from out of town. Family I hadn't seen in forever dropped in to say hi. All of them wanted to grab a drink now that I could have them again, and shit, I was alive, right?.

In the meantime, I would chase people down in the street to tell them about Demon's Souls. Have you heard the good news about Demon's Souls? Let me tell you about Demon's Souls and be saved. I was persistent and obnoxious about it. This was the best game of a generation. It's challenging and subversive and other pretentious bullshit. It stands on its own as a perfect singular work. Of course, it's going to get a sequel.

And then, like your favorite band blowing up in the mainstream, Dark Souls was released in 2011 to gushing acclaim and a torrent of thinkpieces. "Blindsided" was what many critics and writers were fumbling over themselves to say of its release; but as time has gone on, "overthrown" might be the more appropriate verb, such is the influence Dark Souls has had over the current gaming landscape. It unshackled itself from partitioned level design in favor of a more open Metroidvania world ("spokes on a wheel" is the common citation). What was once Kings Field by way of Mega Man became the Castlevania successor that we all acknowledged we wanted but knew under the surface we'd never actually receive. It deserves every scrap of praise that it gets.

Dark Souls is obtuse and mysterious in ways that even its oblique predecessor never was. By forcing players to pay attention to item descriptions, visual cues, and context clues, it turned its central plot into something of a treasure hunt at the inflection point of YouTube which, looking back, was less happy coincidence and more a confluence of two genius creative strategies converging at the right moment. It was bleak and challenging and weirdly, strangely funny. And like the best video games –the ones that I still cannot put down to this day-there was always the feeling that there's always more hiding inside waiting to be found, just under the surface. Dark Souls is a masterpiece.

My 1UP.com blog was a trash can of Dark Souls word vomit, as were other site users' personal space. We dumped our theories and tossed around ideas to the point that the word "lore" is starting to irritate me (I'm way past the eye-rolling phase). Some of them were even promoted to the front page, which was thrilling. Like most Castlevania games, it was released relatively close to Halloween, and I spent chunks of my life trying to crack it like an egg; delicately chipping away at its intricacies one piece of the shell at a time. Coming up for air only months later, we had some things to do. We needed to go back to the doctor. They found something.

Phyllodes tumors are fairly rare, and getting one in your breast is not an especially pleasant experience. When we first started dating, my wife had one that was roughly sausage-sized, which is even less common. But more rare is the idea that they come back, and rarer still (we're talking Ark-of-the-Covenant-level) is when they're malignant. All of these things happened. They said the word "cancer" to her. She'll start with a mastectomy and see where we need to go from there.

This is something obvious but needs to be addressed all the same: cancer is different for everyone. I went through chemo and radiation and dealt with the fallout from there. I was lucky, because it was a lousy year of my life, but that's all it took. My wife lost a part of her that she'll never get back. Worse, she lost something she found gender-defining, the anguish of which I cannot possibly relate to. She was also lucky in that she didn't have to do the chemo/radiation mambo, but going through all of this –six surgeries when all was said and done-turns worlds upside down. I went from cared-for to caregiver in the span of a year and a half. The whole time, like a child, my mind drifted to playing Dark Souls.

Maybe for me that time it was escape, or even a "generic" coping mechanism if you can call it that, but I wanted to do nothing but make sure she was sleeping soundly and then stomp through Lordran like an undead wrecking ball. Eventually, I even took days off of work here and there to do it. Dark Souls was becoming a problem. We started to joke about a Souls Curse: Six months after the first game, I got cancer. Six months after the second, so did she. But that didn't stop me from wanting to play it at the expense of doing a lot of other things that were much more important. She never called me out on playing a video game more than spending time with her, but it was there. Maybe not resentment, maybe I can't even put my finger on what it was, but it seethed.

Months go by. The mastectomy alone was enough for now. Artorias of the Abyss was about to be released, and my second PlayStation 3 suffered another YLOD. Strange, but true. Dark Souls rested.

I went from cared-for to caregiver in the span of a year and a half. The whole time, like a child, my mind drifted to playing Dark Souls.

By this point, most conversations over dinner and drinks devolved into talking about shared experience. When it was me, it was this, and when it was you, we did that. For a year at least, we actually made a point of trying to not talk about cancer, and then when one of us cracked, the other would get perturbed. That's what this does to you. It's not enough that you'll never get good insurance ever again or that you're paying off one person's treatment or the others for God knows how long. It's the small cuts that leave scars, apparently. Our marriage had become strong through all of this, but not so iron-clad that we can't still be angry about rehashing the pain.

Dark Souls II came out around the end of this period, this second drunken "Hey! Congratulations!" year. We were both a little prickly about it, waiting to see if the Curse was real. Personally, I should have just been worried about the Internet fandom's propensity for looking a gift horse in the mouth. It was a larger, prettier game that streamlined things like weapon forging and area traveling. It also made the endgame a death march of strange flashbacks and linear boss fights. The "hardcore" fans cried foul at small, meaningless beefs with an otherwise well-built game, series director Hidetaka Miyazaka's lesser involvement seemingly a stake to the heart. Dark Souls II, then, erroneously came to be known as a sophomore slump, never mind that it was the third game. But a trilogy of add-on content was coming, and FromSoftware had proven that DLC can be fashioned to make up for a game's missteps.

By the time the third of those add-ons, Crown of Ivory King, was released, I was sleeping on a foldout couch with an air conditioner in my face. Thanks to filthy neighbors and a cheap, incompetent landlord, we were infested with bed bugs, which set our bedroom apart as a quarantined biohazard zone. What was once a very cozy one-bedroom apartment had become a single room prison. Naturally, we wanted to be out of there as soon as possible.

When I say that our apartment felt like a prison, this isn't a joke. Bed bugs are curious parasites, so infinitesimally small that you never know if you might be carrying them around with. You're constantly doing laundry, cleaning your bathroom, and checking under the mattress (or wherever) you might be sleeping. You don't want to crash with friends and family just in case, so you're stuck in your own home until they're exterminated-which, in an apartment building, is something we'll conservatively refer to as an uphill climb-or you move out. It was an oppressively hot summer that we searched for a house, that we saw old friends move, that we went out almost every night, that Dark Souls gave us great added content, that we were ultimately losing patience with each other.

To be fair, I never found any resentment in her voice over coming home from getting drinks so I could play Dark Souls II or it's added content. By this point, I doubt she even cared. It was getting very real for us that while we felt that our marriage could take a bullet after everything we had done, the stresses of the past few years were catching up on the backs of these stupid insects. I'll never play the Crowns trilogy again. It's forever linked to the night we looked at each other and said aloud that even after all what we had been through, the way we were living might be affecting our shared lives.

After a few dodged bullets and a couple of heartbreaks at the zero hour, we found a house and were moved by early Fall. Life, as it does, finally found a routine again, like seeing the sun after a long winter. I wasn't spending hours away at the gym on weeknights just to be alone. She had changed jobs, and then changed jobs again. When your life finally finds some order, it's weird that you can sometimes palpably feel it. Jolly cooperation again, finally. Days after my 36th birthday, we found out she was pregnant. Bloodborne came out that year.

Imagine that conversation.

The press leading up to Dark Souls III said that this would be it. Miyazaki was interested in moving on to other things and winding the franchise down. "Perfect," my wife said. "The Curse is over." Maybe. But when I speak to friends about it, they all want to know what I'm going to do with myself knowing that a series that I somehow let latch on to my life for so long was finally going to fade away. I tell them that she was right. Good. The Curse is over. I don't need to retreat into these games anymore, and for those brief, terrible moments that they gave my life meaning, part of me wish I never had. Dark Souls needed to end. And so it has.

Recently, I wrote a guide for the Ringed City DLC, the last bit of Dark Souls that we're likely to see going forward. As was par for the course, it wasn't easy. In fact, in my hubris, I was so taken aback by its difficulty that what I thought would be a single evening of documenting the sights and sounds of a world during its sunset wound up being a long week of banging my face against a brick wall. I thought I would be a tourist. Instead, I was a victim. These were late nights followed by early mornings followed by more late nights. At one point, I looked at her without thinking and said, "This is burning years of my life away."

I think she was amused.

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