I first encountered Demon’s Souls during an unhappy time in my life. Without going into details—it’s more a matter of conserving space than privacy—we’ll say that I was feeling down, I had a lot of free time and access to a pile of video games I had never played before, and I was on some level convinced that my thoughts were interesting enough that they were worth transcribing for the benefit of others. I had intended to play a number of games and write moderately in-depth critical articles on all of them. But Demon’s Souls and dark feelings both have a way of sucking you in, and the project absorbed my summer. What you’re seeing now is the culmination of that project, years later, after I cut everything I didn’t feel up to writing.
So for about two months, I had a comfortable but rather pathetic routine. Wake up, read a lot of articles on the Internet, eat, get dressed. Sometimes I practised; mostly I didn’t. At least once a week I walked. Sometimes more, if I could not resist my craving for junk food (you can imagine the junk food budget was tight, on this schedule). By late afternoon my will had collapsed and it was all I could do to lie there with a CD of Tchaikovsky blaring and play Demon’s Souls till the wee hours of the morning.
It is currently fashionable to consider depression to be a disease of the body and to emphasize its physical components above all else. This is well-meaning but misguided. Without attempting to kick anyone who’s down or argue fruitlessly about the meaning of the word “disease”, we can safely say that it interacts with the thoughts and environment of the sufferer in a manner that is different from something like measles or pertussis. Since I am not a doctor, I can get away with calling it a disease of the soul. It disrupts the usual patterns of interaction between the mind, the body, the environment, and other people.
Many people have found that reinforcing or repairing these connections is a good way of achieving healing without encountering the potentially harmful side effects of drugs. The remarkable thing about this method of treatment is that it can be effected by actions of thought. These thoughts can even be prompted by words, whether spoken by a yoga instructor or read in a book on cognitive behavioral therapy. This means that, approached properly, almost anything can help manage low-level depression—from Stephen Fry’s documentary on the subject to the game which we are presently discussing.
Depression has a widely noted tendency to bend everything inward on itself—something like this is captured by David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest, “Octet”, and “The Depressed Person”. That’s why finding a state of flow and getting outside the self seems to help. In the short run, when things were especially bad, I found that using loud music to drown out the harsh voices and a video game to absorb the rest of my attention was a good way of managing things. Thus depression, Tchaikovsky, and Demon’s Souls became inextricably linked in my mind.
I had burned a CD of Tchaikovsky’s first and second piano concertos. I replayed the second concerto almost continuously because it resonated with me. Roger Scruton writes about listening to music being a rehearsal of the movements of the soul. For me, at least with certain pieces, following the movement of the music can help me out of a downward spiral. I am partial to concertos; something about the dramatic dialogue between the lone individual and the amorphous crowd appeals to me.
In the second movement of Scriabin’s piano concerto, the orchestra plays us a slow, rather sad and hopeless theme. When the piano enters, it almost immediately shows us what wonderful things this theme can be turned into. Tchaikovsky in his second concerto does something even more dramatic: in the most fascinating moment in the concerto repertoire, he has the piano remain silent while two members of the orchestra have their own extended soliloquies. In Tchaikovsky the piano always seems to seek reconciliation with the orchestra, but this reconciliation does not come until it learns to give up its own rather pointless and circular internal conflict and listen, first silently, as an eavesdropper, and later actively, as an accompanist. Only then do we get the comic ensemble ending.
As for the game, there are probably a lot of reasons I chose Demon’s Souls. One of them is a perverse masochism: the game clearly hates me, which at that time was something we had in common. Another is nostalgia. Even amid the grim apocalyptic aura that pervades Demon’s Souls, there’s a certain sense of fun that was missing from most games of the past generation. It took me back to the days of the Gamecube, which were happier times both in my life and in the gaming world.
But the reason I stuck with it, the reason it was such a comfort in a troubling time, had nothing to do with nostalgia or self-loathing. When you play Demon’s Souls, especially at an inexpert level, you die a lot. Sometimes you’re just overwhelmed by enemies. Sometimes it’s a stupid mistake—the game is less forgiving of stupid mistakes than most. Sometimes it’s a useful death that gains you some new information or resource. Each time you are shunted back to the beginning of the level and have to start again, hitting all the same beats time after time. It’s like playing an instrument. Or like the film Groundhog Day.
Eventually you become intimately familiar with the details of the level. You could get angry, throw the controller at the screen, but that seems pointless. You develop a feel for the rhythm of it: sprint, block, slash, thrust, block again, big slash to take out three enemies at a time. YOU DIED. Repeat with tighter timing. Push forward an inch for each bloody sacrifice from an infinite army of myself. We draw the boundaries at my skin, but there is no reason to do that in this case: I am only one small arc in the loop, controller-console-television-thomas. I am a conduit. The signal travels through me: immanent mind.
Somewhere in this cycle, I find peace.