Curiosity Killed the Character
I’m tenacious, but not this kind of tenacious. I’ve been playing this videogame for about thirty hours at this point, and I can’t say that I’m having fun. My character, Booper the Cowardly, is afraid, but she is also curious to see what lies on the other side. She has to know. And so, she has to try. I send Booper forward, to face the great unknown. After killing a few enemies, she dies. Then she dies again. Then, when fighting something else, she panics, and rolls herself right off a cliff. Time and time again she dies, and time and time again, I push her forward. Eventually, she makes it to the end.
This is Dark Souls III, a video game that is known for its difficulty. It sets the bar, and you must meet it – it’s non negotiable. Difficulty, of course, is subjective, but when measured against the die-hard purists, I’m not playing this game like I should, actually. Very rarely do I approach this world alone, but rather with another player from somewhere else in the world. I don’t like this game, but I get why others do, and I can’t put it down for some reason.
Climbing Out Of Depression
So one of the reasons I’ve been A.W.O.L. lately is because I feel like I don’t have anything good to say. I’m not doing much, just sitting at home, working on my computer like everyone else. I’m also not feeling my best. I’ve been working at my PhD for about two years now and I can’t say I’m having fun. I’ve been battling depression for the past year(s?!) or so for a variety of reasons, and it’s often left me with the deep sense of apathy that depression is known for, “none of this matters, things are bad, and they will be bad.” Academia used to be a place where I felt most like myself, but it hasn’t been that way for a long time.
Recently, while talking to a professor I admire, she congratulated me for my hard work in class and told me that I was already leagues above where many others were in my position. “Many people don’t make the effort to even get this far,” she said. This didn’t feel like a compliment to me. All I heard was, “You could be so much better if you were different.” Crazy, I know, but it’s how my brain works, and it’s really good at it! I broke down in front of her and it took everything to bring myself back together again. This happened time and time again, different faces, spaces, all the same. This haze of sadness.
Another professor told me as I sat in front of her, choking back tears, “I don’t want to keep you here if your heart isn’t in it. You’re beating your head against something that might not be right for you, not right now at least, and you’re hurting yourself.” I was tired of not understanding what was going on with me. “I should be better than this,” is all I could think, “but I’m not.”
In the middle of this, a quickly escalating global pandemic sent me home from school for the time being, and I suddenly had a lot more time to embrace some hobbies. I had been working towards recreating my life before depression: working out, doing something art related, writing or reading, but it had all been thrown into disarray now. I had to start over.
I’ve been trying to keep in touch with friends. Trying to keep my brain moving and churning, reading for fun, practicing Portuguese, trying to cook more, trying to drink less wine, trying not to let my stress get the better of me. I’ve reached out for advice from people I admire, therapists, and advisors. There have been lots of video chats.
I also bought Dark Souls III.
Dark Souls III: Prepare to die, but also come back until you stop dying
In Dark Souls III, you play an unkindled, someone who is neither alive nor dead, and thus can revive once defeated. Very little is permanent in this fantasy world other than the slow march of time, reducing what may have been a beautiful world into ruin, chaos, and sickness. I say may, because your character is unaware of the past- you’ve been reborn into this world to save it from ruin, but as far as I’m concerned, there is very little here worth saving, this world is gross.
The game makes a point to show you how unimportant you are. You can literally see the images of other players around you as you explore. Everyone attempts to save the world, but only the ones who never give up against the odds will be successful, and the game makes sure to test your resolve. There were times I kept getting killed by humans overtaken by a black goopy sickness. I once got killed when I opened a treasure chest and it turned out to be a monster disguised as a treasure chest that then ate me. Times when someone, another player from somewhere in the world, invaded my world to kill me, and 9 times out of 10 they succeeded.
I keep hitting my head against the wall that is Dark Souls again and again and again. I die to a naked lady wielding a butcher knife. I die falling off a cliff after I’m ambushed by a skeleton. I die to a group of rats that overwhelm me and in my panic, I lose stamina and they overtake me (A HORRIFYING WAY TO GO). I die falling off an invisible bridge. I want to give up every second that I play but for some reason, I don’t. For some reason, I keep coming back.
The Curse of Curiosity & the Many Condemned
Part of it is my curiosity. I have to know what this world is like, I have to know the secrets. Crazy thing is, I already know the secrets! I know the lore, I know the plot lines, I even know the traps that I still fall for! But I haven’t experienced them personally, haven’t felt the agony and achievement the game wants me to feel. When I die to a Winged Knight, my heart is pumping so hard! The adrenaline is kicking to the point I feel lightheaded and in moments I’d usually run, every now and then, I fight back. I get revenge. I conquer the level. I keep going. It hurts, but the pain, just like my character’s death, is temporary. I always come back. The failure isn’t forever, in fact, it’s gone in a few minutes. I keep going.
The other part is the community. Dark Souls fans are rabid for these games. There’s a strong mix of elitism in there that makes the mere idea of making the game more accessible for others a topic of literal debate! The idea is that you have to experience the game as intended, otherwise, the experience means less and isn’t worth having anymore.
After conquering the notoriously difficult game, a lot of Dark Souls fans adopt and use the phrase, git gud, a corruption of “get good at the game.” Whenever people ask, “how can I beat this monster?” Git gud. “How do I make my character stronger?” Git gud. “How do I make this easier?” Git gud. The only way out is through. You have to keep trying, hitting your head against the wall until it gives. And if you give it enough time, learning from your mistakes, paying attention to your successes, and most of all being patient with yourself during your failures, you will eventually git gud.
It’s not like other games where you can prepare yourself enough to dominate everything with ease, veteran players often die to naked ladies with butcher knives too, I’ve seen it! The mayhem that ensues when you call for help, from enemies getting stronger to having more players invade the world to kill you, comes for everyone. Some handle it differently than others.
Many of those who have overcome the challenges of the game (between murdering you of course) often lend a helping hand to make it easier for others. I prefer to play, with help, because it makes the experience less lonely and difficult. I can experience the world in the way that I prefer, and the experience doesn’t mean any less to me.
I’ve been trying to figure out what to do about my pursuit of a PhD. The stress and pain I was going through in the process started to feel like a stress I no longer enjoyed. Where the process of writing, presenting, condensing big ideas, and generating my own used to invigorate me, it now completely drains me. I’m tenacious, but not this kind of tenacious. The idea of taking classes for meaningless grades, working in office jobs that aren’t relevant to my interests and don’t stimulate me or use the skills I’ve worked so hard to gain just because I’m a student no longer interests me, beating my head against the wall of fellowship applications and journal submissions is no longer a challenge to which I want to rise. Being a professor, the profession this is mostly supposed to train me for, no longer serves me when I no longer want to be in this industry or perpetuating it (some think you can change things from the inside, I’m not one of them). I don’t think I’m the student I once was or thought I was, but only now, I’ve started to realize that isn’t as bad as I once thought. I’ve been going about things the wrong way.
In many academic circles, mental illness, addictions, and low morale are considered part of the deal of a PhD program. It’s supposed to be hard, is a common refrain, the academic’s version of git gud. Unless I go about it this way, it’ll mean less. But this isn’t how I want to understand the world or earn this experience. While I’m not completely sure about where I’ll end up, I do know that my curiosity and the community will keep me in similar spaces. How I want to experience them is completely up to me.
May the flames guide thee,