Dark Souls: Pain without Pause

4300012375_05c6e3171b.jpgI’d like to follow up on that last post about Dark Souls, providing a little more context for my reaction. While it occurred against a backdrop of environmental stress that was probably incompatible with such an unusually demanding game, I find the real trigger to lie with a single, curiously underreported feature of this work.

No essay about Dark Souls I encountered before this week has mentioned its lack of a pause button. Pressing start on the controller summons up an equipment-swap overlay where you can futz around your character’s belongings in typical RPG fashion, but it does not stop the in-game action. The only way to make the game halt, even temporarily, involves quitting it entirely.

Thus, if the doorbell rings while your character is under assault and in danger of losing all your recent progress, you will have a certain choice to make. I found this design decision first perplexing, then fascinating. It seemed devilishly in-keeping with the game’s overall attitude of reward for those who learn to play by its rules, and utter disdain for anyone else. Oh, I’m terribly sorry, says Dark Souls to the player looking for the pause button. I thought you had come here to play. Clearly, I was mistaken. I do apologize. Why don’t you come back when you’re ready?

I understand that a rules constraint is also in play here; Dark Souls contains occasional real-time multi-player features, both cooperative and competitive, and pausing during these exchanges would certainly have an uncertain effect. But for most of the game your character is strictly alone in their world; you often see the flickering shadows of other players rushing past, but cannot interact with them in any way. And indeed, I never reached any true multiplayer segment, so as far as my own experience is concerned, the lack of a pause button serves only as another tool the game uses to mold the player into the correct mindset for disciplined play.

Searching specifically for other writers’ commentary on the missing button turned up posts on game-hobbyist web forums, for the most part, and these invariably had responses suggesting that the player desiring a short break simply park their character in a quiet spot. The game has no map-roaming enemies, so if nothing is actively attacking your character, then they can stand in place indefinitely, to no ill effect. The trouble comes during all those other times. And if you live with a loved one, or otherwise need to occasionally respond to real-world attention-calls, players of Dark Souls quickly find that those other times seem to invariably arrive at the worst times.

Allow me to cast this more personally. Years ago, I agreed to a Left 4 Dead play-ban while my partner was home and awake, because that she finds that game’s nonstop Grand Guignol audiovisuals quite irritating. (Frankly, I’d probably feel similarly if I lived with someone who played noisy shooters at all.) That was the only game we placed under such a restriction until last fall, when she asked me to make a similar agreement with Dark Souls — but not because of anything on the TV screen. Her objection instead stemmed from what would happen in the living room.

When playing this game, I became a cretin who would yell BOSS FIGHT! through the front door at his grocery-laden girlfriend, letting her fumble in the dark for her own keys, and unpack in the kitchen alone. I could not help but feel resentful that yet again she had the insensitivity to come home and distract me just when Dark Souls needed my attention the most. What, did she think I’d just happily let the Taurus Demon smash me into the parapet, making me lose all my loot, just to help put the eggs away? I would bite down this resentment when she returned to the living room to chat about the day, and all would be fine for a while — until I rounded a corner where, in thinking about dinner, I had forgotten another bad guy lurked, a half-second away from shoving me off a cliff. Unable to stop the action, I instead stopped the conversation, slamming it shut behind a door of wailed invectives as I desperately worked the controller. I might turn to continue the conversation once I’d settled that matter, but usually she’d left by then.

I’m really sorry about that, I’d say to the game, sheepishly, as I would after finally dismissing any annoying distraction. Where were we? The game would smile, and I felt grateful for its rare, cold forgiveness. We were really getting somewhere, the game and I. I kept playing.

The portcullis incident happened soon after my partner had, after putting up with this for several days, asked me to arrange my Dark Souls play-schedule so as to keep my insufferableness to myself. I stand by every word of my previous post — my feelings at the time of the incident ran just as described. However, being so recently made aware of the effect the game had on my personality, it’s likely that I was semi-consciously seeking a reason to take an indefinite break from the game anyway.

The reader must here trust me that the transformation that would overcome me did not represent how I usually play games. If I usually turned into a nasty, raving jerk over games, I’d long since have either stopped playing them or lost all my friends, and in neither case would this blog exist. This leaves me, then, to wonder why this would happen. I have several smart friends who played all the way through Dark Souls, and as far as I know they didn’t wreck their home-lives in the process. It could be that I am simply somehow incompatible with this game; perhaps it rubs against some unknowably deep-core bit of my personality in just the wrong way, producing a well of burbling acid to poison my normally sanguine demeanor. In which case, alas, I should just never play this game again.

But I think it’s more likely that I simply picked the wrong game to play at the wrong time. When I bought the game in early October, I had made it a third of the way through my semester of teaching a game-studies lab at Northeastern, a job that I found both vastly rewarding and surprisingly stressful. While billed as a part-time job, running the class soaked up nearly all my time and attention for those three months. With most of the semester still hanging over me, I had no head-space left for creative work (hence my total silence on this blog during that time) and precious little time for recreation.

One Sunday, on a whim, I hopped on a bus and picked up this game from the mall. I heard tell of it from both friends on Twitter and from some of my more apt students, and found myself immediately intrigued. I knew about its Playstation-exclusive predecessor, Demon’s Souls, from friends who loved it, as well as from Jeff Howard’s guest blogging on this very website. That an Xbox incarnation of that game had suddenly popped into existence took me by surprise, and it seemed like it might be just the thing to unwind with after a crushingly stressful day.

In retrospect, I now see how Dark Souls might have been a poor fit for that particular task.

The portcullis affair, in particular, occurred a few days after my laptop (along with a bunch of unique classroom materials I’d created) was stolen while I ate lunch at a Panera Bread near campus. While I’d eventually recover it, my time without it may have represented the apex of that semester’s stress level. So when that portcullis slammed shut, denying me even the fantasy of accomplishment at this game — a game that strained, I now knew, my relationship with my significant other — my desire to have any further truck with it also came crashing down. Dark Souls, I decided, was bad for me.

Whether it was bad for me just then or completely unworkable for me at all remains to be seen. I can offer none of this contextualization as an excuse for my behavior; I became an unpleasant jerk while playing this game, and that was awful and I never want to have that happen again. But I recognize all that is good about the game, just the same; I don’t really disagree with any of the comments from last week’s post. I still need time away from it, but maybe, when all that stress is long behind me, I can suit up and wade in again. With luck — and with assiduous use of my phone’s send-to-voicemail button — next time I can constrain my loss of Humanity points to the poor sap on the screen.

Image: Pause Button by Kevin Grocki, CC BY-NC-SA.

This entry was posted in Essays, Jmac on Games  and tagged  , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dark Souls: Pain without Pause

  1. Nici says:

    I made the terrible mistake of buying Dark Souls for my boyfriend yesterday. He's been playing it for about 3 hours and I can already see that change coming over him. My usual early evening ritual of sitting quietly in a corner of the couch reading while he calmly has a little video game time has been replaced by me cowering on the OTHER couch listening to a string of quite graphically negative insults aimed at anything from the TV, the game characters or God. I'm not sure how long Dark Souls will last in this household.
    However, your post is hilarious. I actually got him to take a "time-out" without the pause button to listen to me read a couple paragraphs out loud.

  2. Chris says:

    This game is very much perfect for me at the minute, whenever I let my mind wander I begin to desperately miss my recent ex girlfriend and get incredibly depressed, seeing as though I have nothing else to care about now, I am absolutely absorbed into this game every time I play. It definitely helps take my mind off of my crappy little problem as it sucks in all of your concentration, yes this game is definitely for people who only have the time, and are certain of that fact. No way would I be able to play this game if I was still with my girlfriend, she got mad at me for playing any game, even ones I could pause at any time. This game is brilliant, if you let it be brilliant, accept Dark Souls as your mighty lord and it shall accept you. (I'm kidding of course, but it kind of makes sense)

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