Ornstein and Smough. Those two names will be immediately familiar to anyone who has made their way through the majority of From Software’s Dark Souls. Their images—a giant golden golem wielding an enormous hammer and a fleet-footed spear master—are indelibly burned into the brains of players who have come to the end of the majestic city of Anor Londo, only to be stopped in their tracks by the cruelest of the game’s many boss fights. My first encounter with Ornstein and Smough (O&S for the savvy Souls player) went better than I expected. I managed to smack the final form of the boss down to a quarter of his health before getting defeated myself. “OK,” I told myself. “This is completely doable.” Two days later I was clenching the controller in a death grip and preparing to uninstall Dark Souls after dying to the bosses for the fortieth or fiftieth time.
O&S weren’t the first time that Dark Souls made me frustrated enough to uninstall the game, but it would be the last. After deciding that I was one hundred percent not having fun anymore, I deleted the game, hunted out my save file, and sent it to the Recycle Bin as well. I didn’t do this just because I was fed up with a really difficult game. I did it because I was playing Dark Souls so compulsively that it was making me worried.
This has never happened to me before. I make it a point to avoid videogames that are designed to keep players in their grip for as long as possible. I can see some of the appeal of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV, but their gameplay hooks aren’t strong enough for me to willingly give myself over to time-sink character progression and repetitive questing. I prefer games that have a definite end point—a credits roll or narrative conclusion that allows me to move on to other things while still feeling fulfilled by the experience. Funnily enough, Dark Souls fits that criteria. It has an ending. It comes to a definite conclusion that, once reached, allows the player to either jump into a new game or simply stop. But getting to that point is extremely difficult.
Ornstein and Smough had me scouring the internet for strategies, browsing Google results for information on what I could do to make my character more powerful. I was undeniably stuck in the game, but Dark Souls‘ open world and myriad secrets invited further exploration. Maybe I’d find a better weapon that would help me get through the boss fight if I only spent more time exploring. I was nagged by the knowledge that I’d almost gotten through it on a first attempt, but was completely unable to come close to that level of success again. Yet, regardless of how much I tried, I couldn’t do it. The problem became not so much that I was stalled in a game that I was otherwise enjoying, but that thinking up combat strategies and opportunities to level up whenever I wasn’t actually playing Dark Souls. The world was filling my head all the time. I thought about it when I was drifting off to sleep. I thought about it when I was showering in the morning. That doesn’t seem healthy.
Usually, I can play a game for as long as it remains interesting, turn it off, and occupy myself with other things. This wasn’t the case with Dark Souls, and that made me worried. I found myself booting the game compulsively, running through its world, and fighting its bosses even when I wasn’t getting any kind of satisfaction from it. I understood the person who becomes scared after realizing how much of their life they’ve given to an MMORPG. Luckily, I had only (only?) spent about thirty hours on Dark Souls before I pulled the plug in the most definite way possible—deleting a save file I had poured so much time into already. As soon as I did this I felt a sense of relief. Still, when I see news on the game’s upcoming sequel or notice a Steam notification pop up telling me that a friend is playing Dark Souls, I feel the itch to reinstall it and start again from scratch. I’m trying to resist this because, as much as I love videogames, I don’t want any single one of them to have such an influence on my thoughts. My free time is my own, and giving it over so completely to Dark Souls—allowing From Software’s world to seep so much into mine—doesn’t seem like the healthiest decision.