I ground my teeth together as I stared at the screen in front of me. The gargoyle that had been kicking my butt was finally starting to weary, his strength waning. Confidence flowed through me, pushing me towards victory in the bitter fight. As I went in for the final flourishes, flames rained down from the bell tower in front of me. A second gargoyle decided to join the battle, forcing its way into the fray. I started freaking out, rolling around the rooftop haphazardly as I tried to dodge the gargoyles’ combined attacks.
The fire breath hit me, slowly burning me to a crisp. Instinctually, I channeled my inner child’s memory of early afternoon PSAs that reminded their viewers to stop, drop, and roll. I fell to the floor in an attempt to put the flames out. The burning stopped, but so did my life. I rolled right off the rooftop I was fighting on, falling into the town below. The red words “You Died” appeared onscreen, and I had to stop myself from cursing at another Game Over.
With the recent release of the video game Dark Souls 3, I thought it apt to explore the importance of finding ways to perpetually challenge oneself through various activities. The aforementioned scenario is from a boss fight in the original Dark Souls. I discovered the series in 2013 after hearing about its legendary difficulty. Truth be told, I was attracted to the idea of a game that would metaphorically beat me to a pulp. That may sound odd, but let me explain what I mean.
I was introduced to video games at a very young age. I remember bits and pieces of playing on a Commodore 64 with its (actual) floppy disks and long load times. The worlds that this primitive machine created blew my tiny kid brain. Through my TV, I was able to explore and participate in lands that I had only seen on cartoon shows or read about in books. My imagination and excitement ran wild as I became a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, destroyed cities as a giant monster, and even mined for gold as Reader Rabbit. I fell in love with video games. That love continued to grow, and they remain a staple of the media I consume to this day.
However, one characteristic made up the DNA of many of those early games: They. Were. Hard. I remember many long nights of frustration as I fought to make it to the next level, memorizing every enemy pattern onscreen in the hopes of beating the final boss. End credits were never as lengthy or grandiose as they are in current games (in fact, some were pretty pathetic). And yet, seeing those last frames made me feel like a champion. I beat that game fair and square, accomplishing what many others had not.
Thanks in part to how challenging some of those early games were, I had honed my skills in a way that many of my grade school friends had not. In fact, I was usually the one to showcase a game to them because of how experienced I was with games. This is by no means a “humble brag,” as I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who are MUCH better players than me. Still, the facts couldn’t be argued with, and I became the friend who was good at video games.
To this day, I find myself much better equipped to handle various games than the average player. So much so that current games can sometimes annoy me. Many of the newer games that are released today tend to hold your hand as you work through the tutorials. The prompts can be insufferable at times, treating the player like a toddler. I try to remember that not everyone has been playing games as long as I have and that the tutorials are meant to help newer players. Unfortunately, even after jumping into the heart of the game, some developers turn what could be compelling gameplay into “Press X to not die” button prompts. These games can hold my interest, but none of them challenge me in the ways that older games used to.
Which brings me back to Dark Souls. Upon starting up the game, it was apparent that there would be no handholding here. There was no formal tutorial outside of a few missable messages on the ground. There was no waypoint that told the player which way to go. There was no mercy when faced with the first boss of the game. It was love at first death. For the first time in a long time, I finally met a tough but fair game on the fields of battle, prepared to do whatever it took to bring it to its knees.
Over the coming weeks, I found that many of my past skills and reaction times had grown dull. First area enemies were destroying me, and I felt like a 5 year old swinging his broken straight sword wildly at foes who laughed at my feeble attempts. After a few days, I finally made it to the gargoyle fight, getting destroyed over and over again. That revelation shocked me, as I can typically finish a new game in no more than three days if I have the time to do so. The gargoyles were only the third boss in a game of dozens. It seemed as though it was time for me to “git gud,” as the popular Internet meme suggests.
Many people have mentioned to me how crazy I am for throwing away hours of my free time in an effort to beat a virtual creature who will give me a virtual trophy upon its virtual death. I disagree, but I suspect that the differing opinion comes from a deeper place. I admit that many of the digital trophies and achievements mean nothing in the real world. Going up to a random person on the street and loudly exclaiming that you got a Platinum Trophy in Dark Souls after you were finally able to beat Lord Gwyn, Lord of Cinder to get his powerful Great Lord Greatsword will more than likely end with you getting strange looks (or potentially punched in the face, as can be the case in Chicago). Still, the joy of winning comes not from the small badge on your profile but rather in the overcoming of the challenge.
This type of mentality can be seen in lots of areas of life. When I went to college, I was a little cocky when it came to writing. I felt that I was a great writer, as I had many people tell me such throughout high school. My very first class was College Writing. I felt confident in submitting my initial paper for the first assignment. When it came back, I got a B-, and that devastated me. The mark itself wasn’t bad, but I was used to A- grades and up. I studied all of my professor’s techniques and applied them to the subsequent papers, eager to prove to myself that I could get an A in his class.
As it turns out, all of my hard work paid off. I finished with the grade I wanted and left with lessons that have stayed with me since. That metaphorical slap in the face from the B- made me strive to want more. I focused on obtaining the reward and respect that I thought I deserved for my writing. It was through that grade that I became the writer I am today. Without it, my recently published book wouldn’t have been nearly as complete as I would’ve wanted it to be.
When the struggle is real, it can be hard to push oneself into seeing the benefits of feeling uncomfortable. Of feeling less than. Of being metaphorically beaten to a pulp. And yet, it is through the conflict that we are likely to sharpen our skills and move forward with getting what we want. I sometimes hate the fact that I encounter Strife during the daily grind. I occasionally wonder what my life would look like if I was given things much like many privileged people are. To have everything handed to me on a silver platter sounds great on paper. However, I’ve come to find the opposite to be true.
We as people tend to value that which we have to work for more so than that which is handed to us, typically speaking. By investing blood, sweat, and tears into a project, we are usually more motivated to see it through to the end, especially if we believe the end goal is attainable. That is not to say that people should be unrealistic with their goals. I think it’s safe to say that I won’t be breaking Michael Jordan’s basketball records anytime soon. However, writing and publishing a book was something I felt I could accomplish, and look how that turned out.
I encourage all of you to continue to push through your struggles and challenges. Even if you have to ask for help to do so, I hope that you endure. There is no shame in getting an assist, as the final product may end up being better because of it. But regardless, I wish you the best in overcoming and accomplishing your task. With luck, the process will leave you a better person than it found you.
And what happened to those gargoyles? After a little help from Solaire, I was able to beat them. Now, I don’t even need his help to put those stupid creatures back in their places. Praise the Sun!
Gregory T. Obert