My first experience with a From game occurred during one of the worst episodes of depression in my life. Stuck in a soul-sapping job and surrounded by people who constantly made me feel diminished, I had stopped trying to improve my situation. The only energy I could muster went towards surviving the day. I’d get home from work, lose myself in a TV show or a game, and then pass out. Rinse, repeat.
One day, I picked up a new release called Bloodborne. Though I had given the Dark Souls series a wide berth due to its reported difficulty, a particularly rough day at work had inspired me to shake off my normal caution. No game could be as hard as waking up in the morning and dealing with this nonsense, I figured.
Naturally, I died. A lot.
I’m not the best twitch gamer in the world, and normally I’d be frustrated by an endless parade of fail states. Instead, to my surprise, I was intrigued. At the time, I thought it was Bloodborne’s world and its mysteries that drove me to keep at it. I’ve since come to realize that the game inspired me to continue playing not because it had cool lore and an above-average comfort with ambiguity, but because the loop of gameplay reflected upon and commented on the rhythm of my depression.
Playing Bloodborne gave me the same emotional release as listening to the Cure while (unknowingly) suffering from the side effects of Accutane back in high school. (Accutane was acne medication that was pulled from shelves back in 2009 after studies linked it to severe depression and increased risk of suicide.) This is not to say Bloodborne made me feel better or gave me tools to deal with depression, but it did articulate something true about an experience I was navigating.
The early hours of Bloodborne are filled with verbal abuse and rejection. If you knock on someone’s door, they tell you to scram. The wandering mobs stab you with pitchforks, curse your existence, and do everything in their power to make you feel alienated. The hostility is palpable and isolating. Bloodborne evokes the feeling of walking through the world in a depressive fog. Nothing quite makes sense, the people around you seem irrationally hostile, and no matter what you do, you fail.
All of this was profoundly resonant.
I started waking up early to play before going to work. The act of doing something purely for myself before engaging the demands of others was a salve. Eventually, thanks to a supportive partner and plenty of therapy, I pulled myself out of that depressive episode, and like a hunter being transformed into a weird worm thing, I was reborn into the world.
My time with Bloodborne had been a revelation, so I was eager to try more From games.
In Dark Souls I continued to see my own experiences with depression reflected back at me. The entire thematic foundation of Souls explores destructive cycles – it’s a series about having to fight hard for every inch of progress, and it questions whether cycles can even be truly broken while acknowledging the monumental challenge of trying to change.
The combat of Dark Souls can incentivize blocking and grinding out long fights – also mirroring how I felt moving through the world when in the middle of a depressive episode.
I continued on with the series and was carving up the Abyss Watchers in Dark Souls 3 when I realized two important things — first, that From’s marketing tilt towards difficulty did them a massive disservice and probably cut off a lot of players like me who would otherwise connect to their worlds emotionally and intellectually. Secondly, that I was now a From fan and would play anything they created.
When Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice released in March, I had just begun CBT (cognitive behavior therapy, not the other definition for that acronym, though I am sure there are those that would equate that definition with From games.)
I’d always been fortunate enough to pass as functional, but cracks had begun showing in my life again. Personally, professionally, and creatively, I was on the cusp of complete implosion. I was watching my bank account dwindle, my most important relationships crumble, and my artistic ambitions grind to a halt. Just soldiering on was no longer an option. I needed help.
CBT offered me some basic tools to begin the hard work of change. It helps me examine my thoughts and feelings recognize my maladaptive behaviors. I’ve begun to puzzle out what my brain does when presented with different situations, and this has given me some breathing room to experiment and change my patterns. Of course, this work is also digging up long-buried psychic pain, so it was here, sitting at the bottom of an emotional well that I began my journey with Sekiro. After the opening cutscene, I nearly wept upon seeing the game’s protagonist, Wolf, sitting in the bottom of his own well – a literal one. I had never felt so immediately connected to a video game protagonist.
Both Bloodborne and Sekiro feature illness and plague, but in Bloodborne the disease is background noise – just a circumstance of the world and a useful device to inspire lore. Wolf is the vector of Sekiro’s plague. When he dies, the disease drains life force from NPCs around him, and those NPCs become sick with “dragon rot.” A symptom of my depression is a sense of overwhelming responsibility for others, so the concept of dragon rot taps directly into my deepest anxiety.
Sekiro is also more plot-focused than other From titles, and it uses this pivot towards story to investigate memory and trauma — what people remember, what they forget, and why people remember and forget.
An area discovered early on takes place during a traumatic night from Wolf’s past that’s been wiped from his memory. In order to get there, the player must engage with a woman in the throes of profound grief. Bloodborne and Dark Souls are replete with tragic characters, but Sekiro is more curious about how its characters navigate trauma, and thanks to its many connections to Buddhism, it explores the relationship between attachment and suffering.
A key mechanic in Soulsborne games is the consequence of failure. When you die, you lose your souls. Bloodborne and Dark Souls give players a chance to recover what they’ve lost in a nail-biting run back to the spot they perished. Sekiro deviates from this formula to reinforce its themes — you don’t get a chance to get back your lost resources. You either lose it or “unseen aid” that you can’t control saves it for you. But when it’s gone, it’s gone. You have to let it go.
I am trying to let go of the child, wide awake in bed, beating himself up because he feels responsible for the pain of the adults around him. I am trying to let go of the cognitive biases that send me spiraling into anxiety the moment anyone asks me a simple question. Hitting a fail state and watching Wolf lose resources I’ve fought to acquire is weirdly calming, and serves as a reminder that the things my brain puts high stakes on aren’t the only things that matter. There will always be more opportunities, and no setback is truly permanent. After all, Wolf started the game without weapons, tools, or resources, and he got through that situation.
The combat of From games has always felt metaphoric of engaging with other people while depressed. Dark Souls enables blocking and absorbing incoming blows. Bloodborne rewards manic aggression and retaliation. Both of these approaches are tactics I’ve used to get through bad days.
Now, Sekiro turns it all around and demands mindful responsiveness. The game even communicates to the player directly, letting you know when incoming attacks are unblockable, and as a result, more than any other Soulsborne game, the combat in Sekiro is an exchange.
As someone in the middle of a depressive funk, that can be cathartic. My brain wants to retreat and hide all of the time. It tells me that I don’t matter, that I can’t connect, and that if I’m present in a moment that moment will be painful. Having a venue where it feels safe to be present is such a gift that I choke up even thinking about it.
Fighting through the difficulty of Sekiro’s encounters feels like fighting through depression to engage as a human.
Although I have learned things from the titles that came before it, Sekiro is hitting me harder than any of From’s other work. It’s mirroring not just something true about the experience I’m going through in real life, but also the process in which I am trying to navigate that experience. Throughout my life, I am going to be wrestling with how my brain has been wired. I will always be the child, wide awake in his bed, beating himself over the day’s failures and obsessing over future failures not yet committed.
Unlike dragon rot, depression doesn’t have a cure, but From games have given me a platform where I can engage with the darkest, murkiest feelings I have without being consumed by them. They will remind me that my failures can create a map of future success, that the things I lose can be recovered, and that even at my lowest points I have the tools I need to press forward.
— Rich Lovejoy, @TheHarpoMarxist