Fear is subjective. Fear of the unknown, of the violent and terrible. Some fear death, others fear spiders. We each have a unique perspective on this universal sensation, but no matter who you are, or what you say, there is something in this world that we all fear. It’s a natural response to events or images that we perceive as threatening or otherwise dangerous. Movies, books, real world events – anything can trigger that basic survival instinct that tells us “this is not right.” It’s also important to create the distinction between fear and anxiety, and while anxiety can lead to fear, it generally occurs when there is no immediate sense of danger.
Take Steven Spielberg’s classic open water tale Jaws, for instance; the anxiety is in the suspense. The classic score playing when Jaws is circling its prey, the pause before it strikes, all of it creates layers that builds up to the eventual release, a sort’ve catharsis. Once the tension of such a scene is cut, it resets until the next dramatic moment. Jaws was not, by any categorical standard, a horror movie. And yet it created such fervor long after its release that people still, to this day, fear that movie.
So what’s my point? My point is, like I said, that fear is subjective. You don’t have to watch a horror movie or play a horror video game to find things frightening. Half-Life 2, System Shock 2, BioShock, Max Payne: these are not typical horror games, and yet each one contained at least one area, or one particular theme that was just unsettling. From Ravenholm, to SHODAN, to the Splicers, to Max’s nightmare, these were appropriately frightening moments from typically non-frightening games.
At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, take a game like EarthBound, Nintendo’s classic SNES RPG starring the telekinetic thirteen year old Ness trying to save his planet from an alien invasion. It’s a colorful, cheeky little story about growing up and a child’s rite of passage into adulthood, but if you were to break it down, it has some of the most horrific and disturbing subtleties and subtext of any game I’ve played. Anyone who has managed to finish the game and can recall the laments of series-antagonist Giygas as he cries out to Ness knows exactly what I’m talking about.
And then, there’s Dark Souls. What can be said about this game that hasn’t already been discussed? Even the topic I’m about to delve into shares some corner of the internet with talks of its difficulty, its minimalist storytelling, and its infamous boss battles. But on the subject of fear, Dark Souls is a rare breed. It does what nearly any horror game is incapable of doing (even the greatest of the genre). It stays with you. It haunts you. It puts you in a panic long before and long after you play the game. There is a persistent dread that goes along with playing Dark Souls, one that far too many horror games try to emulate with typical horror tropes and stereotypical set pieces.
For the purposes of this article, let’s compare Dark Souls and its elements of horror to, what I believe, is the prime example of a modern horror game – Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Now I must warn you, if you have any interest in playing Amnesia at all but have not done so yet, then I suggest you close out of this article right now, because I am about to dissect it to the point that knowing just how the horror works ahead of time will completely diminish the experience. That being said, for everyone else still here, let’s get on with it.
There is great excitement that builds up in horror fans at the mere mention of Amnesia, and rightfully so. It skillfully wove atmosphere with tension to create one of the most terrifying experiences in recent memory. But peel back the curtains and you start to see the puppet strings at work. Amnesia is, by no means, a flawless game, and for as much praise as it deservedly gets for its ability to outright terrify the audience, there is clear deception at play. Amnesia manipulates the player into believing they are in danger: that faraway noise, the floorboards creaking under your feet; these are some of the most common elements of horror that, no matter how archaic, still manage to make our skin crawl.
But it’s all a ruse, a cleverly guised setup. There’s nothing around the corner, or behind the door (until there eventually is). It’s the buildup that terrifies us, the expectation that something is going to come and stalk us, that very same feeling that Spielberg captured so brilliantly with Jaws: a collaboration of sight and sound that creates perfectly synergized anxiety. The monsters themselves, once they appear, are not particularly frightening. Disturbing, for sure, but observation alone isn’t enough to create that necessary fear.
So the buildup is essential, and Amnesia handles it exceptionally well. Not only that, but they ingrain a sense of helplessness in the player long before you ever even lay eyes on these creatures by convincing you that they cannot be defeated, that no form of mortal weaponry can kill them. Unlike action games that seem to consider themselves horror (Dead Space, Resident Evil, Left 4 Dead), Amnesia gives you nothing to defend yourself except for the reminder that you can run and hide. And so, you run and you hide and you hope whatever’s out there hasn’t seen you.
It’s only upon your first death (if you’re so unlucky) that you notice something peculiar: there’s very little penalty for it. More than that, if you find yourself adept in the art of hiding in closets, you may notice something else: that the monsters follow a particular scripted path. If you wait long enough, they’ll simply go away. This is one of those instances where, as brilliant a sound design as Amnesia has, the music simply works against its own intent. When a monster does appear, there is a noticeable change in tempo and tone. If you’re playing the game as you should (lights out, headphones on, and utterly immersed), this will all be subliminal to you, just enough to make you realize that something is coming, but not nearly as blatant as to make you question why the music is changing. But once you realize it, what follows will render the game nearly unplayable.
The music not only increases when the monster is around, but it goes away when the monster does, as well.
That simple fact alone, once acknowledged by the player, removes any sense of danger or urgency the game previously had. It is akin to Frictional Games themselves standing beside you as you’re playing, telling you exactly when and where a monster is going to appear, and similarly, when it will go away. Knowing a monster’s pattern, its behaviors, and acknowledging the queues will turn what is an artfully put-together horror game into an otherwise typical first-person adventure that happens to take place in a dark, abandoned Prussian castle. And that is an unfortunate thing.
“So what, then, does this have to do with Dark Souls” you ask? Everything. Because where Amnesia’s reliance on string-pulling allows it to create its danger, Dark Souls leaves it entirely up to the player. You decide your fate. You choose your path. You deem what is or isn’t necessary to defend yourself in this world. Yes, of course, you have the tools to kill everything and everyone around you, which goes completely against the point I just made about Amnesia. But having the tools to defend yourself and having the ability are two very different things, because even the strongest warrior can take the one wrong step that will cost him everything.
Dark Souls isn’t a game about success, contrary to the notion that it is one of the only games that gives you the ultimate feeling of success. It’s about facing your fear, about disregarding your inhibitions, and about throwing away all you thought you knew and starting over, literally and figuratively. Dark Souls begins training the player from the moment you step foot in this world into abandoning your idea of what a video game is “supposed” to do. For so many of us who have become accustomed to games telling us we are the hero, the savior, the strongest soldier in the world, Dark Souls simply tells you “No. You are not special. You are not unique. And you will die, just like everyone else.” And that can be a powerful and frightening thing.
Death is not just an obstacle in Dark Souls, but a necessity. There are few places in the world that can’t kill you, and even in the safest amongst them, the threat of danger looms all around you. Some of the biggest causes of death in Dark Souls are environmental hazards: cliffs, fire, steep drops, poison swamps. The inhabitants of Lordran aren’t the only things trying to kill you, but the world itself wants you dead. Where Amnesia relied on scripted events to fill you with dread, the dread is everywhere in Dark Souls. The prospect of death itself can be a powerful motivator, because unlike most games where death simply returns you to a previous checkpoint with no penalty, in Dark Souls, death can mean the complete disregard of the last couple hours of playtime. Your souls – that is, your means of experience and currency – are lost upon death, with only a single opportunity to reclaim them. So death in Dark Souls isn’t to be trifled with, and the fear of it can create some admittedly frustrating moments. Moments you’ll fear going through again.
But that’s what makes it the epitome of horror. Because horror is the antithesis of desire. You don’t want it. No one enjoys being scared. Sure, you may enjoy scary movies or video games or stories, but you enjoy the excitement that surrounds it. Or maybe you’re just the kind of person that is unaffected by it, but you still appreciate the craftsmanship that went into its production. I lean more towards the latter, as I enjoy all things horror, but am rarely surprised by it.
And then there’s Dark Souls. Because no matter what you think you know about horror, Dark Souls convinces you to reimagine it. It’s not a typically frightening world (though like the games mentioned at the very beginning, it has a few disturbing locations), and none of the enemies are that unusual considering its medieval fantasy setting. But what Dark Souls manages to do is combine a proper feeling of helplessness despite all the necessary tools to succeed, a powerful aversion to death, and the most genuine fear of the unknown ever put into a game. Because if there’s one thing, above all else, that Dark Souls does best, it’s surprise you, makes you ask “What else could possibly kill me next?”
And not knowing is the most frightening thing of all.