Dark Souls: Examining the video game death instinct

Death instinct in Dark Souls

What do a 20th-century psychoanalyst and video games like Dark Souls and Superhot have in common? The death instinct…


In 2011, thousands of players sat in front of their TVs, knuckles turning white around controllers. As they repeatedly tried – and failed – to defeat Smough and Ornstein in Dark Souls, the words ‘YOU DIED’ splashed across the screen. There was frustration, rage, but also determination. So why do we gamers persist in the face of repeated death? Do we subconsciously need this act of repetition, of dying and trying again?

In 1920, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud published a paper called Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which explored how the ego affects perceptions of pleasure and pain. It might be hard to see what this has to do with video games, but there are more similarities than you might first think. The paper postulated that people develop a repetition compulsion, reliving the same scene regardless of the emotional outcome, destroying the idea of ‘self’ for an ultimate goal. Or, “You have to kill your creations and kill your old self every day in order to improve,” as Cezary Skorupka, level designer on SUPERHOT, puts it.

Freud first began examining this theory as more of his patients described how they relived childhood traumas. Patients would re-enact a past moment in their minds, yearning for a different outcome – even though changing the result of past events is impossible. Freud began to wonder why we insist on reliving such dark moments, and he developed the idea of the Death Instinct, also known as Thanatos, named for the Greek god of death. Three simple features make up the Death Instinct: aggression, risky behaviour, and reliving trauma.

The bane of so many players lives, Ornstein, along with Smough, still prove to be one of the biggest challenges in Dark Souls. How many lives have they taken?

This style of repetition may sound familiar to some. Aggression can be seen in shooters; we take numerous risks through gravity-defying jumps, and continuing to play after a Game Over could be seen as reliving trauma. Under the right circumstances, this is a healthy way to learn and better ourselves. Not only does repetition strengthen our resolve, but it also allows us to internalise our mistakes.

Matthew Barr, lecturer at the University of Glasgow, believes games give us the freedom for failure. “Failing when it really matters is not something most of us want to experience,” he says. By contrast, Barr sees video games as a way of “practising failure”. In games, this failure mostly comes from death.

We can see the Death Instinct in early games like Pac-Man, where players died repeatedly in pursuit of high scores. Over the years, entire sub-genres and movements have pursued the Death Instinct as a central tenet – speedrunning, no-hit runs, 100% completions. Each of these sub-genres has one thing in common: repetition through death, leading to mastery. Roguelikes epitomise this idea, with the concept of permadeath being a staple of the genre.

Matt Barr, lecturer and author, has heavily researched the destruction of self in video games.

Matt Dabrowski, developer of Streets of Rogue, agrees. “In roguelikes, you gain all sorts of inventory items and abilities throughout your progress,” he says. “The frequent deaths allow you to rebuild from scratch over and over again. There’s a sense of being unburdened with what has come before.” Here, then, is self-destruction through repetition. “The more you die,” Skorupka says, “the more you lose, the better your knowledge of games mechanics, timing, level layout, etc.”

SUPERHOT’s producers push the idea further with the sequel, SUPERHOT: MIND CONTROL DELETE. “We see the hero of the first game stuck in a ‘hacker room’, forced to relive traumatic moments through puzzling levels,” says Skorupka. “This is achieved by destroying each version of the hero, accepting failure in a quest for freedom.”

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud tells the story of staying with a family and noticing one day that a toddler had created a game. The child would throw toys under furniture or out of his cot, and say ‘fort’ (‘gone’ in German). They would then ‘find’ the toy with a joyful ‘da’ (‘there’ in German). It became clear that the game was based on instinctual satisfaction – creating a moment of fear and challenge in order to feel the joy of the toy’s return.

Freud posed the question: “How does his repetition of this distressing experience as a game fit in with the pleasure principle?” To this, the psychoanalyst explained: “At the outset, the boy was in a passive situation – he was overpowered by an experience; but by repeating it, unpleasurable though it was, as a game, he took an active part.” In this way, the small boy controlled and mastered his emotional reactions through a game.

Let’s transfer this to games by looking at Super Mario Bros. In order to win, players must master each stage, which will likely result in repeated deaths. The flag-pole at the end of each stage is the ‘joy’, and in order to get there, players must learn where all the dangers are and how to avoid them. The level opens in the ‘passive state’ and cycles through programmed loops. It’s only through repeated – ‘active’ – actions and acceptance of death that this learning is achieved. Freud describes this as “an urge inherent in all organic life to restore an earlier state of things”.

Speedrunners force errors and take risks in order to find the most efficient path to the end. With each death, they’re taking an active part in working towards the moment of acceptance through this self-reward.
Freud’s ‘Death Instinct’ needed contrast. Thanatos gave way to Eros – the Life Instinct. Eros is the base need for survival, and Freud believed that one wouldn’t exist without the other. This led him to state that “The aim of all life is death”. Within games, though, death is never final. It’s a part of the cycle; games can be started and restarted. Death is eventually beaten, ending in survival. The completion of a game, for many players, is the end. To track with Freud’s theory, if the aim of life is death, death represents a state where there are no tensions or stimuli to impinge upon our psyche. Once we’ve reached the end-point, the active becomes passive again, and we reach a state of peace.

SUPERHOT uses repetition through its myriad scenarios. One false move can mean failure, but we learn and adapt.

We could see this mastery through repeated death as a way of aggressively diverting emotions and trauma from life and extrapolating it into the game. “Dark Souls is about death, thematically, but mechanically the game is also about dying, as the player learns from their mistakes and ekes out a little progress,” says Barr. He doubts the idea of self-destruction being a driving force, but believes games create a yearning for resolution. “Games are absolutely about mastery. In education, learning is centred on getting feedback on your actions until you achieve a certain level of performance or proficiency. In many ways, players are practising the scientific method.”

The Death Instinct, which allowed Freud’s patients to heal, allows gamers to work through external issues with practical problems, often resulting in exporting basic skills into the ‘real world’. As Barr explains, “we can develop the tools required to pick ourselves up when things go wrong. It’s worth remembering that games, in a sense, are ‘real’ – we’re still firing real neurons, exercising real skills when we play. Transfer (of skills) makes intuitive sense.”

Dabrowski agrees. “Failure in games is a pretty minor thing, but you could certainly find areas in the real world where the skills learned from games would apply. Streets of Rogue encourages the player to attempt creative strategies – and players tend to gravitate towards these strategies with every death.”

Karl Menninger also looked into similar theories in his book, Man Against Himself (1938). He examined the idea of self-harm and self-destruction. If we look at each attempt to complete a difficult game as a form of repeated self-destruction, then we can read differently into a passage of text from his book: “The symptom (destruction) is, therefore an attempt at self-healing, or at least self-preservation.”

Dark Souls

There are moments of respite in Dark Souls, as in life. But they are few and far between, when life hangs in the balance.

We can see this theory in Dark Souls. As players approach a new area, they won’t know the enemies, where they’re positioned, or what their pattern of attacks are. The cycle of deaths this introduces is frustrating, but what if we’re drawn to this frustration as a way of controlling our fate? Sometimes a player will storm into a boss with death as the goal, purely to learn, knowing they get another chance. We fail. Failure strengthens us. Skorupka taps into the idea neatly: “We know it will hurt, we know we may fail, but we have to suffer through it to create anything.”

Dabrowski also sees repetition in the act of designing a game. “When I’m learning something new in the world of development, I tend to brute-force my way through to a degree that could be seen as self-destructive,” he says. “I become obsessed with powering through, regardless of how many headaches and hours of crunch I’ll be taking on.”

James Paul Gee, an American researcher, looked to games in his paper, Good Video Games and Good Learning, to see how repetition through destruction and problem-solving could be applied to education.

He found that players had to “rethink their now taken-for-granted mastery, learn something new, and integrate this new learning with their old mastery”. This process is sometimes called the ‘Cycle of Expertise’. If self-destruction forces learning and the transfer of skills, this repetition is potentially soothing for players – a contained way to explore subconscious emotions. Dabrowski agrees: “People often find comfort in playing games where they know exactly what to expect. It allows them to zone out – maybe even into a meditative state.”

Through games, we can achieve the seemingly impossible through repetition, and through death, we can reach a form of peace. The anguish is worthwhile; each misstep or unparried attack, each Game Over, fulfils our Death Instinct. The pursuit of repeated death cleans the slate, bringing us to a point where anguish no longer exists. Freud could see this as moving through passive and active states at will by our own control. One of Karl Menninger’s patients said it best: “You have to taste the bitter part of life to enjoy the sweet.”

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