Foreigner In a Strange Land

Upon first coming to the US at age three, I knew barely any English. Culturally, I was completely thrown off by every day obstacles such as door knobs (instead of door handles), managing to lock myself into at least one bathroom while crying to a bewildered mother on the other side of the door. Then there was overeating peanut butter, thinking it would be a suitable substitute for Nutella (these days the smell of peanut butter makes me feel queasy). I was out of my depth, but I learned.

Videogames often work in similar ways, throwing us into a world where we know the basics (a door is still a door, whatever the means of opening it), but have to actually learn the specific language of its mechanics. In both Demon’s and Dark Souls, there is a strong feeling of having stepped into a strange land where you are not welcome, underscored by its difficulty and its lack of any full tutorial. Even playing other games that are ostensibly action with RPG elements will not necessarily prepare one for the particular lessons the Souls games wish to impart.

Instead, I was learning a language that was very similar to others I’ve studied in the past, but remained lost, confused, and stumbling in my language acquisition and use, despite knowing the basics. If interaction with the game is how we communicate, I was stuttering along, surely making many errors in simple syntax, but practicing, learning, and watching the response so as to alter my own communication with the system. This happens in most games to one degree or another.

However, in both games I am not only a foreigner, but one who happens to be making space in a world where xenophobia is the norm. My mere presence was a transgression. I learned to use guides in various forms; this included not only the games’ messages left by other players, but also various Wikis, YouTube videos, and whatever else I had at my disposal. In many ways, it felt like I was residing in some insular neighborhood that was both part of the game, but clearly its own world—forever attached but clearly marked as other, with its own language mapped onto the world to both create a sense of community as well as create order so that I could understand the world around me. In Dark Souls, this feeling is more deeply entrenched in seeing other people quite commonly around bonfires, giving sword and flames a sense of home not only in their recollection of hearths, but in the ghostly apparitions of other players. This allowed me to claim some sense of ownership, some sense of belonging.

Two players around a bonfire.

Two players around a bonfire.

The worlds’ stories are fairly straightforward in terms of having to save the world, even if the particulars are a bit blurry. It is not because of the overarching plot itself I found myself playing. It was both for the thematic qualities the game conveyed, the sense of accomplishment, and then the feeling of community. I could share this experience with people, there would be stories of exultation and stress, victory and controller-gripping defeat. We were all fighting a larger fight, even if in our individual stories. We could aid each other to help defeat the next big milestone.

Which means in the stead of the plot, I found myself questioning what I was doing, exactly. There was a land that was riddled with demons, undead, and other such beings that are generally considered ‘not good.’ Perhaps it is because I am the heathen I am, but I started looking at the political meanings of the entire affair, whereby a foreign agent had come to the land, taken over, and I was now doing the same to supposedly rescue the land. I was the immigrant who could change the culture around me, though it is largely seen as me trying to completely stamp out the culture that existed. In either case, it is done through violence and force, as it is my only way of making my mark.

The games seem to depict a war against a different culture in order to restore the land to the way it was, a tug-of-war between conquered and conqueror, whereby there is a constant shift, though no one ever wins. As soon as the final confrontation is resolved, and a new order theoretically established, I was sent back to do it all again. Theoretically, the pattern recycled, and I was now back in a different incarnation, recalling my past skills, as the challenges increased in their difficulty.

What does not change is the AI, however. The enemies are stronger, have more health, and yet they are really the same. Given the same patterns, the challenge was therefore merely spending more time rehashing over the same basic game elements as before. Nothing wholly new was introduced, so much as the game fully becomes a test of what you have learned, rather than an exploratory exercise.

A player, left, looking on at the glowing red invader, right.

A player, left, looking on at the glowing red invader, right.

Given such, PVP introduces community strife. No community is ever fully cohesive, and in these games, this is seen through the invasion of a world by a black phantom. These traitors manage to rob you of corporeal form or your humanity, setting you back. In Demon’s, the game forces a PVP confrontation via the end boss of the third world. In Dark, there exist factions that encourage such behavior in return for rewards (both on the side of sadism and retribution).

There is a lot to learn in the Souls games, and the first voyage into them lends a feeling of being out of one’s depth. Given both the subtle and blatant online capabilities, it does have a feeling of unity and discord without the unnecessarily aggravating elements of multiplayer I typically tend to avoid. While I didn’t need the community to teach me how to open the physical doors that were placed about, I found myself relishing their contributions anyway.

About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
This entry was posted in Dark Souls, Demon's Souls and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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