Saving Souls: How Difficult Video Games Can Help Combat Depression

Image Credit: Joshua Fuller via Unsplash

Games Editor Joshua McCormack explores how souls-like video games can help players combat their mental health struggles.

Hobbies are the balm of life. After a harrowing day at work or a gruelling study session, they are our comfort, our means of unwinding. For some, this is the contest of sport; breaking new ground in the gym, competing in social competitions; for others, it's more sedentary past-times; curling into a blanket to watch a film or show, gathering with friends… playing a video game. Our everyday lives are plagued with a myriad of demands, and therefore it's perfectly rational that most seek solace in the opposite; in activities that offer peace, comfort, and relaxation. 

Seeking out the nerve-wracking, patience-tearing, self-flagellating torment of slamming oneself again, and again, and again into gameplay loops, deadly puzzles, treacherous platforming and bosses that will crush your avatar into pixels without a second thought, triggering a spiral of teeth-grinding, controller-smashing rants … does not fit that bill. And yet, in the thirteen years since the 2011 release of Dark Souls, gruelling, death-march-style games have seen an explosion of popularity, rising from the niche corners of the internet to dominate the industry. Hollow Knight, Star Wars: Jedi Survivor, Elden Ring, Dead Cells, Sekiro, Lords of the Fallen – a growing sub-genre of gaming called souls-like by fans.

And what's more, beyond their blooming popularity and commercial success these games, in particular FromSoftware's Souls Series, have birthed a strong mental health following. 

Type, 'Souls-like and Mental Health,' into any search engine and you'll be met with a cascade of videos, articles, think pieces, thumbnails and internet posts exploring how the games helped people in their battles with depression. At first glance, this seems impossible; these games, far from being designed to still players within a peaceful environment à-la Animal Crossing: New Horizon, or encourage their in-game progression, are the videogame equivalent of a military training camp, their avowed goal: to make the player quit … but that is precisely why many gamers have benefitted: souls-likes, more so than any other sub-genre of gaming, reflect life.

Souls-likes, more so than any other sub-genre of gaming, reflect life.

Many games provide players with hints if they’re flummoxed by a difficult puzzle or platform, some grow easier as you progress through the narrative, unlocking an armoury of power-ups and items which flatten the difficulty even as you near the denouement, and others allow for XP-grinding which renders all challenges toothless. Souls-likes have no such mercies.

Showstoppers of all FromSoftware/souls-like titles, the bosses are merciless, towering, blindingly-quick, vessels of destruction. These nightmares can't be cheated, feel no pity and will punish your every mistake, and exploit your every weakness. Humiliation after humiliation. Dozens. An eternity spent learning how to repel or dodge the most basic of attacks. There is nothing to appeal to, no externalities to blame, no explanations to latch onto, your failure is your own, a message souls-likes hammer into you. But that's a coin of two faces: your success is your own too.

By reducing the sprawling monster that is depression to a single face; that feeling of helplessness, that the world and events are things that happen to you, that all the good you achieve is down to factors outside your control, we can see how souls-like can aid mental health. These games are centred around progression through failure. When faced with a maze of tunnels plagued by all manner of enemies, traps and pitfalls, death and failure are inevitable. The goal of each burned-out attempt is not to avoid defeat, but to forge that much further ahead with the next attempt; to slip past a fist of undead, to uncover a hidden passage, to stumble just that much closer to the finish line – when confronted by the infamous bosses – Atrorias, the Hushed, Malenia – only a madman would assume victory on their first attempt.

These games are centred around progression through failure.

For all their punishing systems, horrifying foes and shattered vistas, souls-likes are about sizing up a, seemingly, insurmountable problem, and biting it into manageable chunks. Cross this section? Victory. Solve this puzzle? Victory. Chip the boss a little closer to defeat before dying? Another victory. The game never handheld you; and therefore there is no one to attribute that success to but yourself. True, these aren't 'real' victories, but players who've claimed mental-health benefits from souls-like games say that these in-game achievements have kindled positive changes in their outlook in more tangible areas of their lives. The affirmation of besting a notorious challenge in the fake world gifted many with the belief that, yes, if they could defeat a seemingly indestructible fictional monster, then they had a fighting chance against the real ones.