In my closet, there is a graphic t-shirt of Master Chief holding a rocket launcher claiming that, “I See Dead People.” It is a goofy and clichéd line, but I cherish the shirt since it is from a friend who knows me as a Rocket Fiend.
You know the type: someone who seeks out the rocket launcher from the start, runs into the fray of battle, doesn’t care if he/she dies as long as piles of enemies are eliminated in the process. This sort of player was my online gaming persona. In every Halo or Call of Duty match I would rush in, explosive weapons blazing, until my foes lay dead at the charred remains of my feet. I felt like every match in a video game merely required a show of brute force and stubborn determination until some sort of victory was in my grasp. But I wasn’t always like this; once I was a careful planner who would prefer to be on the sidelines instead of on the front.
From an early age, it was apparent that my brother Cory had better eye-to-hand coordination than I did. Even though he was nearly two years younger than me, video games came naturally to him at a basic level. There is the story my Mom tells of taking the two of us shopping one day, only to find a Super Mario Brothers demo kiosk at the local department store. She agreed to stand in line with us while we waited to try the newest video game on the market. As the older child, I had earned the birthright of first play. I made a valiant effort, but succumbed to King Koopa’s forces in a few moments. Then my brother took the controller, and proceeded to play Super Mario Brothers damn near flawlessly for the first time ever. He lost a life or two, but my brother never saw the Game Over screen. It wasn’t until he made it past World Five that my mother told him it was time to go so the line of teenagers behind us had a chance at the game. At that time, my brother was only three years old. Needless to say, the kid was a natural.
Thanks to his gift of gaming prowess, my brother was the stronger player in our family, but that did not exclude me from the experience. While Cory would start a game with little preparation, I would take the time to research every title to intricate detail. I learned the cheat codes and secret areas, the best routes to take through a game and how to be the perfect support character. With my careful planning and Cory’s natural skills, we became a force to be reckoned with; a perfect duo against which no game could survive. But as it goes with a great teams, the glory days came to an end. I was accepted into college, while Cory stayed behind to finish high school.
My love for video games followed me to college, but things were different. I was no longer the support group or the wizened gaming guru. I had earned new responsibilities and work, which demanded huge chunks of my time. I met new friends, who were just as knowledgeable of video games as I. My casual hobby became something of a compulsory obsession, and the way I approached video games had changed. Instead of the meticulous mapping and dutiful detailing of my youth, I was head-butting problems and forcing solutions where some consideration was required. I had changed from the careful strategist and ideal support member into someone who needed to be noticed; a glory hound that jumped right into the fray. In essence, I had become the Rocket Fiend.
These feelings extended beyond video games, and I was approaching life the same way. Three years into a Chemistry degree and I felt the pressure to graduate outweigh the desire to fulfill life ambitions. I had come this far, and even though I was extremely unhappy with my potential future (and current course load), there seemed to be no time to waste. All that mattered was making it through school, getting off of my parents’ dime, and finding a “real” job. In my spare time, I was partying just as hard as I was working, never taking time to appreciate moments with friends or reflecting on my life. If I was miserable during the day, surely a night of hard drinking and reckless abandon would make me feel better. My life became a high-speed cycle of rushing through school during my waking hours and ignoring my sleeping hours to compensate for time spent working. As long as I could run headfirst into the battle and grab that bachelor’s degree for the victory, I did not care about the sacrifices along the way.
Years later, I have an unsatisfying 9-to-5 “big-kid” job and a degree in a field in which I am genuinely disinterested. I find myself falling into the role of the Rocket Fiend once again; rushing through 8-to-10 hours of work, followed by switching off my brain and playing hours of online shooters, ignoring the dreams of my past. I struggled to reconnect with my former self and tried to actively plan and execute my goals instead of just attempting to net a high score to buy more distractions. So many of these efforts have been frantic attempts at bashing through my problems without any sort of forethought. Then, I played Dark Souls, and something came back to me.
Anyone who has played Dark Souls (or its predecessor) will tell you of the game’s punishing difficulty. You take on the role of a lone hero in a damned world, trying to make a pilgrimage to bring light back to the cursed land. Unlike so many other action role-playing games, where there is a steady learning curve and gradually increasing challenge, Dark Souls immediately crushes the player with near unwinnable situations that cannot be solved with brute force. When I started the game, I attempted to be the Rocket Fiend, running into battles with multiple enemies, swinging blindly with the biggest axe at my disposal to dispatch my foes. This sort of playing was met with intelligent adversaries and instant death. For the first time in a while, I had to approach a video game the way I would as a younger man.
Every encounter required some thinking, careful footing, and proper use of resources to make sure my knight would not fall to yet another skeleton’s blade. As I was slowing down and taking the time to actually think about each moment in a video game instead of just running headfirst into a situation, I started to extrapolate this to my life as a whole. Dilemmas required planning and foresight, reflecting on a situation with logic, and actually struggling for a future where I have achieved my goals. I could no longer just bash my way through my demons, and hope that the path others seemed to follow would work for me. I had to think about the character traits for which I was best suited, and what sort of spells and weapons were my greatest tools in a battle through a bleak and unforgiving land.
It would be foolish to say that Dark Souls changed my life; there are very few video games that could actually make that claim. Taking the time to re-evaluate my future and goals has been a long time coming. But this hyper-difficult title reminded me that a gradual change back to my true self should be at the front of my mind. With every passing day, I am like the lone knight in Dark Souls: regaining my humanity, remembering the young man who had dreams and ambitions outside of simply existing and taking the necessary (and careful) steps to achieve these goals.