It’s been three months since I wrote a post asking people to stop asking me to play Dark Souls. It was fun, silly, and – if I’m being totally honest – pretty cathartic to write. In that post, a few people asked why I don’t like Dark Souls. Not because they were trying to get me to play the game, but because they just wanted to understand where I was coming from. I know I’ve alluded to this in the past, but maybe it would be handy to have the whole story in one post…
The thing is: I don’t dislike Dark Souls. I actually think it’s an amazing creation. My problem is that it’s deeply unhealthy for me to play it. So let me set aside the jokes and hyperbole and the ranting about fanboys and joking about YOU DIED and describe where things fall apart for me.
But before we do that, let me tell you about General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane…
Beane was – or perhaps still is – a naturally gifted athlete. If you read his story, it sounds like he’s a real-world version of Captain America.
“Beane attended Mt. Carmel High School in San Diego, where he excelled at baseball, football, and basketball. The high school coach added Beane to the varsity baseball team for the last game of his freshman season. Beane batted .501 during his sophomore and junior years of high school.”
It’s not like this was just some regular guy who happened to be a little bigger than the other fish in the pond. It would be one thing if he was a high school star in some podunk town, but this guy lived in San Diego. He played three different sports, was awesome at all of them, and he managed to put up ludicrously high numbers despite splitting his attention between them. A batting average of .501 is almost superhuman. In his senior year it fell to .300, which is still way above a majority of players. This means that when he was in a “slump”, he was still better than most of the players around him.
The only person I can think of that even comes close is Bo Jackson, the only professional athlete in history to be named an All-Star in both baseball and football.
On top of that, Beane was gifted in a lot of other areas. He was one of those people who seemed to be cheating at life. He was fit, handsome, likeable, and apparently a top student. This guy seemed unstoppable.
He began playing professional baseball in 1984. His career ended just 5 years later.
He didn’t have a career-ending injury. He didn’t have a bunch of behavioral problems that put him in jail. He didn’t self-destruct with drugs or alcohol. He was just suddenly and inexplicably not good enough to cut it in the major leagues.
In the movie Moneyball, Beane was played by Brad Pitt. The movie briefly alluded to his problems, but to get a sense of why his career flamed out you’d have to read the book. (And to really get an understanding of the guy, you’d probably have to know him.)
According to the book, Beane couldn’t handle failure. He’d never learned how to calmly accept defeat, adapt, and move on. Maybe it was a side-effect of being so good for so long that he’d never cultivated the resilience required to operate at the top level of a sport where all of your opponents are nearly as superhuman as you are. Maybe it’s just a personality quirk. Maybe he’d been told how incredible he was for so long that anything less than complete dominance made him feel like a failure.
This was a nasty cycle that fed on itself. He’d go to bat, strike out, and become completely livid. He’d throw a fit, break stuff, and generally have a very public meltdown. Then the next time at bat, he’d be so afraid of another failure that he’d start melting down before he got anywhere near the plate. The more he failed, the more intolerant he was of failure and the more likely he was to fail.
A future of riches and glory was in front of him. He could make an insane pile of money. He could be the biggest name in sports in generations. All he had to do was calm down, and he couldn’t do it.
I want to stress that Beane wasn’t some dumb oaf. This wasn’t some ape-like jock with no self-awareness. Beane is a smart guy and he could see how embarrassing and counterproductive these meltdowns were – but he still couldn’t stop them from happening!
Like I said above, he eventually became General Manager of the Oakland Athletics. Even then, his demons haunted him. He literally couldn’t watch the games because he’d freak out over every setback. He’d smash furniture and generally make a fool of himself. Eventually he developed this thing where he’d tell people that he didn’t watch the games. He tried very hard to make this true. He’d leave the stadium and try to do something else for a few hours, because he knew otherwise he’d blow his top and make everything worse. What ended up happening is that he’d drive away with the intent to distract himself for a few hours. But eventually the stress, anxiety, and curiosity would get the better of him and he’d end up pulling over and listening to the game on the radio in a parking lot somewhere.
Now imagine how much worse Beane would be if he had all those self-imposed expectations of success, but instead of being a superhuman he was just a regular guy.
Alternately, imagine Bruce Banner turning into an out-of-control rage monster, except he’s physically the same puny guy he was before. That’s also kinda me.
Failure Is Not an Option, It’s Mandatory
In the past I’ve talked about having meltdowns in cases where I keep getting pulled off-task by a chain of interruptions. Something like this:
This software isn’t working right. Oh, I see I need to install 3Gb of Windows updates to get the small fix for this simple program. Wait, now Windows won’t let me get that update until I agree to a new EULA. Fine. Oh, but to do that I have to log in to my Microsoft account and I don’t remember my password. I’ll do a password reset. Arg. Now the reset page is suddenly displaying everything in Italian for no reason. I try to fix that and end up clicking the wrong thing and now Microsoft has locked me out of my account due to failed login attempts and I can’t try again because I’ve smashed my keyboard into a thousand pieces.
This is the main reason I don’t like talking about this. People read my work and they imagine I’m some Spock-like critic of pure analysis and reason. It’s nice when people think highly of you, and I hate to ruin a good story with the truth, but there it is. I sometimes turn into a ridiculous self-destructive rage monster.
Back in 2006 I described this as nested problems. I’ve spent a lot of time studying this problem since then and I’ve come to think of it differently. It’s not really that the problems are nested that’s causing the rage. The rage happens whenever I’m presented with a frustration and then I’m repeatedly prevented from attempting to solve it. Nesting is indeed a common pattern, but I’ve also run into situations where the frustrations are chained rather than nested. It’s not that things are going wrong, it’s that I’m being prevented from working on the problem in front of me.
“Yeah Shamus, I get mad at video games too. It’s no excuse to smash stuff. Just grow up.”
Sigh. This is the other reason I don’t like talking about this. It’s really hard to get the other person to understand the sheer scale of the problem.
Getting frustrated by blocked progress is pretty normal. What isn’t normal is getting a massive dose of adrenaline in response to mundane problems. It’s not the frustration that’s the problem, it’s the Hulk-sized dose of useless hormone neurotransmitters sloshing around in my bloodstream. That’s a real physiological thing that happens to your body, and you can’t zen your way through that shit. I’ve tried. You can’t shrug off the effects of adrenaline any more than you can shrug off the effects of alcohol. One way or another, biochemistry is going to have its way with you.
I’m trying to solve some subtle reflex-based boss fight and my brain is like, “What are we doing? Are we fighting a bear? Here, have this!” And then suddenly my heart rate spikes and I get so angry I can’t speak.
Like I said, I can keep calm as long as I can continue to concentrate on the problem, but if you yank the problem away from me then my anger spikes. Worse, this isn’t just a one-time dose. This anger continues to grow for as long as I’m prevented from working on the problem I care about.
And when I do get back to solving the problem, it’s not like that adrenaline just vanishes. I’m still in an extreme state of agitation. Resuming work on the problem is just the point where the anger stops getting worse. That stuff can last for a long time after the initial frustration is long solved. We don’t have a word for the sour, exhausting, stomach-churning, sullen feeling you get when you’re coming off a rush of angry adrenaline, but I wish there was. A half hour of rage can leave me feeling awful for hours.
The other wrinkle to all of this is that my wife is an extremely gentle and empathetic soul. Early in our marriage I’d find myself in the middle of situations like this:
Shamus is struggling with some ridiculous multi-stage problem with Windows 98. After fifteen minutes of rebooting, pointless error messages, and confusing dialogs, he’s finally at the edge of his self-control. He’s been growling, grinding his teeth, cursing under his breath, and otherwise trying to bottle up his rage. Finally Windows 98 pushes him one step too far and he LOSES HIS SHIT.
AAAAAAARG. WHAT THE FUCK?!!??! FRRRGGGKKKKK.
(He can’t hold it any longer. He slams his fist into the bottom-right of his keyboard and caves in the bottom of the numpad. He’s vaguely aware that he’s just injured his hand, but he can’t feel it yet because of the adrenaline rush.)
(Suddenly, Heather dashes into the room in a panic.)
(Shamus struggles to get a grip on himself so he can form words and phrases.)
It’s… Windows. It… first it wanted the disk, and THEN it says it can’t FIND the disk even though the disk is FUCKING RIGHT THERE! I CAN SEE IT IN THE FILE EXPLORER BUT WINDOWS WON’T LET ME FUCKING ACCESS IT AND THEN–
(Heather slams her hands over her ears and looks like she’s on the edge of tears.)
Stop shouting at me!
I’M NOT SHOUTING AT YOU, I’M JUST SHOUTING!
This is… a disaster. I really love my wife and I can’t stand seeing her hurt or upset. But she’s also a gentle person and does not react well to raised voices. At the same time, her personality compels her to help people in distress. So then she’d come in to help and I’d have to bottle up my emotions. I was originally raging out because I had one too many things preventing me from working on the (seemingly) simple problem in front of me. But now I have to calmly and quietly describe a very complex technical problem while also masking my rage because otherwise I’ll terrify the person I love most.
If you look closely, you’ll realize this is yet another layer of interference keeping me from working the problem. She’s trying to help, but she’s accidentally adding to my anger while also putting herself in close proximity where my shouting will be most upsetting. She’s trying to help her husband and stop the shouting, and instead her noble intentions are adding to the chaos. I’ve lost count of the number of times I shouted, “I’M NOT ANGRY AT YOU, I’M JUST ANGRY.”
Eventually I sat down and figured out the mechanics of this mess. It seems simple and straightforward from my description above, but the behavioral pattern isn’t as obvious when you’re living through it. I sort of imagined everyone else felt the same sanity-destroying anger that I did, and I was just a terrible person because I couldn’t bottle it up like they (apparently) did.
Once I understood some of the problem, I was able to explain it to my wife. Now she knows not to dash into the room just because I’m shouting at Uplay or whatever. These days, she’ll offer to solve the problem for me if it looks like a meltdown is coming. When this happens, I act exactly like Billy Beane. I leave the scene and pace fretfully. I want to know how it’s going, but I know it’s a bad idea to ask. She’ll probably tell me that the Windows Store is somehow asking for my Xbox login or something else insane and then I’ll start ranting about Microsoft’s miserable pile of broken infrastructure.
(This is made easier by the fact that she likes helping and seems to get a lot of satisfaction from sorting out problems like this. I’m really lucky I didn’t marry a tech-illiterate woman.)
Over the years, I’ve learned and observed a bit more about this condition…
- These anger spikes first appeared just before puberty. That’s also when I started taking medication for my asthma. It’s also about the same time as the Dark Year. I’ve been on various medications over the years, but I haven’t been medication-free since 1982 or so. I have no idea if puberty, the medication, or the personal trauma have anything to do with it.
- It’s gotten better with age / experience. I’ve figured out some triggers and I’ve gotten better at avoiding them. When I was a young guy, meltdowns used to happen a few times a month. I think I only had two in 2019.
- Large doses of highly processed sugars are a huge trigger. I’ve noticed that if I eat candy, the next day I’ll be redlining on anger. I’ll just be one good nudge from a rage fit. I don’t know if it’s the sugar, the dye, or some other ingredient. Yes, I’m aware that people have claimed that the effects of these foods are overblown. Actually, it’s complicated. I don’t know. It’s not like I can run a proper double-blind study on myself. I’ve found a trigger, and so I stay away from it. It’s just not worth doing further experiments. It’s a shame. I have a massive sweet tooth and I really miss jelly beans.
- Like I mentioned back in 2017, aerobic exercise also messes up my moods. I can lift weights with no problemNo problem beyond the difficulty of, you know, lifting them., but jogging and other high-intensity exercise will do something (probably mess with my hormones) that will make me very angry for no reason the next day. At that point, all I need is a tiny frustration to pop up and my adrenal glands will be like, “I KNEW IT. I KNEW WE WERE GOING TO FIGHT A BEAR AT SOME POINT TODAY. OKAY LET’S DO THIS!”
- I’ve had a few magical moments in my life where I DIDN’T have a huge melt-down in the face of an ongoing frustration. I was working on some confusing problem with broken technology. After an hour or so, I suddenly realized I was long past the point where I’d normally freak out. I was frustrated, sure. But I was, like, normal-people frustrated. I could still think straight and I didn’t want to shout or smash anything. It was magical. Being able to stay calm in the face of continuing frustration feels like a superpower to me. I’ve never been able to find a pattern to this. Diet? Exercise? Medications? Sleep patterns? I have no idea.
Regarding #5: My son Issac is able to stay perfectly calm when playing frustrating games, and it looks miraculous to me. He’ll be in the middle of a long run-back to the boss he’s working on. I’ll ask him how a game is going, and he’ll reply – in a perfectly calm voice – that he’s a little frustrated because this boss just killed him 7 times in a row. I’m deeply envious of his zen, but I’m relieved he didn’t inherit my demon.
Same goes for ryukahr. I’ll watch as some cruel and deliberately unfair level kills him again and again at the end of a taxing series of jumps, and I’ll start feeling this sympathetic outrage on his behalf. Meanwhile, he’s still grinning from ear to ear and having an amazing time. Watching his videos is like watching bullets bounce off of Superman.
The final cruelty is that I’ve had rage melt-downs trigger one of my migraines. Or maybe the two problems have a common root cause? I don’t know. I’ve tried to get help for my headaches but so far traditional medication hasn’t provided any solutions. (Incidentally: My migraines first appeared in the exact same window of time around 1982 or so.)
I cracked a couple of ribs back in the mid-aughts. It made every breath painful and it hurt so bad I could barely sleep for a few days. But if you gave me the choice between cracked ribs or a migraine, it wouldn’t even be a contest. Do you break my ribs, or do you want me to do it? Because I want nothing to do with that headache.
Which brings me to…
Dark Souls is almost perfectly engineered to push my anger button really hard. Bosses often take a few tries to beat. Additionally, there’s a non-trivial run-back penalty when you fail. Remember that I don’t get angry when I die, I get continuously more angry during the run-back. The longer the reset, the more enragingFun fact: Google docs was convinced this sentence was wrong, and that I must have meant “Intriguing” instead of “enraging”. That’s a very interesting suggestion. it is.
I can handle games with lots of death like Hotline Miami, where there’s zero penalty for failure and you reset instantly to the start of the room. I might get a little frustrated if I die 10 times, but it’s normal-people frustration. I don’t get a bunch of useless adrenaline floating around in my bloodstream.
I can handle games with a bit of a reset time, like the classic five-minute checkpoint. I can sorta handle that long run-back if it looks like it’ll be the only one. But if I died, and I don’t know what I did wrong, and I know I’m going to have to make several attempts, and I know every attempt will incur this penalty, then I’ll know I’m heading for a meltdown. Worse, if I see I’m going that way then I’ll get there even faster. “Oh shit. HOW many times am I going to have to do this run?! I don’t even know! IT COULD BE A MILLION!”
I know Dark Souls fans like to argue with everything I say about the game, but I hope they’ll at least concede that the bosses are not designed to be beaten on the first try. Some of them take many tries. And there’s usually a run-back penalty, and sometimes that penalty can be steep.
So then a well-meaning fan will try to explain why it’s not that bad: Hey, there are shortcuts! You can follow a guide! Some bosses are easier if you know the strategy ahead of time! Sometimes the run is actually pretty short! Just unlock the shortcuts, read the strategy guide, and watch YouTube videos to see how to handle the fights so you don’t have to work it out through trial-and-error.
So what we’re talking about is playing the game where – instead of being immersed in the world – I’m reading the wiki to tell me about the shortcuts and how to unlock them, and reading a strategy guide and watching YouTube videos so I’m not going into fights blind. That means the game might not push my anger buttons as hard or as quickly, but it’s still going to be pressing them. Sooner or later I’ll run into that one boss that has just the right combination of long run + tricky fight, and it’s meltdown time. Plus, spending so much of the game with your nose in the wiki is a really boring and immersion-breaking way to play. At that point I might as well watch a dang LP on YouTube.
Hey Shamus, why don’t you just summon a friend and have them escort you through the game?
See, I don’t just want to get through a game. I want to master it. That’s the part that feels good. Having someone else doing the heavy lifting might get me through to the next bonfire or whatever, but that doesn’t really help me master the mechanics so that I can play the game on my own.
Compounding this is that I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I don’t want to just barely scrape by and emerge from a fight with a tiny sliver of health. I don’t want to squeak by on blind luck. I want to win for real, in the sense that I have control of the situation. In a perfectible game like Jedi: Fallen OrderI’m not totally sure JFO is actually perfectible. I’ve only done 2 playthroughs. If it isn’t, it’s dang close., Batman, OlliOlli2: Welcome to Olliwood, I’ll often intentionally reset to the last checkpoint if I feel like I’m not performing as well as I could.
The Usual Disclaimer
As I’ve said before: None of these things mean that Dark Souls is a bad game. I recognize that it does a lot of cool stuff. I’ve never followed the lore of Dark Souls, but I LOVED Dan Olson’s breakdown of Bloodborne. That thing sounds like solid gold. I enjoy atmospheric games. I love games with a lot of clearance between the skill floor and the skill ceiling. I really appreciate games that allow the mechanics to stand for themselves and don’t feel the need to trample all over my gameplay with their stupid cutscenes. Dark Souls has many design decisions that I admire, but this particular way of presenting challenges is a deal-breaker for me. If I had a magic pill that could inhibit my anger, then I could take it and practice the game until I had the experience and muscle memory to get through with minimal deaths. If that happened, then I’d probably play Dark Souls like I play Batman Arkham City: I’d Go through the game again and again, refining things and trying to get the perfect run where I don’t make any mistakes.
But no matter how much fun I’d have with the game after mastering it, there’s no way to get from where I am now to where I need to be, except to go through the Valley of Absurd Temper Tantrums and into the Caves of Smashed Controllers and Busted Keyboard Drawers before coming out the other side.
“Hey Shamus, Instead of getting mad that you can’t resume fighting the boss right away, just think of the whole thing – respawning at the fire, running back to the boss, and repeating the early stages of the fight – as a single challenge. Then it’s like Hotline Miami, where you resume playing right away. If the entire journey from the bonfire to the death of the boss is a single challenge, then there’s no penalty for failure!”
You can try to convince me that this is the case, but that won’t stop the release of adrenaline. It’s not always clear what will cause rage and what won’t, but I know from experience that you can’t change it by “thinking about it differently”. I’ve messed around with this a lot over the years, trying to find some zen state of mind or mental model that will avoid meltdowns. “Maybe I’ll just assume ahead of time that I’m going to die 50 times and that’s okay. Then when I only die 6 times I’ll actually be elated!“
It would be nice if changing your frame of mind worked, but it doesn’t. This problem seems to be happening on the hardware level, so we can’t fix it at the application layer. All we can do is avoid triggering the problem. (By avoiding certain situations / games.)
“Have you tried counting to ten instead of getting angry?”
Counting to ten would have the opposite of the suggested effect. I realize it works for some people, but for me it would just extend the delay between failure and the point where I could resume working on the problem. It literally intensifies the anger. It’s effectively making the run-back longer.
A lot of people have these intense outbursts like this. This Reddit thread has people exchanging tips on how they handle their particular anger. Some of that advice is stuff I’ve tried with no success. Some of it would make things way worse. Some of it doesn’t make any sense and seems to be talking about a completely different problem / emotional state.
Not only are the solutions different from person to person, but so are the triggers. Comedian Bill Burr talks a lot about his explosive temperHe calls it his “Demon”.. He’s prone to blow his top in domestic arguments and road rage at other drivers, and I’ve never had a problem with either of those. I just have lowkey regular-people anger in those situations.
Hey Shamus, have you tried yoga / meditation / martial arts / weed?
I’m not really looking for a new hobby?
This is the final reason I don’t like bringing this up. I know some people won’t be able to resist the urge to try to help. Like I said in my previous post on the topic, there’s a small minority of SoulsBorneo fans that can’t take no for an answer and think that every “no” means “try again but use a different argument”. The last thing I want is for one of those people to attempt to psychoanalyze me / diagnose my problem. This is pretty personal and it’s not a lot of fun to talk about, so arguing about it with a pushy stranger who doesn’t understand boundaries would be… not fun.
I understand that some people can’t resist the urge to try to help. My wife is one of those sorts of people. Maybe some people struggled (or knew someone who struggled) with similar problems and they found some tricks for dealing with it. Maybe their advice will help, and maybe it won’t. But most advice revolves around doing something large and time-consuming. Trying the advice of 50 different internet strangers and testing to see how they work in intense rage-inducing situations would be a very long and unpleasant process. After struggling with this for about 30-ish years, I’ve managed to work out a system that mostly works for me.
I love videogames a lot. I’ve built this entire second career around playing, analyzing, reviewing, appreciating, and criticizing them. But the love I have for games is like one billionth of the love I have for my wife. I don’t want to sit in my office making her flinch every time I shout at the screen. If that means I miss out on some landmark titles, then so be it.
I’ve been careful to avoid advocating for changes to the game like, “We need pre-boss checkpoints!”, or save-on-demand, or an easy mode, or whatever. I know how frustrating it is when the unique game you love pivots to a more mainstream audience and leaves you out in the cold. I don’t want to be the guy shouting for Dark Souls to be made more like some other game. If they changed the game to suit me, then it would no longer suit all the die-hard fansI mean, that’s what the fans keep telling me. I have no reason to doubt them. You can disagree if you like, but please take it up with each other and leave me out of it.. So I’m content to leave the game alone.
All I ask in return is that the fans leave me alone about it.
 No problem beyond the difficulty of, you know, lifting them.
 Fun fact: Google docs was convinced this sentence was wrong, and that I must have meant “Intriguing” instead of “enraging”. That’s a very interesting suggestion.
 I’m not totally sure JFO is actually perfectible. I’ve only done 2 playthroughs. If it isn’t, it’s dang close.
 He calls it his “Demon”.
 I mean, that’s what the fans keep telling me. I have no reason to doubt them. You can disagree if you like, but please take it up with each other and leave me out of it.
Even allegedly smart people can make life-changing blunders that seem very, very obvious in retrospect.
The game was a dud, and I'm convinced a big part of that is due to the way the game leaned into its story. Its terrible, cringe-inducing story.
The Best of 2018
I called 2018 "The Year of Good News". Here is a list of the games I thought were interesting or worth talking about that year.
Quakecon 2012 Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
Pixel City Dev Blog
An attempt to make a good looking cityscape with nothing but simple tricks and a few rectangles of light.