Can a Video Game Express Modernist Values?

By Nathan WainsteinOctober 31, 2020

Can a Video Game Express Modernist Values?

You Died by Jason Killingsworth and Keza MacDonald

AS AN EXPRESSIVE MEDIUM, video games have a strange way of reducing central concepts of modernist art and theory to basic operational elements. The technical specifications of “point of view” that have preoccupied novelists since the turn of the 20th century are crudely literalized within game design into functional distinctions between first- and third-person perspectives, “playable” and “non-playable” characters. Visual abstraction and surrealism, it has often been noted, frequently occur in games as a purely technological necessity. And the spatiotemporal distortion that characterizes much high-modernist literature — from the fusion of ancient and modern cities in The Waste Land to the impossible distention of a single day in Ulysses — becomes commonplace in games wherein incongruous virtual spaces are sutured together to facilitate seamless traversal, and traditional narrative logic chafes against the nonlinear temporality of play.

Yet it is difficulty that perhaps best exemplifies the medium’s strange overlap with modernist art. Difficulty is baked into video games, even when they’re easy, insofar as obstacles to progression are an essential part of the form. Moreover, in certain games, like in certain modernist works, difficulty can obtrude as the work’s defining feature. Here one might object that difficulty in games — say, that of guiding an anthropomorphic slab of meat through a maze of whirring blades in Super Meat Boy — is intellectually and aesthetically empty compared to that of parsing Gertrude Stein’s enigmatic repetitions or tracing T. S. Eliot’s classical allusions. Yet in fact, as Leonard Diepeveen notes in his cultural history The Difficulties of Modernism (2003), during its heyday modernism was often dogged by the critique that its difficulty was of a purely gamelike kind, akin to that of a crossword or picture puzzle. If gameplay challenge initially seems like a far cry from the difficulty of the modernist artwork — with its solemn claims of revealing fundamental truths about language and perception as such — history also licenses us to turn this distinction on its head, and to ask whether difficult games might reveal something about modernism.


I thought about modernism often while reading Jason Killingsworth and Keza MacDonald’s You Died: The Dark Souls Companion (first published in 2016, but recently republished in a deluxe hardcover edition with revisions, sumptuous new images, and an additional chapter). Understandably, modernism is not a term that appears in the book: You Died is addressed primarily to fans of From Software’s 2011 fantasy-action game Dark Souls, and its discussions remain largely within the spheres of game design, game fandom, and the games industry. MacDonald and Killingsworth trade off short chapters on varied topics including From Software’s history, the game’s translation from Japanese, and the comedic troll tactics employed by certain players in the game’s multiplayer. Yet in its exhaustive account of Dark Souls — one of the most notoriously challenging games of the last decade — You Died also analyzes and performs modes of aesthetic absorption that have traditionally been linked to modernist art. And this is fitting, for perhaps no game series embodies modernist aesthetic values as completely as Dark Souls.

For the non-gaming reader (whose skepticism about that last sentence would be justified), the first thing to note is that this has nothing to do with how Dark Souls looks or its range of cultural references. Whereas other games, often self-consciously aspiring to artistic seriousness, may imitate visual styles in painting and film or invoke specific works of high culture, Dark Souls looks unabashedly like a video game and seemingly wishes to be nothing more. This is fundamentally a work about killing monsters with swords and magic. Rather, Dark Souls’s modernism consists in its basic disposition as a work, that is to say, its attitude both toward the player and toward the formal conventions of its genre. I would describe this disposition as one of optimistic negativity. Certainly, when first starting Dark Souls one form of negativity threatens to overwhelm the whole experience: its infamous difficulty, which MacDonald calls the game’s “most obvious trait” if also its “least interesting.” Compared to other action games, Dark Souls can be brutally hard. Death comes swiftly and constantly, and the game offers little guidance about where to go, what to do, and how you’re supposed to play it. In You Died (whose title derives from the onscreen message that most players will see hundreds of times), MacDonald recounts spending four hours losing to an early foe because she’d missed an optional note introducing a key combat maneuver. Such frustrating experiences are common: Dark Souls is built upon highly complex systems that dictate everything from combat to character statistics to story progression, and it explains almost none of them.

But the game’s negative force also extends to other areas. These include its soundtrack — Dark Souls mostly forgoes ambient music, thus highlighting the eerie silence of its tombs and ruined cities — its interface (there’s no pause button!), and perhaps most notably, its narrative form. In what has become a From Software signature, Dark Souls’s narrative is defined by two quintessentially modernist formal effects: fragmentation and temporal distortion. Whereas most action-RPGs try to tell a conventional story, often leaning clumsily on cinematic tropes and naturalistic dialogue, Dark Souls gives almost no context for its action, and communicates its narrative details through cryptic, sometimes contradictory bits of text and speech gleaned from items and characters found throughout the world. (MacDonald offers a fascinating explanation for what she calls the narrative’s “philosophy of ambiguity”: as a teenager, director Hidetaka Miyazaki was an avid reader of English fantasy novels, but lacking a command of the language, he had to fill in the stories’ many gaps himself.) Piecing these fragments together, moreover, reveals a realm in which time itself has fractured, trapping all its denizens in a cycle of perpetual rebirth and mental degeneration. Most video games hinge mechanically on repetition; Dark Souls is about repetition that literally makes you insane.

And yet, despite this pervasive negativity, what makes Dark Souls brilliant — and what You Died also demonstrates brilliantly — is that it ultimately enhances the most conventional gaming pleasures. Like Michael Fried’s paradigmatic modernist artwork, Dark Souls turns its back on the player (“shrugging” at their presence, as one article on the series puts it), but only so as to evoke a heightened form of absorption. This is a key difference that separates Dark Souls from so-called “masocore” games like Super Meat Boy to which, by virtue of its difficulty, it is often erroneously compared. This quality also links it to modernist art more deeply than mere negativity ever could. Dark Souls is hard much in the way that a novel like Ulysses is hard. It strips away many of the interactive supports we’re used to, introduces a new set of formal rules, and adds a rapidly escalating challenge to boot. (Like the “Proteus” chapter in Ulysses, the Bell Gargoyles show up at the first act’s end and likely account for a huge percentage of permanent rage quits.) But if you accept the work’s alien logic on its own terms, you soon discover that it’s merely an interface for isolating and revitalizing wholly familiar aesthetic effects. In Ulysses, these are the pleasures of comedic dialogue, ravishing literary description (“Buck Mulligan slit a steaming scone in two and plastered butter over its smoking pith”), and a rather sentimental story about a struggling marriage. In Dark Souls, they are the pleasures of exploring a beautiful, detailed, and mysterious 3-D realm, identifying fully with your avatar, and mastering one of the most exquisite melee combat systems ever conceived.

Each of these pleasures in Dark Souls relies upon a form of negativity. The wonder of exploring the game’s physical world — which Killingsworth eloquently captures in descriptive interludes placed throughout the book — comes not just from the game’s striking visuals, but also from its enigmatic narrative silence, its minimalist approach to contextualizing structures and artifacts that nevertheless seem charged with significance and intention. (Unsurprisingly, the series has birthed a robust community of “lore scholars,” subject of one chapter in You Died, whose exegetical subtlety would impress any midcentury Joycean.) The thrill of combat and adventuring, meanwhile, derives largely from a major design innovation: meaningful death. Dark Souls is hard not just because its enemies are unusually deadly, but also because death comes with a price, reviving all nearby foes and robbing you of your accumulated currency while affording only a single chance to retrieve it. And unlike in most games, mistakes are permanent: the game autosaves constantly without allowing you to reload earlier game-states. This system can certainly feel oppressive, but it also bestows meaning on actions that modern games typically treat as insignificant, because they’re reversible. (As the game’s translator Ryan Morris says in a passage quoted by MacDonald, Dark Souls “put the significance of things that were happening back into games.”) Do I take this path or that one? Do I head deeper into this cave, risking all manner of traps and terrifying abominations, or do I pocket my gains and turn back to the nearest safe zone, thus undoing my progress so far? The pleasure resulting from this tension is primarily ludic, deriving from the interaction of finely tuned gameplay systems, but it is also, in a way, mimetic. Venturing into the guts of a cursed subterranean city feels risky in a way that similar actions rarely do in video games, just as resting at a bonfire — tending to your equipment as your avatar kneels before the flame — feels like a true moment of respite. And in this respect, too, Dark Souls converges interestingly with the modernist work, whose shocking violations of representational conventions — from Cubist rendering to Joycean stream-of-consciousness — were often made in the name of mimetic immediacy.


Of course, linking a work to modernism is not necessarily a form of praise: a major theme of Diepeveen’s The Difficulties of Modernism is the way in which modernist difficulty often functioned perniciously as a cultural gatekeeper. Interestingly, similar charges of elitism have often followed the Dark Souls series, as well as From Software’s other recent games. This debate reached a fever pitch in the spring of 2019, upon the release of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a shinobi-themed action game that shares several mechanics with Dark Souls, and which some critics (including MacDonald) hold to be even more difficult. From Software’s refusal to add an “easy mode” to the game — based on the argument that overcoming intense challenge is integral to the experience they wanted to convey — sparked a backlash, with some critics labeling the developers elitist and ableist.

To my knowledge, none of the critics involved in this debate invoked modernism, though it would’ve been interesting to see the arguments on both sides if someone had. Ulysses, after all, doesn’t have an easy mode. Furthermore, the critique of Joyce’s novel sometimes made on this count — that it is culturally exclusionary — is harder to maintain about a game like Sekiro, which requires not cultural training but simply the time and physical ability to practice its core actions. At the same time, however, there remains a key distinction that makes justifying the difficulty of a game like Sekiro by comparing it to modernist art unusually tricky. The fact is that gameplay difficulty is different from that of a challenging film, poem, or painting, even if it’s marshalled toward similar aesthetic ends. It perhaps has more in common with the difficulty of playing a sport or an instrument — activities in which skill level genuinely limits participation — which may suggest that traditional validations of difficulty in art should no longer apply. If one is willing to cross that bridge, and remove gameplay challenge from the realm of the aesthetic, then the argument that game designers must alter their work’s internal form to accommodate a range of skill levels — an argument made about no other artistic medium — becomes more intuitive, if still unusual. (Is the author of a crossword puzzle also obliged to make an easier version of the same puzzle?) On the other hand, one could also discard the entire notion — preeminently inherited from modernism — that difficulty is a legitimate axis of artistic expression. The general silence on other artistic traditions in the Sekiro debate, however, seems to have foreclosed this move. 

Although You Died precedes this debate by several years, it anticipates it. The book has two important theses about difficulty. The first is that Dark Souls is, in fact, very hard — and it’s crucial to reiterate this, since just as in certain modernist works, familiarity can end up defanging it. You Died is particularly good at evoking this dynamic, the process of habituation and mental rewiring that can cause Dark Souls to transform “from bloodbath to bubble bath.” The book’s second thesis is that this difficulty is not exclusionary. You Died argues insistently against the idea that Dark Souls is “only for super-hardcore macho gamers” (a notion that a toxic subset of the game’s fans sadly reinforce). The book makes this case in a variety of ways. It devotes a chapter to a woman, Kay, who was encouraged to broadcast her gameplay on YouTube as a joke at the expense of her pitiful gaming skills, but who fell in love with the game and finished it while gaining a loyal following. It emphasizes the extreme consistency of the game’s logic — as MacDonald notes, “there is fundamentally almost no randomness in Dark Souls” — which makes its world, however alien at first, ultimately knowable and conquerable, even for those who have never played another video game. (Killingsworth writes that the game offers the “reassuring fantasy” of “[a]n alternate reality where every variable can be tested.”) And You Died also highlights the communities that the game’s difficulty has fostered, from the so-called “Chain of Pain,” an email thread in which the game’s intrepid first reviewers shared tips, speculation, and misery, to 2015’s bizarre experiment in “crowdplay,” whereby a program let hundreds of players control a single avatar by synthesizing their commands over Twitch — an exercise that likely drew much of its fascination from the game’s legendary challenge.

These discussions do not answer Sekiro’s critics (the latter game has key mechanical differences from Dark Souls in any case), but they helpfully model a way of thinking positively about difficulty that doesn’t default to a moralizing “it’s good for you” attitude, as debates about From Software’s games often do. Many of Sekiro’s advocates focused on a single archetypal scene common to all of the studio’s recent games: a prolonged, agonized struggle against a seemingly impossible foe, followed by the unmatched euphoria of finally prevailing. I find this privileged example of difficulty’s benefits — which You Died also cites at times — overstated and reductive. It emphasizes an abstract loop of trial and achievement that might be applied to any aspirational challenge, and often troublingly infuses play with a weird self-help rhetoric (e.g., “I learned a lot about myself from beating Dark Souls”). Rather, You Died is at its best when it highlights the sheer diversity of uses and experiences that the game’s exacting design enables. The book convincingly argues that those experiences can be shared by many different kinds of people. Although it never questions Dark Souls’s difficulty as an artistic choice, You Died unsettles the assumption that this difficulty is meant to enforce a single experience barred to those who lack the guts for it. It takes the game’s modernist purity and happily — reverently — muddies the waters.


Nathan Wainstein is a lecturer in English at Stanford University, where he received his PhD in 2020.

LARB Contributor

Nathan Wainstein studies modernist narrative and the history of literary interpretation. His current project examines the status of artistic failure in formalist literary criticism.


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