Sex is like Dark Souls

Don't listen to anyone telling you that you have to play Dark Souls III -- or any other game, for that matter. Your body, and media diet, is your own.

Sex is like Dark Souls. I have zero interest in it and no amount of peer pressure and cultural shaming is ever going to persuade me.

Sex is like Dark Souls, it’s gross and the controls are unintuitive at best, and a lot of dudes will vigorously sing its praises regardless.

Sex is like Dark Souls. I find the lore way more interesting than the mechanics. I love reading about it and sometimes I even enjoy watching it, but that doesn’t translate into a desire for a hands-on experience.

Sex is like Dark Souls, I’m happy it exists and so many find it rewarding, but I also don’t get the angst from those who struggle with it. Have you considered a lifestyle of just not playing it? I promise it’s not as painful as it sounds.

Sex is like Dark Souls. There may be some who are reading to this who are already going, ‘Maybe Kris just thinks like that because they can’t play Dark Souls anyway. What copy of Dark Souls would want to play with Kris?’ And you’re right, years of playing games and writing about them have left me with serious pain in my wrists and thumbs, but I bet that’s not where you were getting at. You were perhaps suggesting that a game’s lack of appeal for the player rests with the player, and not the fact that not all types of games -- not all types of experiences -- are going to do it for everyone.

Sex is like Dark Souls, it’s gross and the controls are unintuitive at best.

I used to run a little website called Critical Distance. Most of what the site publishes are weekly reader’s guides to what other people have written about games. It also runs podcasts, letter series, special compilations, writer challenges… but most of what it's known for is these roundups, in which folks like Zoya Street (and previously me) chew through about a thousand articles a week and string together the best ones in some kind of sensible order.

When there was a big new game release, this last job was pretty much done for me: I gathered together everything that had been said about it, established recurring themes in those pieces, dropped the ones that weren’t saying anything interesting, and published. If I was planning to play that game later than the week it came out, too bad! This job -- and more years in higher ed than I’ll ever pay off -- has inured me to spoilers. And only rarely does a game come along the essays for which are incomprehensible unless I play it for myself anyway.

The point here being, I have read a lot about Dark Souls for someone who hasn’t played it. I know what people think about it, how it made them feel feelings, how to do it well, how to do it quickly, how they wish more games were like it, how more games are trying to be like it and failing… I know these games pretty intimately, for something I’ve never picked up, nor have any desire to. Because for as fascinating as it sounds when other people speak of it, I know what I’m not able to do. It’s not my thing.

However, sex is like Dark Souls, in that we are not good at talking about things outside a binary. There’s very little room for being indifferent to Dark Souls, you either love it or come under fire from all your friends and relatives for saying you’d rather avoid it. ‘How is that natural? Doesn’t everyone play Dark Souls at one time or another? Do we not have a biological imperative to play Dark Souls, the same way some of us are just born with vision problems and we absolutely do not do anything about this? You can’t fight nature.’

Pictured: maybe sex. Pictured: maybe sex.

Okay.

So maybe saying that ‘sex is like Dark Souls’ is overstating things a bit. Videogames have their canon, as all media do, and Dark Souls is undeniably now a part of that canon, and probably deservedly so.

But we don’t treat ‘the canon’ in videogames the same way we treat ‘the canon’ of human experiences -- that ‘canon’ being all the things we recognize as part of being brought up in a certain way: get a high school degree; get a college degree; get a salaried job with benefits; marry someone of the 'opposite' sex. Live in a home you own for yourself. Get a driver’s license. Drive a car. Reproduce, preferably not with a copy of Dark Souls. Have a weekend hobby. Vote in presidential elections, but probably not any of the other ones. Have sex. Not too much of it, or too little, because that’s weird. And don’t get too creative, but be a little creative, no wait, that’s too much. What are you, some kind of masocore pervert who plays on Nightmare Mode?

Try engaging with a community of game critics on a subject like narrative design, player agency, or free will, without bringing up BioShock. Even BioShock’s sequels can’t not talk about BioShock.

By contrast, there’s a little more leeway in how we discuss the universality of a videogame canon. Some works are older and less accessible, and this is, after all, an industry that actively seeks to thwart efforts at its own preservation. But otherwise, there’s a lot of similarity. Try engaging with a community of game critics on a subject like narrative design, player agency, or free will, without bringing up BioShock. Even BioShock’s sequels can’t not talk about BioShock.

Try to get by a month, no, even a couple weeks, without at least reading up on the latest releases, even indie games which are increasingly part of the week-to-week talking points. Developer and educator Robert Yang (Cobra Club) regularly releases design post-mortems on his own small games, and he explained the reason for this in a recent blog post, saying:

It’s more important to witness a game than to play it […] because that means you can think about it. […] The concept, and your explanation of that concept, and your audience’s understanding of that concept, is your game.

In the same way that I can look at Yang’s games and see them as their creator’s effort to carve out a space for himself in a culture that excludes him, lately I’ve begun to think about simply not engaging with ‘the canon’ of games as a sort of outsider statement in its own right -- a statement of ‘not doing the thing,’ when ‘doing the thing’ is considered such an accepted, normal part of how we relate. To not do it, in some form, signals you as uncooperative, a loner, frigid, inexperienced and in need of education.

Some of us, when we find ourselves alienated by the big console and PC releases, respond by finding the games which do excite us. This can manifest as an interest in the altgames scene, as it has for some people, and that’s great. But it’s just as valid to spend that time not doing games and taking up, for example, jogging or origami instead. These can be valuable, pleasurable activities, no more or less legitimate than a hot and heavy evening with a FromSoftware game.

We know this, but we don’t actually comport ourselves in a way that makes that clear to an observer. Even inside our oh-so-enlightened critical spaces, where we pooh-pooh on the idea of defining oneself wholly by or through games, there’s still very little follow-through in which we delightedly spend some time doing ‘not game things,’ discussing them, sharing articles about them. This isn’t just a media diet thing I’m talking about here, it’s about our tendency to immerse ourselves in a game-centered lifestyle, socializing chiefly with people in games, about games, until we produce assumptions about how these things are supposed to be engaged with.

Typical. Someone broke the street date again. (Image source: Richard Smith.) Typical. Someone broke the street date again. (Image source: Richard Smith.)

When I say that ‘sex is like Dark Souls,’ I mean, yes, the review of Sex that Matthew Burns wrote for Kotaku. It’s worth reading: it’s funny and for the most part steers clear of the kind of fraught language I’ve talked about here. But even Burns’s satirical article makes the repeated assertion that you should try sex before writing it off; that it has its problems but, hey, it’s sort of a system-seller, and you don’t want to be one of those players hanging around in the matchmaking lobby forever. Which is where things start to fall apart, if you’re like me. Because the last thing we need is even more of an attitude that a game, any game, even the games we play between ourselves with the lights off, is so essential that without it we aren’t fully participating in adult life.

So when I say that ‘sex is like Dark Souls,’ I also mean ‘Dark Souls is like sex,’ in that there is a culture of acceptance -- in game journalism, criticism, the whole Turdurken of critical player spaces that used to be my actual job to chart every Sunday -- in how we talk about certain experiences as being either universal or ‘should be universal.’

It seems funny to me that we police each other in this way. ‘What do you mean you haven’t played this critical darling indie game because you work two full-time jobs to keep a roof over your head, and even if you could play a game in your off hours your machine is too outdated to run it? What do you mean a game is too physically demanding for you, and you already can’t afford to go to the doctor? What do you mean you’re just not into that sort of game?’

We don’t usually say these things outright, no more than we would habitually go around telling asexuals that they are wrong, or broken, or just bitter for feeling the way that they do. But that is what we end up saying implicitly, sometimes even with the best of intentions, when we use phrases like ‘everybody does it’ and ‘it’s human nature,’ and assuming everyone has equal access to and desire for the same experiences, whether that is in terms of cultural capital or our sexual lives.

The last thing we need is even more of an attitude that a game, any game, even the games we play between ourselves with the lights off, is so essential that without it we aren’t fully participating in adult life.

You should not have to play Dark Souls (or Mario, or Street Fighter, or Call of Duty) in order to feel like you have common ground with your peers. And thankfully, for the most part, you actually don’t. Those who are ardent fans of the games will go to pretty extreme lengths to describe them in sufficient detail, but we’ve still cultured into ourselves into believing that that’s not really knowing the game.

Well, it is. And developers like Robert Yang are catching onto that. Likewise, to assert that someone ‘just hasn’t found the right person’ or ‘just needs to change their appearance’ to end their asexuality is condescending and ignorant. Particularly in a world where information on sex is in such abundance, Playboy isn’t bothering with porn anymore. Instead, it’s become a reputable publication for game criticism. Which in some odd way sums up everything I’ve been saying here.

And that is why sex is like Dark Souls. It’s the fact that Dark Souls is not very much at all like sex, but we treat it as though it’s a universal interest, or at the very least, an ideal that we should all nominally aspire to. It’s not. And the more we hammer on these ideals, the more we argue for their place among the ‘canon’ of human experiences, the more we reveal that any such canon is the product of biases and assumptions, one which by necessity shut other people out.

Dark Souls is a fine enough thing to enjoy, but it isn’t the only thing. A lot of us grew up on Nintendo, but to assert that everyone did, or that anyone not getting excited by Nintendo nostalgia stuff now is not listening to their inner kid or something, is to ignore the huge swaths of humanity who don’t engage in games that way.

Pictured: a kind of sex that is banned in like 12 states, I'll bet.

I don’t wish to see a review of Sex on the front page of Kotaku any more than I want my heterosexuality assumed for me on the showfloor of E3. I don’t want, in the course of professing my love for a game like Soma or Mass Effect, to be told that I didn’t really play those games, because I just watched it, or I had the difficulty set to Easy. It would be a mistake to say these are experientially the same as putting 125 hours into a hard game, but we should acknowledge that in every way that matters, it is just as valid. As is not giving a shit about or knowing anything about those games at all.

Sex is like Dark Souls, in that neither one should be seen as a requirement for participation. And if anyone is telling you that they are, they’re actually just being a huge asshole.

Reprinted with minor edits from It's a Pun, or Play on Words. Originally delivered as a talk at Queerness in Games Conference at the University of Southern California.

Kris Ligman is the News Editor for ZAM.