This is the transcript of a Youtube video, which can be viewed here: http://bit.ly/pixeladay_depth
“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.” -Carl Jung
It begins with a door. A very unassuming door, a door that barely warrants a second glance. I open the door and step inside, into a place named the Depths. Here, I find a gloomy cellar full of grotesque creatures and dead meat. From the cellar, a sickening drop into a pit of bones and a descent through a dank sewer complex, and at the bottom of those sewers, a rotting monster. Already so far underground, I advance and come to…a hole. A sinking feeling takes me as I climb down and find myself in stifling blackness, totally silent except for the crackling of torches and an ominous low thrum, which could be the wind … or maybe the breathing of a distant beast. At my feet is a dying town, populated by rabid walking corpses. I descend one rickety ladder by one, and follow a downward sloping path that eventually bottoms out in a festering poisonous swamp. Surely no human being has ever been so unfortunate as to have to venture this far underground, into this sick black abyss. It’s only been a few hours but I already feel like I haven’t seen the surface in days. Oh thank god, an elevator; this will take me back up to where I can breathe again. Why is…nothing happening? What? Oh no. Oh no. Nooooooooooo-
There can’t possibly be more descending to do, but there is. This time into a land of fire and rock which feels like some primordial place where myths and demons are born. So I descend further, to a lake of fire at the bottom of hell at the bottom of a swamp at the bottom of a dead town at the bottom of a sewer at the bottom of a cellar at the bottom of a street.
Describing this descent can never do justice to the experience of it, of having to put one foot in front of the other while you do nothing but descend for hours on end. It was years ago when I first played Dark Souls, but if I close my eyes I can still feel the crushing weight of all that ground above me, the stifling blackness, the claustrophobia, a homesickness and despair I’ve never felt before or since.
You could throw out what little dialogue there is in Dark Souls, and this section alone would still tell a story of profound loneliness and hopelessness. A story of being a stranger far from home, cursed to wander an unbearably dark and hostile land in search of light. Of trying to remain human in an inhuman place.
Dark Souls is far from the only game to channel that dreadful thrill of diving, crawling, falling, plunging into the blackness to see what lies there. We expect all kinds of monsters and beasts to be lurking in the deep. The one thing we don’t expect to find is the monsters lurking within ourselves.
Part 1: Descent
“Do you remember the darkness, Senua? The beast is bringing it back.”
In Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, you spend a lot of time fighting demons — not just monsters and hostile gods but the demons of psychosis, grief and childhood trauma. Hellblade tells the story of Senua, who travels to the Nordic realm of Hel to retrieve the soul of her dead lover Dillion. Exploring the world brings back visions of her tormented past — her mother’s suicide and her father’s abuse — as she is relentlessly pursued by a dark inner voice that calls itself her shadow.
“I will never let you go. You can’t get rid of me, I am your shadow. And I will be watching when you draw your last dying gasp.”
In what is probably the most terrifying section of the game, Senua traverses a dungeon where an invisible beast — The Darkness — hunts her from the shadows. In this darkness, you can literally die of fear. And here, of all places, Senua loses Dillion’s head, which she needs to bring him back to life. To fetch it, she must go down — into the pit. In doing so, she finds herself in a place that feels ripped straight out of Dark Souls. Nothing but darkness, bones, and fire — and at the very bottom, not a poison swamp, but a pit of bones. Just like the hellish depths of the Demon Ruins, the pit doesn’t feel real but like it spawned out of a nightmare. This place is ancient and primordial, a place where everything you’ve tried to forget lies waiting.
Dear Esther takes place in a dreamlike space that blurs the line between reality and illusion. The narrator recounts his story of self-banishment to this island after his wife Esther died in a car accident, and as we plunge into a surreal network of caves that feels half-imagined, it’s revealed that his body, and now his mind, are already succumbing to a deadly infection. As delirium takes over, the narrator loses himself in painful memories, unresolved grief and the guilt of perhaps being responsible for his wife’s death. He finally meets his demons at the bottom of a watery plunge.
Descent in these stories, as in many others, represents a psychological journey into the unconscious mind, where repressed feelings and memories are hidden away but must eventually be confronted. The narrator of Dear Esther needs to face the trauma of his wife’s death so that he can come to terms with his grief and guilt before the infection takes him. And Senua wants to be free of the invisible beast of fear that whispers horrible things. These landscapes are projections of the protagonists’ minds, distorted by hallucination and trauma, as chaotic and unpredictable as the subconscious. This is what venturing into your own darkness can feel like.
But fortunately, that’s not where the story ends. Because once you’ve descended into your own personal hell and conquered the demons that live there, it might be a different you that gets to climb back up.
Part 2: Ascent
Celeste tells the story of Madeleine, who arrives at the foot of a formidable mountain determined to climb to the summit and conquer her depression and anxiety. But the mountain has strange powers, and it unleashes a darker side of herself, which mocks her and tries to sabotage her progress any way it can.
This dark twin seems to be made up of nothing but negativity — spite, paranoia, selfishness. Madeleine tries everything she can do to get rid of it, including running from it, and trying to convince herself she doesn’t need it anymore. But Madeleine hasn’t yet learned that you can’t outrun your demons any more than you can outrun your own reflection. And then this happens.
Carl Jung wrote about the existence of the shadow self: the unknown part of ourselves made up of thoughts, feelings and personality traits that we don’t want to acknowledge are there. But if we don’t own up to these aspects of ourselves, then we’ll always be struggling against that part of us, and we won’t have much empathy or tolerance when we notice these traits in others. For example, you might deny that you’re being emotionally driven while labelling people you don’t like as subjective and easily outraged.
Instead, you might want to look at your shadow and acknowledge that whatever traits you’re criticising in others are part of you, too. You could allow some room for those feelings, and understand that there can be a place for them.
“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.” -Carl Jung
After her fall, Madeleine realises she needs to find a different way of relating to her shadow self. For the first time, she starts to really look at her other self, considering what its needs and motivations might be. And the next time they meet, Madeleine tries running toward her shadow self. Then…an integration of the self with the shadow that would make papa Jung proud.
This moment reminds me of a scene in Hellblade. After Senua has fought The Darkness at the bottom of the pit, the threatening voice — the shadow — speaks again, but its tone is different.
Shadow: Forgive me, Senua. I know you have no reason to trust me anymore. But believe this. It was my mission to make you hate, to hate the darkness with a passion so great it would focus your mind on this quest. For without it, I feared that you would let go of this life. All this time I’ve wanted to protect you from the truth that would have destroyed you a long time ago. But you have conquered your darkness at every turn. You deserve to see behind the veil of darkness.
Senua: Then take me to the mountain. As deep as we can go.
Shadow: I won’t stand in your way.
Once they’ve confronted their shadows, Madeleine and Senua realise that the shadow they were fighting was nothing but the twisted, self-protective voice of fear. And once they face their fears, their shadows cease to be a burden. Madeleine agrees to make room for her anxieties and self-doubts, and Senua accepts that her psychosis is a part of her, and not a curse to be rid of.
In a brilliant use of game mechanics to convey story, Madeleine’s reunion with her shadow self grants her an extra mid-air jump which she can now use to reach the summit. At points during the final ascent, her shadow self — happy to finally be seen and recognised — appears and flings her upward, and Madeleine can soar, free of the inner conflict that was previously weighing her down. Like Senua and the narrator of Dear Esther, she reaches the top a different and more complete person than she was before. All three games end in a strikingly similar way — after a crushing descent, the protagonist climbs to the top of a mountain, looking out over the landscape with a newfound sense of peace and inner freedom. Not only have they climbed back out of the hole they were in, but the strength and self-knowledge they gained at the bottom have allowed them to climb to their highest peak yet. Sometimes, a journey through suffering can make us even stronger than we were before.
Representing this journey as a climb makes a lot of sense, considering the imagery often used to represent concepts like self-actualisation. Self-actualisation doesn’t seem like the right term though; it implies that you’ve achieved the best version of yourself. But these stories aren’t about people reaching their personal best or fulfilling their potential, just flawed people trying to come to terms with their own shadow. So if I had to choose a word that described what these journeys represent, it would be self-acceptance. Or, even better, self-compassion. The confrontation with, and acceptance of, a part of yourself that you thought would tear you apart, but has instead made you stronger and allowed you to soar to new heights.
Virtual environments are unparalleled in their potential to use verticality to create unforgettable moments and tell deeply impactful stories. To tap into the fearsome power of descending into deep dark places, and use this hellish imagery to tell stories about overcoming the hell within ourselves. To channel our innate desire to conquer mountains into a narrative about overcoming our shadow and growing into the person we always wanted to be. And to help us realise that once our demons are conquered, our journey is far from over. In fact, it’s only just beginning.
Senua: Follow us. We have another story to tell.