Transcript — The Joys of Getting Lost in Dark Souls and Miasmata

This is the transcript of a Youtube video, which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/gwaZQ9JO2dM

“Not till we are lost, in other words, not til we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations”. -Henry David Thoreau

What’s the best moment in From Software’s Bloodborne? It’s not a rhetorical question. I have a favourite moment. It’s the moment you wake up in a place you shouldn’t have woken up in.

If you’re somehow not familiar with Bloodborne, it’s a dark fantasy action/adventure with a gothic horror flavour in which you spend a lot of time dying to wet, shrieking Eldritch abominations. After every death, you wake up at the last lantern you rested at. Lanterns also act as warp points, allowing you to instantly travel between any lanterns you’ve already activated. About a third of the way through the game, these creepy bag dudes start to appear here and there, and they hit shockingly hard. If one of them kills you, instead of respawning you at a lantern, this happens.

And then you wake up, somewhere you’ve never been. Even the name of the place — Yahar-gul, Unseen Village — implies you’ve trespassed on some seriously forbidden territory. You leave your holding cell and find that the terrifying bag boys are everywhere. Startled and discombobulated, you walk out of the main cathedral doors and the music, which until now had been muted and barely audible, swells.

Even among the abundance of meticulously crafted horror moments in Bloodborne — this is the one. The treacherous and spine-chilling streets of Yahar’gul are among my favourite areas of Bloodborne, with one caveat — it’s too easy to leave. You see, there is a lantern pretty close to where you come to consciousness in that cell, that you can use to warp right back out to safety. When you revisit the Unseen Village of Yahar’gul later in the game, that lantern is broken and unusable, at that point a fairly minor inconvenience. But I like to imagine what it would have been like if that lantern were broken from the beginning, if that wonderful horror moment of finding yourself in Yahar’gul was an escalating series of moments — waking in a strange, hostile place, searching voraciously for the familiar purple glow of safety and escape, and then coming upon a lantern — only to find it broken. The dread, the sinking realisation that you’re trapped, and then, the choir lamenting your doom. Having to walk out those cathedral doors and find your way back out of Yahar’gul the hard way.

I’ve been searching for something in the Soulsborne series, a feeling I haven’t had since the first Dark Souls, the game that had the audacity to make me descend from an above-ground city all the way to the depths of hell without once offering me an easy route out. I’m searching for the first half of Dark Souls, the better half of Dark Souls, the one that was willing to make me feel desperately, irretrievably lost. Bloodborne comes so close, but — like all the Souls games after the first one — it blinks and loses its resolve. With the exception of the first half of Dark Souls 1, every game in the series grants the player fast-travel from the outset — a mechanic I will die arguing is to their terrible, terrible detriment.

The sequels are all incredible games, but after the sublime despair of getting lost and stranded in Dark Souls’s dank, choking depths, it always felt too easy to be able to zoom between locations like a Lovecraftian Superman — some of which you never need to return to, and which consequently I could never quite connect to. Not in the way I connected with the clanging elevators and soaring rooftops and pitch-black caverns of the kingdom of Lordran, places it’s not enough to just stumble upon once and then casually warp back into later. No, to advance in Dark Souls, you need to get lost — you need to wander these lands, confused and disoriented, until you come to comprehend where every place stands in relation to every other place so you can get where you want to go, more quickly and efficiently every time. Dark Souls forces you to get lost and then found and then immediately lost again until you know the paths and alleyways and interconnections of its anatomy like your own. Until your very relationship with the world around you shifts.

I’ve been reading about this linguistic quirk that can be found in some cultures, such as the Wintu tribe of north-central California, and the indigenous Guugu Yimithirr tribe of northern Australia. These tribes speak of everything around them in terms of cardinal directions — instead of saying my left arm, they’ll say, my East or West arm depending on which direction the arm is facing. It’s more than just a quirk of language, of course — it’s a way of thinking that requires a constant awareness of the Earth’s movements. Earlier today, as I write this, I caught up with friends and they asked me if my living room windows were north facing and I’m embarrassed to say I had to think hard for a good 20 seconds before answering.

So it may not come as a surprise when I say I’m pretty spatially challenged — I’m terrible with directions and I have particular trouble telling East from West — but this directional awareness is a way of thinking that can be learned. We city dwellers just aren’t used to thinking of ourselves in constant relation to the Earth, the sun and the sky. We have street signs and Google maps and GPS directions, after all. But in some cultures, the geography of the world is something you carry inside you, with an understanding that you are nothing without the world that surrounds you.

I’ve been thinking about this as I replay Dark Souls for the thousandth time, as I notice something that happens inside me when I’m lost and finding my way in the land of Lordran. I don’t have a map, or a phone, or a compass, or a pen. I have my eyes, my brain, and most importantly, my feet, mapping the terrain one step at a time until I know Lordran with my real body as well as my virtual one; I see its heights behind my eyelids, I feel its depths in my gut, I know its paths and dead ends and shortcuts as though they were carved into my skin. When I play Dark Souls, no matter where I’m standing, I don’t just know but I feel the direction of every other part of the world in relation to where I currently am. In Dark Souls, you are nothing without the world that surrounds you. And no matter how lost you might get, if you use your body to look and listen and track and traverse, you’ll always eventually find your way.

There is perhaps no game more dedicated to making you feel lost than Miasmata, a game that came out in 2012 and, if there was any justice in the world, would have directly inspired a ton more games in the last 10 years rather than sinking like a stone. Miasmata is a first-person exploration game, with elements of survival and also running away from a weird killer chimera but also it’s a flower collecting simulator and a cartography simulator and a tumbling simulator… but it could perhaps best be described as a ‘getting lost in the wilderness’ simulator.

In opposition to the Dark Souls approach of having no map at all, Miasmata is all about mapping. You start the game washed up on an abandoned island, with one pathetically tiny area of the map filled in, surrounded on all sides by terra incognita. In the most interesting and cumbersome mapping system I’ve ever seen in a game, you fill in parts of the map using triangulation, which is a real life method of finding your location on a map. Standing still and looking at two landmarks that you’ve already mapped will fill in the tiny section of the map you’re standing on and show you your current location. This is already tricky to do, but even if you manage it, as soon as you move an inch, the indicator disappears and you’re on your own again.

Which means that, most of the time, you have only your best guess of where you are, based on a rough calculation of where you last where when you knew your position, which compass direction you’ve been travelling since then and for how long. But that’s OK, that’s OK, I looked at my compass a minute ago, I know I’m headed roughly East — wait, what? I’m going North-West?? Oh not again-

If you’re anything like me, Miasmata will crush your confidence about how successfully you could actually perform compass navigation in the wild. It will make you question whether you have any sense of direction at all. And most of all, Miasmata will make sure that you spend the overwhelming majority of your time on this island being hopelessly, hopelessly lost… and tumbling.

And in your constant ragdolling down mild slopes, you’ll lose your grip on the flowers you were carrying, the precious medicinal flowers you need to pick and painstakingly carry to one of the island laboratories to synthesise into a cure for the fatal sickness that’s eating away at you. Flowers that you’ll need to find based on nothing but a rough sketch and a set of imprecise directions in your journal — south of the outpost, east of the creek — directions you have to remember and follow to the letter.

I don’t know if showing the gameplay of Miasmata conveys just how all these components — the lack of a handy “you are here” map indicator, the difficulty of triangulating your position, the imprecision of the clues telling you where to find the mission-critical flowers that will save your life — combine to create some of the most immersive gameplay I’ve ever experienced. In Miasmata you’re always, always struggling to locate yourself, always scanning your surroundings looking for a landmark you can recognise, the curve of a statue, the colour and shape of plant you might be looking for, one eye constantly on the sun because when the light goes, your notes and map get more difficult to read.

For the first time in ages, I cracked open a notepad to play Miasmata, because the in-game journal system is clunky and it takes ages to flip through the pages and find what you want. So, I kept my own journal. I documented the medicinal properties of different flowers and which ones would combine to create useful stimulants. And this is just the beginning of the ways Miasmata would come to bleed into my life like a wonderful virus. The game trains you so well in the art of being curious and perceptive that I started doing so in my normal life. This is the flower I almost stopped and picked because it was so colourful and conspicuous that my brain instantly labelled it as important and quest-relevant. On another walk, I saw the top of a building peeking over the trees in exactly the way the cabins in Miasmata do, and I instinctively went to reach for my non-existent map to triangulate my position. The Tetris Effect, only instead of seeing falling blocks and flashing rows, you see the vividness of a Gladiolus and the intricate depth of the treeline.

Dark Souls and Miasmata take opposite approaches to cartography, but they both arrive at the same experience. They force me to rely on what I can see and hear, turn me into a careful observer, studying the environment for a detail, a landmark to remind me where I’ve been. The barriers between my body and the screen dissolve and all at once, I’m part of these worlds, and they’re part of me. It’s an immediacy that can only come from being deeply lost, from that beautiful tinge of desperation and anxiety that hyper-charges your senses and turns you from a traveller into an adventurer.

In her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes:

“To be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.”

It’s exactly this psychic state that I’ve been searching for in every Soulsborne game since Dark Souls, that I found instead in Miasmata. A feeling, that, ironically, you can only find once you allow yourself to become fully lost — a heightened sense of awareness and attention, uncertainty gradually opening into familiarity and self-confidence, the map slowly but surely filling out, the world internalised. The Chosen Undead in a Chosen Surrender.

The experience of getting lost has been baked into the DNA of gaming for decades. The story of Shigeru Miyamoto’s childhood wanderings in the countryside, and how this ended up becoming the first Legend of Zelda game, is one of the creation myths of gaming, a legend that holds strong more than 35 years after the original’s release. There’s a curious irony in the fact that experiences in the wild outdoors inspired some of the most successful and beloved game series, at the same time that indoor pursuits like gaming began to take us further away from experiences in nature.

Of course, games aren’t the only or even the main cause of what one scholar has called a ‘childhood of imprisonment’ — the childhood of modern times, characterised by close parental supervision and a lack of free and independent play. In fact, safety concerns are the most commonly cited reason parents restrict outdoor play, and it’s now become clear that this is leading to less opportunities for children to have direct and spontaneous contact with nature.

The negative psychological effects of this run deep. Research is finding increasing support for the idea that for children, unsupervised free play in wilderness settings brings distinct benefits. In unbounded wild spaces it becomes possible for a child to adventure like Miyamoto did, to be fully absorbed in a world of awe and wonder, to have difficult emotions vanish into the infinite magnitude of the trees, the ocean, the mountains. Although these spaces may carry a risk of getting hurt or becoming lost, they also provide critical opportunities for kids to develop the ability to assess risk, the composure to find their way back, the strength of will to not panic, to have these miniature triumphs of independence, self-confidence and emotion regulation that they’ll carry with them into future challenges.

My dad likes to tell the story of the time I was little and we went out to the grocery store, and pretty much the moment I noticed he was out of sight, I started bawling my eyes out. I was an anxious clingy child who turned into an even more anxious adult and recently I’ve been asking myself questions like, would I be a less anxious and risk-averse person if I’d had more of these childhood experiences in the wilderness, more opportunities to explore outside my comfort zone and stretch my own resilience and self-reliance?

I also wonder if this is why so many of the videos I’ve made so far on this channel have been about nature, which has been a genuine surprise to me since I’m not in any way a nature person. I do feel an irony in the fact that I use video games to connect with nature, but in the absence of real-life opportunities to test ourselves in the wild, I think games offer us the next best thing, something Rebecca Solnit calls:

“[The] art of being at home in the unknown, so that being in its midst isn’t cause for panic or suffering, of being at home with being lost”.

I wonder if this is exactly what we’re doing when we step into the shoes of these silent protagonists and walk a mile (or a hundred): learning to be at home with being lost, in a way we may never have gotten to as kids, fulfilling the yearning we all have on some level, to go somewhere and get lost — at least, a little.

And maybe this is what I’m looking for in these wild virtual lands — a chance to test myself and rise to the challenge, to master the art of being lost, as well as my own anxiety and tendency to panic when things go wrong. But hiding behind the safety of a screen can only take you so far. Maybe it’s time to go the final mile.

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Twitter: @pixel_a_day

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Kat (Pixel a Day)

I make video essays on Youtube (Pixel a Day) where I critically analyse games and how they make me feel. I also write blog posts and articles.