I’ll be playing Dark Souls II on my back. When I finally have the time to play it this April, I’ll be recovering from my long-awaited genital reassignment surgery (GRS), the personal capstone of my gender transition. Gory details aside, GRS is essentially a game of genital musical chairs; vaginas do not grow on trees and so the surgeon can only use my own tissue to construct one. The most sensitive skin I have will become a new clitoris. The rest will be used to form vaginal walls. Everything moves. Everything changes.
One might think that a Souls game would be too grueling for my convalescence but I can’t think of a more appropriate accompaniment to my recovery. Dark Souls has resonated with me deeply as I’ve prepared to inhabit a newly reorganized body. The Souls games have changed my approach to other games, certainly, but they have also helped me rethink my approach to some of my deepest fears and anxieties. More than any other game, Dark Souls understands the beauty and precarity of being a changing creature in a hostile world.
I first met Dark Souls in a period of complacency. I felt like I was doing homework when I played most big budget videogames. Shooter? Pull on the left trigger, hammer on the right. Platformer? Trial, error, repetition. Action horror? Open everything, hoard ammo and resources. Everything was rote. Everything was expected. I knew all the steps to all the dances. Games were just hoops to jump through, not worlds to explore.
My relationship to my own body, too, was stagnating. My gender dysphoria was like a continuous low-frequency hum that followed me wherever I went; I had learned to tune it out when I should have been figuring out how to make it stop. Deep down, I knew I needed GRS but the thought of actually undergoing the surgery terrified me. Like a videogame, sex had become easy and predictable. How scary would it be if I suddenly didn’t know the steps to that particularly significant dance?
But Dark Souls could not abide my complacency. In the era of Call of Duty arrows and Dead Space lines, Dark Souls refuses to highlight the way forward; instead it asks you to find your own path through a mysterious and troubled world. The game teases you with the familiarity of its mechanics—health bars, heavy attacks, equipment drops—but forces you to engage with them in an unforgiving setting.
Dark Souls can still feel programmatic, yes, but it never feels predictable. The best way to describe it might be to say that it turns the lights off with the player still inside. Darkness has a way of defamiliarizing the most basic of tasks. Roads you’ve only navigated during the day surprise you with their twists. Rooms you’ve navigated a thousand times become obstacle courses. Even the body of a lover can feel new, even strange. Dark Souls, at its core, feels like a traditional action role-playing game but it tells you less. It illuminates nothing. It keeps you in the dark.
As children, my cousins and I would use the darkness in our play. After we got too big to hide inside suitcases and cabinets, we played hide and seek with the lights off so that we could still manage to hide our increasingly cumbersome bodies. When I close my eyes, I can still imagine myself in that dark basement, stumbling forward in the pitch black, hands outstretched, as my voice quavers. “Is anyone there?”
Out of all the games I’ve played, only Dark Souls has transported me back to that basement, back to the sensation of taking a step in the dark. When I inch my way through the branches of Darkroot Wood or climb my way down to Ash Lake, I’m a child again: scared but strangely confident, and determined to move forward.
During that complacent time, Dark Souls reminded me that I need to keep moving when I’m scared, that I need to be able to accept an unknowable future, that I needed to allow myself to fail in order to eventually succeed. When I receive GRS, all of my old routines will be shattered in an instant. My partner and I will have to figure everything out anew. Like Dark Souls, a new vagina doesn’t come with explicit instructions; everyone’s journey is irredeemably personal. I’ll be able to read helpful messages from those who have gone before—as Solaire says, “Why not help one another on this lonely journey?”—but I still have to explore the darkness of the hollows on my own.
It’s not going to be easy. I won’t know what to do, where to touch, how to move. I will likely try and fail to reach orgasm many times before it works. But as Dark Souls reminds me, it’s okay to not know where I’m going or what I’m doing as long as I’m always trying something new. I know now that I have to accept the darkness before I can traverse it. Everything moves. Everything changes. I have to be able to change too.
Near the end of Dark Souls, you find yourself at the bottom of a spiral staircase in the New Londo Ruins. As you look down from the bottom step, you see nothing but blackness. The only way to figure out what lies below is to jump. I don’t know what’s going to happen in April but I’m ready to leap into the Abyss.
Samantha Allen writes about gender, sexuality and video games. She writes regularly for the feminist gaming blog Border House. Her work has also appeared on Jacobin, Salon, Paste, Kotaku, Kinsey Confidential and in Adult Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @CousinDangereux.