When I played Dark Souls for the very first time I felt a sense of anxiety that I hadn’t previously experienced in any other game. I had felt anxious while playing horror games such as Outlast or any of the Resident Evil games, but this was different. I had never played a game that made me work so hard for few (and far between) signs of progression. The smallest misstep or poorly timed attack would almost certainly lead to a black screen with the blood-red words “You Died” being thrown in my face. When entering new areas I would always feel a slight sense of dread because the game itself had instilled within me the understanding that I was entirely at its mercy. Letting my guard down at any moment greatly increased my chances of death.
As Tom van Nuenen argues in his article, “Dark Souls features post-Panoptical gameplay mechanics of both continuous surveillance and playful exhibitionism and hybrid gameplay experience of both subjectivation and empowerment” (1). As with any video game, the system itself has to keep track of the player to ensure the proper mechanics are triggered at the correct intervals, whether that be enemies being spawned, items being acquired, or boss fights occurring in the proper locations. In this sense, the player understands and accepts that the world they are inhabiting adopts certain roles ascribed to the Panopticon.
They are not, however, prisoners within Lordran. It is true that Dark Souls refuses to help the player learn the rules of the world and punishes them indiscriminately for their lack of understanding, but this is not intended to discourage the player from attempting to empower themselves. This is instead meant to encourage the player to quickly learn the limits of their abilities and methodically plan out their next move. For example, there are two forms that a player can take on, a hollowed and human form. When in the human form, the player can summon NPCs and other online players to help them defeat a particularly challenging boss. This is, however, a double-edged sword because it will also leave the player open to invasions from the online community. When this occurs, the player cannot move on until they either kill the invader or are killed by the invader. The player will once again become the subject of a form of punishment within the game except for this time the punishment is not coming from the game, but other individuals who were once subjected themselves.
Nuenen, Tom van. “Playing the Panopticon: Procedural Surveillance in Dark Souls.” Games and Culture, Sage, 2016, journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1555412015570967.
Source: Every Corner Means Death