[Infinite Themes dissects a series’ seemingly endless thematic elements]
Dark Souls is about the self and its relationship with the world around it. The story, if you can find it, reflects this idea of kill or be killed. As an undead chosen to carry out a destiny you travel this forsaken land overcoming trial after trial and for what? There’s no payoff that actually lasts because it’s quickly overtaken with an even larger shadow of looming danger. The creatures become bigger, the land more hazardous, and all the while those around you are fighting for that same right to live. And the loneliness grows heavy.
Because Dark Souls is also a very lonely game.
I woke up by the fire again today. It’s been days since I traveled down this poisonous cesspool. I don’t know how long it’s been since I last saw daylight and it feels like an eternity since I was last flesh. My humanity is wearing thin. I have to keep going though. I don’t really know why anymore but I know that I have to keep going. I pick up my shield, my sword and I head off towards the darkness again. One of these fire breathing flies, two, three. It gets easier after the hundredth. Now I’m face to face again with this hulking figure with the club. I’m on a narrow ledge here, I have to be careful. He swings and I jump back. Here’s a chance and I lunge for the attack. I miss. He readies another swing but I have no time. I jump back as well but I also lack another thing; space. And is this is how it ends? With me falling into the darkness again?
I woke up by the fire again today.
Dark Souls incorporates a very aggressive muliplayer experience passively. Your fellow players are summoned as friend or foe and then they’re gone. You yourself can be summoned for the same reasons. The words of the past and future are scrawled all over Lordran as warning or lies; and the ghosts of time wander through the dungeons. But you’re still all alone.
That’s the pervasive mood though isn’t it? You meet a handful of NPCs on your journey and you share a few words until they begin repeating themselves. But still you talk to them over and over again in the hopes that they’ll have something new to say, that they’ll break your solitude. Then you go off again into the dark, alone.
At the same time Dark Souls is a poem. An epic commemorating you and all the various people you encounter, heroes and villains of their own stories. A knight who decided it better to quit than finish his journey. A murderer who was either too ambitious for his own good, or too desperate for the love of his goddess. And another who was forced to kill her own father unable to bring him back home. Or of a witch and a mother who failed to bring peace and instead birthed chaos. Or a king who wanted nothing but the light of prosperity that burned eternal.
This world is populated with these people you know nothing about. They don’t share their history with you nor do you really ask for it. You just sort of discover it as time progresses. When I first encountered Lautrec I thought him suspect. When he disappeared along with the Shrine Maiden I thought him evil. When I exacted justice upon him I felt proud. When I found Lautrec’s belongings I realized him pitiful. And when I revived the Maiden I felt shame.
Maybe Dark Souls is also a very twisted fairy tale. Where there are neither heroes nor villains, and a world that is neither good nor evil but simply dark. There are no monsters but those who failed to live and there aren’t any goals to achieve. None really that doesn’t involve inching your way closer to something that resembles an ending.
I killed the spider woman today. Her body spewed hot lava while her appendages tried to rip into me. It wasn’t my first time facing her either. No, I’ve seen her, battled her many times.
When she jumped forward I knew where to roll almost by instinct, when she spewed flames I knew how to block it. I learned it all through death but it doesn’t matter now. All that matters is ringing the bell, and then escaping this pit.
Because in Lordran there is a curse which is the premise of the game. This curse acts as the thing that begins this fairy tale but there never really feels like anything that propels it besides an innate understanding that continuing might mean an end to one’s torment. There is no princess at the end, no sword in stone (though there actually are princesses and swords in stones) but those material things aren’t ever the true goals of the game.
The ending of the game is about ending the world in one way or another with your own hands. It’s a finality that does justice to the this rich, beautifully sad land.
The more I thought about it, and the more I experienced it, the more beautiful Dark Souls became. It’s a fragile world that’s tipping one way or another to either its death or its continual stagnation, and there’s no way to repair it. No way to undo millennia of damages, or its history. A history of war, sacrifice, class segregation, racism, violence, peace, and sadness. Evidence of atrocities and terrors all around from the high walls of Anor Londo, to the low poisonous swamps of Blighttown. You see, I had never actually seen a more fully realized world in a game but what’s even more impressive is that it takes about the same amount of effort to discover all this as beating the game itself. When you pick up a ring that belonged to a fallen hero and it details his or her greatness. Or when you realize that your attacker was once your friend.
And the bloodstains.
Assumptions need to be made at times, but for the most part the world is painted in detail. From your surroundings and the implications derived from them, the dialogue and the meaning that may or may not actually be there, to the descriptions of the numerous items that you find and the truth that may be hinted at. It’s a thick, rich tapestry that depicts a crumbling world and it just may be the most somber apocalypse ever.