Something Something Dark Souls

It’s a popular interpretation that Dark Souls models a world after a collapse. This decay of order is used to explain the world’s violent inhabitants and strange, run-down settlements. It doesn’t explain the enemies’ general pacifism, hurting only the trespassing player. They seem to live untroubled, orderly lives, if it weren’t for the bearer of the darksign, and it’s hard for me to accept Dark Souls really illustrates a world without order.

Any actual collapse to the world’s order only happens at the hands of the player. There is little moral or ethical imperative for the player’s violence; fate is declared the only reason. Civilization is implied to have been encroached by the population of hollow kind, but to accept that as evidence of entropy or collapse is to assume the way of living for hollows is worse than that of humans. Those you meet that seem to be human are treacherous, unlike hollows. They brazenly kill one another. To accept these people as better society, my own humanity must be leveraged. Am I supposed to assume humanity is inherently good?

A counterpoint, at its most boring. The structure of the game needs enemies to fight and Dark Souls doesn’t necessarily ask if the violence is required other than that it is. Fighting makes for an entertaining videogame. A concept of ludonarrative dissonance would wrap this in a neat little bow: the hollows are unassumingly nonevil, but are supposed to be a justified antagonistic force, and it is FromSoft’s failure the disconnect isn’t bridged.

Lack of care mirrors what I feel from the design of Dark Souls, but out of my desire for even careless work to be seeking meaning, I’m going contrast the game’s resolution with its circumstances. Entropy is modeled, not by the current existence of the world, but in how the world moves forward in a zerosum way. Through whichever ageless primordial serpent, the player is told to defeat Gwyn, the current lord and god over Lordran, and the player inevitably does. After regicide, they have a choice. Link the fire, which consumes the player, continuing the Age of Fire, prolonging the lawless age of man. Or they can walk away, become a Dark Lord, and rule over an Age of Darkness, in which Lordran is made inhospitable for humans.

Without ideology, without a characterization of what the life for a non-heroic hollow is, without knowing if the world is even a good place to be human, the ending is asking me to not only make a choice but imagine the outcome. The ending isn’t what I think it means, but what I think it is. I confess I find neither choice worthwhile, having no substance and no consequence. From what I come to understand about the world, there is no meaning beyond tiny squabbles for nothings. Whether it is the Age of Dark or the Age of Fire, they will be devoid of goodness.

This is where, to itself, I feel an overpowering cynicism and hopelessness emanating from Dark Souls. If there’s anything to be intrigued by or invested in, it’s that the player’s existence as a “hero” is only to be manipulated by a primordial serpent to preserve their rule and power over into the next era of the world. A hero’s desire to do the right thing is exploited by the systems that govern the hero construct to ensure the right action is self-preservation of the powerful. That may create interesting parallels, it might be a deconstruction in a format that is overconfident (large budget console games, fantasy fiction bordering-on-myth), but I don’t think being empowered to be the final arbiter in the last moments of the game match those themes. All that happens is the oppressed becomes the oppressor.

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***

A meme in Dark Souls II is those who spend time in Drangleic lose their memory. It’s always a verb, that you’ll be traveling, or fighting, or standing, without really knowing why. Most characters confess to not remembering why they’ve traveled to the land in the first place, or even what they’re doing anymore. When I originally played the game I found the dialogue tiresome and even condescending. Of course I don’t know what I’m doing, that’s how Dark Souls is designed, and in effect I’m being berated for design decisions I’m not even fond of to begin with.

The constant hammering of these similar lines starts to become endearingly campy, though. I know the person I’m talking to is going to be unsure, they’re going to trail off and forget their train of thought midsentence. They’re going to be props, containers for dialogue, without even knowing why. A cute lampshade, Dark Souls II is gleefully self-aware of its zerosum cynicism, transforming random hopelessness into a fact and an identity. There’s no concrete reason for people to forget their goals or lose their entire memory, but they’re all unified by losing it and coming to terms with it in the exact same way.

It started to resonate with me on a personal level. Many times in the dead of night I wonder, what am I even doing? Do I even remember why I started? It doesn’t take long to remember, but remembering is only half. I can know why I soldier on without remembering why I’m still going, separating the state of knowing with the state of understanding and decent justifications. Ambition deteriorates without being nurtured; needing an ambition to live at all becomes very frustrating. I do find myself often in states where I wonder what I’m doing in macro, I wonder why I’m even trying. These moments occur more frequently because I’ve forgotten. I can tell how I started but the beginning and the end are on different maps, on different planes. I’m a different person than when I started and I don’t even know why.

Dissonance is not just personal. Most characters in Dark Souls II actually can tell you why they’re in Drangleic. What they cannot explain or comprehend is a deeper why, there is a break between their expectation of the land to how it actually is. The kingdom is enticing for one to strike out their fortune, but it’s a full seduction. There are no opportunities in Drangleic. Each character’s reason to travel (to explore drangleic, to become king, to gain souls) is known to them, but the reality is that nothing supports their goals. They’ve been manipulated by the kingdom’s regime to restore order to their kingdom. The land can only facilitate a restoration of its old order.

This manipulation has the same goal as the first Dark Souls, but is different in how immediate the revelation is. Barely even subtext, it builds and becomes obvious the Emerald Herald is using the undead, she will use anyone able to fulfill her mission. For the preservation of the current order, the fire must be linked. She gives no satisfactory reason why autonomy of their people is denied for a greater cause; frankly nobody has an explanation. The old order, which decayed itself, which prevents personal growth, which is unfitting for the way the world currently is, must be preserved. It must be preserved without even knowing why.

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Modernity, late capitalism, relies on oppressive structures, subtle pressures, and normalizing these things. It provides reason while obfuscating personal growth. Seeking personal answers, really interrogating why the structures are in place, destroys their seduction. The most effective way to live under capitalism is to be compliant without really knowing, or caring, why. This is the layer of nuance Dark Souls II provides that the original did not, a blunt refrain hammering in again and again the thoughtlessness, the brutality, the erasure of life this game, and the previous, orchestrate.

When the chosen undead achieves their violent goal and becomes the rightful heir, there’s no choice to empower yourself as a monster that feeds on souls as in Dark Souls (and before in Demon’s Souls). There’s no choice at all. The end result of being manipulated is achieving a goal that wasn’t their own, for the gain of powerful others. At the end, the cursed hero sits on their throne, in the middle of nowhere, and the doors shut. No catharsis, no rationalizing to defend the goodness of your choice compared to the other. Just a door shutting in your face. Full committal to the actual result of falling in line with the existing power structures.  A veritable middle finger to the sardonic false choices in the prior Souls games. There’s not much beauty to it, but that’s the thing, there’s not much beauty to being a cog in mechanisms that require you and not your wellbeing.

***

In Dark Souls III, enemy hollows aren’t just a parade of knights (though certainly there are parades of knights to spend time with). Many hollows, instead, have become abominations, disfigured in appearance and feral in action. Frightening are those taken by a pure blackness. The dark pus of man. Abominable hollows, those of blackness or those that are stretched and contorted, behave ferally and erratically. They’re difficult to predict and understand in combat. More pertinently, they tear each other apart. Dark Souls III has none of the quiet order of the previous games. If hollows of other tribes or disfigurements encounter each other, they fight to the death. This is a world not of quaint, inhuman peace, but of strife and disorder.

Dark Souls as a series is considered to be collectively about cycles. There’s this feeling that all three of the games have basically the same set up, same conceit, same ending. My impression of the ashen decay, corruption, and ferocity of the world in Dark Souls III is one of actual entropy, a world now collapsing from the absence of lasting community. In the series, I’ve only felt palpable decay in this game. I think the world of Dark Souls has definitely not gone in cycles, but has progressed through the three games to end up in a hopelessness. An ordinary stagnation. Culture’s frustrating result.

The quest in Dark Souls II was revealed to be useless or harmful because it was contrary to the goals of the player character and their allies in Majula. The rule of Drangleic was no longer for the people, being exclusively that of self-preservation. Lothric’s selfish order and lack of any benefit to linking the flame is spelled out immediately and explicitly in Dark Souls III. Ashen as the world is, weak in its flame. Most speak apathetically about linking the fire. It’s been linked many times and nothing gets better; in Lothric it’s common sense that preserving the passed down order is a farce. But people are still busy with their individuality. Pacifying the world is an issue to be handled by the Fire Keeper, the Lords of Cinder, and the unkindled. It’s distant from really living. Everybody knows the current structure of power is old and decayed, but few have any plans to improve their future. It’s just how the world is.

Some, like little Ludleth, are loyalists. He linked the flame long ago and believes the flame must be linked. It must be linked for his honor, it must be linked because it’s the right thing to do. It’s his belief that this time, if the vessel is strong enough, the flame will burn bright enough. This time it will work. Lothric needs a powerful Lord of Cinder to protect the order. His kindness and rationale hide him from being, quite simply, the most reprehensible character in the game. Ludleth is the only person who believes there’s nothing wrong with him or the world around him and desires no change. There are always people in power like this.

Lords of Cinder are not great ones by chance and circumstance as they were in prior Dark Souls games. They become lords after linking the fire and surviving the transference of their life to the great flame. Each has accomplished what the unkindled is trying to do and what the player has likely done in other games. They’re united in knowing how profoundly useless the unkindled’s actions are. None, save Ludleth, remain at their thrones in Firelink Shrine. Their absence prevents linking the flame. For the first time in Dark Souls, there is no force trying to preserve the world as it is. Even the most powerful realize, in their own ways, that preserving this ancient rite, continuing this nonsense, useless culture, is inappropriate in the time they live in. They’ve dismantled themselves. If the player wants to finish the game and link the throne, they must kill the lords that went on strike.

Lothric, a cursed immortal prince, named after his own land, is the last lord killed, and confronts your strikebreaking.

“Oh dear, another dogged contender. Welcome, Unkindled one, purloiner of cinders. Mind you, the mantle of lord interests me none. The fire-linking curse, the legacy of lords, let it all fade into nothing. You’ve done quite enough, now have your rest.”

What Lothric desires in a finality, a usefulness to his life. He linked the flame for nothing. His fate as a Lord of Cinder is now to mentor and guide potential lords, but he is no craven Ludleth. Anguished by his immortal service, he would rather violently oppose the course of the world in atonement. His namesake being the very land the unkindled fights to preserve, and he says, let it all fade into nothing. Dark Souls III does commit to a message of futility; it’s not as vague in its objections as the first Dark Souls and the regrettable additions in Scholar of the First Sin. With no inhibition, Lothric openly mocks you, lamenting his lot and the world’s stagnation. For playing this far, for trying to link the flame again, with or without understanding, you’re mocked. Why do you labor so much for this pointless task, yet again?

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If you labored blindly, the result is linking the fire. To do that which nobody really wants in the world anymore (again, besides Ludleth) is the default. This is the result of a player who hasn’t pored through the world, an implicit statement that they haven’t considered the listlessness of others. Linking the fire is going against every signpost, every sentiment expressed in the game. It’s to be a tool again, enabling inept, dated culture to strangle progression in Lothric. Though the time was ripe to move on, such a difficult course of action went unacknowledged. Accomplishing only what was expected, the fire was linked again.

There are two other endings which effectively put out the first flame. For one the player must discover the truth of the Age of Dark, for the other they must commit to a great betrayal of their ally. Triggers for these endings are a bit esoteric, requiring hours of optional work. Neither are similar except that they’re actionable, they consist of great upheavals. Either the Age of Dark covers the land, or the unkindled becomes a Dark Lord, and the age of hollows begins. They have extreme implications, but are intangible, unclear, as is the nature of endings in Dark Souls. So, I can say this isn’t a game confidently about things, but it is a game confidently opposed. To link the fire again is to go against the reality of the world the player existed in. Which is a massive contradiction. An expectation of the individual to undermine their relation to others to meet a phantom expectation of society.

Dark Souls III bounds with meaning where the others did not. Don’t live uncritically. Listen to others. Reject paths of least resistance when possible. Interrogate culture and power structures. Find personal solutions. The friction of the world running against the player’s goals sounds out a plea. It works where the original failed because I’m convinced that one of the endings, that can yet still occur with one’s negligence, runs contrary to the desires of nearly all who reside in Lothric. This interplay of meaning, a monument to anyone who dares to disagree with the mainstream, who tries to reject the harm their life could unintentionally cause. It’s not just okay to live outside norms if they’re recognized to be oppressive, it’s absolutely paramount to follow through. Work to not repeat mistakes of the past. Make a culture fitting to the realities of the present.

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