on Dark Souls

On DARK SOULS

by david axel kurtz

1) INTRODUCTION

Much has been written about From Software’s 2011 video game Dark Souls. Much deserves to be.

I’ve wanted to write about Dark Souls since I stopped playing it. Even when playing it; from time to time I would stop, sit back, just to think about things, the game, the world, just to wonder. It got to the point where I had to get my thoughts in order before I could go on.

That was a year ago. I still haven’t finished the game. I’m just about to – I stand in the Kiln of the First Flame, murakumo in hand. First I have to write this essay. Then I’ll be able to kill Gwyn – though it remains to be seen if I will choose to.

Partly it’s a matter of time. I’m in law school, I haven’t had time to play video games, much less write on them. But I’ve often found myself thinking about Dark Souls – in the shower, long car rides. It’s been a year and new things still occur to me. Some are little eurekas. Some change my thinking to such an extent that they feel like a revelation.

It is impossible to write about one facet of the game without touching upon another. The gameplay, the story, the world – all are as one. (Beat that with a stick.)

As a result, this essay will start from the beginning, and go right up to the end that I have yet to experience. Those who have played the game might be familiar with much of this. Then again, you might have missed it. Or you might disagree. You might not care, or you might never think of it the same way again. All this and more. Welcome to Dark Souls.

2) THE BEGINNING

When you start a new game in Dark Souls, you make a character. This establishes in any gamer’s mind that you are entering an experience of the RPG mold, the action/adventure sort of game.

You do all the things that one expects from character creation. You choose a name. You sex your character, choose a race, spend time with sliders to set your face and body. You pick a class, starting attributes. You choose a special starting item.

None of this matters.

Your character name will never be spoken, never even be referenced, throughout the game. You might as well be nameless.

Each starting class is pretty much the same. The distinction will rapidly disappear as you play. Your class will never be referenced. It never limits you. Everyone can learn magic or might equally. You make your own play style, can change it as you like. Classes are meaningless.

One of the ‘starting classes’ is called “deprived,” which starts without armor. This serves to do little but make the first few minutes of the game more difficult. These are the only few minutes of the game which are not that hard, and so, the difference is minimal.

Each special starting item can be found within the game world. None affect play to any noticeable degree.

Your race, sex, physical appearance, are of no import. It does not affect your relation with other characters or the world. Moreover, the entire game is from the third person with a locked camera. Only two or three sets of armor in the entire game will let your face even be seen. And, most importantly, you will spend at least ninety percent of the game hollow – which has the effect of blurring your facial features into a mottled zombie-like mass. You are indistinct.

Most players will not see their face for the entire game. Those that do will only see it during a few cutscenes. The only cutscene where it is the focus is the last cutscene, the very last moment of the game. After hundreds of hours of play, hollowed and camera-behind, seeing one’s face in that final scene can only provoke one reaction: is that me?

Perhaps some people can play through the game with a constant notion of appearance, identity. I sincerely doubt it. Perhaps this is just to play to the expectations of the modern gamer, who requires character customization. Nothing in Dark Souls is so extraneous. Perhaps it is simply a send-up of such games and tropes, a veritable parody of the genre. Or perhaps it is that Planescape:Torment thing, whereby the genre is stood on its head; examined, deconstructed; taken to its logical conclusion; stripped of illusion, and then of meat; turned hollow.

Here is Lordran, the world of Dark Souls. Here is You, whoever you choose to be. There is no real reason for you to enter this world. No great purpose is ever proscribed. Some are suggested, but they are all, shall we say, not compelling. Lordran is the meat-grinder. All sorts of people can enter; here you are just a sword and an arm to swing it. Nothing matters here. We do it because it’s fun, and it is fun because it is hard. Without that, the experience would be hollow.

I spent half an hour on character creation. Within a few minutes it became meaningless. Vanity of vanities: all is vanity.

3) THE INTRO CINEMATIC

Dark Souls contains very few NPCs and almost no text sources. These few minutes of narrated movie constitute about the only didactic moment in the game.

Watch along at home! http://youtu.be/4lmEqpgg3B4

In the Age of Ancients the world was unformed, shrouded by fog. A land of grey crags, arching trees and everlasting dragons.”

The world was in a state of permanence. There was no history, none that Hegel or Marx would recognize. No conflict, no progress, no regress. Nothing happened, nothing changed. The trees just kept growing, the dragons just kept living. Stasis.

Then there was Fire and with Fire came Disparity. Heat and cold, life and death, and of course… Light and Dark.”

Into this world of stasis was injected an element of impermanence. Order was shaken by chaos. As Stephenson said, “Guns have come to paradise.” Various races of beings were raised. They killed the dragons. They replaced them as the dominant form of life. They built themselves a world. They created civilizations, they built great cities: Anor Londo, Izalith. They shaped a new status quo in their own image. And there was peace.

But the peace has begun to fade. The world is crumbling. The Gods, and their cities, have become hollow mockeries of their former selves. Most of the inhabitants of these cities are twisted, physically, mentally. Some have gone feral, insane. Often the ruins of these cities are riddled with new creatures, some invaders, some infestations like termites or plague.

Into this world you step, sword or spells in hand.

4) GOTTERDAMMERUNG

The intro cinematic introduces several names: Nito, the Witch, Gwyn, Seath, and the so-called ‘furtive pygmy’. They are presented as Gods, figures of a different scale, figures out of history, out of myth, out of legend.

At the beginning of the game, you are weak. You are thrust into an intensely hostile world with about the same abilities as you or I would possess in the same situation. You will routinely get stomped by large rats, half-rotted zombies, all this world’s varieties of Level 1 noob-bait. It will take you hours and hours to transverse a bare fraction of the game-world. You are a very small Sisyphus, and before you, a very large mountain.

There will come a point in the game where, before you have even realized it, you will find that you have just come into contact with one of these gods. You will have to dust off your memory of the intro cinematic to remember them, having not heard a word about them in the dozens of hours of play-time that have elapsed since then. You will find yourself looking eye-to-eye with these creatures out of myth. You will be on the same level as they. And then you will kill them.

By the end of the game, you will have killed every single one of the characters mentioned in the intro cinematic. With your own two hands, you will have slaughtered the gods.

5) THE CORE MYTHOLOGY

It is necessary to provide brief discussion of the particular intricacies of the mythology. This especially as it relates directly to the path of the game. But I am setting it off into its own section in order to give this warning: what follows is high fantasy. It’s nerdy. As fuck. So buckle up.

The game has the lightest possible touch when it comes to mandatory fantasy maguffins. The powers of these gods from from Lord Souls, things of great power that were “found… within the flame.”

There were four of them. The Lord Soul of Light went to Gwyn. Death went to Nito. One went to The Witch of Izalith, presumably the Lord Soul of Life. And the soul of Dark, it seems, was split into myriad pieces. These became humanity.

With the power of the Lord Souls did they build their new world. But it did not last. The world, their world, began to break down. The light of the First Flame began to fade.

Gravelord Nito retreated into a deep cavern populated exclusively by skeletons. He seems to have little concern for the world above.

The Witch of Izalith tried to light a new flame to replace the old; it didn’t work, and she was turned into The Bed of Chaos, destroying her city and creating the race of demons.

Lord Gwyn split his soul into two shards, giving one to the Four Kings (humans – think Nazgul, here) and the other to his compatriot, the dragon Seath the Scaleless.

Gwyn then went to the place of the original flame, the Kiln of the First Flame, and threw himself onto the pyre; his great life-force fed the flame, keeping it lit a little longer. But this sacrifice has left him a burned-out husk: the Lord of Cinder.

If you play through the game, you shall – in whatever order you like – kill all of these creatures, and recover the three Lord Souls of life, death, and light. The game’s final boss, then, is Lord Gwyn. You kill him. You make a choice. End if.1

Without careful consideration – or even, with – it is possible to beat the game without answering a single question. It is possible, indeed, not even to raise them.

6) WE DON’T NEED NO STINKING DRAW DISTANCE

At the real start of the game, the moment you come to the Firelink Shrine, you are in the game world. I mean that literally: you are in all of it.

If you take the time to really look around, you see a huge skybox. Far up above are stone walls. Right next to you is a giant chasm. Over your shoulder is the misty distance of city roofs. These things are so far away that you might as well be in a blank-walled room.

Everything you can see from this vantage, every distant place, is a game location. You will one day be at the bottom of that chasm, and below. You will one day be at the top of that curtain-wall, and in the city beyond. You will move among those buildings, indeed fight upon those very roofs. And you will go many places not now visible.

Dark Souls has no loading screens. It has very few cutscenes2.If you can see something in the remotest distance, it is being rendered in real-time. Once you realize this, the game’s graphics – which I would generally describe as “PSII-nouveau” – skip ‘forgiveable’ and go right on to ‘breathtaking’. Compared to this, most games – with their discreet levels and loading limbos – are like pre-rendered HyperCard games standing at the feet of real-time 3D.

I tried to find a map of the game. I couldn’t. None remotely does it justice. I am not surprised. To get through a few areas will take hours and hours of game-time. If you were to kill every enemy in the entire game, and then try to sprint from one ‘end’ to the other, it would still take you hours. And yet the level design pretty much never ceases to be tight and demanding – nor, even in the largest expanse, does it ever cease to be claustrophobic. When you finally escape the relentless hours – days – of fighting in dark caverns and brutal tombs, and suddenly ascend to the St. Peter’s sky-and-marble of Anor Londo, it does not comfort, it does not refresh; in fact, it terrifies.

7) STORY MODE

Dark Souls opens with a small level that is removed from the gameworld. It is about the only place in the game that cannot be reached by the simple expedient of walking there3. It is, in short, a classic training level. The only real departure from the norm is the fact that it’s still very very hard.

You awaken in a cell. You don’t know who put you there. Shortly you find out – and you never find out why.4 You fight your way out of jail, because nobody stays in jail if they can help it, and the sword in your hand is the only way to get out. This is the only ‘reason’ for you leaving that jail cell – for, n.b., playing the game.

After getting through the training level, you enter Lordran, the game-world.5 You stand at a bonfire. You light it. These serve as save points, rest points, and – much later – fast-travel points.

You are told by the first NPC you meet – who is the one that threw you in jail, and who promptly dies at your feet – that “When thou ringeth the Bell of Awakening, the fate of the Undead thou shalt know.” As a YouTube parody video adroitly points out, this is the closest thing there shall ever be to direction in the game. It is also not a command, nor a quest, nor even really a suggestion. Stating that the conclusion of an action is ‘to know fate’ is tautological at best.

You promptly meet another NPC, who tells you “There are actually two Bells of Awakening.” At the time my reaction was, “Sweet! More direction!” In retrospect, a better reaction would have been, “Well, shit.” Not only are there few and feint narrators, they are fallible.

It is never explained how this character, this Crestfallen Warrior – who, practically unique among NPCs6, has no name – knows jack diddly about this world. Nor is there much alternative to him. There are only really two other sources of guidance in the game. One does not show up for at least a dozen hours of gameplay. And the other is both an alternative to the first, and very hard to find – I went through my whole game and never saw him at all.

In short, players who ignore Dark Souls’ rich world and story can be easily forgiven. For is this not a rational thought process:

What the hell is going on here?

Who knows?

Can it even be known?

But hey – killing stuff is fun. And it opens up new stuff to kill. Hey look, there’s something over there that isn’t dead yet!

<lunges>

<dies>

<repeats>

And what is the specific direction that the Crestfallen Warrior gives to the PC?

“Ring them both, and something happens… Brilliant, right?

Not much to go on, but I have a feeling that won’t stop you.”

This is the clearest possible exposition of several aspects of Dark Souls. One, that much of the game’s joy lies in exploration, in not knowing what happens next. It is as much about discovery as it is about adversarial vivisection. And two, that you never really know why you are doing what you are doing. You are Mallory before Everest, with the modification: “because it breathes.”

8) TO THE MOANING AND THE GROANING OF THE BELLS

In order to ‘progress’ the ‘story’ – assume air-quotes around these and any related terms from here on in – one must get to, and ring, these Bells of Awakening. You do not find out what results from their ringing until they’ve been rung.

So you go forth and explore. You light some bonfires. You kill a bunch of dudes. You kill some bosses – clearly identified as such only by the good graces of a cutscene and the game’s otherwise-absent HUD giving them names7 Eventually, after a whole fuckmothering length of time, you ring a bell.

Nothing happens.

You then, for lack of an alternative, go in a different direction. There are several to choose from. The only thing really stopping you from going in a direction that doesn’t lead to a Bell is the fact that going non-bellward will likely be too hard for you. However, one can spend hours and hours clearing one’s way to other places – to Sif, to Nito, to the Valley of Drakes – and then find that one cannot kill the boss in question.8 But in reality, while you have total choice, you choose the best path based upon rational analysis of the paths available. This, my friends, is what we call DESIGN.

Alright. So you ring two bells. You have been playing this game for like thirty hours. You are pretty sure you are getting near the end. A cinematic shows a golem opening a large gate, back in a place you haven’t visited in the length of a Belorussian presidential administration. It is just off to the side of Bell One, and opens up like 30% of the game. Later you might explore near Bell Two and find another 30% of the game. Much in the same way an explorer in 1492 might have discovered America.9

The ringing has one other result. The next time you pass through the Firelink Shrine, you will notice a new NPC.10 His name is Kingseeker Frampt. He provides more guidance, more information, than about the entire rest of the game combined. He tells you to find “the Lordvessel,” and gives you rudimentary directions on how to so do. We will discuss the ass off him in due course.

So: ringing the bell causes someone to open a gate, and causes someone else to show up and talk to you. That is all.11

As far as can be told, the ringing of the bells is an absolutely arbitrary event, a kind of Zelda-like ‘prove your worth’ task. They open a gate which, if it were to remain closed, would have kept you from all the god-slaughtering that follows.12

They also awaken Frampt, who is clearly a very sleepy fellow and wishes to go back to slumber. Perhaps their only function is to weed out the annoyance of unworthy undead.

Worth Noting Moment: even if Frampt hadn’t shown up, in the course of exploring the world to its fullest you would have encountered the Lordvessel anyway. To kill all there is to be killed would accomplish the same. As such, even setting aside the consideration of Frampt’s trustworthiness which shall follow, it follows that all his guidance is, arguably, irrelevant.

9) ACT TWO

So you rang dem bells. Now: more Dark Souls.

You go through Sen’s Fortress, a place of traps that seems specifically designed to keep people out. The only alternative explanation is that it is a place designed to make sure only the fit get through. The great paradox of evolution! This begs the question13 as to what you might be being fitted for. We will return to this question at its proper, yadda yadda.

You go through more game. You kill more killables. Eventually you reach the end of Anor Londo. You encounter Gwynevere, Princess of Sunlight, the only daughter of Lord Gwyn. She is the size of a schoolbus. She has other attributes that beg measurement:

http://darksouls.wdfiles.com/local–files/npcs/gwynevere-princess-of-sunlight-large.jpg

These were my thought processes as I encountered the Princess:

Oh, my God. After fifty hours of slogging through the most horrible much and murderous filth, finally there’s something safe and beautiful and good. I have earned this. This is my reward.

Am I supposed to kill her? I kill everything in this game. No, I can’t kill her. I’m clearly not supposed to: she is peace and beauty incarnate.

…this is what the game calls beauty? Anime eyes and tits that would be ludicrous even if they weren’t proportional to a blue whale. How juvenile.

Wait a moment. This game is not juvenile. If something doesn’t fit, here, then the game is telling me something.

This is Dark Souls. Beauty, safety, happiness… this is the very definition of doesn’t-fit.

I just said it: I am clearly not supposed to kill her. That is not a thing that Dark Souls makes clear. In point of fact, Dark Souls does not make anything clear. People within Dark Souls make things clear… but one gets the impression that all their clear-making is lies.

Something is wrong here. Something is a lie. Either Gwynevere is manipulating me, or else, this isn’t Gwynevere.

I wonder if those’ll deflate if I plug them with a crossbow bolt…

…I can only conclude that these were the thoughts that I was supposed to have at this juncture. I cannot say this loudly enough: DE FUCKING SIGN.

10) KILLSCREEN

Here the game allows for you to, functionally, take one of three different paths. Here are one’s options:

#1) Get the Lordvessel. Do what Frampt tells you to do: “satiate” it by filling it with the Lord Souls – which are acquired at the point of your sword. Dodge-rolling and titanomachia ensue. Do this, kill Gwyn, and take his place. The fire consumes you. You have beaten the game, and yet have answered: nothing.

“LIGHT” ENDING: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPXMR1DioZU

After you kill Gwyn, you stand in front of an unlit bonfire. Bonfires are save points. They are places of rest – the only real safe places in the game. Dark Souls has been an exercise in conditioning you to light bonfires. There is a bonfire in front of you. It is almost impossible not to light it.

Most players would never even think that Dark Souls had a second possible ending.

#2) Get the Lordvessel. Kill Gwynevere. She takes 1 damage and disappears; she was just an illusion. Other illusions fade. It seems that Anor Londo is as fallen as the rest of the world. Even the sunlight was a lie. In reality: it is dark.

It seems that the real Gwynevere left the city ages ago. Her older brother was disowned & suffered damnatio memoriae.14 All that remains is her younger brother, Gwyndolin, master of illusions. He wants15 someone to take his father’s place because doing so shall continue the Age of Fire, and, hence, his hollow dominance of Anor Londo, his little play at God.

So: kill Gwyndolin, kill everybody, fill the Lordvessel, kill Gwyn, and take his place.

This ending is but a variation upon the first ending, but I think it substantively different enough to warrant disparate classification. One can go through the game to its entirety without killing Gwynevere, without ever even meeting Gwyndolin (who hides off to the side, as if he the air traffic controller and you the plane passing through).

One might play the game through twice, and only the second time killing Gwyndolin, and so think to oneself: “Aha! I have broken the deception, and done it, not for them, but for myself!”

But the difference is small. You are still a human marshmallow. The Age of Fire continues, killing you, and benefitting: nobody.

There is, however, a true alternative.

#3) Get the Lordvessel. Kill everyone you need to fill it – and then kill some more. Go to The Abyss – wellspring of Dark – and speak to Darkstalker Kaathe. He is another16 Primordial Serpent like Frampt. But he gives very different advice. He says, kill Gwyn and leave the fire unlit. End the Age of Fire. Usher in the Age of Dark – as its Lord.

So: kill some Gods. Propitiate the Lordvessel. Kill Gwyn. But instead of lighting the bonfire, turn about and leave.

“DARK” ENDING : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrywuSxARcY

EDIT: …there is an alternative, practically a fourth ending, which I will call The Nashandra. I discuss it below. It involves defeating Gwynn and then not leaving the Kiln, but rather turning around and defending the bonfire – enforcing its darkness, ensuring the Age of Dark. This, however, keeps you from entering NG+, and so F that S in the A. As it were.

11) FRAMPT AND KAATHE

Frampt shows up unannounced. He is woken by the Bells of Awakening, but there is nothing to imply that the two are causally related. Perhaps the bells were built for this purpose. Built by Frampt or his agent? Built by someone else? Or perhaps the bells were built for some other purpose – just church-bells when Lordran was a thriving world – and now their ring has been co-opted by these big ol’ snakes.

In that same vein, nobody knows who built, or ordered, the golem who opens the gate. Nobody knows whether the bells were meant to wake Frampt, or whether he arranged to be woken thereby: making him as much of an interloper into this world as anybody else. He brings the player to the Kiln of the First Flame, the wellspring of the world’s mythology & location of the final boss. In short, his only real function in the game is to speed the player towards the end – his end.

Frampt’s veracity is questionable. Let us look at his dialogue:

Your fate is… to succeed the Great Lord Gwyn.

So that you may link the Fire, cast away the Dark,

and undo the curse of the Undead.

To this end, you must… acquire the Lordvessel.

Fate, as I have said, is not a motivator. It is not a reason to do something, just a suggestion that something shall likely be done. In this case, the character has a 50/50 chance – two endings – of not succeeding Gwyn, not linking the fire, and embracing the dark like a two-peso whore. So much for fate.

Frampt’s use of the word “must” is also suspect. There is no time in Dark Souls when one must do anything. Except to continue playing the game – which one might want to do, a very great deal, but never must do. Not even within the game-world is there ever any necessity for so doing. The only reason within the game-world to keep going is the fear of, through inactivity, going Hollow. The only reason out of character is because murdering giant dudes is awesome. (The one is essentially an in-game codification of the other.)

Also, let us not forget, Frampt is a “primordial serpent.” This is about as close as one can get to a title of Satan’s. The first snake, the serpent coiled about the great tree – which is exactly where Frampt appears, directly in front of an arch-tree. The one who seduces humans into self-destructive paths. Prince of liars, prince of lies.

The only other notice that anyone takes of Frampt is the Crestfallen Warrior, who talks about how bad he smells. This is, at first, low comedy; second, yet more Dark Souls atmosphere; but third, calls to mind the gagging scent of brimstone which is said to follow The Whisperer, to mark his presence.

Frampt and Kaathe each have a certain amount of ostensible motivations. Frampt calls himself “friend to Lord Gwyn.” This is somewhat hard to square with the fact that he spends all of his efforts in game arranging for Gwyn to be murdered – by you. The only way I can think to reconcile this are as follows:

1) Gwyn would have wanted the fire to be rekindled. His death is but a part of your death; the two together shall continue the Age of Fire which he held so dear.

2) The one most set to benefit from the continuation of the Age of Fire is Gwyn’s son Gwyndolin. As such, Frampt serves Gwyn by serving his dynasty.

3) Gwyn, locked away in his prison, has gone hollow; this is a mercy killing, the act of a friend.

However, I think that there is a more likely option:

4) Frampt has never met Gwyn, or even if he has, is no true friend of him. Frampt serves Frampt.

Frampt calls himself Kingseeker. In context, this presents three interpretations.

1) he looks for someone to take Gwyn’s place as ruler of Lordran.

2) he looks for someone to take Gwyn’s place as a charcoal briquette – that seeming to be the major role of kingship in Lordran.

These two goals seem irreconcilable. It does seem that he hopes the player doesn’t notice this paradox until he already has his hand on the spark plug. What he is really looking for is someone who will burn – arguably, that he is training up adventurers to be as strong as possible, as full of souls as possible, so that they shall burn the longest.17

So perhaps he is pursuing a third option.

3) he wants someone to be a king without burning. This can only mean a Dark Lord – Kaathe’s ending. Which would square with the way both Kaathe and Frampt offer to serve you as Dark Lord. Or it might just be the resignation of someone who doesn’t want to end up on the business end of a titanite catchpole. Either way, Frampt serves himself.

In deliberate contrast to Frampt, Kaathe’s words are thus:

The truth I shall share without sentiment…

Your ancestor claimed the Dark Soul

and waited for Fire to subside.

And soon, the flames did fade, and only Dark remained.

Thus began the age of men, the Age of Dark.

However…

Lord Gwyn trembled at the Dark.

Clinging to his Age of Fire, and in dire fear of humans,

and the Dark Lord who would one day be born amongst them,

Lord Gwyn resisted the course of nature.

By sacrificing himself to link the fire,

and commanding his children to shepherd the humans,

Gwyn has blurred your past, to prevent the birth of the Dark Lord.

I am the primordial serpent.

I seek to right the wrongs of the past to discover our true Lord.

But the other serpent, Frampt, lost his sense,

and befriended Lord Gwyn.

Undead warrior, we stand at the crossroad.

Only I know the truth about your fate.

You must destroy the fading Lord Gwyn,

who has coddled Fire and resisted nature,

and become the Fourth Lord,

so that you may usher in the Age of Dark!

It is a well-phrased argument: Gwyn was afraid of you, Chosen One, and also your entire species. Your opposition to him is thus tinged with the inescapable.

Never does it say what the Age of Dark shall look like. Kaathe does not say how it shall benefit Lordran, or himself, or you. If you follow his version of “fate,” “light will fade… and only dark shall remain.” It seems hard to imagine that this could possibly make life shittier for Lordran or any of its inhabitants (or, indeed, notable lack thereof).

Perhaps Kaathe, primordial fellow that he is, is beyond personal interest in the outcome. Perhaps he and Frampt are simply observers, their interest academic, detached like Gods. Or perhaps he shall benefit somehow in a way we can hardly fathom.

Perhaps he and Frampt made a wager for the world. It would not be the first time a primordial serpent made such a wager – just, perhaps, the first time that there was such a creature on both sides of the bet.

Also, here is what he looks like: http://darksouls.wdfiles.com/local–files/npcs/kingseeker-frampt-large.jpg

Say it with me now: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

What race are these serpents? They sure are butt-ugly. And that’s about all we know about them. They are not mentioned in the intro cinematic, which appears to be the only objective information on the world. Are they children of the Dark Soul, like humanity? Did they split from another soul? Did they exist at the time of the dragons? Did they precede them?

Their physical appearance is part disgusting, part comical. They reside deep in the uncanny valley. But allow me a thought experiment. Picture what it would look like if you crossed a dragon with a human. The game offers this, notionally, in the form of Crossbreed Priscilla. But she looks about as much like a dragon as a slutty cosplayer. A truly even mix-and-match between a fleshy mammal and a great lizard might look something like Frampt.

Might their primordial nature be due to their being the common ancestor of both humans and dragons? Or even, a mix of Lordran’s humanoids and its draconids? Hell, might Seath’s experiments with combining humans and dragons – that has so far yielded the Pisaca: http://www.saschawillems.de/darksoulswiki/enemy_pisaca.jpg – be his attempt to make his own such serpents? A race both immortal, like the dragons, and also possessing some attribute of humanity?

And – how many serpents are there? Frampt calls himself the primordial serpent. This strongly implies that he is the only one. Kaathe calls himself “the primordial serpent Darkstalker Kaathe,” which has far less of that implication. If you choose the Lord Of Dark ending, you suddenly see a bunch of the fuckers, dozens, receding off into the dark. Perhaps it’s ass-ugly serpents all the way down.

I should also like to advance the idea that, perhaps, there is only one such creature. That it is like a hydra. After all, we never see a serpent’s body. Their necks just disappear into darkness. They might all originate from the same body. This is certainly a possibility suggested by the ambiguity of not showing their bodies – and Dark Souls does not create ambiguities lightly.

I like this reading because it is meet with the illusion of choice they represent. The two endings, light, dark, are two sides of the same coin. The idea that the two serpents we encounter provide seemingly antithetical choices which are of functionally trivial difference would be not at all altered by learning that they originate from the same creature.

This would make The Primordial Serpent much like the two hydra which show up in Dark Souls: http://darksouls.wdfiles.com/local—files/enemies/hydra-large.jpg. There are zoological similarities between the two. Both the serpents and the hydra have their origins in a deep chasm. The two hydras are found in the deepest points of the game-world: the Darkroot Basin and Ash Lake. They are also, by one interpretation, the oldest regions of the game-world: Darkroot Basin is of Oolacile, which is located in the dim past; it is also quite possibly the overgrown descendent of the abyss wherein Manus is faught. Ash Lake is the ass-end of the gameworld, at the very base of the arch-trees which reach all the way into the sky. The two other places where the base of arch-trees are located is at the Kiln of the First Flame, and in the kiln wherein the Witch of Izalith attempted to light her own: https://vaguespeculations.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/demon-ruins-2.jpg

Perhaps a hydra is a Primordial Serpent gone hollow.

12) THE GREAT QUESTIONS

1) Is Gwyndolin in league with Frampt?

Are their motivations coincidentally the same – or totally opposite, but with identical result? It is not known.

Is there really that much of a difference? Gwyndolin is living a life of illusions in lies in an empty city in a dying world. He seems to be locked in a little room – it’s a long room, and his exile there is self-imposed, but is this very different from Havel’s situation, or Ornstein’s, or Gwyn’s? He speaks, and so appears not to be hollow – but with his mask on, as ever, it is impossible to tell. Even if he retains his humanity, in this situation it cannot be long before he loses it.

2) What is the Lordvessel?

Is it an artifact of deep connection to this world – or is it just a bowl?

I rather favor the latter interpretation. It is just shiny trappings upon a trap, wherein you are convinced to A) kill the near-almighty creatures who possess the Lord Souls, B) then give up these near-omnipotent maguffins to the first mustachio’d dick-monster who asks for them. It is a shell game, except the shell is upside-down, because you are are a homicidal maniac and will happily forsake Godhood in exchange for the opportunity to murder more dudes. #interpretation

3) What happens to the Lord Souls after they ‘satiate’ the Lordvessel?

Are they A) all in your possession, B) returned to the fire, C) given up to the serpents?

In the case of the light ending the difference seems minimal. You are in the fire, and like a fire-keeper not likely but to remain. The souls are just beyond, the serpents by their side.

In the case of the dark ending, sure, you walk away unscathed – but the Lordvessel, and its contents, are nowhere to be seen. There is no precedent for someone using more than one Lord Soul at a time. Though you do not have the dark soul, you are its avatar. You may not be Manus, the furtive pygmy – but damn near.

In either case, the souls would seem to be in the possession of the Primordial Serpents. Perhaps to use themselves – or perhaps to give away.

4) Who put Gwyn in his prison?

It seems that Gwyn cannot leave the Kiln of the First Flame. This has multiple possible explanations.

One, he is tied to the fire and so could not leave if he wanted to. This would be much like the Firekeepers you encounter throughout the game. Sure, Anastacia of Astora is barred in place – but is that to keep her in, or to keep others out? When Knight Lautrec of Carim breaks the bars to brutally murder her, it seems to favor the latter interpretation. The idea seems to be that the Firekeepers either cannot leave (Quelaag’s Sister) or choose not to (Lady of the Darkling) – and that, even if they could, they would not want to, so broken and deformed are they.

Two, he is prevented from leaving by the giant band of white fog which surrounds the Kiln. This might keep him in – though it might only serve to keep you out. Likewise it is possible that it can only be parted by means of the lord souls. Or Frampt might be holding a remote off-camera, and it was all a ruse to get the souls back.

Three, he has been so long – and so burned – in that tiny space, that he has gone hollow. This is why, like every other hollow, he attacks you without need or provocation.

5) What would the next step be, O Dark Lord? Hunting down humanity, killing them, collecting their souls, Highlander style there-can-be-only-one? Or have you not now killed everything worth killing, such that it is time to weep, like Alexander, for you have no more lands to conquer?

I think it is terribly important to note that, if one chooses the Dark ending, one walks away from the bonfire unlit. Lighting bonfires, as you know, is not a difficult task in this world – all you must do is stretch out your hand, linking it to your soul thereby. The only thing stopping you from going right from the first level of the game to the last is the dudes you need to murder along the way. And: they all murdered.

As such, an adventurer following in your footsteps will find the Kiln of the First Flame deserted. Nothing to stop them from lighting the fire just as you chose not to do.

In order to keep yourself from being a Dark Lord in an Age of Fire – which I rather assume is like being an abacus operator looking for work in Palo Alto – you would need to guard that bonfire with your life, constantly, against all comers, forever.

…I promised myself that I would not herein discuss Dark Souls II, but it seems pretty clear that this is what Nashandra is doing. She is the Dark Lord, and in order to remain so, she has to spend all of her time keeping anyone else from lighting the fire. As a result she is just as closely tied to the Kiln of the First Flame as was Gwyn, or any Firekeeper to their bonfire. To enforce Dark is as hard as to enforce Light. Nature looks for a balance – but balance is boring, and gray.

13) THE ENDINGS COMPARED

There is no difference to the player as to which ending they choose. Either way, the game ends. Beyond that, the only real difference is that in one way, you get your pyre on, and in the other you walk out unscathed. The difference is between your life and your death. And this is Dark Souls. No difference could possibly be more trivial.

The choice presented to you is as between becoming the lord of cinder or the lord of dark. The difference seems minimal at best. What is the lord of dark truly a lord of? Surely you shall have no subjects. Not the least because, you just killed them all.

If the endings are no different as to the player, perhaps they are different as to Lordran, its inhabitants: the very world? I do not think so. Lordran is beyond saving. This is its defining characteristic: Lordran is FUCKED. Its day is past. It has fallen. The works of the giants, the stonesmiths: mouldereth. This is Faust Part II, people: you can try to trick yourself into thinking that you sacrifice yourself for the good of others, but in reality, they are hollow, and you are dead.

What citizenry is there to protect? What peoples to save? The only people in Lordran who are not feral beasts (or hollows, which is the same) are adventurers like you. One might as well call a corpse alive because it still swarms with bacteria. The only people who do not live solely off of murder and pillage are the merchants and the blacksmiths. The merchants live off of your murder and pillage; they create nothing. And those that create, A) make weapons and armor for you to use in your merry genocide, B) don’t seem to care whether or not you buy from them – they are happy doing their thing, even though the world around them crumbles.

One might argue that the blacksmiths are the only true heroes in Dark Souls. They are the only ones who create, rather than destroy. And yet even their creation is only weapons of destruction. Even here, their anvils ring hollow.

Perhaps the endings differ only trivially. The light ending causes you to go up like a Roman candle. But you only prolong the inevitable. Soon light fades, and things are as dark as if you had walked away. But more than that: your actions within the game have been those of a one-man Lordran Death Trip. You have killed everyone and everything that stands between the game’s beginning and the game’s end. Joe Undead could roll out of the Firelink Shrine, jump down Frampt’s gullet, and go straight to the Kiln of the First Flame. The shortest of shortcuts. They will stand in that room of cinders without having gained a level.

And if they didn’t, but rather roamed the whole world – you’ve killed all the bosses, you’ve stopped the spawning of demons, and you’ve cured the ‘curse’ of undeath that is an integral game mechanic in Dark Souls, without which nobody would make it six minutes into this masofest. You have proven your worth, but you have done so in such a way that nobody shall ever be able to do so again.

It is even more than that. You have killed everyone and everything. There is a certain amount of destruction which is the introduction of an element of chaos into order. This can be a creative force, a la Joseph Schumpeter. You are not a creative force. You have gone beyond that. The world was in chaos. You ended that chaos. You ended the world. You killed fucking everything. You reduced the world to order. The most boring of orders: you made a desert and called it peace.

If you light the fire, you will one day burn out. If you die, the person to take your place will not have had to go through nearly the same trials as you did. They shall not be as strong. They will burn a shorter time, until there is nothing left worth burning. And, inevitably, only dark shall remain.

If you do not die, but become a Lord of Cinder like Gwyn, you will be more than a match for the pithy mortals who come before you. By the simple expedient of their not having passed such tests, proved such worth – and the game’s physical manifestation thereof, collected such souls. You will go hollow, alone in that prison, and your damnation shall be an eternity killing noobs. But as a result the fire shall never be relit. And only dark shall remain.

14) TWIN AESTHETICS

The overwhelming aesthetic of the game can be summarized in one sentence: “a mighty world of epic scale, which has fallen in a hundred different ways to infestation and disrepair, in which every fantasy trope imaginable now runs around fucking shit up.”

The primary aesthetic, then, is that of the world: domes, spirals, kingly halls, all falling to rust and dust. Poe’s City in the Sea is a proper conveyance of the atmosphere; the Old English poem known as The Ruin or The City is here even more embodied than in the works of Tolkien (whose favorite poem it was). This is the darkest of Dark Ages. It is a hundred heavy metal album covers – but with the gamma slider set so close to black that they are almost indistinct.

But the secondary aesthetic is precisely the opposite. Not that it is all sunshine and sparkles – just that it is variance itself. It is every aesthetic. The slider has gone to light. The game designers very clearly sat down and made sure to include every single fantasy trope in the known universe. This game makes Barlow’s Guide to Fantasy look like XKCD.18

First, the origins:

There are very few NPCs in the game. A few are foils to the protagonist and show up repeatedly as the game progresses, provided you don’t shank them or let them get shanked. The rest are merchants. It’s unclear whether they are soldiers of misfortune like you, or they are simply adventure capitalists. They are not native to Lordran, wherein the game takes place; they are from far away places on the game world.

When you are creating your character, your “race” is based on these places of origin. The only practical effect in the game is to change your skin tone, a little of your facial features. (As discussed above, this effect is neither practical, nor practically even noticeable.) They are Astora, Zena, Vinheim, Carim, Thorolund, The East, Catarina, and The Great Swamp.19 There is also Fivefinger Delta, but nobody from here is ever met in-game.

ASTORA:

Anastacia

Andre

Oscar

These are all generic European names; their origin is what Yahtzee Croshaw called that two square miles of medieval England wherein all Western fantasy takes place. 20

I should also note that these four characters are the most clear and significant foils to the player character.21 This will be explored later & oh so much more.

CATARINA:

Sieglinde

Siegmeyer

Clearly we are in Teutonic Knights territory here.

VINHEIM:

Big Hat Logan

Griggs

Rickert

The suffix -heim is of Scandanavian origin; the names Griggs and Rickert echo this. Little is more Scandahoovian than the loganberry.

ZENA:

Domhnall

This is an Irish name and an Irish spelling.

CARIM:

Knight Lautrec

Oswald

Not substantively dissimilar from the naming conventions of Astora, e.g. Western Europe.

THE GREAT SWAMP:

Laurentius

This clear Latinate derivation echoes the marches of the Roman empire, after the tide of empire swept back; Austria and Romania come to mind.

THOROLUND:

Petrus

Rhea

Vince

Nico

Petrus and Rhea are both Hellenic names; Vince (from Vincentius) and Nico are both Latin names. Despite the different roots of the name of the region, this is the hotchepot for Classical allusions.

THE EAST:

Shiva

Shiva is of Hindi roots – though all the character’s weapons are Japanese. In general, the game makes sure to distance itself from the “eastern” elements of JRPGs, establishing it solely as a collection of western fantasy tropes. This is interesting in great part as the game is entirely developed in Japan… and logical in great part, as it would be somewhat incongruous if the dark gritty realism of Lordran were suddenly invaded by a hermaphroditic teenager with giant purple hair.

…it is not the most clear attempt to range throughout the world of fantasy origins. But nothing in Dark Souls is clear. In this game, one must work for one’s analyses; no New Critic ever had so fertile a field for growing, not solutions, but interpretations.

Second, the arms and armor:

JESUS CHRIST.

Direct yourselves to the “armor” section of the fabulous Dark Souls Wiki: http://darksouls.wikidot.com/armor

These are not screenshots of NPCs. These are all ways that your character can look. There is more variation in this one game than in six cosplay conventions put together. One can move from Victorian to Valkyrie to Death-eater to Dominatrix with ease.

I shall take this opportunity to note that the difference between these armors is small. Unlike many RPGs, which take one from worst to best armor by means of linear progression, Dark Souls does no such thing. The starting armors for most classes are, with upgrades, arguably the best in the game. Several sets of superlative armor will be unavoidably found as a result of progressing through the story.

The only particular difference between armor types is as to weight – light, medium, heavy – which affects your speed. This creates three general play-styles, from most-dodging to least-dodging. One, the styles are not terribly different from one another. Two, by the end of the game (that is, NG+7), you won’t be able to withstand the halitosis of a Baldr Knight. You will be wearing the lightest armor, because skill with avoiding hit – ie dodging – ie skill playing the game – is more important than a thousand armor class points.

The game can be beaten by a naked character. This is often considered an unofficial ‘hard mode’ by aficionados of the series (or of masochism) (or of logical impossibility). In point of fact, the difference between a naked character and one wearing the best armor can all be compensated for by one’s quickness of movement and response in combat. Put it another way: good armor is a crutch for those who aren’t good at the game.

Weapons are equally varied. They range from dragon weapons (think Brutal Legend) to Zweihanders (Higgins Armory approved) to compound crossbows (+1 against airships) to spiked whips (straight outta Backdoor Sluts 9). The uchigatana will send even the most avid weeaboo a-Googling, while such fantastical weapons as Smough’s Hammer or the Moonlight Butterfly Horn approach Planescape levels of functional parody. I spent much of my first playthrough wielding a Dragon’s Tooth as a club: http://darksouls.wikidot.com/dragon-tooth . If that isn’t symbolic of scavengers living in the corpse of a fantasy world, I don’t know what is.

It should be noted that the starting weapons of several classes make for perfectly good end-game weapons. Common weapons, like “club” or “pike,” are as good if not better than many named magical weapons. Likewise you shall be unable to avoid access to some super beatsticks as the game progresses.

There are also a dozen different upgrade paths for nonmagical weapons. In the end, they are all about the same.

As with armor, with weapons, with class, with race, the difference is minimal. There is no sword, at the end of its upgrade path, which will cause you to win a fight that another sword would let you lose. At most they save you the necessity of a few extra hits. If you’re playing well, any fight could last a hundred years and you’d never be the worse off for it. At big bosses, if you’re playing badly, it doesn’t matter if you had a fucking lightsaber; your ass is grass.

Infinite variety, mattering nothing: Dark Souls is the place where fantasy goes to die.

15) THE GREAT GREY WORLD

This world of Lordran is not one entirely engulfed in darkness. It may seem that way – both due to the constant oppressive horror of this dismal world, and the general lack of fill lighting – but it is not.

Darkness is one of the four primordial elements of this world. A world of pure Darkness would be equivalent to a world of pure Light. Three such pure worlds exist in the game: the light of Anor Londo (Gwyn’s city), the death of the Tomb of the Giants (Nito’s domain), the life of Lost Izalith (The Witch’s pad). Light has faded due to the death of Gwyn and his bequeathing of the lord soul shards to a rapist lizard and a barbershop quartet. Life has gone crazy due to the corruption of the Witch, such that now it creates nothing but demons, a form of life that seems objectively corrupted. Death, in fact, seems the least fallen of the three domains. Nito locked himself away in his basement22, removed himself from the world, and so gave up his power simply by choosing not to use it. But then, it’s a place full of dead things; it seems to have had the least distance to fall. And when Manus – the erstwhile Furtive Pygmy, possessor of at least a lion’s share of the myriad shards of the dark soul – was awakened in Oolacile, that city went right to shit too.

The world of Lordran right now is a pretty dead place. There’s nothing much going on; most everyone and everything is hollow. The closest there is to creativity, or even action, is in the hands of a few crazy bastards: Seath, who never met a virgin he didn’t abduct; Gwyndolin, who rules a dead kingdom; Frampt and Kaathe, who influence but do not act23; The Witch of Izalith and hew spawn, who are are utterly fucked up by her failed kiln-lighting to the point where they don’t appear really sentient anymore; and the adventurers, like yourself, who believe that “Renaissance” is just the step immediately prior to a corpse run.

Nothing is happening. Things are crumbling, brutally, horribly, but the result is that of tending towards stability. This is not war, nor renaissance, nor revolution. This is more like entropy. Slow and steady decay. Until there will be nothing left. Nothing to crumble. Nothing to kill. (Certainly you are doing your own bit to bring about the latter.)

The impending state of the world is therefore much closer to that which was introduced in the introductory cinematic. “In the Age of Ancients the world was unformed, shrouded by fog. A land of grey crags, arching trees and everlasting dragons.”

Light is the absence of dark. Dark is the absence of light. A grey fog is the absence of both light and dark. Perfect statis. Peace – and dull. The arch-trees and the dragons were as immortal as the hills… and about as dynamic, about as interesting.

Only the introduction of the Lord Souls changed this. Brought new life. Brought change. Brought revolution. Rolled Hegel’s wheel right over the dragons. Ushered in a new Age. Changed the world.

That grey waste is the state to which Lordran is now tending. This not the least because the Lord Souls are not being properly used. The bequeathed shards of light are squandered, life is corrupted, death is ignored. Only dark remains to do things. To be creative, or destructive. To move. To act. To be interesting.

16) DARK SOULS AMONG THE PANTHEON

My favorite video game is Planescape:Torment. It’s a 2D isometric RPG with lots of dialog, a party system, automatic combat, and a pause button. It has a central storyline, discreet level progression, a clear and satisfying ending. It’s pretty forgiving. It’s essentially impossible to die. There is no dodge-rolling. In all these ways it is about as far from Dark Souls as a sane mind can imagine.

And yet, I think it the game which is most similar to Dark Souls.

Planescape is the gaming equivalent of revisionist comics like Watchmen or Planetary: a deliberate paratext which takes its genre, its very media, and turns it on its head. It is hard to fully appreciate Planescape without being intimately familiar with the world of Dungeons and Dragons. Reading Watchmen without knowing the sins of the superhero genre would lead nowhere but confusion. But Planescape accomplishes what few such send-ups ever do: it stands on its own. It is a worthwhile text even without paratext standing beside it. In this is it perhaps more comparable to Gaiman’s Sandman: enjoyable both alone and in company, at different levels, and each only adding to the other.

EDIT: Also, Planescape is one of the few other games where the protagonist’s inability to die is not just explained, but is central to the plot – more central, indeed, in Ps:T. The main gameplay difference is that you can go through Ps:T without hardly ever dying, because Black Isle is to From what a cherub is to a professional dominatrix in a world without petroleum jelly.

My other gaming deity is Riven. I am in the process of writing a longer essay about the Myst franchise (if I ever have six months’ to kill, I will finish it): the quinceañera of the personal computer, pinya-ben of the internet, the apotheosis of hypertext (and metaphor therefor). But I consider Riven to be a generation beyond its predecessor. Twenty years after its release and Riven remains ahead of its time.

Riven and Myst are puzzle games. They have no combat at all, no hit points, no items, no skill-points. They have no numbers of any kind. They are not real-time games. They rely on pre-rendered discreet images. There is no dodge-rolling. It’s essentially impossible to die. Ask a gamer to pick the game least like Dark Souls and Myst will likely spring to mind, second only perhaps to Arthur Teaches Typing.

I consider Riven to be a clear predecessor to Dark souls.

Riven is a game about solving, not puzzles, but the world itself. This is the role of a player in Dark Souls. The difference is that the person in Riven has a clear task, and one way to accomplish it (they must simply discover what that way is). A player of Dark Souls need not have any task, and if they accept the task offered them (in either form), they still might have multiple theories as to why it is being offered them, or reasons as to why they set off to accomplish it.

It is impossible for me to play Planescape or Riven without imagining myself as one of the designers. Not my most humble statement. But by this point I see through their eyes. One of my happiest moments was stumbling upon the internal Black Isle design doc for Ps:T and realizing that I had come up with much the same ideas about the game, by myself, through the exact sort of reverse engineering herein being attempted. It is not hard to see Riven as being a careful and immaculate attempt to advance adventure games, puzzle games, from infancy to adulthood: to take Myst’s solving of discreet puzzles, obvious, existing solely and clearly to be puzzles for puzzles’ sake… and move to a world where the puzzles are not only hidden, not only part of the story – they are natural, as part of the world as the puzzles of the universe are to a scientist.

Most people play Dark Souls as a first person action game in a dark fantasy setting – dodge-roll Castlevania, e.g. The most princely aspect of Dark Souls is that it can be played like this… while simultaneously it can also be played like Riven or Ps:T. Not that it is necessarily both experiences at once; one must be able to mash the attack button; the other experience, the investigation of the world and its wonders, can be undertaken or ignored at the player’s want.

Which is, itself, the point.

A third point of comparison: Dark Souls as to every masochore game. It measures up. Dark Souls is hard. Legendarily hard. I have encountered roguelikes which were easier. I reached a point in the game which, by maxing stats and items, the game became easy. Then I realized 1) the game was only easy by the standards of Dark Souls, 2) its ease had far less to do with items or stats than it did with my having finally gotten good at it.

17) INVASION, MULTIPLAYER, THE SPACE BETWEEN

Dark Souls can best be described as a single-player game with multiplayer elements. You can play the entire game off-line. Or you can play it online, where other players can leave notes for you to find during your playthrough. And, through certain mechanics, other players can invade your world – showing up in the middle of your game to pound you to death with a hammer. Jolly cooperation!

You can also invade their worlds. And the Additional Content – the game’s integral expansion pack – provides an arena zone for straight up PvP. And – my personal favorite – you can request people join you for boss battles, “summoning” them to fight alongside you.

But what if you want to play offline? What if you have no internet connection, or if you think that random online play is the hog trough of modern gaming?

Not only is that an option, it is possible to have much of the multiplayer experience without it. This in two ways. First, the game allows you to summon in-game characters – NPCs – as phantoms, to fight alongside you at boss battles. Second, from time to time, the game will send phantoms to invade your world, attacking you just as a random internet gamer would.

The effect is what I would conservatively describe as ULTRABALLER.

The game presents a rather flimsy justification for this. As Solaire of Astora says:

We are amidst strange beings, in a strange land.

The flow of time itself is convoluted,

with heroes centuries old phasing in and out.

The very fabric wavers, and relations shift and obscure.

There’s no telling how much longer your world and mine

will remain in contact.

But, use this,

to summon one another as spirits,

cross the gaps between the worlds

The game does reinforce the justification in a few creative ways. First, if an NPC dies in-game – as by your own hand, or your failing to save them from a threat – they will no longer be able to be summoned.

The other great example of this is Witch Beatrice. You never meet her in-game. She is summonable as a phantom to help you fight the Moonlight Butterfly, and then again to fight the Four Kings. After you defeat the Four Kings, her corpse will appear outside the New Londo shortcut (in the Valley of Drakes). It seems she tried to fight them in her own world – or something like that – but died trying.

18) UNDEATH, HOLLOW

I’ll die soon, then lose my sanity…

This is one of the first lines in the game. Oscar of Astora does not misspeak.

In this world there is “the curse of Undeath.” You die and then you come back to life. In most any other video game, this is just what happens: die, loading screen, back for more. In Dark Souls this ubiquitous gameplay mechanic becomes an integral part of the story.

It is impossible to play Dark Souls through without dying. Even if you are a master player, starting a new game, and playing perfectly, you still die at least once (first encounter with Seath). I do not want to estimate how many times I died on my playthrough. I am sure that it is into the quadrouple digits. Absolutely.

Dark Souls phrases this as a “curse.” It is impossible to see how it is so – it is functional immortality, a thing rarely considered a bane. Apparently it is newly descended upon the world, and effects people who bare “the accursed darksign,” some sort of birthmark/Dark Mark/tattoo. This is never really explained, and is somewhat swept aside by the game – which I assign to Highpass Syndrome, discussed below.

The game suggests that your killing Gwyn – and taking whatever ending – will lift the curse. This either naturally, because the curse is therefore symptomatic of the crumbling of the world; or else unnaturally, because whoever or whatever of Framptever is causing it will then flip the switch off, until such time as they flip it on again.

The other major gameplay mechanic cum mythological element is that of “hollowing.” The state of being hollow implies insanity, a certain return to the state of nature: in short, going feral. With only one or two exceptions in the whole game, hollows attack everything that isn’t hollow, indiscriminately.

Hollows can be told by their facial features, which are somewhere between zombie flash mob and kvlt corpsepaint. That is, unless the character is wearing a full-face mask… which so many are.

When you, as a player, die, you go hollow. The only way to ‘reverse hollowing’ is to use an item called Humanity. You expend one humanity and you get a message saying ‘humanity restored.’ The benefits of being ‘human’ are 1) you can summon phantoms at boss fights, 2) you no longer look like a roadie for a Norwegian metal band. But this latter doesn’t matter much either, since you will rarely if ever see your own face.

The only exceptions to this are two characters, “undead merchant male” and “undead merchant female” in popular lexicon. They are clearly hollowed but still speak. They are pretty crazy, but still lucid enough to sell you things. So clearly there are some intermediate states between humanity and full-on insanity.

In Dark Souls, the only characters who are clearly not hollow are:

-adventurers from other lands, who are engaged in adventuring

-invaders – who are essentially adventurers

-blacksmiths

-nonhumanoids

(…the only possible exceptions to this which I can think of are: Chaos Witch Quelaag; Quelaag’s Sister; Dark Sun Gwyndolin; Gwyn, Lord of Cinder. However, The Quelaag Sisters are not exactly the humanest

(http://img2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20140722121223/darksouls/images/7/72/Quelaag_full.jpg); and whether or not Gwyn is hollow is open to debate. Even Gwyndolin might be hollow; he has masked up to such an extent that it’s difficult to tell. Based upon his cojent dialog, I rather think that he isn’t. This, however, does not preclude the idea that he shall go hollow any minute. His situation and Havel’s seem rather indistinct.

Everyone else is either clearly hollow, or else is wearing a mask, and so very well could be hollow. Moreover, a case could be made that every masked humanoid behaves in a manner consistent with being hollow: trapped in a room, attack everything on sight (i.e. you), giving no evidence of any thought or emotion, just creatures, gone feral, their humanity gone away.

Take the example of Havel. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hHYculSLDY – credit where credit is due.) When you encounter him, he is just a guy in a room standing next to a door. So you gotta kill him. Because video game. If you get too close he will attack you. When you kill him you get armor, items, souls, and access to the door. Which lets you go on and kill more things. Dark Souls forever.

But why is Havel just standing there, for God knows how long, in a locked room in the bottom of a basement? Is he guarding it? From whom? It doesn’t appear so. What seems more likely is that he was placed there. By a God, most likely. Had he gone hollow? Or was he placed there, imprisoned, undead, for how many centuries, until insanity – hollowness – followed?

The only humanoids who are not hollow are those who are undertaking clear tasks. Some are adventurers whose quest seems to be the same as yours, like Seigmeyer of Catarina. Some have their own personal quests, like Solaire of Astora. And then there are the blacksmiths, who keep themselves busy – even alone, even when like Rickert of Vinheim they are locked in a cell in precisely the manner of Havel.

The world of Dark Souls is crumbling. Not just falling apart: going stale. The work of the Giants, the stonesmiths, mouldereth.

In such a ruin, a person would have two options: give their time and energies to make the place live again, either returning to its former glory or else finding glory new; or else, tear it all down, and start again.

19) HIGHPASS SYNDROME

In 1999 I was 13 years old. I played a MMORPG called EverQuest. It was the first 3D massive multiplayer on-line role-playing game. WoW is it’s son, and I’m sure that EQ would be proud of its progeny if only it wasn’t owned by a competitor.

EQ was at the cutting edge of technology. The game-world was huge and diverse, the storyline rich, and the grind as grindey as you could ask for. By virtue of being the first of its kind, the game designers were rather making it up from scratch. They committed innumerable sins that would not have been made – or allowed – by later games.

Later expansions fixed many of these perceived errors. For example, transportation became streamlined so you didn’t have to spend hours crossing continents on foot, fighting every step of the way. This made the game a lot smoother and faster. It also made the game a lot smaller and less realistic.

(The only time I have ever liked fast travel in a game was Dark Souls, and then because it was minimal, and occurred only very late in the game. Still, I would have much preferred a more natural system, such as the imp who takes you to Anor Londo, or the unlockable elevator to the Undead Parish, etc.)

One thing that always fascinated me was the zone called Highpass Hold. It existed pretty much exclusively to separate the two halves of the main continent. You’d pretty much only go there as a result of running from one place to another. It was a fortress of timber built into the wall of a rocky mountain pass. It had a little tavern, a few guards, a few nobles’ quarters. In the basement there was a goblin infestation that could earn you a few scars, and a few gold.

There was no notable loot there, no good camping, no important quests. It was, from the release of the game, an empty zone. As were half the zones in EverQuest, because the designers had yet to realize that people go where the important stuff is: XP, quest items, and l00t.

If you walked around Highpass Hold, you saw a lot that most players, even back then, never saw. Nothing really interesting. A bunch of NPCs with names out of the hopper. Some nice medieval-fantasy rooms with epic 90s graphics: http://everquest.allakhazam.com/scenery/highpasshold-goldenroosters.jpg

But you also stumbled upon a number of things: quests, dialog trees, infodumps of myth and lore. If you picked pockets, or killed people when they pathed into corners, you could collect a number of items. Lots of things that nobody saw for they had no reason to see.

The problem is that all the quests were broken. They never went anywhere. They had no solutions. The lore was irrelevant or even wrong. The items didn’t do anything: they weren’t connected to any active quests. They were relics from beta-testing gone bad. Relics of quests that had been (badly) removed. Relics, indeed, from a former world.

I always found that those orphaned quest items, and the previous world them implied, created a deeper sense of the ancient, the fallen, than anything that was actually part of the game’s mythology. I call this Highpass Syndrome.

Dark Souls has a bit of this. It comes from two primary places: Oscar of Astora, and The Painted World of Ariamis.

The story of Oscar, in the game, is that of a man who throws undead into an asylum. You are one such undead. Presumably he does this so that, when they go hollow, they’ll already be locked away. Shortly thereafter he dies. His words, and his death, welcome you to Dark Souls.

This was not his original purpose in the game. He was meant to be a foil, a constant companion (and competitor) for your bad self. Some of his dialog and scripting remain in the game’s code. This as per as per https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RkLstvjmUk

The Painted World of Ariamis is the only other discreet level in the game. It can only be accessed by a warp, and one that is hidden and without particular logic. The level was apparently the original tech demo for the game, which was included just because it was already made. It’s a very good level, tight and interesting. But it doesn’t really fit with the story, the mytharc, or the flow of the game.

Except in one way. The end of the intro cinematic States that “in this land, the Undead are corralled and led to the north, where they are locked away, to await the end of the world.” This also has no particular relevance to the story as we find it. However, it was of more relevance to the story when Oscar was more of a character. Apparently they just didn’t cut it out.

It is interesting to note that the Painted World is a cold and frozen place. Also that, scattered about it, are dozens of stone cubes. They are sealed, some with iron bars, like little portable prisons. They are swarming with hollowed undead.

Perhaps this is the north where corralled undead were sent by Oscar of Astora. At least, in the first draft of the game.

20) WHY WE FIGHT

In Dark Souls, there is no real reason to do anything. None.

Every video game is about want. Some are clearly arbitrary: find the exit, collect the rings. Some are more or less: rescue the princess, solve the mystery, right the wrong, save the world.

Not in Dark Souls. There is no great evil. There is no villain, no real antagonist. There is no princess or prince to rescue. There is no world to save or worth saving. As much as any side-quest is presented, they come later in the game. By that point they are only justifications for continuing to do what you’re doing, e.g. kill more people than Type 2 diabetes. And the justifications are flimsy at best.

The closest you ever come to a moral high ground is the quest of Anastacia of Astora and Knight Lautrec of Carim (viz https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o95uUu7I9Xs). She is a weak little girl. A creepy dude stares at her for a while and then murders her. Later you can rescue her soul and bring her back to life. On the face of it, this is Lawful Good at its finest.

Yet still, many questions are not answered. His motivations are unclear. Moreover, firekeeper souls are integral to gameplay – they’re the only way to upgrade your estus flask, which is how you heal in combat. Throughout the game you will be given the opportunity to kill several fire keepers, and the game is awfully hard if you do not. And, finally, there is the fact that if you bring her back to life, Anastacia does not thank you. In fact, she begs to die.

There are times when you kill only to advance the plot. There are times when you kill to acquire items or for other aspects of self-interest. There are times when you kill only because someone told you to, without providing any real reason. And there are times when you kill only because someone is not dead yet.

I killed Crossbreed Priscilla even though she is one of the few characters in the game who A) will talk to you, B) will not aggro on sight, C) isn’t horrible to look at. And then I spent five minutes wondering why I had just done that. I didn’t feel good about it. I didn’t feel bad; it’s just a game. But in not feeling very much at all, I expect I felt a little bit like your friendly neighborhood psychopath. It’s not a pleasant feeling. It made me want to finish the game – which can only be accomplished by killing more dudes.

In Dark Souls, it’s unlikely that you shall ever come up with a good, firm reason to do what you’re doing. Except one: because it’s fun. The game is its own justification. But the game is one of slaughter. Within the context of the game-world, you are Hannibal fucking Lecter. You enjoy murder for its own sake. Nothing more.

Dark Souls forces us to take notice of this. It is not a critique of the genre so much as it is simply self-aware, and through subtle and masterful storytelling, forces us to join it in its awareness.

21) EVERYONE IS BROKEN

The world of Dark Souls is a crumbling, horror-infested death trap. The inhabitants mirror the world.

Many of the bosses – the Taurus Demon, the Capra Demon – are demons. These are creatures who are given life by the corrupted bearer of the Lord Soul of Life, The Bed of Chaos (nee The Witch of Izalith). They seem to have no life but to smack dudes with clubs. They are feral. They are no different from a hollow, except that they were born this way.

Later these bosses are found commonly as regular enemies, because Dark Souls.

The same is true of some of Seath’s perversions, such as the Moonlight Butterfly. A difficult boss in the Darkroot Garden will later be a respawning enemy in the Crystal Cave. Think that Daikatana advertisement, squared and cubed.

But most bosses are not like that. Most were clearly regular creatures, once. They have become corrupted, broken, or gone hollow – often in ways that are barely noticeable.

Chaos Witch Quelaag is a beautiful woman who has been transformed from the waist down into a horrible spider.

The Ceaseless Discharge was the son of the Witch of Izalith. Her sorcery transformed him into a giant lava-monster, whose constant outpour of molten rock destroyed his home city. Also, he has the least attractive name ever.

Dark Sun Gwyndolin is a cross-dresser. (I submit that the game treats this trait of Gwyndolin’s as being synonymous with the ‘broken’ trait which all characters possess. I consider this to be a sad display of ignorance on the part of the designers. I think it therefore doubly important that I point it out.)

The Four Kings are rendered so ethereal that they cannot leave The Abyss.

The Gaping Dragon is Smaug after getting his torso stuck in a VitaMix. The Undead Dragons are cadavers with wings.

The last remaining Everlasting Dragon does not speak, does not move, does not react to having his tail chopped off – the game indicates that he has turned to stone.

Pinwheel is just a boss you encounter, who attacks you on sight. You barely even get to see him up close. After he dies you see he’s surrounded by Necromantic Stuff – skeletons, books – and so it makes sense you’ve killed him. I never gave him a second thought. Then I saw this video, and JESUS CHRIST. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7eJeUG1m6eI

Sif, the Great Grey Wolf was Artorias’s companion. At the time of his death Sif was the size of a small dog. Sif is now the size of a large schoolbus (see ‘forest for the trees’ below). He guards the grave of his former master. The only crime, for which he dies, was preventing you from looting it.

Black Dragon Kalameet is basically unkillable until you have Hawkeye Gough cripple him for you.

Aside from being a one-man SVU antagonist, Seath the Scaleless began as the only dragon born without scales, and hence, without immortality. He is also an albino. Since then, Seath has also gone blind.

Of “The Four Knights of Gwyn” (and Smough, knight-aspirant):

Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough give every indication of being hollowed, just like Havel. Smough is apparently also a cannibal.

Lord’s Blade Ciaran was in love with Knight Artorias. When he dies, she gives up her weapons. It seems likely she wasted away standing at his grave-side.

Artorias the Abysswalker is physically wrecked by his conflict with Manus. He is covered in the purple goo of abyssal corruption. His right arm hangs limply at his side. He is one of the toughest enemies in the entire game. Only by examining the game’s box-art do we see that Artorias, when whole, was right-handed.

Hawkeye Gough is the greatest archer who ever lived. He is blind. If you look closely at his mask there is blood dried beneath the eye-holes. He will still prove a worthy opponent, but it is clear he tracks you only by sound. If you put on the Slumbering Dragoncrest Ring, which makes your footsteps silent, he cannot hear you, and will remain still until attacked.

Gwyn, the game’s final boss, has had his entire life-force roasted out of him.

…and most of these creatures you will defeat A) through learning their Achilles’ heel, B) through constantly dodging their attacks like a PUSSY, and C) with the help of others, either summoned gamers or NPC phantoms (or both).

Every boss in Lordran is less than they should be. The scariest truth to realize about Dark Souls is that you are, essentially, playing it on easy mode. Could you defeat these creatures, not as they are, but when they were in their prime? No. You aren’t beating the best, just what is left of them. You are not conquering a world. You are not a hero. You are just a janitor, mopping up.

22) FOREST FOR THE TREES

A few weeks ago I was lying on a beach in the Caribbean, white sands and blue water and blue sky, and as the sun warmed me I found myself thinking about the trees of Dark Souls.

A few points to mention: The trees are not really part of the game. They are not relevant to gameplay at all. They are never really mentioned, never referenced. They are just part of the background texture, like the palm trees that Sonic raced by. One could easily play Dark Souls and never notice them, and certainly there is no pressing need to dwell upon their significance. There is no reason for a player to even consider that they have significance. But upon consideration, I think they do.

This struck me as I was reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. The book is a work of anthropology and archaeology. It has nothing to do with dark fantasy or video games. It does, however, deal with the falls of civilizations – and with biology.

I do not have the exactly quote in front of me. In essence, it stated that the notion the New World was in a blissful, Eden-like state of peace was as silly as that it was in a savage, inhuman state of nature. Nature abhors stasis. If it were at peace, there would not have been the near-infinite biodiversity of the new world, engaged in what Stephenson called the “sometimes zany, frequently tedious fugue of carnality and carnage” that is life. There would, said Mann, have been nothing but apex predators – buffalo eating grass, redwoods reaching towards the sun, and nothing else. No competition. No evolution. Statis. Eden. Peace.

It struck me like a thunderbolt that this was precisely the state in which the world of Dark Souls found itself, in the Age of Ancients, at the beginning of the intro cinematic. Before “they came, and found the Souls of Lords within the flame.”

Dragons instead of bison. Arch-trees instead of redwoods. Apex predators. Things at the top of the food chain. Creatures unchallenged. Creatures who have won at the game of life – which is of course the game of death as well.

That was the state prior to the events which began the Age of Fire. Stasis. No competition, hence no selection, hence evolution had ceased. Only by the introduction of “disparity” could this everlasting stasis be interrupted. The Lord Souls were the gift of chaos that brought humanity out of this terrible Paradise.

What is the apex predator in Lordran? What is the one creature which is better than all the others – what is the fittest to survive? It would seem to be the arch-tree. Nobody wants to kill the arch-tree and it wants to kill nothing. It has no competition, no predators, no dependance upon a food-source apart from the sun. More importantly, your murderous self has no particular reason to kill it – which is the only safe passage in the world of Dark Souls. Not even From Software could make a fun game about chopping down a tree the girth of a city block.

Is that what you aspire to, then? Yourself, the Chosen Undead – is your apotheosis to be a tree? Is that what you aspire to? Is that the win-state of this world? Or is it better to have competition, to fight and be fought, invade and be invaded, live and die?

An aside: things in Lordran do not seem to stop growing. Over time Sif went from an apartment-sized dog to the size of an apartment. Rats regularly grow to an unusual size. Arch-trees do not seem to have a height limit. In Ash Lake they appear to have blocked out the sun to such an extent that nothing else grows there, only mushrooms (which love the dark) and mussels (which, this being Dark Souls, love the way you taste). It is no coincidence, I think, that here hides the last Everlasting Dragon – who appears to have gone so long without movement that it has turned to stone.

As per the game’s second cinematic – after you take the Crow towards the Firelink Shrine – the arch-tree there is almost to the height of the Undead Parish. Perhaps one day, slowly, inevitably, the arch-trees will block the sun entirely. There will be no light then, and no dark. Just gray. Sterile, boring gray. A desert. Like Ash Lake.

23) A READING OF THE WORLD

Based upon the preceding 15,000 words, I would like to offer a reading of Dark Souls. I believe it is meet with all game’s mythology and mechanics.

It may not be the right reading, if indeed there is one. But it answers every question, satisfies the evidence at hand.

In the beginning, the world was in stasis. There were immortal dragons, immortal trees, and nothing else. All was being, nothing was becoming. There was no creation, no evolution. There was no history.

This was observed by the primordial serpents. And their observations of this world bored them silly.

So they arranged to shake things up. They introduced disparity. Conflict. Opposition – the force of history.

The last serpent who coiled around a tree taught man of good and evil. These serpents gave different powers – life and death, and light and dark.

This might not have been the first time they did such a thing. The position occupied by the dragons, was much the position that our Lordran was falling towards. It is possible that the dragons were not the first race to have achieved this dull success. Perhaps the serpents once gave the dragons the Souls of Lords just the same, to kill off a previous race that had gone stale. An infinite cycle of death and rebirth, guided by the Invisible Hand of Kaathe and Frampt24.

The dragons were slain. Great new civilizations were built up. They flourished. Then they began to fade. Torpor, decadence – as all civilizations fade, when they have no competition, no evolutionary pressure to face, no reason to flourish.

And so the world was slipping back into the gray. So the serpents, as they did with Gwyn before, found someone would could prune back the dying branches. The old world was slaughtered, even the possessors of the Lord Souls. And this avatar of death left the world well ready for new owners, to undertake once again this cycle of death and rebirth.

For either you let the fire consume you, and then go out again; or you leave it waiting for someone new to light it. And either way, the serpents retain possession of the Souls of Lords – ready to be found, in a pile of ash, or in a flame.

Dark Souls is is a game, not of creation, but of destruction. But in the world of Lordran a bit of destruction is required. The old gods have died, so that new gods can take their place. Build upon what has been built. Try to do better, or at least, hold the torch until it is ready once again to be passed.

The purpose of the world in Dark Souls is to keep things from slipping into stasis. Your goal in Dark Souls is to be an agent of dynamism, of change, to shake things up and ready things for the next revolution. You will not build the future. You are a creature of war, not of peace. But you will prepare the world for that future, and whoever shall follow you to build it.

24) CONCLUSION

This essay is a bit unwieldy, and I am not sure I am satisfied with the ordering of its chapters. I might play with it a bit later. But for the moment, I consider this two days well spent.

(Much better spent than if I’d gone to class.)

As with very few other games, I am very glad that I played Dark Souls. And very glad that I sat down to think about it, so many times.

Not only will most video games pale in comparison for being so easy, but in the shadow of Dark Souls, most fantasies will seem shallow and useless.

Most narratives of any sort will suffer from the comparison to Dark Souls, so much a part of it I was, so much I had to work to understand it – but a reasonable amount of work; nothing hidden, just nothing spoon-fed.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna saddle up and kill Gwyn. Because I have determined – after all this thought – that, one way or another, his time is over. He needs to die. And I am the one to kill him.

EDIT: I’m not sure if I’ll choose an ending – neither link the fire, nor walk away. But then again, as I said before, no choice is a choice itself. And Nashandra’s fate does not seem pleasant. Better to “burn bright with this hard, gemlike flame” than to go hollow.

Then maybe I’ll beat my murakumo into a plowshare and play Minecraft or something.

-david axel kurtz

davekov.com

portland, maine, usa : 2015

1The scare quotes around “choice,” here, to be explored at length when-we-get-to-it

2 and honestly, I don’t like any of them, they break flow unnecessarily and ruin an otherwise perfect exercise in cinema verite.

3As will be discussed later, the Painted World of Ariamis is essentially noncanon

4Your jailer is one Oscar of Astora. More on him later – but not in a way that’s relevant to the story.

5Later I shall deal with the crow, and the contents of the last two footnotes, and definitely the inevitable accusation that I am cherry-picking like a motherfucker.

6The only others are the Crestfallen Merchant, the two hollowed Undead Merchants, and the Giant Blacksmith (who is not human).

7Imagine if neither of these things occurred! Such solitude! Such lack of direction! Delight!

8There are a few stopgaps – the Lordvessel is needed to get into The Duke’s Archives, the Crest of Artorias to fight the Four Kings, the Rusty Iron Ring is all but required to get to The Bed of Chaos. There’s also draining the water in the Valley of Drakes and New Londo, the Metroidvania silliness of the Painted World, etc. etc. But really, they aren’t that important – and I rather think they could have been done away with, to make the game an even greater exercise in “Horrible, horrible freedom!” However, in this, I yield to the wisdom of the designers; they were the ones looking over the shoulders of the beta-testers, not I.

9 And let’s not forget areas like The Great Hollow, Ash Lake, Undead Asylum II: Electric Boogaloo, the Painted World of Ariamis, and of course all of Oolacile, which are all entirely optional – and in several cases, exceptionally easy to miss.

10HE IS HARD TO MISS.

11 It is possible to get through a significant portion of the game without ringing these bells. If it were not that the ringing of both bells is required to open Sen’s Fortress, and thus Anor Londo (and hence access to The Lordvessel), it would be possible to get through the whole game without ringing them. Personally I think that providing ‘ring the bells!’ as the only instructions in the game, and then actually making their ringing optional, would have been an AMAZING show of design courage – just as Kadare never revealing the fate of Colonel Z- would have made him the true heir to Henry James. But that’s just me.

12 It should be noted that you find other NPCs ahead of you in the area beyond the gate. This suggests that you are not the first person to get so far.

13I USED THE PHRASE CORRECTLY SUCK MY DICK

14 Discussed under “foils” later

15This is a possible reading of the storyline based upon a strict cui bono analysis of the facts presented. It has absolutely no support from within the game-world.

16Making Frampt’s use of the definite article in his introduction… somewhat more than suspect

17The one true class in Dark Souls is ‘pellet stove’

18(It’s really shocking that women agree to sleep with me.)

19To a lesser extent there is also Oolacile, and Fivefinger Delta. The latter is only mentioned at the creation screen; the former is a place in Lordran and its inhabitants are nonhuman.

20The other honorable mention is Solaire of Astora, one of the game’s most memorable characters (though this is praising with faint damnation.) The name seems likely to be assumed, due to his sun fixation – viz. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6M9ONL6BcbU – & due to clues within the game, his being the unnamed third child of Gwyn is fanon.

21I almost wrote ‘protagonist.’ I CORRECTED MYSELF.

22Someone probably gave him a copy of Dark Souls.

23Saaaaaaaataaaaaaaaan

24 creatures who have no visible hands.

…I’ll show myself out.

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~ by davekov on 23 January 2015.

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