Hi, I’m Ryan. Intros seem pointless right now, so let’s hop to it and talk about Dark Souls.
When you say “Dark Souls” the first thing people tend to think is “hard”. It’s true, this extremely successful series by From Software is best known for being extremely punishing. There’s no pausing, enemies gang up on you mercilessly, other players invade your game and ruin your day… the list goes on. The problem is that this reputation has become somewhat inflated, to the point where all you hear are tall tales about the most extreme game in existence when, in reality, the difficulty is just a small part of what makes Dark Souls good.
Consider this: How many games can you think of where player death is a part of the narrative? In almost every game, dying simply means you restart at a previous save point. In arcade games, dying would deduct from your lives counter until it’s game over. Occasional exceptions can come in the form of games like Bioshock, where dying only sends you back a bit with a slap on the wrist, or the roguelike genre, where trial and error is an integral part of the experience.
That last one is getting pretty close to how Dark Souls works, but it’s missing something: a role in the story. I can only imagine that the early concept stages of Dark Souls involved the developers wondering how they could make death a meaningful part of their game. The solution? The player character is undead. Indeed, almost every character in the story is undead. Upon death, an undead will wake up at their last place of rest. You know what that sounds like? A save point.
In the world of Dark Souls, the player character is a nightmare for any monster or old god he sets his sights on. You may pound him into the dirt, but he will always, always come back. For an undead, every death is chance to learn. He may sidestep a swipe that flattened him against the wall before, or roll under a magic attack the previously powderized him. This is built into the story, and it’s fundamental to how Dark Souls works as a game. Yes, you’ll die, and you’ll die a lot, but part of getting into this world is learning that dying is okay.
What I’m getting at here is that the story of Dark Souls informs the game mechanics, and its game mechanics are used to tell the story. The nature of the undead curse is discussed very little in-game, but you are instead allowed to experience it. At times it is very unclear what your quest is, but you nonetheless forge onward to see what happens next. You begin to get the feeling that your character doesn’t have much else to live for.
This singular motivation ends up being what separates the player character from the other characters in this world. You learn, not through exposition, but through experience, that having a purpose in life is the one thing that keeps an undead from losing his mind. This losing of the mind, or hollowing, happens with other undead characters you meet, and it begins to happen with such regularity that pretty soon there doesn’t seem to be anyone left who’s on your side.
This is a part of the most important aspect of Dark Souls’ atmosphere: loneliness. You’re all alone in a crumbling world full of things much bigger than you are. You might find others willing to help you for a time, but it’s fleeting, and at the end of the day the only person you can rely on is yourself.
Dark souls is very light on the narrative. The game has very few cutscenes, most of which are only a few seconds long and exist only to set up a boss fight. As mentioned before, it’s a little unclear in the beginning what exactly you’re trying to do, and the ending plays a bizarrely unique role in the experience that I’ll discuss a little more later.
Instead, Dark Souls is all about the world. You piece together the story of a once-mighty civilization from environment design, snippets of NPC dialogue, and item descriptions. You might examine an item left behind by a boss to learn about their backstory and how they fit into the world. This story is filled out when you hear NPCs mention the same character, giving you a better idea of who they were.
What you end up learning is that the world of Dark Souls is in a state of stagnation and decay. The gods have abandoned the world, the dead can’t die, and civilization has crumbled. The only bit of hope you have is an ancient prophecy that an undead will “rekindle the fire of the world” and basically save the universe from this horrible entropic state.
This prophecy is given pretty early on, but any hope it may give is pretty quickly dashed. You’re reminded, once again, that you’re no one special. Many, many other undead have come to the exact same place you have, done the exact same things, following the exact same prophecy, and each one has met the exact same fate. Through your sheer determination, which is the only thing that really sets you apart from the legions of other undead heroes, you overcome the initial trials and begin your quest to the endgame.
This brings me back to that ending. After the midpoint of the game you’re finally given some proper direction: it’s your destiny to succeed Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight, who sacrificed himself to keep the fire of the world burning. This is truly hyped up to be your epic destiny; Gwyn is nothing short of a Zeus-like figure and you’re told you’re going to beat him, then use the vast power you have gained to rekindle the entire world.
Except that’s not the entire story. What sounds like an epic final battle ends up being nothing of the sort. When you finally find Gwyn, he’s no longer called the Lord of Sunlight, but instead the Lord of Cinder. A battle that you’d expect to feature a booming orchestral soundtrack is instead accompanied by a melancholy piano tune. The man himself is no god anymore – he’s a burnt husk, savagely attacking you will all of his strength.
What went wrong? This is supposed to be an epic battle to save the world. Why does it seem so solemn?
The question is pretty apparent if you pay attention, but the answer takes some effort to find. Eventually, a hidden character will tell you the whole story: the whole charade about a chosen undead saving the world was an elaborate scheme to dupe some poor sap just like you into doing someone else’s dirty work.
In short, the world of Dark Souls was in decay because the “fire of the world” represented the power of the gods, and said gods tried to artificially extend its lifespan. These efforts culminated with the king god himself, Lord Gwyn, throwing himself into the world’s flame to prolong this age. The prophecy of the undead was simply a ploy to find another powerful being that could prolong the life of the flame so the remaining gods could remain in power.
Ultimately, though, the fading of the fire is inevitable. Inevitability is perhaps the second major theme of Dark Souls. Sure, you brought the world back from the brink of decay, but the fire will only fade again, and your character is left as a hollow husk just like Lord Gwyn. Perhaps the kinder option is to simply let the flame die?
The second option at the end of Dark Souls is to walk away from the world’s flame, letting the age of fire end and beckoning in the age of dark, with you ruling it as the Dark Lord. This sounds like the “evil ending”, but is it really? Perhaps ending the cruel charade of an endless cycle of stagnation and instead forging into the unknown makes it the “good ending”. Or maybe it truly doesn’t matter? If you choose the dark ending, the very same character that wanted you to throw yourself into the fire is there, side by side with the character that told you the truth about the world, offering to be the advisors to the new Dark Lord. Were you ever truly in control?
Alright, that’s enough thinking about depressing things for now. Dark Souls is good. There are a whole host of other things that make it good I didn’t even mention here, from monster design, to how it handles difficulty, to use of music, but those are all just details. The indirect storytelling and the intertwining of story and gameplay are what truly make Dark Souls shine. It’s a game that has a point, and it went in with that in mind and it stuck with it to the end.
Maybe I could learn from that.