This is the first post in what will be a much longer series on philosophy and Dark Souls.
In March of 2015, From Software released Bloodborne, and I, a neophyte neither to games nor quality, pronounced it quite possibly the best game ever created. There are implicit qualifiers to that statement, as well as biases and all of the divisiveness that comes along with a discussion of this genre, but, knowing full well the proportion of the gaming “kingdom” that would dismiss it out of hand, I still hold a portion of the thought to be valid: Bloodborne is a fantastic exemplar of “Souls” genre, one of the best fantasy RPGs ever created, and a non-trivial literary exploration of the ways that humans interact with belief.
I’ll clarify that it was this last point that fueled my assessment. Games as high art is something of a hobby horse for me, and for a medium passing sixty years of age, there are surprisingly few games that can so unambiguously boast the distinction. Bloodborne, of course, came from somewhere, and even at the time, it was not my intent to denigrate its origins. Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls were groundbreaking, and I was singing their praises right along with the other multitudes that had caught the “Souls” bug. Bloodborne was different, though. It was both a fully consummate game–a gamer’s game, in contrast to a more purely (and blatantly) artistic piece like Journey–and a world whose details, precisely, lovingly placed, had something profound to say about the way we live life.
The literary reading of Bloodborne is fascinating, and perhaps I’ll write about it one day, but that is not the purpose of this essay. Rather, this is about what I didn’t realize in 2015: Dark Souls had already gone there too, and the scope of its literary aspirations dwarfs anything the games medium has ever attempted besides.
Returning to my story, after Bloodborne, director Hidetaka Miyazaki returned to Dark Souls, releasing Dark Souls 3 just over a year later. I played it, I loved it, but even then I didn’t see it. Two DLCs came out. I played them as well, but it wasn’t until I neared the end of the second that I walked into an in-game room and nearly dropped my controller. The room in question was a small chapel in the Ringed City, decorated at its center by a statue of Lord Gwyn, tall and regal, placing a crown atop the head of the pygmy pathetically kneeling at his feet.
Well. That isn’t subtle. From then on, I resolved to pay better attention, because there was almost certainly something still to notice.
Ultimately, my attention rewarded me last year, as I replayed the original Dark Souls, having read Lou Keep’s excellent essay Everything is Going According to Plan (very long, not at all about Dark Souls, but practically a prerequisite for everything I am about to say) around the same time. Abruptly, one day, I realized that the two were telling the same story to a remarkable degree of specificity.
Now this was something new, something deep, interesting: Dark Souls as an allegory for Nietzsche, awe-inspiring and soul-crushing, like some abyssal incarnation of Tolkien. I set about exploring the metaphor and found it surprisingly robust, going so far as to imply specific arguments within Nietzsche’s framework. Still, several attempted essays later, I come to you with concerns: If I am to explicate what Miyazaki seems to be saying, then we must be clear about some problems with reality.
The first is that Dark Souls (I will continue to use the unitalicized term to refer to the series as a whole, where I will italicize specific titles), as a primary source, is extremely unclear, to the extent that almost all of the information it tells you plainly (and, it should go without saying, all of the information it doesn’t) is debatable. Part of this is because Dark Souls is presented as scraps of history from a wild variety of sources, over a massive amount of time. From these scraps, it’s difficult to get a complete picture of the world, and the fact that different viewpoints, biases, and even mistakes tend to make the scraps incommensurable only adds to the difficulty. Aside, this is why you should take any lore details you hear on the internet, from any source short of Miyazaki himself, with a grain of salt. The game very deliberately leaves its details open to interpretation, and you should be wary of certainty (including mine, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment).
The second problem only adds to the murkiness. It turns out the “undisputable” details that the game directly provides (ie, what literally happens on screen) don’t make a ton of sense. You find kingdoms practically stapled to each other, immense geographical distances collapsed into runnable tracks, and, in reference to the medium itself, denizens of these truncated locales sitting there, waiting for you. I will explore the nuts and bolts of this argument in later pieces in this series, but to resolve this problem, I will be subdividing all of Dark Souls lore into three substrates of reality:
- The physical/literal reality of the world the game is describing.
- The metaphysical reality layered atop the history of the literal.
- The metaphorical reality that the literal reality is grounding and the metaphysical is representing.
Based on this framework, you would assume that we are starting from the physical and building up. You would be wrong. The actual action of the games takes place in the second layer, which helps to explain some of the whacky disparities between what the game shows you is going on and what it textually tells you. Of course, things are never easy. The layers often blur together, which may seem like sloppy writing (be it on my part or Miyazaki’s) until you realize that real life works much the same way.
This brings us to the third problem, which may be with me. A few online forum-goers have brought up the connection with Nietzsche in a shallow, “this seems to be inspired by” sort of way. Miyazaki has not. This is not trivial. Much ink has been spilled on Dark Souls as a gaming phenomenon, and Miyazaki has not been stingy with his interviews, and throughout everything I’ve been able to find on the record, I’ve found no reference to the nihilistic metaphor I see, nor even so much as a reference to Nietzsche as an inspiration. I’ll claim death of the author if necessary, though I won’t do so lazily. While I am confident of the artistic validity of the interpretation that I present here, I truly cannot say whether Miyazaki intended any of it. My apologies to him if this should obscure any of his actual intent.
That said, let’s press on. No matter the reality that all of this is drawn from, our reality has been on a particular philosophical course for some time, and Dark Souls may have something to say about that.
To make this argument (as well as the source material I’m drawing from) sane, I will be zooming subsequent essays in on much more specific pieces of the overall Dark Souls codex. It is likely there will be detours in the format, but right now, the basic road map looks like this:
- The Dragons and the Fire
- The Undead and Lordran
- The Linking of the Fire
- The Abyss
- Reactions to the Abyss (likely multiple essays)
- The Lords of Cinder
These are high-level areas for exploration. It’s entirely possible I will need to delve more granularly, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Regardless, welcome. Let’s see what’s waiting in the dark.