Lots of words have been written at this point; here’s where we’re at: There’s a clear parallel between Nietzsche’s progression of nihilism and Dark Souls’ setup. We’ll flesh that out soon–the last essay only introduced it–but it’s better that we have most of our details down before we get into implications. After all, “the world of Dark Souls is nihilistic” is so vague as to be undisputable, and it’s not like it makes Dark Souls make sense by itself. If we want that, we’ll need to discuss the game’s minute-to-minute experience.
I chopped this out of the transcription from last essay, but let’s discuss it now:
Yes, indeed. The Darksign brands the Undead. And 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 is your fate.
Only, in the ancient legends it is stated, that one day an Undead shall be chosen to leave the Undead asylum, in pilgrimage, to the land of ancient lords, Lordran.
You probably have some internal definitions of what it means to be “undead”, and Dark Souls probably doesn’t meet very many of those. The denizens of Lordran are often articulate, intelligent, usually even “normal”-looking. They aren’t skeletons (though they’re around), they aren’t zombies (they’re around too, see Hollows), they’re just exactly the same as humans except for some little black scab that you wouldn’t even notice unless things were getting hot and steamy. One might point out their (inconsistent) tendency to revive around swords shoved into campfires or the fact that hollowing makes them more and more zombie-like, but that combination of traits seems so far away from a conventional understanding of the term that you wonder: Why call them that at all? Why not play up the “curse” aspects instead of reengineering a term with so much cultural cachet (1)?
This probably sounds like criticism, but I’m really just trying to discourage face-value readings of the situation. At face value, labelling people in Lordran as Undead seems confusing and stupid, so you can either ignore the apparent Japanese arcana of it and blow right past, or you can be a kind reader and work from the assumption that the stupid-looking decisions are deliberate. This is my essay, so I’m going to do that. Start from the basics: What does being Undead mean for the Undead?
Solaire of Astora: “Now that I am Undead, I have come to this great land, the birthplace of Lord Gwyn, to seek my very own sun!”
Laurentius of the Great Swamp: “In this land, pyromancers earn a certain respect. The Witch of Izalith, one of the legendary Lords, is the godmother of pyromancy. So, the day I became Undead, I was ecstatic. I felt as if I’d been chosen to attune myself to the ancient arts.”
Of course, it’s not all great–these people were still hunted by Allfather Lloyd, et al and corralled in asylums, but now zoom out to the world, Lordran. Solaire and Laurentius both are excited that their Undeath should grant them entry to this place, and you have to wonder why: A) It’s in ruins, steadily falling apart, hardly seems aspirational, and B) in what way, exactly, does Undeath get them in? Does the bird only carry people with the Darksign? Is the bird the only way to get there?
Let’s examine the ruins question first. Lordran certainly looks like a slowly degrading collection of fallen kingdoms, but only if you aren’t looking very closely. If you are, the juxtaposition is jarring: A semi-functioning city is stapled to a church guarded by knights of a random ancient kingdom. Go down a staircase, and you find a giant hydra in a lake, surrounded by crystalline golems, and just a jaunt away is lethal funhouse staffed by murderous snake-people. And Anor Londo, lost city of the gods themselves? Just over the hill past the fortress. If you look at it this way, you can see it: This isn’t a kingdom at all–it’s a museum. It may be trying to kill you, but don’t let that give you the wrong impression. We’re in the metaphysical layer, walking through a monument to what once was (or perhaps what once was mythologized), which brings us to question two: If becoming Undead qualifies you for entry into a place inhabited by gods, wherein reality itself is enshrined semi-eternally, where are you (bonus: Your alternative, pending one bird flight is a hellish prison guarded by literal demons)? I’m no theologian, but it seems like you might be in some kind of fucked up Heaven.
While Lordran as the afterlife may be a good entry point into a particular way of looking at it, it’s best not to take that interpretation too far. An afterlife presupposes that Lordran’s denizens had a before-life, outside this place, and while there is evidence for that, it’s really not clear to what degree it’s relevant to the world dynamic (at least in Dark Souls 1). For example, it’s pretty easy to tell that Solaire of Astora isn’t from around here because it says right in his name: He’s from Astora. Astora, ostensibly at least, isn’t in Lordran (also dialogue, etc.), so Solaire almost certainly existed before he showed up there, but there isn’t much mention of anything he did in his past life or its bearing on the here and now (2).
To rephrase, the question is one of emphasis. Starting with the afterlife interpretation, consider the aforementioned inconsistency of characters’ resurrection. If you squint, you can see a conceptual pattern between the types of characters that respawn (random enemies, ie museum exhibits; phantom Undead) and those that don’t (bosses, other non-phantom Undead, legendary enemies like Black Knights or Havel). Excluding the player (this is also a thin reading, but hear me out), you can describe these same groups as [those enshrined/entangled in Lordran’s museum-reality] and [those vying to dominate it]. Since the player character is as inexterminable as a cockroach in spite of belonging clearly to the latter group, the resurrection angle may not be accurately descriptive, but the distinction between conquering agents and metaphysical background is still useful. It also brings us to two important questions: First, what is the significance of that struggle to conquer for the physical and metaphorical layers; and second, what exactly does domination of the metaphysical look like? The former is broad and has a broad answer–we’ll be exploring it through the entirety of this series. The latter is more specific, tied to a question so obvious it’s a wonder we’ve avoided it up to now: The game is called “Dark Souls”, right? Pray tell, what exactly are these “souls” (3)?
For those following along who have not played the game, Dark Souls’ souls are a catch-all currency and experience system. When you kill an enemy, you are given a number of souls (usually hundreds or thousands–the guy was carrying them or something). You can use these souls to improve your attributes, but the interesting thing is that everyone around you seems to be doing the same. This isn’t entirely literal–individual characters don’t generally get any stronger throughout the game; that’s just you–but they certainly do try to get all the souls they can, and if they aren’t inclined to do it through murder, they’ll do it through trade. Characters throughout Lordran will sell you items or teach you skills for souls, and the game lampshades their status as currency with juxtaposition to actual currency. See the Gold Coin. Description:
“Coin made of gold, with Allfather Lloyd and his white halo shown on its face. Even coins of great value in the world of men have little value in Lordran, where the accepted currency is souls.”
Our metaphysical realm, then, has an economy of souls. The prose is appropriate to the genre, but in real terms, what does this mean? What is a soul? Conventionally, of course, it’s paired with a possessive, the soul is someone’s. It’s someone’s identity, agency, lifeforce, whatever. The three-digit numbers you reap from each fallen foe might discourage that interpretation, but a certain class of item muddies the water. Throughout Lordran, you will find items called something of the form: “Large Souls of a Lost Undead”. These, along with “Soul of [Boss Name]” (guess how you get those), can be consumed for a reward of some number of souls, suggesting that characters in Lordran are not just fueled by souls, but comprised of them. Reasonable, but the plurality is perplexing.
One resolution might be the American Gods route: The metaphysical is the realm of the gods, and gods have metaphysical strength proportional to the strength of their believers in the physical world. Might a single soul then represent a believer? There may be something to this line of thought (4), but A) it doesn’t really have any explicative power as the nihilism metaphor is concerned, and B) petty, perhaps, but the metaphorical mechanism can be improved: Ideological battles aren’t exactly amoebic as followers are concerned–sometimes people convert when they clash, but more often they just die. In Dark Souls, by contrast, the nature of conflict is straightforward: You kill a guy, you get his stuff.
Consider a close alternative. Among believers, a clash of ideologies is inherently political, and politics is, well, difficult to model, especially in a way that makes sense at this level of abstraction. So, for now, take out the believers. Without them, the ideological clash is just an argument without an audience, reason applied to determine truth rather than realize a political goal. Not all such arguments have a victor, but when they do, there is no death of the evidence–it all merely supports a new conclusion, a victor in the battle.
What, then, are souls? They are concepts, memes, evidence, tiny fragments of truth. Which is appropriate: If the Lords found their souls within the Flame, and the Flame is Truth, then why should their progeny be built of anything but its component parts? Why should the above be unlike the below?
(1): Worth noting that Dark Souls 2 does this, but that Dark Souls does not feels deliberate. Consider also that Miyazaki did not direct Dark Souls 2.
(2): There are exceptions, the most nuanced of which is probably Siegmeyer of Catarina, whose sins ultimately pursue him to his end at Ash Lake. But even then, it’s not like you ever find out what they are, which is a good indicator that his case is one of brand rather than particulars. Specifically, his daughter’s mention of his relationship with her mother seems to more to serve as development of his persona in Lordran as a paragon of wanderlust.
(3): This question rightfully begins with Demon’s Souls, from which the experience system was more or less transplanted wholesale. For what it’s worth, I’ve never attempted a literary reading of Demon’s Souls, but it may be on the docket for the future, alongside Bloodborne.
(4): If you like conspiracy theories, here’s one: The maximum amount of souls you can spend leveling up in Dark Souls is 1,692,438,971, suggesting by the believers metaphor that this is the maximum number of a followers a metaphysical ideal can have. The largest religion in the world is Sunni Islam, with a very close 1.5 billion followers. Probably a coincidence, but that’s a weirdly precise match of orders of magnitude.
Top Image: By DRAGONizm, found via Google