As a side-effort to our main pipeline of artwork, we asked Rae for their interpretations of a number of characters in our timeline. Here is Le Markhan (or Les Marquains, in the Riverlands tongue), from She-Lord of Ka! He’s looking a little svelter than he ought (he was not a thin man), but it’s a work in progress. I’m a huge fan of the imagery Rae brought to these pieces. Enjoy!
Not fiction, not particularly polished. Hopefully you find it amusing, though.
I’ve had to explain to a lot of people lately that I spent the night in a ditch last week. Sometimes, this is because the person I am speaking to wanted something from me the day that I was stuck in a ditch and now will not receive it for some time. More often, it’s just a wacky story, fun to tell/hear. My wife thought so anyway, hence its presence.
Most everyone has a stockpile of travel horror stories. I travel a lot, for work and otherwise, and I have a healthy supply of them. The standard is usually a flight delay, maybe a night in the airport. It’s more interesting when a single day of travel turns into a shitty, multi-day road trip or an attempt to overnight Desert Bus yourself from Vegas to San Fran so you can report for work at 9 AM. Then there’s the life-threatening stuff, and I offer my sympathies to anyone for whom that category has been less kind; it’s easily the worst. My night in a ditch was not life-threatening. Rather, it was kind of surreal. Wholly unpleasant, but at least thought-provoking.
As my American readers may be aware, certain areas of the country became intimately reacquainted with tornado season last week, and while I was in the air, one such tornado relocated a portion of my destination airport’s architecture to its runway. My flight diverted temporarily to nearby city, and as I sat on the plane listening to the delay tick later and later, I thought fuck it, I’m getting a rental car. So I did. I called my travel agent, got my reservation switched to my current airport, and within twenty minutes, I was on the road. It was late, I was tired, but I’d dealt with so much worse. Things were going smoothly as far as I was concerned.
But you see, tornadoes tend to come with rain. This one came with a shit ton, and I discovered as I was driving that the highway connecting the two cities had closed due to flooding. Not a showstopper–my GPS just sent me to backroads. But then backroads became gravel roads, gravel roads became dirt roads, and one particular dirt road, having seen just a little too much rain, collapsed, running muddy into a nearby cornfield. Upon reaching this road, my car–very slowly; I want to be clear that this was not reckless driving on my part–slid right into the cornfield as well and would not move further (or back).
At first I screamed, not out of alarm, not out of any particularly strong emotion at all, but it was late, and I was tired, and screaming just seemed to be the thing to do. Then I screamed silently, my thoughts catching up to my circumstances, whirling about the multifold conclusion that man, am I a fucking idiot. I could have just waited on the plane. I could have just not taken the gravel road (there was a paved alternative that would have taken all of ten minutes longer). I could have read the writing on the wall when I started seeing patches of water through the gravel. But no. I didn’t. I fucked up, and now I’m stuck in a ditch. I took a breath, part seething, part too exhausted to seethe. The personal consequences of my mistakes were at that point pretty far from my mind. I wasn’t really going to sleep that night, I’d accepted it, but there were professional consequences–I had customers I was going to see in the morning–that needed mitigation.
I got out of the car, wading out in the field of ankle-deep mud to look for cell signal, and as my eyes adjusted from the searing glare of my headlights to the clear, starry, post-storm, night sky, I was overcome by a profound sense of peace, and the distinct thought entered my mind: Could I be dead? Did this go way more poorly than I remember? It’s dead quiet, pitch dark, there’s no one around for miles. I don’t claim any special insight as to the nature of the afterlife, but if Saint Peter trudged up to me out of that darkness, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. And then another car crested the hill I’d come down and skidded into the mud, and the feeling vanished.
It wasn’t the last. Ultimately, four cars got stuck in that particular ditch, the last close enough to freedom that we were able to push it out, but still, that left three groups: Myself, a tired-but-optimistic couple, and five expatriate college students who didn’t speak much English. They all had the same story: traveling from the city I came from to the city I was going to, got routed to the wrong backroads by GPS (technology is so interesting). We called a tow truck company who let us know they were on their way, only to call back five minutes later to inform us that nevermind, they can’t help, good luck, go fuck yourself. We called the sheriff’s office, and they told us, nicer but equally unhelpful, that no one was going to be able to make it out that night and we were better off camping out and calling a tow truck again in the morning.
I slept fitfully, as one generally does in a vehicle, disturbed, if only existentially, by the apparent sound of distant sirens whined by the legion of mosquitoes that had made it inside my car. The crack of dawn rolled around. We called a tow truck again, they said they would be there in an hour. They were not. Running a quadrangle of communication between the tow truck, the sheriff’s office, and my travel agent, we were able to piece together that the tow truck had encountered a U-haul at our location (confusingly completely out of our sight) that was also stuck. Meanwhile, I informed my customers that I was not going to be able to meet them that day. Still, we were in the midst of an important project, shit needed to get done, so while we were waiting for the tow truck, I found myself once again standing in ankle-deep mud in my metropolitan, hipster-business-casual attire in the middle of a field ten miles from anywhere, dialed into a conference call, reporting on whether we were going to meet deadlines for the projects I was managing (we weren’t).
Again, everything seemed to zoom out; again, it was like an afterlife, albeit a really different one, eschewing the peaceful, silent dark for a narrative hell resembling a bootleg copy of The Hangover. It was hilarious, in a sense, out of place. I was so ridiculously wrong for that field that I couldn’t help but laugh. It wasn’t gallows humor. I wasn’t really in any danger. Worst case, I could just walk the ten miles to town and make the car the rental agency’s problem, but my travel agent wanted me to stay put. The tow truck was coming, they said. The U-haul was just taking awhile.
I don’t know if that was true or not. That tense is deliberate: I didn’t know then, of course, but I still don’t, because four and half hours after the tow truck guy originally said he would arrive, a dude–not the tow truck guy–showed up in a bulldozer with a big blue winch stapled to the front and dragged us all out. I paid him, checked into a motel in the nearest town, and tried to work there for the rest of the day (though flooding and a certain degree of poetic justice conspired to foil those attempts, knocking out phones, cell service, and internet in the entire region for the subsequent five hours).
Reactions to the ordeal, both from my customer and my company, were confusingly sympathetic. Lots of “awful” and “what you went through”, as if I really had been in some kind of danger. It wasn’t fun, sure, I ruined a pair of shoes, I wouldn’t do it again, but not one person called me a dumbass, and I found that really weird. I’ll allow myself latitude for the weather, the stress, the flooding, but I really didn’t see this all as something that happened to me. It was a journey, an interesting, unpleasant one, but journeys require forward movement, and I moved forward and got myself stuck in a ditch, inconveniencing a number of people in the process. Did I really do enough to avoid that possibility? Do I really deserve that sympathy?
I’m going with no, but your mileage may vary.
Top image is from here. I do not own it.
This is the interlude preceding Part 5 of the Sevenfold Gyre. That part is in progress and will be posted soon. This interlude is shorter than its predecessors, but things are coming together, and the pace will speed up from here.
It has been two years since the walls of Mudhull burst, releasing their torrents of undead upon the Riverlands. It has been nineteen months since the region fell to the Bloodfish, its last defenders retreating, with every citizen they could persuade, to the Bloodwood, the Dunes, the northern hills, whichever domain brought them relief from the Sadist’s inexorable advance. It has been a hard, hellish war, but its life has thus far been short. For the man that calls himself Matze Matsua, though, it has been much longer. He has seen this all before, seen its beginnings and ends again and again. As before, he remembers the beginning–the first beginning. He always will. But since then, he has discovered just how long life is.
This time, the war is going well. The coalition, the forces of Harmony, fled the roaches for a time, but upon their first counterattack, far from the Sadist’s main force, they discovered the weakness, the hollowness of the Bloodfish’s stunted war machine. Its monsters are swift, strong, inhumanly vicious. They know not fear nor pain, but, as Harmony discovered, falling upon the most far-flung of Ka’s outposts, this is because the creatures know almost nothing at all.
Harmony has now learned a great deal about their enemy, that the roaches are no more loyal to their keepers than to their enemies, that Ka’s soldiers keep them chained as threats to their sparse prisoners but never free them, that only Ka and the One-Eyed Sadist are able to command them. And, of course: the monsters are fueled by magic, imbued with a lifespan of months instead of years, and each wretched one is made–unborn, undead–by Ka himself in Bloodhull. In this knowledge, Harmony has found its target. They will destroy the Bloodfish’s death camps, his grim depots for his armies’ harvests. In so doing, they will rob him of his bones, his eyes, his teeth, the materials the camps channel back to Bloodhull. Without them, the roaches’ numbers will dwindle. Ka, influence shrinking, will grow desperate, stupid, and then, then the tide of discord–as it always does–will ebb.
Just some general updates:
- The Archives and Ongoing Series pages have been cleaned up substantially.
- The next chapter of the Sevenfold Gyre is in progress. I will be working on it as I travel this week, and I intend to post the interlude in advance of the finished piece.
- I’ve added two patron-only posts (possible prologue and epilogue for Rale) to the Patreon. Check it out if you are so inclined.
A review of Catherine.
I find it’s much easier to write when I have someone to be mad at. To that end, take a look at this. If I were in the mood to be kind, I would describe that as an informational review, and including it saves me a certain amount of effort in describing the thing I intend to explore a little more critically. In case my dichotomy doesn’t read: There will be spoilers. If you are the type of person that cares, go play the game first. All good? Let’s begin.
Catherine is a game about cheating, or, more particularly, it’s a game about how well-established social morals around cheating interact with “modern” ideals of how romantic relationships look. The scare quotes are because the game’s (c. 2011) interpretation of modernity probably solidified around the late 90s and is at least a little different from what things are like today (accord variance for local culture as you will), but understanding that difference helps resolve at least a little of the cognitive dissonance you get when socially average (read: complete loser) protagonist Vincent wakes up massively hungover next to naked, beautiful, and not at all hungover Catherine after a night at the bar and immediately internalizes it as his fault. Frankly, there’s a good argument that it is, but there is conspicuously little examination of what, by even more modern standards, is essentially date rape.
I’ll be clear: I’m not saying that I wanted that examination–God knows I get enough of it from modern media–but its absence is a good marker for where this game is coming from. More broadly, there is a lot we can glean from what Catherine takes for granted. In context, Vincent is characterized as a fairly together person who is going through a weird time in his life, but anyone looking at this by Western standards is immediately calling bullshit. Vincent is a raging alcoholic in a clearly dysfunctional relationship, and that his behavior is normalized is telling, but before you get angry at that, slow down, have a drink yourself.
It’s easy to get pissy at the message this sends to society (“relationships are oppressive, excessive alcohol and poor communication skills are acceptable”) or at the people who get pissy thereof, but the story is still (depending on your ending) one of a fuckboi slowly learning to be less of a fuckboi, so the vector is still in the right direction in my mind. Instead, let’s talk about fairy tales and how the general public has a hot-garbage understanding of the underpinnings of writing.
Has anyone else run into that asshole who, you know, actually says the words “show, don’t tell”? Honestly, it’s good advice in high school, but thereafter it’s generally not a kind conclusion. As with all advice, “show, don’t tell” has an implied context, and a fair amount of fiction falls outside that context. Case in point: folklore. In myth, legend, fairy tales, it’s extremely important to the format that you don’t show what actually happened. The story you’re telling is actually the story of someone else being told what happened, and putting aside that you literally can’t show things in that framework, even so much as trying would disrupt the tension between the storyteller and the audience, which is important regardless of how hypothetical each of those entities is. Same thing with the historicity in Dark Souls, and more generally, same thing with any story where you’re calling attention to a source.
Catherine, of course, doesn’t have a problem with showing or telling, but instead of reading its hyper-media-coded characters and “fumbled gender stereotypes” as hokey, politically incorrect attempts at description, consider reading them as deliberate oversimplifications, the types of things a storyteller would include in a tall tale to drive home a central point or exploration. Actually, that suggestion may be a little soft–that’s exactly what they are, or did you just ignore the introduction where the game told you that everything you were about to see was a TV show?
This is, of course, one of the reasons why the outrage over the game’s treatment of transsexuality is ridiculous. You’re looking at a well-intentioned and inclusive piece (provided you don’t view Vincent, et al’s transphobia as aspirational–you shouldn’t), wrapped in 90s/00s language that simply doesn’t have the same words and concepts as the modern -Studies crowd. The criticism then translates as a critique on fashionability, which seems kinda petty.
Aside, though uncomfortably political: The game’s nightmare–the one that only affects men, including the game’s trans-woman–is ultimately revealed to be generated by a demon whose stated aim is to torment men who are not contributing to human reproduction. Given that it is a targeted weapon controlled by a specific entity rather than an axiomatic validation of gender, I would ask the folk who are upset to contemplate exactly how woke they think Satan is (1). “Sounds stupid?” Yes.
“I get that you disagree with these people, but what about the game?”
I’m glad that it exists. I’m reading it as a serious attempt at literary exploration of a complicated but atypically well-defined social perception. The very first review I read for the game back in 2011 described it as “mature”, and I think that’s on point. There are a lot of cheesy places that a game about horror and sex can go, but I think that a puzzle loop harnessing the metaphor of elevating oneself amidst horrific emotional storms and antagonism feels very true.
It’s not perfect, of course. It’s really not perfect. I’ll defend the game’s extremely blunt characterizations as deliberate choices, designed for a purpose, but that doesn’t mean they all worked. Vincent, in particular, was rough. His shortcomings were fine as a baseline, but then they became a one-trick pony for advancing the plot, and I started feeling like I was going through the worst parts of Romeo and Juliet all over again–the problems stopped looking insurmountable because they were, in fact, very easy to solve, and Vincent’s sheer incompetence was the only thing standing in the way, which is even worse because this is a game, and games are supposed to harness your agency rather than strip you of it.
Still, when the game did invite player choice, it made good use of it, albeit in the really opaque, Persona-style sense, and the use of survey questions about romance as a means to guide the events and endings of the game was pretty interesting.
Ultimately, did Catherine push the boundaries of games as art? Eh, not really, but my view is that the medium is still young enough that we can afford to give out cigars, because the game really visibly tried. It picked an interesting topic and explored it in a fairly novel way with decent attention to detail and literary device. If it were written a little more carefully, if it made just a little better use of its medium (specifically not fumbling it at the moments where giving the player control is most important), it might have been an artistic achievement. Instead it was just a solid game, but the effort did not go unnoticed.
(1): Perhaps, cynically or otherwise, you feel closer to Satan than whatever’s on your particular Light Side. In that case, replace “Satan” with “Hitler”, which is only less interesting of a thought experiment because you know a priori he was a bigot.
Top Image: Banner for Catherine Classic (the version I happened to play) on Steam.
Teaser, coming from here.
There was once a man who wished to hide from the truth. He gathered his flock and said unto them: “See how we cower in servitude before death and shadow. Do you not wish to escape this tyranny?” His flock did, they replied, but they could see no path, no way by which they might escape. So the man gathered the clouds from the sky and wrapped them about his people, that when the agents of death came to find them, they encountered only mist and lies. The man then swept his flock and his clouds both to a peak rising high above the land, and from there, they ascended to the heavens.
There was once a man who realized the world was a lie. He saw what the Man of the Clouds had wrought. He saw that what was real had been split in twain. Others beheld the city in the clouds and declared it fantasy, an escape, but this man questioned: Was the world they had escaped any more true? Was it so in any way that mattered? He thought to the lies the world had told him, that when men and women ceased to be they ascended to Heaven or descended somewhere else below. But he had ascended and, in so doing, made true that lie, made it indistinguishable from truth, made a lie of Truth in its entirety. So, to perform a miracle of one only thing, he resolved he must descend, to link the Sky to the Deep that had unraveled before him.
Unfortunately, I was hoping to have a little more content for you this week, specifically two game reviews. While this is not a failure in the amount of writing I’ve been doing (I’ve been gearing up for the next chapter of the Sevenfold Gyre), it is a failure to finish those games in a timely manner, and there’s something a little unsavory about writing a full review for a game I haven’t finished.
I’ll be traveling over the weekend, so no updates then, but when I return, those reviews will be the first thing on the docket, followed by more Sevenfold Gyre (we’re finally nearing the end!). In the meantime, check out Rae’s settled concept for the roaches–it’s come a long way from its original iteration, and Leland and I are thrilled. Speaking of which, if you are interested in seeing more about our creative process, I posted a more in-depth look at the evolution of this design on the Patreon. Give it a look if you’re interested (and thanks in advance to those who do).
“We shall pause, the page read. Savior, what do you know of the gods? We do not speak of the vermin who slouched across the wastes as our would-be Dragon did, adorned with the trappings of divinity and the trinkets of better men. We speak of those gifted with the power to transcend their becoming–to be eternally.”
I’ve so far written not nothing about gods, and I’ll confess it is a serious literary interest of mine. We create images of them, deify them as empowered forms of ourselves with interests, obsessions, psyches, separated from ours by gulfs of poorly-understood “power” but without a doubt like them. This is almost certainly a cognitive bias: If we can’t imagine gods as like us, then how are we supposed to imagine them? Lovecraft, et al went ahead and dropped the bomb of “not like us”, but that’s old hat by now, especially since writers seem to have interpreted the meaning of that phrase as “arbitrary to the point of irrelevance”. And besides the cognitive tarpit, the myopia angle just isn’t that interesting. Let’s change the question: What does a god look like when it is like us? That is, it was a creature of becoming that became godlike.
War Torn/Rale has gods in four vaguely-defined flavors: the Old Gods, the True Gods, Heroes/Horrors, and the False Gods. These are not universally accurate/reliable classifications–some straddle the lines–nor are they a hierarchy, they’re really just what (particularly aware) people called specific individuals at specific times. That said, they all have one thing in common: power. These gods were all capable of exerting an influence on the human society around them on par (at minimum) with a tropical storm, which altered their relationship with that society in a way fairly alien to the standard human experience. That relationship, then, is the focus for the above categories. I’ll expound:
The Old Gods are the closest thing War Torn/Rale has to a realistic depiction of religion. In the long-tailed beginning of our timeline, the scale of society was small, and while magic was abundant, mages were not. Magic was not understood in any meaningful, organized way, and so the way that people interacted with it was through rituals and mysticism. In some cases, these rituals were merely acts with no supernatural power, but from which humans derived meaning. In others, they drew upon sources of mana in nature, often from animals that had intuitively learned to command magic. Accordingly animist belief systems were common, and the objects of their worship were, collectively, the Old Gods. They were elusive, sometimes outright mythological, but their rare and poignant interactions with humans underlaid traditions that societies treasured long after those interactions ended. Still, though, as humans gained more visibility into the channels of power and developed stronger traditions for wielding it themselves, these gods faded into fables and stories, and by the time Spar set fire to the Great Shell of Thago, worship of them had all but disappeared. Aside, though it did not have the social characteristics of an Old God, the Chimera is probably a good representation of what one would have looked like up close (ie, utterly horrifying in a way the myths, stories, and traditions would unrecognizably smooth over).
The True Gods, though they may have incidentally been objects of worship, generally interacted much more willfully with society. They were not always visible (though the Blood God was), but their interventions were always directed–and directed toward society, where the animal gods of the Old Times probably had a very limited conception of what society even was. The Blood God massacred cities single-handedly, and his will was sufficient to instill a culture of free magic the world over. The Man of the Clouds effectively withdrew an entire city from worldly existence, the Gyre overlaid a grand narrative upon the world for thousands of years, and the One-Eyed Crow was responsible for, well, a number of unpleasant things.
Still, in both cases, the gods had conceptual and ideological significance. They meant something, and society organized around those ideals. The Heroes, Horrors, and False Gods weren’t really interested in that ballgame.
The Heroes and Horrors were outcasts, generally by choice, and though the societies they bumped into told stories about them, they tended to be the campfire variety. The Saraa Sa’een was terrifying, but aside from the Barabadoon, a close-knit band formed specifically to hunt it, no one had much insight into why it did anything or what it was supposed to mean. It was just a monster, it killed people, and then a similarly ideologically vague Hero showed up and drove it off. In this way, they drove a different sort of folklore than the gods that came before them, and it’s really key to note that this was largely a function of their interests. They had no desire to interact with the sphere of human consciousness–society was simply an object to them–so they left no legacy there.
This all brings us to the sordid history of the False Gods. All of the “gods” I’ve described to this point have been humans (or animals) that learned to commune with the world fundamentally in such a way as to give them power over it. The False Gods had no such talent, no such strength of will or character, and of all the beings on this list, they were the most reviled.
At the end of the War of the Roaches, it became clear to Ka’s war-ravaged overthrowers that his sudden ascent from petty ruler of a fishing village to despotic necromancer was fueled by a single object in his possession: a stone–called the Hellstone by its discoverers–that radiated pure mana, allowing him to create the roaches (likely the only piece of magic he ever learned) on an unheard of scale. The infusion of magic into objects was at this point a practice accomplished mages knew about, but it was rare, and disciplined practice was limited to a few recluses in the Bloodwood. For that reason, the non-magical layman had never discovered that he could become extremely powerful just by acquiring a lot of these miscellaneous objects.
Not all of them were so blunt as the Hellstone. Some had very specific purposes, like a necklace that would bring its wearer back from death seven times, or a statue that would unmake any living thing held in its arms in order to radiate invigorating force to the people and plants around. But no matter how niche their use, acquiring one allowed an ambitious individual to expand their power and influence far more quickly than they ever could otherwise.
And the effect snowballed: A would-be “god” would betray a friend for his panoply, then, fearing the censure of their community, strike first at anyone else in their vicinity who might hold similar keys to power. Then, when they became powerful enough that they did not have to fear for their safety, the priority shifted to suppressing potential rivals. They used their powers to gather wealth and then placed standing offers to buy any magical items that people could bring them, raising an economy of thieves and scavengers that prompted any owners of magical items that they must sell or die. And then, when a False God died for one reason or another, they would leave behind a vast trove of powerful artifacts for scavengers and successors to kill each other over.
The False Gods often roamed. They enjoyed the generally cruel exercise of their power, but the people that surrounded them tended to flee. They enjoyed–demanded–the worship of their people, but they rarely received it in earnest. They were “false” because though they commanded world-shaking power, they were divine in no other way. They were tyrants and strongmen, and when communities gradually discovered that fighting back could sometimes slay those tyrants, the most brazen False Gods died, and the rest simply faded from notoriety.
This description is a very precise fit for Judiah, from the linked story, but other False Gods had different qualifications and priorities. The Ben-Gan Shui was not terribly cruel, though her interest in humans as objects for experimentation was not a kind one, and though Les Marquains was not nearly so arrogant as Judiah, it was his excess of hatred that brought his downfall. Again, their role as tyrants rather than deities unites them.
Every single one of these started out as a person (except the ones that started as animals, but that may be its own discussion). The path of growth was generally very similar, in magnitude it was almost identical, but what they then became varied wildly. Some of this, of course, lay in their choices–what they did with their power affected how they were perceived, but also note that each of these groups tended to exist at different times (the Blood God and the Man of the Clouds were contemporaries, the other groups had periods of history named for them), which means that what they became to society was as much a function of society as it was of their temperament. If you live in a society that has no gods, God himself walking into town one day, heralded by choirs of angels, is still no guarantee that he will be perceived as such. Judiah was able to conquer armies, he caused crop fields to bloom with plenty, and yet no one revered him–they just saw a lecherous, bloodthirsty marauder with unbreakable skin. There’s probably a profound observation about our society in there somewhere, but I’m not a doctor.
That’s the society side, but it’s also worth noting that the gods’ perceptions of the world end up just as varied. The False Gods viewed humanity as a necessary part of their ecosystem, the Heroes and Horrors saw it as a fixture–replaceable but significant–but it’s likely that the Blood God looked upon his kingdom and saw its denizens as truly insignificant specks. This was not a forgone conclusion, given his history, but it was his conclusion nevertheless.
Consider, then, that it may have been power that elevated these individuals to significance, but it was people, “just like you or I–indeed you and I” that decided what they would be, to the world and to themselves. That’s a different sort of power, sure, but it’s power that the mortal have over the divine. It may be worth remembering in our world of dead gods that still writhe.
Top image: Pieces of Control, by Quinn Milton; and The Blood God, Hiding, and an as-yet-unrevealed piece, by Hector Rasgado
Yield from your province was low this season. I await your explanation. Do not disappoint.
-For the Quartermaster–
His Lordship, Martin, informs that the wagon delivered unto the Revián Highlord was lacking in supplies. His Lordship reminds you that this is an unacceptable outcome and demands you produce collection records for the most recent three seasons thus past. His Lordship reminds you as well that failure, either to comply with the demand mentioned or in the adequate performance of your duties, portends grave consequences for your future.
Luc, Favored Scribe to Lord Martin
-For His Lordship’s Snivelling, Frog-Buggering Shadow-
Feck off. Per your bloody demands, I’ve included three seasons of collection records, and I added some big feckin’ circles so your blind arse can see the problem I wrote you about three feckin’ months ago. It’s salt fish. There ain’t none of it. And there ain’t none of it ‘cause all the salt fish in the territory comes from Mudhull. As it so feckin’ happens, the last two tax collectors we sent there never reported back. I’ll go ahead and repeat what I feckin’ wrote you before: Sounds like you and His Lordship ought to get an explanation from Ka, but that ain’t my problem.
Feck your kindness,
Our scouting parties have encountered armed resistance near the bayou. While my shame is great in admitting this so late, it seems the Mudfish has declared himself in silent rebellion. I have engaged a small group of mercenaries to infiltrate his fortress and determine the scale and specifics of his military operation. Afterwards, we will ride for Mudhull and put these traitors down.
Rein-Captain Jean Paul
The date at the top of the page is smudged, and the scrawl is messy. Numerous lines have been rendered illegible by water damage.
//// four days since we reached the bayou /////////////////////////////////// near Mudhull. What we have seen so far already //////////////////////////////////////// //////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////// I am making this record now, that our observations may return to Lord Martin by way of a messenger, as the possibility of no return has grown real. The walls of Mudhull are
//////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////// with a crawfish smuggler who claims he can grant us safe entry. I will continue to write what we find as we uncover it. /////////////////////////////// Day 6
Those within Mudhull have been pressed into the worship of Ka as a sort of deity,
///////////////////////////////////////////////////// usually teeth, arms, or legs. There are few men in the walls, and we have yet to encounter a woman or child who is not, in some way maimed. Determining how this came to be ////////////////////////////////////////////// not speak a word against Ka for fear of their life, and even some who seem to believe truly that Ka has ////////////////////////// We have engaged ////////////////////////// “palace”. She is afraid and seems sympathetic to our aims.
According to her, this began after the the one-eyed man and an
///////// arrived and met with Ka. Soon after, Ka began–she says–to ///////////////////////////////////////////////// men of the town, perhaps by fear, to enlist as his enforcers. Those enforcers are few, but we are able to see they are very zealous. There is otherwise talk of a purpose for /////////////////////////////// as they are taken into the lower levels of the palace each day. The slave has agreed to escort us there after nightfall that we may observe.
The rest of the document is written in a different hand, without smudges.
Fuck this. Fuck all of this. I show up here half-dead, no doubt raving about horrors and dire emergencies, and Martin can’t bother to see me for three fucking days? Well good fucking luck. He gets this note instead. Go ahead and ignore the unreadable garbage up top, I’ll make it very simple: Mudhull is an abomination, corpses are sewn together and up, walking, mauling people in the streets. Ka has declared himself god of this hell he’s brought to earth. You need to get every fucking soldier you have and wipe that place out of existence.
I’m getting the fuck out of here. If you fail, I’m not sticking around.
Great Highlord Mikel of the Revián,
My sincerest apologies for the lack of explanation included with my diminished lot of tribute. Alas, a village lord within my province, Ka of Mudhull, has rebelled, amassing an army in defiance of your just rule. My forces are mobilizing to destroy him now, but lest his impertinence disturb the peace you have so carefully constructed in this fair land, I humbly request your troops and assistance in making an example of him.
Deepest apologies, with great loyalty,
Martin, Governing Lord of the Southern Reaches
Note: My recounting of events from Dark Souls lore, particularly my chronology, is at odds with a number of resources on the internet. I am aware of this, and I am pretty sure those resources are incorrect.
An unfortunate number, aware of Friedrich Nietzsche but unfamiliar, accustomed to brand rather than particulars, associate him with “nihilism” which is correct insofar as he talked about it a lot, but the direction is wrong: Nietzsche did not sell nihilism–he reacted to it. The true Nihilists were Russian pseudo-revolutionaries, and their brief but cacophonous time on their country’s political stage was perceived by the Russian mainstream as one of the gravest cultural threats of the age. Samzdat’s summary is better than mine:
“Nietzsche took the term “nihilism” from a Russian movement that was kind-of-vaguely-left-wing-but-not-really-maybe. It’s hard to say with any precision, because their whole thing was not having set beliefs and terminal values. Assuming you aren’t Jonah Goldberg or a tankie, neither “violence” nor “caring about the people” is a left/right thing. In Nechayev’s words: “Our task is terrible, total, universal, and merciless destruction.” The nihilists were professional revolutionaries, not idealists, and they wanted tear it all down first, build up later. The Nihilists grew moderately popular, the liberal press freaked out, one of their ringleaders killed a member for defecting, the liberal press really freaked out, Dostoyevsky wrote a book based on it, Nietzsche liked a theater adaptation of the book. The end.”
Accordingly, the Nihilist’s conception of “nihilism” is only a fraction of Nietzsche’s, but it begins with two thoughts:
- What authority do I respect? None.
- What must I respect in my quest to dismantle the illegitimate (by thought 1) authority I see around me? Nothing.
Last essay, I remarked on the bleak long-term of the dying Fire, but it turns out there are alternatives on a substantially expedited timeline.
The city of New Londo (after some time: Londor) is Dark Souls’ Russia. Parallel to Russia (from a certain historical point of view) it was a peak of civilization in a post-Gwyn world. This is indicated in its name (the “Old Londo” was Anor Londo, city of the gods) as well as its leadership (the four kings of New Londo were bequeathed a piece of Gwyn’s soul when he left to link the Fire, making them essentially divine). Also like Russia, New Londo had a bit of a problem with edgy, anti-establishment philosophy.
Nominally, this started with Kaathe. He showed up and taught some enthusiastic acolytes something called “Lifedrain,” in very literal terms: the art of draining Humanity. While you probably already see the metaphor coming together, I want to take a moment to savor that artistry. Like souls, Humanity is a currency in Dark Souls–but in a more abstract sense. You can’t really buy things with it. Rather, it allows you to reverse your own Hollowing, which in turn allows you to kindle (read: affirm) bonfires (representations of the Flame) and summon allies (read: bond to other ideals). In more philosophical terms, a hollow ideal can sway neither Truth nor other ideals. In order for an ideal to be un-hollowed, it must be affirmed, and the only thing that can do that is Humanity. I want to be clear that I’m not nerding out over game mechanics here: These terms are extremely precise, and I believe they were chosen carefully. To then interpret them within the metaphor: When Kaathe’s Darkwraiths drain the Humanity from their surroundings, they are hollowing, making small, making ugly, carrying out Nechayev’s “terrible, total, universal, and merciless destruction” upon everything they touch.
Looking at this as a generalized existential threat, you should notice right off the bat that this is much the same endgame as the Last Man, but its process is much quicker, more vicious. It’s fitting: Nietzsche distinguished between active and passive nihilism, why shouldn’t Dark Souls differentiate passive and active darkness? But there’s another dimension to the metaphor. Just as souls are fragments of the First Flame, Humanity, explicitly, is fragments of the Dark Soul. That has implications. If we rely on our Humanity to affirm our ideals, and our Humanity is a lie (because the Dark Soul is literally Platonic Untruth), doesn’t that present problems for the project of affirming anything?
The Darkwraiths’ answer seems to be “hell yeah!” They get the four kings in on their uprising, and in their vehement affirmation that there is nothing worth affirming, they spawn an Abyss in New Londo’s depths that grows rapidly, obliterating all remnants of the Flame there and everything it might have illuminated, leaving a metaphysical landscape that looks sort of like this:
Understandably, the powers that be (Gwyn’s children and knights) are concerned. The Abyss is rather dark and rather frightening, but it’s also extremely caustic to the rest of Lordran’s metaphysics. With a severity that somewhat mirrors the Russian elite’s response to its own nihilists, those powers have New Londo flooded, killing everyone inside and stopping the Darkwraiths and their Abyss from advancing any further.
Now, if that was the whole story, I could have squeezed it into last essay and moved on, but, historical comparisons notwithstanding, the Abyss is more than just a happenstance in Dark Souls’ collective setup. The creation of the Abyss in New Londo introduced a type of antagonism to the metaphysical status quo that had never really been conceived to that point, the real-world equivalent to, say, a revolutionary movement that has concluded that everything is wrong and must be destroyed. And though the flooding was essentially the end of the Abyss in New Londo, the problem didn’t just go away. Part of that was perceptual: Though the imminent threat was gone, its underlying cause–the Dark Soul, the thing Gwyn freaked about in the first place–was still around. The other part of it was that more Abysses started showing up.
I’ve written a few hundred words now on the fairly close allegory to Russia, and perhaps you’re convinced it’s real. However, just in case you aren’t, I’m going to continue harping on the point. The aforementioned Samzdat summary is good. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t have quoted it, but it’s misleading. The response to Nechayev’s murder of Ivan Ivanov ultimately landed him in prison, but it was certainly not the end of Russian nihilism. The real-world Darkwraiths that Nechayev inspired went on to bigger and worse things, like murdering Tsar Alexander II, attempting to murder his successor, and forming the Socialist Revolutionary Party, which contributed to the Russian revolutions of 1917 and, ultimately, the formation of the Soviet Union. That this process ended in communism, which, while perhaps not ideal, seems preferable to widespread terrorism and oblivion, is worth contemplating, but I won’t get into it here.
My point, rather, is that nihilism was an active political force for some time, and in that process, it drew a fair amount of philosophical interest from people who were, in the end, opposed to it. Nietzsche, of course, falls into this category, but Dostoyevsky flew even closer to that particular nihilist hell. By most accounts, he never was a nihilist himself (he was a devout Christian all his life), but his choice in book clubs got him gulaged like one, and he proceeded to spend the rest of his life writing arguments against their philosophy. Importantly, though beating on nihilism in the press was fashionable at the time (most anti-nihilist works were straight propaganda), he argued honestly, depicting his characters as traveling paths of good but flawed intention. In that sense, he fought nihilism on its own terms–though he opposed the Abyss, he still learned to walk it.
If you’ve played the game, you know where we’re at now. If you haven’t, well, Dark Souls has one of those too:
Artorias the Abysswalker was one of Gwyn’s four greatest knights, and though he was exceptional in a number of ways, his biggest claim to fame was that he could traverse the Abyss without dying, which he accomplished by some vaguely-described covenant with its “beasts”. Despite this covenant, he was still devoted to Gwyn and still hunted the Darkwraiths, which seems odd, given that they are the Abyss’ principal agents, until you consider that we’ve already explained what that looks like philosophically. He just used the fantasy-warfare equivalent of an asymmetric rhetorical strategy: He cut out the horrific fuckery of the Abyss’ metaphysical properties, so he could pursue a fight with the Darkwraiths in which the stronger warrior would win (and there weren’t a lot of warriors stronger than him–modeling it as a debate would be somewhat akin to pitting an average Russian nihilist against the angel Gabriel).
I’m going here partly because reading Artorias as Dostoyevsky is fun, though it’s kind of ridiculous and not really the point (reading him as Nietzsche has its own interesting parallels). The much more realistic conclusion to draw from juxtaposing their personal histories is that metaphorically, Artorias’ role is much like the one Dostoyevsky played in the political theater of Imperial Russia: He was an ideal, beholden to Light and Truth, nonetheless metaphysically resilient to an aggressive Untruth, able to engage it (and in many cases defeat it) on its own turf. But I also go here because the end of Artorias’ story has much more to say about the danger of the Abyss than the flooding of New Londo.
Artorias fights the Abyss, and he’s fairly successful, and that’s admirable and impressive, but if you check the score, God just threw himself on a bonfire to keep the Dark at bay. Presumably at some point, it’s going to spit out something that Artorias can’t handle.
Fast forward a few years to the kingdom of Oolacile, where a serpent shows up and convinces the people of the city to delve below and disturb the grave of a “primordial human” interred there. They do this, the creature (Manus, Father of the Abyss) wakes up, and its “humanity runs wild”, unleashing another Abyss and opening up a sinkhole under the kingdom. The architectural collapse is something to behold, but more importantly, Manus’ influence drives the citizens of the kingdom stark raving mad.
Artorias arrives on the scene to find the source of this new darkness and kill it. He does not. Instead, he gets his ass handed to him and goes mad too, but he goes down in history as the savior of Oolacile anyway because it’s at this moment that a stranger shows up, murders both him and Manus, and exits just as quickly, leaving everyone to believe that it was Artorias who saved the day.
Some of the takeaways are obvious. Nietzsche said something about the abyss gazing into you–that certainly seems to be at play here–but it’s meaningless without the philosophical backing. Go back to the start of the metaphor, what does the Abyss mean? It’s a sudden, calamitous dearth of affirmation, an aggressive move to strip all values of importance, and metaphysically speaking, that’s really dangerous. Even if an ideal is strong enough to stand on its own in that type of memetic environment, it loses its connection to other values, which is why Manus does not kill Artorias. Instead, Artorias goes mad, becomes an argument against the Truth and Light he so ardently supported, because he’s now a symbol out of context, and we’ve all seen how that goes.
Those of you paying close attention to the precise sequence of events here might also conclude that (since he’s obliterated at least two cities now) Kaathe seems to be a bit of a dick. You shouldn’t; that’s a trap. Kaathe and Frampt are Glycon, and Glycon was a sock puppet, a lie, a transparent hoax, a metaphysical blip. This is why they never actually do anything, even on a metaphysical level (they just tell other people to do things), and more importantly, this is why, should you decide to extinguish the fire, they are the ones waiting to serve you. They’re lies. They’re all that’s left, and when everything is a lie, all lies are obvious.
At a higher level, though, the Abyss didn’t extinguish the Flame, and active nihilism didn’t take over the world (though you can argue that it did kill a shocking number of people), so what gives? How does this play into the great choice that Nietzsche frames for civilization?
Well, it turns out Nietzsche’s passive nihilism is pretty subtle. Most people haven’t read Nietzsche, his ideas aren’t terribly intuitive, thus, reaction to it tends to be subconscious, systemic, or both. But since we are, he argues, on the path to nihilism, all of our options are inherently reactions to nihilism. The importance, then, of active nihilism, of the Abyss, is that it’s giant, it’s unignorable, and it forces us to contend intellectually with the debasement of our values. We are not awesome at that, but I’ll be exploring Dark Souls’ portrayal of our attempts in the next few essays.
At this point, we’re starting to move beyond the setup, beyond the allegory to Nietzsche’s Great Noon, to reactions and implications that I do not think are entirely Nietzsche’s own. Perhaps Miyazaki had something to tell us in that respect. Perhaps that’s a lie, perhaps it’s coming from me. I do not believe it is, but in all this discussion of the Dark, wouldn’t that be appropriate?
Image 1: Literally a black screen
Image 2: From Pinterest, I do not own it
Image 3: MS Paint amalgamation of a screenshot from Dark Souls and the Wikipedia image for Glycon. I made it, but I claim no ownership of the component images