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).
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 it’s 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, it’s 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 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 showed up and convinced 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, the 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
Since I’m riding the strugglebus with the latest chapter of Sevenfold Gyre, you get a shitpost today. This toes the line regarding how political I’d like my writing to be, but the subject matter is highly relevant to this blog.
“Git Gud”, for me, is as much life advice as it is meme. It’s a simple message, profound in its applications if not in its essence, but not everyone is a Dark Souls diehard. For the game, it’s a response to an often punishing difficulty (for the non-gamers in my audience, Dark Souls is a hard game). For life, it’s an assurance: Your situation is under your control. Life is difficult. Work sucks. Writing is a bitch. The solution is panacea: You gotta git gud.
For me this is extremely empowering. Is it true? Probably not. 50% at best, and sometimes it’s more comforting to hear the opposite, that it isn’t all your fault–keep that in mind before you sling this at someone struggling with their mental health. I open with this because it’s personal to me, and perhaps you might be able to make use of this dubious proverb. But it’s not why I’m writing this piece. I’m writing it because every asshole on the internet seems to have piped up on this exact subject, and, near as I can tell, they’re all wrong.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has been a massive success in every way possible. That’s an absolute, I know the phrasing is uncomfortable, I’ll clarify: That isn’t hyperbole. It meets/exceeds expectations as a successor to the Dark Souls series, its critical reception has been stellar, and it’s on track to be From Software’s best selling game of all time. But, as I’ve said before, it’s essentially a Dark Souls game, with all of the fuzzy narrative depth I alluded to in that post and all of the aforementioned punishing difficulty, and now that it’s not just in the mainstream but dominating the mainstream, you have a chunk of folks paying attention that might never have played this game by choice five years ago.
Enter Asshole Number 1, a games journalist who patches his game in order to beat the final boss then crows about it in his review. Asshole Number 2, and a legion of fans blast him for it–probably deserved, if only for the profound misreading of his audience–and then every other asshole takes to their preferred outlet to yell about whether the game should have an Easy mode, and then a vocal faction starts saying that it’s not about an Easy mode, it’s about handicapped accessibility, so it’s a social justice issue.
There isn’t enough alcohol in the world for this.
“Who’s in the right?” No one, they’re assholes, and all of the noise is the rough equivalent of going out at night and screaming at the moon. Yeah, I’m doing it too, but I told you right off the bat that this was a shitpost. But actually, the basis for my venom is that there are multiple dynamics at play here, and everyone seems to be getting tripped up thinking that they are all one thing. Since it’s the most charged, let’s start with the accessibility side and work backwards.
Sekiro is a hard game, probably harder than Dark Souls, definitely faster, more reflex-oriented. There exist people that, due to a variety of maladies, are physically not capable of playing this game. “Should From Software make the game accessible to those people?” is a giant, angry vortex, so let’s start with something easier: Is it imperative that every game is accessible to everyone? I hope we can agree that the obvious answer is “No”, if only because it is literally impossible with today’s technology (e.g. you can’t make Sekiro playable for blind people). That’s a straw man, but its blazing corpse at least confirms that we are swimming in the middle of a blurry, grey line.
Next rung up, is it imperative that every game is accessible to everyone where possible? That depends on how you look at it. If you want to check legal precedent, a certain standard of handicapped accessibility is mandated for buildings open to the public (in the US, at least), but you wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that games and public spaces are not precise equivalents. This is also where you run into questions of responsibility. I’ll tell you right now: If Sekiro’s difficulty is preventing you from playing it, you are totally able to install the same damn mod that Asshole Number 1 used for free. And if the issue is that you have no arms, people have rigged up Darks Souls on DDR pads. You’re welcome to as well.
If you are actually handicapped, you probably think I’m being a complete jerk right now. You are correct. I am being a jerk, but as a side note, that’s the type of reaction any system is going to give when you vocalize a complaint that doesn’t line up with what exactly is wrong. The issue isn’t that Sekiro is truly gated, the issue is that as a society, we have decided that not being dicks to handicapped people is a good thing to do, and games like this are made, more or less, in ignorance of that cultural consensus.
“So From Software should add accessibility options to their games?” Honestly, I don’t think so, but I’ll admit to some conflict of conscience. Isn’t it great that mod developers protect us from having to make difficult moral decisions like this? “But wait, what’s the argument against adding them?” Uh, orthogonal. “What?”
Whereas the Dark Noon series is devoted to Dark Souls’ literary elements, it should still be mentioned that From Software’s games are masterclasses of mechanical design. In particular, they have perfected the “hard game”, and I know that up until now, I have been building up how hard these games are. That was not totally honest of me. Dark Souls and Sekiro are not easy, to be sure. I find them difficult, but I’m also not that good at games. I’ve had to make double-digit attempts to kill many of the bosses throughout the series. Meanwhile, a close friend of mine beat Dark Souls 2 without stopping at a bonfire. If you’ve played the game, you know how absurd that is, but for those who haven’t, that means (with some nuance) that he never once refilled his health bar. And I don’t mean to belittle his accomplishment, but it’s not like he was the only person to ever do that either.
So yeah, Dark Souls/Sekiro is hard, but there are tons of harder games. What really sets the series apart is how rude it is to the player. The game world is inherently dangerous, the easiest enemies can still kill you if you’re sleepwalking, and should you screw up, you get sent back far, with heavy potential penalties to your accumulated experience. It’s frustrating, and that is crafted 100% intentionally. At some point, usually very early, you will make a mistake, you will fail, and you will encounter a wall of adversity–rather than difficulty–that you will need to overcome. And when the intended audience encounters that wall, they lean in.
I want to be abundantly clear: Almost everyone is physically capable of beating these games. Most will not, and there isn’t any particular shame in that. My wife is totally good enough at games to beat Dark Souls, but she likely never will. She doesn’t want to, crashing into a wall of pain over and over again isn’t her idea of a good time. So is there anything wrong with accessibility options? No not inherently. Using them to remove physical barriers is completely reasonable. It’s just that using them to remove the wall of adversity means you’re playing a different game, and From Software didn’t want to develop that different game. I won’t make strong claims about the value of one or the other, but I don’t think that’s a moral failing on their part.
I’m now composing the ongoing Dark Souls series while playing through Sekiro (slowly), and being able to note the similarities and differences, immersed as I am, is a pretty interesting experience. It’s also pretty plain at this point that getting at the juicy, literary meat of the game is going to be way harder for me this time around. Dark Souls and Bloodborne were riffing on philosophical frameworks (Christianity, Lovecraft, Nietzsche) that I am coincidentally familiar with. Sekiro has structurally similar roots in Buddhism and sort-of obscure 1960’s ninja-historical-fantasy, about which I know approximately fuck all. Accordingly, the following are working notes, a surface reading of a game I still haven’t finished, an attempt to get the ideas on paper where perhaps a pith might become more visible.
Miyazaki himself cites the manga Basilisk and the works of Futaro Yamada as an inspiration for elements of Sekiro’s world. For those unfamiliar (myself included), these began with a novel published in 1958 called Kōga Ninpōchō, a historical fantasy about rival clans of superhuman mutant ninjas who get caught up in a Romeo-and-Juliet-style love triangle. I was totally unaware that this style of storytelling had roots that old (contemporary with Tolkien, even though the first English translation seems to have been published in 2006). More research is needed–discoveries like this keep me humble as to how little I really know.
The setup of the game is that near the end of the Sengoku period, Isshin Ashina stages a coup and takes over one of Japan’s warring regions. Twenty years later, the story begins. Neither Isshin, nor his grandson Genichiro appear to have been real people, but the Ashina clan was. Translating some historical details: The region, known also as Ashina in-game, was likely the Aizu region historically, and the aforementioned “end” of the Sengoku period is probably the first of such points recognized by historians–the conquest of Kyoto by Nobunaga Oda. Twenty years after this point, the Ashina clan was defeated decisively by Masamune Date who then seized control of the Aizu region. Timing checks out.
It’s also likely that the family personas are based on real people. Based on the timing and details of their life stories, it seems likely that Isshin and Genichiro are meant to parallel Moriuji and Moritaka Ashina respectively. Moriuji’s reign was considered to be a golden age for the clan, whereas Moritaka (not Moriuji’s grandson, but not his son either) succeeded him and, proving unpopular among his retainers, was assassinated. Spoiler: This is more than vaguely similar to Genichiro’s fate in the game.
I know embarrassingly little about Buddhism, and I hope to do more reading before formalizing any of this, but the narrative is clearly moist with its secretions. The repeated theme of death and rebirth seems to be a clear expression, but it almost certainly goes deeper. The Sculptor’s obsessive drive to carve the Buddha (and its relationship to his previous life as a shinobi), the relationship between Kuro and other sources of immortality, even the significance of Sekiro using a prosthetic for a left arm–they scream meaning, and I bet much of it is tied up in philosophical traditions very different from the earlier games.
Aside, Miyazaki apparently took a backseat on writing for this game, so it probably will not have the same tone anyway.
Sources for my information include the linked interview, Wikipedia, and Samurai Wiki.
It’s been a little while since we’ve been here. If you need, check out the previous posts in this series first. Also, because you can never sit down and read just one thing, I linked an article in my first essay on this topic. If you haven’t read it yet, you should now. It was always relevant, but it connects the philosophical parts of this to our reality better than I ever could.
A little under two months ago, I started this blog, and the first substantive thing I posted was about choices in video games. This will be about choices as well, in video games, in life, and, more deeply, in what we value. It will be a turning point–the previous essays have been getting at the metaphors underlying Dark Souls’ setup. Now, we get to ask the question: “Why?”
I’ve talked a lot about “Truth” in the last two essays without really getting into what it means. This is meant to be respectful. The only sense in which I am the first to say any of the things I’m saying is the sense in which they relate to Dark Souls (which is still a little surprising, but I’ve beaten that horse enough already). Still, since this runs the risk of sounding completely insane without clarity on that concept, I want to be explicit: Truth is something that humans value–we all intrinsically want the things we believe to be true. This starts, obviously, with perceptions of reality, but then it goes and starts a bar fight with religion and science. For those interested in the hard sciences without a background in philosophy, it may be difficult to believe, but the advances in scientific thought that propelled us from the Middle Ages to modernity were based heavily on metaphysics. This starts with the question “If I can’t trust what I see, how can I know anything?” but the high-level ends up being this: We created/reinforced gods in service of Truth. We then ask whether we need gods and, unable to see their purpose, begin devaluing them. Then comes the best part: Some asshole asks whether we need Truth.
“Is this still about Dark Souls?” Sure, just replace “Truth” and “gods” with “Flame” and “Lords”, and we’re hunky dory. More pointedly, in Dark Souls, that asshole has a name: Kaathe.
Darkstalker Kaathe is a primordial serpent. He goes way back to when the world was mist and trees and dragons, and this means A) he has a complicated relationship with the Truth and gods metaphor that I don’t really want to get into here and B) his age grants him a view on the situation that doesn’t have a good real-world analog. Anyway, he starts a cult, they kill a lot of people, and the powers that be flood a city on top of them. This is the advent of nihilism in Dark Souls. The details actually are pretty interesting, but the Abyss is going to get its own essay. Kaathe is coming up here because he’s the one that offers you an alternative in your quest to save the world. Oh yes, you were on a quest–didn’t I mention that?
That isn’t a gotcha at all if you actually played Dark Souls, but I know for a fact that some of you have not. Recall from the intro:
Thus began the Age of Fire. But soon the flames will fade and only Dark will remain. Even now there are only embers, and man sees not light, but only endless nights. And amongst the living are seen, carriers of the accursed Darksign.
The plot of the game–which we’ve avoided discussing up to now–is you exploring Lordran in fulfillment of some vague prophecy that no one seems to have respect for, but then you complete the first piece, ring some bells, and a giant snake blasts out of the ground where you first showed up. His name is Frampt, and he tells you that your purpose is to succeed Lord Gwyn and link the Fire, prolonging this golden age. He’s not terribly specific about what “linking the Fire” means, but man, becoming the successor to God? That seems pretty neat, and so this becomes your quest: You must gather the souls of the gods and use them to open the way to the Kiln of the First Flame, that you may link the Fire.
That goes about as swimmingly as things can go in Lordran until you find Kaathe at the bottom of the Abyss. He has a counterproposal for you: Why don’t you just…not do that? Gwyn went and linked the Fire, sure, but he was a pussy, scared of the dark or something. It’s not like an Age of Dark would actually end the world or anything. This is when he lets you in on the piece of the creation myth that doesn’t get repeated:
If you remember the other gods from the second essay, you remember that they each represented something. Gwyn was light, the Witch was chaos, Nito was death, but there was another, “so easily forgotten”. The pygmy found a special soul within the Fire, the only one named without a possessive: the Dark Soul. Gwyn is not happy about this for reasons that aren’t really clear without the metaphor, and he goes to great lengths to ensure that the descendants of the pygmy don’t flourish and the dark does not overpower the light. On the first count, he clearly failed–you’re here after all, but you can’t say he wasn’t motivated. To stop the guttering of the Fire and the coming Age of Dark, he used his own body as fuel..
There are a number of metaphors here, let’s unpack them:
First, note the obvious parallel to Christianity, but also note the dramatically developed context. In this version, God still sacrifices himself, but there’s an added element: fear. That he fears the dark here means he fears its impact on the metaphysical–it is not simply love for another substrate of reality. So what danger does the Dark Soul pose?
The Fire is Truth, light emanates from fire, and that makes Gwyn a manifestation of true things. The Dark Soul, then, is what’s left. Not-true things. Lies. “Seems bad.” Oh, really? I’m sure it does, but can you make a case for it without appealing to Truth as a value? Lies are easy to detach from the types of harm we hold to be bad based on other values, but still, they feel wrong, it stings your character to lie to others, and for some reason, you can’t lie to yourself. Truth is king, we’ve put everything else in service to it, and, of course, why would the Fire embrace its own death?
And so, Kaathe offers us a choice: Immolate yourself, the successor to the gods, in service of Truth, or walk away, embrace the lies, and usher in an Age of Dark.
About the most famous thing Nietzsche ever said was “God is dead”. Sounds about right. Death and Chaos are toast, you murdered them on your way here. Light is in the process of burning, soon to be spent. All of that may seem good or bad to you, but to Nietzsche, it was an inevitable result of that initial enshrinement of Truth as our highest value. It brought us through the Stone Ages, to antiquity, to modernity, to the point where we are capable of contending with the forces of Gaia on a nearly even playing field. Truth has brought us power even if we’ve had to sacrifice human meaning to get there, but that was a long-term decision. Now, finally, we have the opportunity to course-correct. Truth is going out, and the sun has reached its median in the course of human history. Nietzsche called it the Great Noon, but as you might guess, the Dark Souls take is a little different.
Interpreting Nietzsche’s options from Lou Keep’s essay, you can translate them to the Dark Souls metaphor like so: The last man is letting every value burn to nothing, ceasing our advance to power, and living on in the twilight until at last we die. Affirmation is embracing the Dark, learning how to lie, and adopting a new hierarchy of values in Truth’s place. Of course, affirmation could mean that we are affirming an ideal that does not exist (which isn’t ideal), or it could mean affirmation of the here and now. The problem is that it’s very hard to do either if we can’t lie to ourselves.
However, Dark Souls allows for two other options, one of which isn’t well explored by Nietzsche’s framework (which we’ll save for last), and one that…well, that he was reacting to in the first place. That one, we’ll discuss next.
Top Image: Screenshot from the launch trailer for Dark Souls 3, I do not own it
At this point, I am pretty much done with my backlog of material to post here. That means that my lead time per long post is probably going to be a little longer than the 2-3 day intervals I’ve been following to this point. Sevenfold Gyre part three is about a third done, but fuck, it’s update day, so while I continue grinding that out, today you get a shitpost of a game review.
Those who have been following my Dark Souls series are probably aware that today, From Software released Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s first game since Dark Souls 3 in a vaguely similar space (technically he also directed Déraciné, but that’s radically different enough that I’m going to ignore it for the purposes of this timeline). As the name might imply: This is not Dark Souls. You’re playing a named character, it’s a stealth game, you don’t do damage–you just need to break the enemy’s poise–the game has a non-historical story (which I’m disappointed about, but only because Dark Souls invented the genre, and I’ve never seen anyone do it as well), the reviews go on and on. Oh yeah, most of that isn’t true, I’m just parroting the takeaways I’ve read online, and it’s actually a double fake, because the big idea is wrong, too: This game is totally Dark Souls.
I can quantify that. Here are the actual differences between Sekiro and Dark Souls (taken broadly, in the “Soulsborne” sense):
The main character has backstory.
There is a jump button.
Enemies block attacks in a way that makes fighting crowds is noticeably more dangerous.
The advancement systems (equipment, stats) have been replaced with the type of thing you see in Devil May Cry (or equivalent action game).
Fits on one hand. I, for one, am thrilled. That said, it’s very polished, combat is intricate in spite of its very fast pace, and moving around is a joy. By far the most significant of those, though, is the first, and it’s a deceptively small change. At a very surface level, the setting is historical. The Ashina clan was a real clan during the Sengoku period, the named characters don’t appear to have been, but whatever. Below that surface, we’re back to–you guessed it–more Dark Souls, with all of the desolation, bleakness, and lovely, fuzzy vagueness that From Software does so well, which is why it’s so cool that simply adding a pre-existing drive to the player character alters the experience so radically. In a lot of ways, the Souls games were framed, defined by that void, and filling it changes the basis for analysis.
Mind, I have no idea at this point what that analysis is going to look like (I’m only 15 hours in), but man, am I stoked to find out.
Top Image: Gameplay/cutscene footage from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. I do not own it.
Some of you may have noticed the minimalist titles for the art I’ve been posting for War Torn/Rale. It’s not accidental, and it’s not a deliberate attempt at edge, rather, it’s a philosophical premise that we’ve built into our pipeline, better appreciated with some backstory:
I’ve mentioned before that War Torn is a “dying” world, and I hope my fiction has made its bleakness clear, but I’ve also been pretty vague about what exactly that means. It “starts” (there is time before, but consider this the history’s inciting event) with a prophecy. The exact content of the prophecy varies with each retelling, and no one’s really sure who said it first, but the thrust is this: “The use of magic will destroy the world.” Understandably, this prompts some questions. How will it do this? When? And, most popular: Is it tru, tho? And, of course, the answers don’t come clear, concise, etched into stone–they come in cacophanies, as followers and dissidents argue with words and steel over what words mean and what is true.
That’s not quite true. At first, the prophecy garners little attention from anyone until it gets picked up by the tyrant of a city-state called Spar to cement the legitimacy of her rule during a political crisis, and from there, it becomes the basis for a system of extermination for all those gifted with impure magic. Long story short: A blood mage slips through the cracks of this system, murders the entire establishment, and declares himself the Blood God, beginning an era of free magic. Things proceed slowly but steadily downward from there.
The timeline goes on for several thousand years past that point, until the world is a desert, and the last vestiges of humanity are fighting to the bitter, pyrrhic end over the last known source of drinkable water. Even then, it’s not clear: Was the prophecy true? Was it causal? At a literal level, it’s not something we intend to answer, but Leland and I were set on a metaphor that should hang heavy–much like the prophecy itself on the world’s history–in both the mechanics of our system and the characterization of magic in the canon. Perhaps you’ve noticed in the allusions from stories like The Chimera: Magic is death.
Digression: I don’t think most realize the variability of what “magic” means in different fantasy worlds. Obviously, it is underpinned by different sources of power–the gods, nature, crystals (wtf, Square Enix), the strength of one’s body, etc.–but there are practical differences as well, and if you dig into the philosophy (or at least apparent philosophy–many times this isn’t textual), those differences are pretty profound.
Consider two of the largest archetypes: magic as a scholarship (as practiced by DnD’s wizards) and magic as religion, a means of channeling the power of some elevated entity (as practiced by DnD’s clerics and warlocks). There are others, but it’s defensible to say that almost all magical systems are a linear combination of these two ideas, and praxis, in all cases, is an argument. The difference is just whom you’re arguing with. For religion, that’s a duh, but for the hermetic, scholarly variety, the argument with Truth is a little harder to visualize. Still, I’m not coming up with this from nothing–this line of thought is extremely old, dating back to Pythagoras, and it formed the underpinnings of alchemy as it was understood in the Middle Ages as well as the epistemological tradition that enabled modern science (1).
As it concerns War Torn, magic in our world is decidedly of the “hermetic” tradition. There are no proper deities in our world, rather the “True Gods” were presumably human (or animal) at some point, as I describe here, and they don’t have much in the way of codified rites allowing one to channel their power. Rather, magic is fueled by mana, ambient environmental energy that a properly trained individual can sense and draw into himself.
I put quotes around “hermetic” because this is actually fairly paradigm-neutral. It’s just energy that you can harness (essentially) with yoga-style breathing exercises, but it only appears that way because no one really knows what it is. Throughout history, various schools of thought uncover ways that mana may be gathered more effectively. The fire mages of the Diarchian Goetia learn that mana can be harvested from burning flames, the beast mages of the Bloodwood gather it by devouring living prey, and the Walking Winters of the Dereliction leach it directly from their hypothermic victims. Behaviorally, there is a sort of argument with Truth happening here, and the method of argumentation seems to be: being a dick. Think about it. You’re burning down a forest, you’re eating someone, you’re sucking the life from their body. Magic can be used for good, but you can use so much more of it if you’re open to murder.
As I said before, I don’t intend to make the scholarship any clearer than that. Ostensibly, magic is not really death, but there’s a hell of a tragedy going on in the commons. Magic is power, the acquisition of power kills, but how else are we to fight death? This is roughly where the backstory collides with the prompt. Think back to the art titles: Hope, Embrace, Control, Names, a collection of vague ideals, certainly, but there’s a pattern: These are ways that humans fight death.
I mentioned in my intro for Flailingthat the history of War Torn/Rale is not one of humanity at its worst, and I really do mean that. Humanity is obviously capable of a tremendous amount of good (and even more obviously, the opposite), but what’s profound isn’t the capability–it’s the need. Fighting death isn’t just a human behavior, it’s perhaps the most fundamental human behavior of them all, and if you don’t believe me, consider the way we relate to animals: It’s pretty easy to grok a spider’s (or any animal’s) fights and flights, struggles for survival that we experience in our own lives (however indirectly in the modern world), but how well do you relate to allowing your mate to devour you? You’ll note that adulations of the male spider’s noble sacrifice are vanishingly rare (2). Embracing death is unsettling, as a society it revolts us, though the fact that the individual has no such immunity is an important basis for the Dark Souls series.
My point muddles, I’ll clarify: In so many places, in so much literature, you’ll find indictments and benedictions of human nature. We are inherently good, bad, tabula rasa, but that’s wrong. We are all of the above, and we are only one or the other insofar as it serves a need, and that need is to be, if not in true life, then in memory, its simulacrum. Look back to The Dragon’s Thesis. The Dragon’s goal matches the setup perfectly, but look closer: so does Mefit’s. That is the nature of redemption by memory. Even if you die, you’re not dead to everyone else.
This (the essay you’re reading, but also the theme as it appears throughout the world of War Torn/Rale) is meant artistically, as an exploration and affirmation. It does not criticize, and it desires no particular change. Still, some may be tempted to view the singular drive of a fight against death as something selfish. It isn’t. To that end, I’ll leave you on the same note we began. See the opening image. What, do you think, is its title?
(1): For a good example of how this translates to fantasy, see Full Metal Alchemist, particularly the original. Its brand of magic tracks very well with the mathematical tradition of alchemy as it actually existed. By its title, you can probably tell that it wanted to be associated with alchemy, but recognize that the scholarly wizard angle in DnD et al is the same logical foundation.
(2): It can be justified with some mental gymnastics–we do, in fact, make sacrifices for those we love, but there’s a brief moment of revulsion when you think of it, right?
Top Image: Children, by Quinn Milton, commissioned for War Torn/Rale