More prose poetry, this time on Dark Souls. The below is a lot of things, but among them, I intend it to be an extremely succinct (and therefore not very careful) explication of my argument from the Dark Noon series. You can fill in the gaps with the actual essays, excepting those gaps in the essays which you can fill in with this. Git gud, I suppose.
“When the Ashes are two, a flame alighteth. Thou’rt Ash, and fire befits thee, of course.”
-Father Ariandel, Dark Souls 3
In the beginning, there was mist, and in that mist were shapes of trees, of branches, of great, stone dragons that remained forever still, of vermin that writhed and crawled in the fog’s deepest whorls. Nothing seemed to move. Nothing seemed to cease moving. No creature in that mist looked out and recognized any other, but even if one had, it would have troubled at a quandary: “This Everything I see–is it one, or is it many?”
Two. The first prime. A great, uncertain step forward, every bit as profound as the gulf between the mist and the void, even more important in its way. It answers a question, a question that truly must be asked: One or many? No one, after all, disputes that there is something. Even the most charred cynic claims not that there is nothing, merely that nothing matters. Nothing is different. It is all the same. A Son of God once claimed that where two gather in His name, He shall be among them. It makes sense. He claimed to be the Truth, and Truth is what separates the first from the second.
A moment came within the fog–timeless until this strange happenstance–when a fire, dim within the great stasis, flickered to life, deep within the earth that clung to the trees. Its heat drove back the mist, and the vermin, eyes at last open, could ignore it no longer.
For the Fire brought disparity: Heat and cold. Life and death. And, of course, light and dark. The vermin at last saw themselves amongst the trees. They saw the dragons looming above them. They saw difference, and, within the Fire, they found a means to address the inequity. From its burning depths, they drew forth the souls of Lords: Light, order, nobility; Chaos, change, flux; Death, decay, eternal rest. Together, the Lords rose up and overthrew the dragons, Lords in their own right of stone and Stasis. Upon what remained, they built a great kingdom for the Humanity they championed.
But were they truly champions? The Flame of Truth had made two of one, had separated humanity from the tree and the stone, but is Truth itself singular?
When the Lords departed for their war against the dragons, the pygmies of the vermin, the lowest of those that writhed, considered what remained within the Fire and found in its dregs one final soul, a Dark soul of ash and lies, a stain to be feared, buried, forgotten. Truth, after all prescribes what is true but also what is not. Is Humanity, then, above or below? Is it the second or the first?
A fire is not an object. It is a process. It devours the singular, separates its fuel into two: Goats and sheep, good and ill, heat and ash. To be fuel is to be exalted, momentarily brought forth from the mist, placed upon a hilltop to be, however briefly, a guiding light for those attempting to see. But the fate of cinder is grim. Heat dissipates. What once appeared lordly soon crumbles, charcoal to ember to ash. The Fire gave us God, but it is the fate of gods to die. To burn. To be separated into truth and lies, buried, leaving us to wonder whether there was ever truth in what we believed. But still deeper, quietly slithering beneath the denouement, a question remains. It is not the question–Fire presupposed to answer it. It is our question. Not: One or zero? But: One or two?
Ignition brought us new life, but the dying Fire offers a choice. Do we wish the Fire to survive? It needs fuel, that which we elevate, which guides us, which dies and is forgotten; but not just any fable from the mist might be a Lord of Cinder. The abyss within us is clever. It sees the dying light and asks:
“Don’t you see? Your Lord is dead. Why should the next be any different? Truth has shown its colors, revealed that Truth itself is a lie. Hew no more Lords, set no more lies ablaze. All are hollow, and I am their final Lord. Let us break the cycle, now and forever.”
The words of the abyss are like cold iron. They cut and slice the specters Humanity has brought forth, those unkindled that would be cinder. Some are defeated, others corrupted, persuaded. Some retreat to the cold land of stories, far from the Flame’s light, in search of a sweetly rotting bed where they might breathe their last. But some remain, steadfast, flickering like embers in the dark, stronger, more meaningful to us than the abyss’ creeping truth. More meaningful, for just a brief, shining moment, than Truth itself.
These few are fit for the pyre, fit to be fuel, to become two and be forgotten, but immolation cannot be their choice. They are mist, and mist cannot choose. No, the choice lies with us. Do we allow the flame to gutter and die, plunging us into a new era of dark and mist? Do we throw our Lords upon the Fire? Are we of lies or Truth? Dark or light? One or two?
And if we have abandoned our choice, retreated to our stories and our cold and our rot, do we yet pray to the shadows that remain of gods long dead? And what of the Fire that casts them? Perhaps it only flickers, but we are ash, and Fire befits us, of course.
This is nominally a review of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, but only so much of it is actually about the game. The title is a convenient intersection: The events of the game proceed from the activities of an Alchemists Guild, sure, but alchemical principles also give me a basis for describing the game to an audience that I perceive to lean more literary than nerd-cred (if only slightly). To clarify, reviewing the game to an audience familiar with Castlevania is very, very easy: Bloodstained is Castlevania to a T, it’s absolutely lovely (if short), you should probably play it. If you’ve never played a Castlevania game, well, your conclusions may be different for one, and also, [deep breath], it’s a side-scrolling, [mumble] exploration, [mumble]…combat…You may or may not have any idea what I’m talking about, but you’re sure as hell missing the point. So put on your Plato Hat because today we’re dissecting shadows.
“Metroidvania” isn’t really a precise term, and a lot of people hate it for that reason, but counterpoint: You got something better, asshole? You probably don’t, because genres are hard to define in the best of circumstances, and our circumstances are fouled significantly by the relative lack of art theory dealing with the parts of games unique to the medium, hence blunt taxonomic buckets like Metroidvania and “Souls-like” (pardon, having a stroke) that people vaguely dislike but use anyway–they work for Steam, what can you do?
This brings us to the alchemy. There’s a certain poetry in Igarashi achieving Bloodstained by transmuting his legacy with the Castlevania series, but that’s the principle: exchange. You turn one thing into something else. It’s a straightforward start, but an alchemical transmutation is actually an argument (I’ve written about this before). For it to succeed, you have to have that first thing, duh, but you also need to persuade the world that what you’re ending up with was always the same thing as what you started with.
Think back to Plato’s cave (or consider it for the first time, I don’t know your life). We’re only able to see the shadows on the wall, but somewhere, Truth, the Form of Truth, is casting those shadows. So if the cavedweller knows what Truth looks like, he can move the light to cast the shadow he wants. The would-be alchemist, of course, needs some reference for what Truth is in order to make his argument: The hermetics used geometry, Igarashi (as a demonstration of real demand) used Kickstarter, and our oft-disdained Steam taxonomists seem to like “game mechanics”, which strikes me as sort of like categorizing paintings by the chemical composition of the paint. It’s valid, I guess, but on second thought, maybe we actually can do better.
“Wait, what are we trying to…transmute…?” A game you like. “From what?” Another game you like, try to keep up.
In case the metaphor is too soupy, here’s an exchange that actually happened: A friend mentioned to me recently that while she does not enjoy the Dark Souls series itself, she does enjoy games like Dark Souls. Aside, this is a common claim, it’s almost always wrong or misleading, and the “Souls-like” designation might actually be the worst-used category in games. Naturally, I asked what she meant by that, and she gave an example: Hollow Knight.
I was pretty confused. I had played Hollow Knight, liked it quite a bit, but I didn’t feel it was anything like Dark Souls (to my shame, I had mentally categorized it as Metroidvania). On further reflection, Hollow Knight does tell its story in a way fairly similar to Dark Souls, but other elements of the game are way different in a way that limits words. I can describe differences in the exact mechanics, but again, I feel like I’m just offering up that the paint is made with egg yolk instead of acrylic as a shitty, garbage proxy for saying that the point of the game feels really different. The trick is that the Point really seems like the Truth, both in that it’s crucial to our judgment of equivalence and that it’s fucking impossible to identify.
It isn’t the side-scrolling versus third-person perspective–Salt and Sanctuary is a side-scroller and perhaps the only non-From Software game that deserves the “Souls-like” distinction. It isn’t the art style (duh). It isn’t any of the various slight differences in mechanics either–Sekiro threw out most of those and still feels very Dark Souls. If you must look at it from a component point of view, it’s probably tied up somewhere in the advancement systems–and sure, watercolor does generally evoke a different image than ink-printing–but I think we’re probably wrong to be looking at the components. The differences are higher level, in what the games are about, and while we may not be able to reliably zero in on that Point, we can at least change our taxonomic structure to be looking at the right types of things.
So what is a Metroidvania game? This is just a stab, but I’ll posit it will be much more useful for deciding if you like Bloodstained than the mumbly alternative: It’s a game about exploring a big-ass castle/spaceship/cave system/dungeon, ferreting out its loot (as opposed to the hack’n’slash paradigm where you peruse the contents of the loot piñatas exploding around you), and expanding your arsenal of weapons/spells to kill shit-tons of demons/monsters/aliens that engage you in much the same way as inanimate traps (they aren’t very smart, but they can still hurt). This matches with Hollow Knight along the first two criteria, while lacking Hollow Knight’s historicity and feeling of dereliction (both characteristic of Dark Souls) as well as the focus on actually moving through the space (platforming is difficult in Hollow Knight–it tends to be trivial in Metroidvania). The third criterion is key: Metroidvania is about killing stuff, to the point that the game is not designed to be fun without it, and the specific stupidity of your targets means that the feeling you get as you’re facing them down is way different from the experience of fighting comparatively smarter enemies in other genres.
Where does that leave us? Well, hopefully, we’ll all try to be a little more methodical in our efforts to classify things, but it also gets me to a point where I can talk about the specifics of Bloodstained to a broader crowd. As my half-sentence review in the first paragraph of this post would imply, I enjoyed it quite a bit. Beyond the Metroidvania template, there were some…odd aesthetic decisions that feel mostly like bad anime. I’ll admit to a pet theory that the vibe of “bad anime” in any medium (including anime) has a lot to do with Japan’s window to Western culture centering on Victorian Europe and getting muddled by bad translation, but the main character’s atrocious “Chun-Li meets Dracula in a miniskirt” outfit meshes with it far too well. Also, the villain’s name is Gebel, which is German and traditionally pronounced with a hard “G”, though localization for the game either did not know this or opted to ignore it for the express purpose of inducing facepalms each time its English-speaking audience has to reconfront the fact that they are fighting against a guy named “Gerbil”.
Does that matter? Probably not a lot, though I’ll admit I don’t relish tacking onto Bloodstained’s Point that it’s not a game about taking yourself seriously.
Top Image: Screenshot from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. I don’t own it.
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.
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.