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
Lots of words have been written at this point; here’s where we’re at: There’s a clear parallel between Nietzsche’s progression of nihilism and Dark Souls’ setup. We’ll flesh that out soon–the last essay only introduced it–but it’s better that we have most of our details down before we get into implications. After all, “the world of Dark Souls is nihilistic” is so vague as to be undisputable, and it’s not like it makes Dark Souls make sense by itself. If we want that, we’ll need to discuss the game’s minute-to-minute experience.
I chopped this out of the transcription from last essay, but let’s discuss it now:
Yes, indeed. The Darksign brands the Undead. And in this land, the Undead are corralled and led to the north, where they are locked away, to await the end of the world… This is your fate. Only, in the ancient legends it is stated, that one day an Undead shall be chosen to leave the Undead asylum, in pilgrimage, to the land of ancient lords, Lordran.
You probably have some internal definitions of what it means to be “undead”, and Dark Souls probably doesn’t meet very many of those. The denizens of Lordran are often articulate, intelligent, usually even “normal”-looking. They aren’t skeletons (though they’re around), they aren’t zombies (they’re around too, see Hollows), they’re just exactly the same as humans except for some little black scab that you wouldn’t even notice unless things were getting hot and steamy. One might point out their (inconsistent) tendency to revive around swords shoved into campfires or the fact that hollowing makes them more and more zombie-like, but that combination of traits seems so far away from a conventional understanding of the term that you wonder: Why call them that at all? Why not play up the “curse” aspects instead of reengineering a term with so much cultural cachet (1)?
This probably sounds like criticism, but I’m really just trying to discourage face-value readings of the situation. At face value, labelling people in Lordran as Undead seems confusing and stupid, so you can either ignore the apparent Japanese arcana of it and blow right past, or you can be a kind reader and work from the assumption that the stupid-looking decisions are deliberate. This is my essay, so I’m going to do that. Start from the basics: What does being Undead mean for the Undead?
Solaire of Astora: “Now that I am Undead, I have come to this great land, the birthplace of Lord Gwyn, to seek my very own sun!”
Laurentius of the Great Swamp: “In this land, pyromancers earn a certain respect. The Witch of Izalith, one of the legendary Lords, is the godmother of pyromancy. So, the day I became Undead, I was ecstatic. I felt as if I’d been chosen to attune myself to the ancient arts.”
Of course, it’s not all great–these people were still hunted by Allfather Lloyd, et al and corralled in asylums, but now zoom out to the world, Lordran. Solaire and Laurentius both are excited that their Undeath should grant them entry to this place, and you have to wonder why: A) It’s in ruins, steadily falling apart, hardly seems aspirational, and B) in what way, exactly, does Undeath get them in? Does the bird only carry people with the Darksign? Is the bird the only way to get there?
Let’s examine the ruins question first. Lordran certainly looks like a slowly degrading collection of fallen kingdoms, but only if you aren’t looking very closely. If you are, the juxtaposition is jarring: A semi-functioning city is stapled to a church guarded by knights of a random ancient kingdom. Go down a staircase, and you find a giant hydra in a lake, surrounded by crystalline golems, and just a jaunt away is lethal funhouse staffed by murderous snake-people. And Anor Londo, lost city of the gods themselves? Just over the hill past the fortress. If you look at it this way, you can see it: This isn’t a kingdom at all–it’s a museum. It may be trying to kill you, but don’t let that give you the wrong impression. We’re in the metaphysical layer, walking through a monument to what once was (or perhaps what once was mythologized), which brings us to question two: If becoming Undead qualifies you for entry into a place inhabited by gods, wherein reality itself is enshrined semi-eternally, where are you (bonus: Your alternative, pending one bird flight is a hellish prison guarded by literal demons)? I’m no theologian, but it seems like you might be in some kind of fucked up Heaven.
While Lordran as the afterlife may be a good entry point into a particular way of looking at it, it’s best not to take that interpretation too far. An afterlife presupposes that Lordran’s denizens had a before-life, outside this place, and while there is evidence for that, it’s really not clear to what degree it’s relevant to the world dynamic (at least in Dark Souls 1). For example, it’s pretty easy to tell that Solaire of Astora isn’t from around here because it says right in his name: He’s from Astora. Astora, ostensibly at least, isn’t in Lordran (also dialogue, etc.), so Solaire almost certainly existed before he showed up there, but there isn’t much mention of anything he did in his past life or its bearing on the here and now (2).
To rephrase, the question is one of emphasis. Starting with the afterlife interpretation, consider the aforementioned inconsistency of characters’ resurrection. If you squint, you can see a conceptual pattern between the types of characters that respawn (random enemies, ie museum exhibits; phantom Undead) and those that don’t (bosses, other non-phantom Undead, legendary enemies like Black Knights or Havel). Excluding the player (this is also a thin reading, but hear me out), you can describe these same groups as [those enshrined/entangled in Lordran’s museum-reality] and [those vying to dominate it]. Since the player character is as inexterminable as a cockroach in spite of belonging clearly to the latter group, the resurrection angle may not be accurately descriptive, but the distinction between conquering agents and metaphysical background is still useful. It also brings us to two important questions: First, what is the significance of that struggle to conquer for the physical and metaphorical layers; and second, what exactly does domination of the metaphysical look like? The former is broad and has a broad answer–we’ll be exploring it through the entirety of this series. The latter is more specific, tied to a question so obvious it’s a wonder we’ve avoided it up to now: The game is called “Dark Souls”, right? Pray tell, what exactly are these “souls” (3)?
For those following along who have not played the game, Dark Souls’ souls are a catch-all currency and experience system. When you kill an enemy, you are given a number of souls (usually hundreds or thousands–the guy was carrying them or something). You can use these souls to improve your attributes, but the interesting thing is that everyone around you seems to be doing the same. This isn’t entirely literal–individual characters don’t generally get any stronger throughout the game; that’s just you–but they certainly do try to get all the souls they can, and if they aren’t inclined to do it through murder, they’ll do it through trade. Characters throughout Lordran will sell you items or teach you skills for souls, and the game lampshades their status as currency with juxtaposition to actual currency. See the Gold Coin. Description:
“Coin made of gold, with Allfather Lloyd and his white halo shown on its face. Even coins of great value in the world of men have little value in Lordran, where the accepted currency is souls.”
Our metaphysical realm, then, has an economy of souls. The prose is appropriate to the genre, but in real terms, what does this mean? What is a soul? Conventionally, of course, it’s paired with a possessive, the soul is someone’s. It’s someone’s identity, agency, lifeforce, whatever. The three-digit numbers you reap from each fallen foe might discourage that interpretation, but a certain class of item muddies the water. Throughout Lordran, you will find items called something of the form: “Large Souls of a Lost Undead”. These, along with “Soul of [Boss Name]” (guess how you get those), can be consumed for a reward of some number of souls, suggesting that characters in Lordran are not just fueled by souls, but comprised of them. Reasonable, but the plurality is perplexing.
One resolution might be the American Gods route: The metaphysical is the realm of the gods, and gods have metaphysical strength proportional to the strength of their believers in the physical world. Might a single soul then represent a believer? There may be something to this line of thought (4), but A) it doesn’t really have any explicative power as the nihilism metaphor is concerned, and B) petty, perhaps, but the metaphorical mechanism can be improved: Ideological battles aren’t exactly amoebic as followers are concerned–sometimes people convert when they clash, but more often they just die. In Dark Souls, by contrast, the nature of conflict is straightforward: You kill a guy, you get his stuff.
Consider a close alternative. Among believers, a clash of ideologies is inherently political, and politics is, well, difficult to model, especially in a way that makes sense at this level of abstraction. So, for now, take out the believers. Without them, the ideological clash is just an argument without an audience, reason applied to determine truth rather than realize a political goal. Not all such arguments have a victor, but when they do, there is no death of the evidence–it all merely supports a new conclusion, a victor in the battle.
What, then, are souls? They are concepts, memes, evidence, tiny fragments of truth. Which is appropriate: If the Lords found their souls within the Flame, and the Flame is Truth, then why should their progeny be built of anything but its component parts? Why should the above be unlike the below?
(1): Worth noting that Dark Souls 2 does this, but that Dark Souls does not feels deliberate. Consider also that Miyazaki did not direct Dark Souls 2.
(2): There are exceptions, the most nuanced of which is probably Siegmeyer of Catarina, whose sins ultimately pursue him to his end at Ash Lake. But even then, it’s not like you ever find out what they are, which is a good indicator that his case is one of brand rather than particulars. Specifically, his daughter’s mention of his relationship with her mother seems to more to serve as development of his persona in Lordran as a paragon of wanderlust.
(3): This question rightfully begins with Demon’s Souls, from which the experience system was more or less transplanted wholesale. For what it’s worth, I’ve never attempted a literary reading of Demon’s Souls, but it may be on the docket for the future, alongside Bloodborne.
(4): If you like conspiracy theories, here’s one: The maximum amount of souls you can spend leveling up in Dark Souls is 1,692,438,971, suggesting by the believers metaphor that this is the maximum number of a followers a metaphysical ideal can have. The largest religion in the world is Sunni Islam, with a very close 1.5 billion followers. Probably a coincidence, but that’s a weirdly precise match of orders of magnitude.
On the Dragons and the Fire. Part two in the Dark Souls series.
Throughout history, the gods we’ve worshipped (or created fictional societies to worship) have borne a number of different faces, but similarities are easy to spot between the pantheons. There is always a sun god (or god of Light). There is always a god of the dead (or at least an underworld). There’s always a struggle between , etc. Dark Souls shares these similarities, of course, but I don’t want to start with the similarities. Let’s start with humanity instead.
Certain cultures (notably Greek and Norse religions) are known today for gods that behave in a particularly human manner: They squabble, they screw around, they father illegitimate children with mortals, and, generally, they are fallible. This probably doesn’t strike you as odd. After all, why shouldn’t mankind want to link their gods to themselves in some way (see also: Christian God creating man in his own image)? It is odd, though. To posit a link between ourselves and the divine is one thing, but to shrink that gap to merely a difference in physical capability betrays a narcissistic fantasy: “Were I [man] to ascend to godhood, I would still remain me.” Ah, yes. I’m sure you wouldn’t change at all if you won the lottery either.
That the limits of our influence in turn influence who we are should be obvious, but taken to its extreme, it has some weird implications that, for one reason or another, tend to get explored only rarely in fantasy/sci-fi literature (which, weird on its own, is probably the only branch of literature that would ever touch the subject). To that end, in the process of designing a world for a game I worked on once, I walked through the following thought experiment:
Say you’re a wizard. You can shoot fireballs out of your hands. That doesn’t much alter the way you relate to people, though you might have a more relaxed view of the morality surrounding assault and arson. Still, nothing out of the ordinary. Now suppose you find an artifact that grants you the ability to persuade anyone around you of anything. If you can describe it, you can make them believe it: the sky is green, the British are attacking, they are in love with you, whatever. Putting aside the fact that you’ve just encountered an entire encyclopedia of ethical dilemmas, even the way you relate to people is seriously fucked. Maybe you are still tied to a semblance of humanity by the human needs you experience, but the way you operate in society will certainly no longer look human. Perspective check, now: All you’ve found is the Tablet of Splendid Oratory–why the hell would earthshaking nigh-omnipotence look more human?
For the purposes of that game world, my co-designer and I ultimately settled on a history where four wizards had become so powerful (orders of magnitude beyond the above example) that they ceased to interact with the world as individual identities. Rather, they ascended to the point where they were concepts, influencing the nature of reality and the thoughts of those that observed it. The four were known as Love, Hate, Change, and Stasis. A minor detail: As part of the game world’s origin story, the former three collaborated to murder the fourth. Wait…that sounds kind of familiar.
Keep the notion of ascension to godhood in mind–we’ll come back to it. For now, let’s talk about how Dark Souls’ gods fit in. Since it’s super short, I’ll just go ahead and include the entire transcription of Dark Souls’ opening cinematic here (1):
In the Age of Ancients the world was unformed, shrouded by fog. A land of gray crags, Archtrees, and Everlasting Dragons. But then there was Fire and with fire came disparity. Heat and cold, life and death, and of course, Light and Dark. Then from the dark, They came, and found the Souls of Lords within the flame. Nito, the First of the Dead, The Witch of Izalith and her Daughters of Chaos, Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight, and his faithful knights. And the Furtive Pygmy, so easily forgotten.
With the strength of Lords, they challenged the Dragons. Gwyn’s mighty bolts peeled apart their stone scales. The Witches weaved great firestorms. Nito unleashed a miasma of death and disease. And Seath the Scaleless betrayed his own, and the Dragons were no more.
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.
First, because I just abhor subtlety: Good god, Bad god, and Chaotic god team up to murder Static god(s). I’m apparently so fucking clever.
Second, recall the three layers of reality from the previous essay. This is an origin story, essentially mythology, so there is probably nothing happening on the literal level (or at least we can safely conflate it with the metaphorical). The metaphysical is fairly straightforward: In the beginning, the world is just mist, rocks, trees, and dragons, along with whatever unenlightened vermin scuttle below them in the dark. Then fire shows up, the vermin find it and become gods. The greatest of them do battle with the dragons, they get one of the dragons to defect (2), and, one of the gods mysteriously does not participate. Victorious, they begin the age of fire, but since fire, by its very nature, tends to burn out, they have a problem. Begin game.
There are things worth calling out about the pantheon, many of which I already have. God of light, check. God of death, check (though death has a very different meaning when one is Undead and one’s entire experience is constrained to the metaphysical). The Pandora-esque role of the Witch of Izalith in birthing the demon race is also an interesting spin, though my choice of adjective ought to tell you that it, also, is referential. The novel twist is the inclusion of mankind (the pygmy) within the pantheon, on par with the gods. Neat worldview on the metaphysical level, but it has deep implications for the underlying metaphor.
Regarding the metaphor: I’ve mentioned it multiple times now–let’s talk specifics.
Start from first principles: Gwyn is God–capital “G” Christian God–as much for his role as God of light as for his Sistine-Chapel, Statue Edition appearance in the Ringed City (3). But Gwyn didn’t come from nothing. Neither did light. The story explicitly states that light was the result of the bifurcation inflicted by the Fire, and Gwyn himself simply found his Lordly role within the flame.
This all sounds about right, because God didn’t come from nothing either. Historically speaking, the first written record we have of the Christian God (or Hebrew God, technically) dates to around 12,000 years ago. Fire, long considered to be the poetic beginning of man’s ascension above nature came long before (archaeological consensus estimates it around 1 million years back). However, it is not at all clear that fire was the first tool we used. At an estimated age of 3.3 million years, stone tools predate fire by far. I’ll preempt the archaeological blowback: Stone tools preserve incredibly well, evidence of fire, not so much, so it’s entirely possible this chronology does not accurately describe our own world, but we’re not really talking about reality here–we’re talking about a story, and there are enough specifics here to claim that the story Miyazaki is telling is meant to reflect a certain history of mankind, that the triumph of the Lords over the dragons is meant to represent a shift in man’s perspective on itself: It is the moment where, rather than being ruled by nature (stone, stasis, what is), it begins to rule over nature, and the trappings of the Fire (religion, mythos, the pursuit of knowledge) begin to shape its perspective on the world.
Of course, the Fire is not literally fire. Though, historically and poetically, fire is a turning point, it isn’t really a motive force–it’s more just another notch on humanity’s collective tech tree. Moreover, don’t forget what exactly it is that’s turning. Per Nietzsche:
Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.
(On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense)
More bluntly, it’s highly doubtful that mankind actually rules over nature now, much less that it did a million years ago when it first built a campfire. What shifted wasn’t mankind or nature, but mankind’s perspective. Thus, what Fire represents is not a physical force but a conceptual one, one with the power to reorient everything we see without leaving so much as a charred stain on reality itself. What I’m describing is a value, both in the general sense that this is what values do and in that the Fire represents a very specific value. It has gone by a number of names throughout the ages, among them Virtue or the Form of the Good, but in my opinion, the most useful is Truth, and the whole metaphor–from the nature of the Dark Soul to why Gwyn had to die–weaves itself from there.
(1): I know two paragraphs are missing. They’re mostly off-topic here–we’ll get to them next essay.
(2): I am taking this very much at face value. Lots of details about Seath, most particularly that he is scaleless, suggest he may not truly be a dragon, but for now, I’m ignoring them. As his place in the pantheon is concerned, he seems to represent an ideal of scholarship, and the piece of Gwyn’s soul that is bequeathed to him may be a commentary on the privileged position academia has held throughout history as a subsidiary of religious institutions.
(3): It’s worth mentioning that my second reaction upon seeing this depiction was to ask what it meant that Gwyn feared the pygmy: “What would it mean if God feared man?” Except God is dead–who do you think killed him?
This is the first post in what will be a much longer series on philosophy and Dark Souls.
In March of 2015, From Software released Bloodborne, and I, a neophyte neither to games nor quality, pronounced it quite possibly the best game ever created. There are implicit qualifiers to that statement, as well as biases and all of the divisiveness that comes along with a discussion of this genre, but, knowing full well the proportion of the gaming “kingdom” that would dismiss it out of hand, I still hold a portion of the thought to be valid: Bloodborne is a fantastic exemplar of “Souls” genre, one of the best fantasy RPGs ever created, and a non-trivial literary exploration of the ways that humans interact with belief.
I’ll clarify that it was this last point that fueled my assessment. Games as high art is something of a hobby horse for me, and for a medium passing sixty years of age, there are surprisingly few games that can so unambiguously boast the distinction. Bloodborne, of course, came from somewhere, and even at the time, it was not my intent to denigrate its origins. Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls were groundbreaking, and I was singing their praises right along with the other multitudes that had caught the “Souls” bug. Bloodborne was different, though. It was both a fully consummate game–a gamer’s game, in contrast to a more purely (and blatantly) artistic piece like Journey–and a world whose details, precisely, lovingly placed, had something profound to say about the way we live life.
The literary reading of Bloodborne is fascinating, and perhaps I’ll write about it one day, but that is not the purpose of this essay. Rather, this is about what I didn’t realize in 2015: Dark Souls had already gone there too, and the scope of its literary aspirations dwarfs anything the games medium has ever attempted besides.
Returning to my story, after Bloodborne, director Hidetaka Miyazaki returned to Dark Souls, releasing Dark Souls 3 just over a year later. I played it, I loved it, but even then I didn’t see it. Two DLCs came out. I played them as well, but it wasn’t until I neared the end of the second that I walked into an in-game room and nearly dropped my controller. The room in question was a small chapel in the Ringed City, decorated at its center by a statue of Lord Gwyn, tall and regal, placing a crown atop the head of the pygmy pathetically kneeling at his feet.
Well. That isn’t subtle. From then on, I resolved to pay better attention, because there was almost certainly something still to notice.
Ultimately, my attention rewarded me last year, as I replayed the original Dark Souls, having read Lou Keep’s excellent essay Everything is Going According to Plan (very long, not at all about Dark Souls, but practically a prerequisite for everything I am about to say) around the same time. Abruptly, one day, I realized that the two were telling the same story to a remarkable degree of specificity.
Now this was something new, something deep, interesting: Dark Souls as an allegory for Nietzsche, awe-inspiring and soul-crushing, like some abyssal incarnation of Tolkien. I set about exploring the metaphor and found it surprisingly robust, going so far as to imply specific arguments within Nietzsche’s framework. Still, several attempted essays later, I come to you with concerns: If I am to explicate what Miyazaki seems to be saying, then we must be clear about some problems with reality.
The first is that Dark Souls (I will continue to use the unitalicized term to refer to the series as a whole, where I will italicize specific titles), as a primary source, is extremely unclear, to the extent that almost all of the information it tells you plainly (and, it should go without saying, all of the information it doesn’t) is debatable. Part of this is because Dark Souls is presented as scraps of history from a wild variety of sources, over a massive amount of time. From these scraps, it’s difficult to get a complete picture of the world, and the fact that different viewpoints, biases, and even mistakes tend to make the scraps incommensurable only adds to the difficulty. Aside, this is why you should take any lore details you hear on the internet, from any source short of Miyazaki himself, with a grain of salt. The game very deliberately leaves its details open to interpretation, and you should be wary of certainty (including mine, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment).
The second problem only adds to the murkiness. It turns out the “undisputable” details that the game directly provides (ie, what literally happens on screen) don’t make a ton of sense. You find kingdoms practically stapled to each other, immense geographical distances collapsed into runnable tracks, and, in reference to the medium itself, denizens of these truncated locales sitting there, waiting for you. I will explore the nuts and bolts of this argument in later pieces in this series, but to resolve this problem, I will be subdividing all of Dark Souls lore into three substrates of reality:
The physical/literal reality of the world the game is describing.
The metaphysical reality layered atop the history of the literal.
The metaphorical reality that the literal reality is grounding and the metaphysical is representing.
Based on this framework, you would assume that we are starting from the physical and building up. You would be wrong. The actual action of the games takes place in the second layer, which helps to explain some of the whacky disparities between what the game shows you is going on and what it textually tells you. Of course, things are never easy. The layers often blur together, which may seem like sloppy writing (be it on my part or Miyazaki’s) until you realize that real life works much the same way.
This brings us to the third problem, which may be with me. A few online forum-goers have brought up the connection with Nietzsche in a shallow, “this seems to be inspired by” sort of way. Miyazaki has not. This is not trivial. Much ink has been spilled on Dark Souls as a gaming phenomenon, and Miyazaki has not been stingy with his interviews, and throughout everything I’ve been able to find on the record, I’ve found no reference to the nihilistic metaphor I see, nor even so much as a reference to Nietzsche as an inspiration. I’ll claim death of the author if necessary, though I won’t do so lazily. While I am confident of the artistic validity of the interpretation that I present here, I truly cannot say whether Miyazaki intended any of it. My apologies to him if this should obscure any of his actual intent.
That said, let’s press on. No matter the reality that all of this is drawn from, our reality has been on a particular philosophical course for some time, and Dark Souls may have something to say about that.
To make this argument (as well as the source material I’m drawing from) sane, I will be zooming subsequent essays in on much more specific pieces of the overall Dark Souls codex. It is likely there will be detours in the format, but right now, the basic road map looks like this:
The Dragons and the Fire
The Undead and Lordran
The Linking of the Fire
Reactions to the Abyss (likely multiple essays)
The Lords of Cinder
These are high-level areas for exploration. It’s entirely possible I will need to delve more granularly, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Regardless, welcome. Let’s see what’s waiting in the dark.
My tastes in tabletop roleplaying have always been a little unconventional. Part of that is probably the way I learned the genre. About thirteen years ago, a group of my friends gathered in a basement and learned that you could essentially build your own video game from the ground up by writing your character down on a sheet of paper and rolling dice. Apologies to the folks who found that description caustic–the New Times are no doubt very different from the Old. My unconventional take, though, was that I didn’t actually play Dungeons and Dragons for another six years. For me, it was homebrews for nearly all of my young-adult life.
Enter War Torn. A little over a decade ago, Bill Masek designed a roleplaying system (the most rules-heavy I’d played up to then), and, as I was good friends with his brother, I was roped into a playtest group. It was more unconventional than I think I realized at the time. It did away with much of the tables-upon-tables minutiae of DnD and its ilk and instead tied character progression to a single axis: your abilities, which, in DnD parlance, behaved like feats. In Bill’s game, there was technically a system for the creation of magical items, but in our experience the difference between a new character and a battle-hardened veteran was simply the number of abilities he had accumulated.
As the years went by, I lost touch with Bill, folks in the playtest group went off to college, and I experimented with a number of other systems (including DnD and White Wolf’s Exalted), but I never stopped building on War Torn. I built a mod that I affectionately dubbed War Torn, 3rd Edition (after the two distinct versions I had playtested for Bill–in reality, Bill had made his own 3rd edition separately), aimed at increasing accessibility at the expense of the tenuously tame balance of power that existed in the original, but I never pushed it out beyond a close circle of friends. Eventually, though, Leland, Bill’s brother, approached me with ideas on how to truly build on the ideas Bill had set down, and our current collaboration was born.
In the War Torn that exists today (sometimes referred to as Rale), little remains in terms of the specifics of Bill’s original design, save for the feat-like ability system, the names of the stats, and the theme of a dying, dark-fantasy world. While I may use this blog at times to discuss some of the nuts and bolts of the game’s design, that dying world is what I intend to write about the most. We have developed a storyboard of several thousand years of history, which we intend to furnish with fiction and illustration, both of which I will be posting here. As with much of my material, the fiction does fit into a much larger whole, so if you find anything inaccessible, feel free to pose any questions you may have in the comments.
Top Image: Hope, by Hector Rasgado, commissioned for War Torn/Rale
The unlikely final boss of Undertale says to you, just before he dies: “No matter what, you’ll just keep going. Not out of any desire for good or evil…but just because you think you can. And because you “can”…you “have to”. Not a profound indictment of someone committing genocide in a friendly, fictional universe (which, for those unfamiliar, is precisely what he’s trying to stop you from doing), but it says something interesting about human behavior besides. I lead with this because it’s neat and quotable and I’m not great with nonfiction, but this essay isn’t about human behavior in general. More particularly, it’s about art.
To the detriment of most of the other things I do, I do a lot with games. I design them, I play them, I write about them in random essays like this one, and I have conversations, one of the most common of which starts with the question: “Are games art?”
Oh boy. Even if you despise games, you’re probably having an unpleasant flashback to a high school English class, where a mildly humorless middle-aged bane-of-your-existence asked you to provide a definition for art, knowing full well that your opinion was garbage and that you never learned to approach a definition as anything other than concrete. Well, maybe you liked your English teacher, but I suspect that this particular classroom experience was less than enlightening. There are a number of good discussions (on the Internet, in scholarly publication, within art itself) on what art is–I won’t address any of them in detail. Instead, I’ll just offer that as a society, we have defined a fuzzy zone in which art is plainly identifiable beyond a certain point. You know that art isn’t limited to [pictures, sculptures, films, music], but it’s unambiguous that all of those things are art.
This is why I tend to be a little surprised that people give the “Are games art?” question any credence at all. There shouldn’t be a question. Every video game and most analog games are a purposeful amalgamation of the constituent parts of that list. Do people think that the juxtaposition somehow lessens the value of those parts as art? Of course not! And, of course, games are art.
And, of course, I’m arguing with a straw man. What the Roger Ebert-esque character I’m addressing really meant was that video games aren’t “high art.” Take that, plebs. Mind you, I disagree, but now the discussion isn’t it about art, it’s about getting art high, Dogg, which is innately cultural, which means a lot more anger and a lot more disagreement about what words mean. For Ebert himself, the distinction was authorial control, which is akin to saying the parts of games not included in the above list are not art and thus necessarily degrade the overall product. That seems silly, but I’m just some guy, so I’ll channel Nietzche: Good (high) art is what makes things beautiful, or at least suitably profound. Again, it’s clear that paintings and films do that. The sculptor makes his rock beautiful; the musician arranges beautiful sounds–why can’t we do something similar with agency?
“Ah, so that’s where Undertale fits in.” Not uniquely, but sure, why not? Undertale is a game about choices, in the sense that it’s a game about one specific choice repeated over and over, of the form: “You could try to murder this person you just met–do you?” The very intentional trick to it is that you are making this choice in a video game, where murdering people is not just acceptable but expected, to the point that even though the game tells you right off the bat that you should talk to the things you “fight” instead of stabbing them, everyone’s natural instinct is to stab them anyway, because that’s what you do in an RPG. Usually, people take the hint after a little while and at least figure out how to make friends with the bosses, but, again, very intentionally, it is impossible to be anything other than morally “meh” on your first playthrough (no matter what, you have to kill the king and trap everyone underground).
At this point, there are two reactions: “Whatever, I don’t get it. I’m done.” and “To the Internet!” It should go without saying that the intended audience will overwhelmingly choose the latter, wherein they will find that Undertale actually has three endings: One, they just got. A second can be achieved by playing the game and using its mechanics properly (ie, don’t murder people), and a third–undesirable but there–can be achieved by going right off the deep end and murdering every character in the game (including characters spawned by random encounters). This is where agency comes in.
Choices in games, even choices that radically alter the player experience, aren’t new. “Choose Your Own Adventure” became a thing in the ‘70s–it’s not like Warren Spector suddenly showed up with Deus Ex, fully developed from nothing in 2000. Still, there’s a difference between giving players a choice between outcome A and outcome B and making that choice mean something. The point is abstract; I’ll try to elaborate: In Undertale, different actions (at least in the second go-around) lead to different stories with different endings. This is neat, but it’s nothing new and nothing particularly subtle.
The real magic is in the details surrounding those endings, for instance: endings 2 and 3 (from here on, the “Pacifist” ending and the “Genocide” ending) are significantly harder to get. Actually, there’s a hierarchy: Pacifist is more challenging than Neutral (first ending), Genocide is way more challenging than Pacifist. Add on to that the qualification that Pacifist is a happy ending for everybody and Genocide is the gruesome annihilation of the world, and you have two axes by which you’re selecting responses. So, yeah, your choice of Undertale ending probably says something about you.
A brief digression: A surprising amount of robust game design theory has come from analysis of Magic: The Gathering. If you’re talking about designing art based around the choices people make, you’re presumably interested in why they’re making those choices, which is why Mark Rosewater’s (or WotC R&D’s) codification of player archetypes (one of a number of similar efforts–I feel this one is generally the best) is so helpful for dissecting something like Undertale.
For those not familiar, Wizards of the Coast categorizes its players into the archetypes Timmy, Johnny, and Spike. Timmy is interested in feeling powerful (see also: flashy), Johnny is interested in feeling clever (see also: unique), and Spike is interested in winning (see also: obsessive self-improvement). Standard disclaimers apply: These are archetypes, not people. No one is all Timmy or all Johnny, etc.; they are tools we can use to organize the drives that people actually have when they’re at play. Likewise, not all games will appeal to all of these drives. Johnny doesn’t much care for Pong. And Spike doesn’t give a fuck about No Man’s Sky.
Undertale, meanwhile, has two major game systems. The first is a fairly standard explore-and-dialogue, a la every JRPG ever. The second is bullet hell. Due to the Internet, Johnny has to try to care about either (someone has to write all the stuff on the Internet, but he’s gotta be on the bleeding edge or it doesn’t really matter). Meanwhile Timmy can get invested in the game’s characters and secrets, but the bullet hell dancing he has do for them is *whatever*. So Spike commits genocide because doing so makes him the best at “playing the game,” where “playing the game” equals “getting the trickiest ending and beating its hardest level”. Why does he do this? Because if he’s the best, he “can”. And to prove it, he “has to”.
One might say that Toby Fox is an uncanny judge of character, and while doing so certainly adds a moral punch to this analysis, it isn’t necessary for Undertale’s artistic validity–the efficacy of the polarization here is interesting enough. Let me reiterate: The player’s exertion of agency in Undertale is not just a difference between outcomes–it’s a difference in the game being played in the first place. And moreover, the path a given player takes is going to look bizarre to anyone who takes another path. The Genocide player is going to look at the Pacifist and wonder why he stopped playing the game halfway through. The Pacifist is going to look back and wonder what kind of psychopath would brutally murder the characters he spent 15 hours befriending just because he can.
In fact, precisely because the choice is so polarizing, it begins to look less and less like a choice (ie, is it really a choice if you would do the same thing ten out of ten times?).
So all of that is very interesting, and I write the analysis here partly because I’ve never seen it written before in a way that doesn’t make my eyes bleed and partly to answer the original question: “Can we make high art using agency as a medium?” We’ll leave the questions of what words mean to stew in a corner, but I think we can confidently say that agency can produce a deep, analyzable, and, importantly, beautiful experience akin to film, literature, or visual art. “So, basically, yeah?” Yeah.
The problem is that proofs of concept are great and all, but they can only do so much to provide us with an affirmative understanding of the limits of the medium. The best we can do is ask questions and think carefully about what we’re playing, and I plan to do just that with a very different example in my next essay(s). For what it’s worth, Warren Spector is probably right in all of his crowing about how choice matters, but it ought to be taken in a broader sense. And, paradoxically, that means that understanding choice as a design element may get pretty fucking meta.