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.
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
I’m now composing the ongoing Dark Souls series while playing through Sekiro (slowly), and being able to note the similarities and differences, immersed as I am, is a pretty interesting experience. It’s also pretty plain at this point that getting at the juicy, literary meat of the game is going to be way harder for me this time around. Dark Souls and Bloodborne were riffing on philosophical frameworks (Christianity, Lovecraft, Nietzsche) that I am coincidentally familiar with. Sekiro has structurally similar roots in Buddhism and sort-of obscure 1960’s ninja-historical-fantasy, about which I know approximately fuck all. Accordingly, the following are working notes, a surface reading of a game I still haven’t finished, an attempt to get the ideas on paper where perhaps a pith might become more visible.
Miyazaki himself cites the manga Basilisk and the works of Futaro Yamada as an inspiration for elements of Sekiro’s world. For those unfamiliar (myself included), these began with a novel published in 1958 called Kōga Ninpōchō, a historical fantasy about rival clans of superhuman mutant ninjas who get caught up in a Romeo-and-Juliet-style love triangle. I was totally unaware that this style of storytelling had roots that old (contemporary with Tolkien, even though the first English translation seems to have been published in 2006). More research is needed–discoveries like this keep me humble as to how little I really know.
The setup of the game is that near the end of the Sengoku period, Isshin Ashina stages a coup and takes over one of Japan’s warring regions. Twenty years later, the story begins. Neither Isshin, nor his grandson Genichiro appear to have been real people, but the Ashina clan was. Translating some historical details: The region, known also as Ashina in-game, was likely the Aizu region historically, and the aforementioned “end” of the Sengoku period is probably the first of such points recognized by historians–the conquest of Kyoto by Nobunaga Oda. Twenty years after this point, the Ashina clan was defeated decisively by Masamune Date who then seized control of the Aizu region. Timing checks out.
It’s also likely that the family personas are based on real people. Based on the timing and details of their life stories, it seems likely that Isshin and Genichiro are meant to parallel Moriuji and Moritaka Ashina respectively. Moriuji’s reign was considered to be a golden age for the clan, whereas Moritaka (not Moriuji’s grandson, but not his son either) succeeded him and, proving unpopular among his retainers, was assassinated. Spoiler: This is more than vaguely similar to Genichiro’s fate in the game.
I know embarrassingly little about Buddhism, and I hope to do more reading before formalizing any of this, but the narrative is clearly moist with its secretions. The repeated theme of death and rebirth seems to be a clear expression, but it almost certainly goes deeper. The Sculptor’s obsessive drive to carve the Buddha (and its relationship to his previous life as a shinobi), the relationship between Kuro and other sources of immortality, even the significance of Sekiro using a prosthetic for a left arm–they scream meaning, and I bet much of it is tied up in philosophical traditions very different from the earlier games.
Aside, Miyazaki apparently took a backseat on writing for this game, so it probably will not have the same tone anyway.
Sources for my information include the linked interview, Wikipedia, and Samurai Wiki.
It’s been a little while since we’ve been here. If you need, check out the previous posts in this series first. Also, because you can never sit down and read just one thing, I linked an article in my first essay on this topic. If you haven’t read it yet, you should now. It was always relevant, but it connects the philosophical parts of this to our reality better than I ever could.
A little under two months ago, I started this blog, and the first substantive thing I posted was about choices in video games. This will be about choices as well, in video games, in life, and, more deeply, in what we value. It will be a turning point–the previous essays have been getting at the metaphors underlying Dark Souls’ setup. Now, we get to ask the question: “Why?”
I’ve talked a lot about “Truth” in the last two essays without really getting into what it means. This is meant to be respectful. The only sense in which I am the first to say any of the things I’m saying is the sense in which they relate to Dark Souls (which is still a little surprising, but I’ve beaten that horse enough already). Still, since this runs the risk of sounding completely insane without clarity on that concept, I want to be explicit: Truth is something that humans value–we all intrinsically want the things we believe to be true. This starts, obviously, with perceptions of reality, but then it goes and starts a bar fight with religion and science. For those interested in the hard sciences without a background in philosophy, it may be difficult to believe, but the advances in scientific thought that propelled us from the Middle Ages to modernity were based heavily on metaphysics. This starts with the question “If I can’t trust what I see, how can I know anything?” but the high-level ends up being this: We created/reinforced gods in service of Truth. We then ask whether we need gods and, unable to see their purpose, begin devaluing them. Then comes the best part: Some asshole asks whether we need Truth.
“Is this still about Dark Souls?” Sure, just replace “Truth” and “gods” with “Flame” and “Lords”, and we’re hunky dory. More pointedly, in Dark Souls, that asshole has a name: Kaathe.
Darkstalker Kaathe is a primordial serpent. He goes way back to when the world was mist and trees and dragons, and this means A) he has a complicated relationship with the Truth and gods metaphor that I don’t really want to get into here and B) his age grants him a view on the situation that doesn’t have a good real-world analog. Anyway, he starts a cult, they kill a lot of people, and the powers that be flood a city on top of them. This is the advent of nihilism in Dark Souls. The details actually are pretty interesting, but the Abyss is going to get its own essay. Kaathe is coming up here because he’s the one that offers you an alternative in your quest to save the world. Oh yes, you were on a quest–didn’t I mention that?
That isn’t a gotcha at all if you actually played Dark Souls, but I know for a fact that some of you have not. Recall from the intro:
Thus began the Age of Fire. But soon the flames will fade and only Dark will remain. Even now there are only embers, and man sees not light, but only endless nights. And amongst the living are seen, carriers of the accursed Darksign.
The plot of the game–which we’ve avoided discussing up to now–is you exploring Lordran in fulfillment of some vague prophecy that no one seems to have respect for, but then you complete the first piece, ring some bells, and a giant snake blasts out of the ground where you first showed up. His name is Frampt, and he tells you that your purpose is to succeed Lord Gwyn and link the Fire, prolonging this golden age. He’s not terribly specific about what “linking the Fire” means, but man, becoming the successor to God? That seems pretty neat, and so this becomes your quest: You must gather the souls of the gods and use them to open the way to the Kiln of the First Flame, that you may link the Fire.
That goes about as swimmingly as things can go in Lordran until you find Kaathe at the bottom of the Abyss. He has a counterproposal for you: Why don’t you just…not do that? Gwyn went and linked the Fire, sure, but he was a pussy, scared of the dark or something. It’s not like an Age of Dark would actually end the world or anything. This is when he lets you in on the piece of the creation myth that doesn’t get repeated:
If you remember the other gods from the second essay, you remember that they each represented something. Gwyn was light, the Witch was chaos, Nito was death, but there was another, “so easily forgotten”. The pygmy found a special soul within the Fire, the only one named without a possessive: the Dark Soul. Gwyn is not happy about this for reasons that aren’t really clear without the metaphor, and he goes to great lengths to ensure that the descendants of the pygmy don’t flourish and the dark does not overpower the light. On the first count, he clearly failed–you’re here after all, but you can’t say he wasn’t motivated. To stop the guttering of the Fire and the coming Age of Dark, he used his own body as fuel..
There are a number of metaphors here, let’s unpack them:
First, note the obvious parallel to Christianity, but also note the dramatically developed context. In this version, God still sacrifices himself, but there’s an added element: fear. That he fears the dark here means he fears its impact on the metaphysical–it is not simply love for another substrate of reality. So what danger does the Dark Soul pose?
The Fire is Truth, light emanates from fire, and that makes Gwyn a manifestation of true things. The Dark Soul, then, is what’s left. Not-true things. Lies. “Seems bad.” Oh, really? I’m sure it does, but can you make a case for it without appealing to Truth as a value? Lies are easy to detach from the types of harm we hold to be bad based on other values, but still, they feel wrong, it stings your character to lie to others, and for some reason, you can’t lie to yourself. Truth is king, we’ve put everything else in service to it, and, of course, why would the Fire embrace its own death?
And so, Kaathe offers us a choice: Immolate yourself, the successor to the gods, in service of Truth, or walk away, embrace the lies, and usher in an Age of Dark.
About the most famous thing Nietzsche ever said was “God is dead”. Sounds about right. Death and Chaos are toast, you murdered them on your way here. Light is in the process of burning, soon to be spent. All of that may seem good or bad to you, but to Nietzsche, it was an inevitable result of that initial enshrinement of Truth as our highest value. It brought us through the Stone Ages, to antiquity, to modernity, to the point where we are capable of contending with the forces of Gaia on a nearly even playing field. Truth has brought us power even if we’ve had to sacrifice human meaning to get there, but that was a long-term decision. Now, finally, we have the opportunity to course-correct. Truth is going out, and the sun has reached its median in the course of human history. Nietzsche called it the Great Noon, but as you might guess, the Dark Souls take is a little different.
Interpreting Nietzsche’s options from Lou Keep’s essay, you can translate them to the Dark Souls metaphor like so: The last man is letting every value burn to nothing, ceasing our advance to power, and living on in the twilight until at last we die. Affirmation is embracing the Dark, learning how to lie, and adopting a new hierarchy of values in Truth’s place. Of course, affirmation could mean that we are affirming an ideal that does not exist (which isn’t ideal), or it could mean affirmation of the here and now. The problem is that it’s very hard to do either if we can’t lie to ourselves.
However, Dark Souls allows for two other options, one of which isn’t well explored by Nietzsche’s framework (which we’ll save for last), and one that…well, that he was reacting to in the first place. That one, we’ll discuss next.
Top Image: Screenshot from the launch trailer for Dark Souls 3, I do not own it
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?