Given the performance of my prior piece about ludism I don’t expect this will perform too well but given that recently I’ve been doing three things; 1) feeling very nervous, 2) reading the bible (point 1 unrelated) and 3) playing Dark Souls; and I’ve already written a piece about feeling nervous, I am left with only one option.
Japanese videogame development studio FromSoftware followed in the wake of their cult-classic 2009 Playstation 3 exclusive “Demon’s Souls” (recently re-released on PS5) with what can only be described as a runaway hit. 2011’s “Dark Souls” took the previously niche, notoriously difficult and fragmented-narrative driven style of its predecessor and thrust it, like a Silver Knight’s Spear, into the mainstream.
For those who do not know “Dark Souls” is a Western medieval fantasy action role playing game (ARPG). That means the player’s controls directly affect the player character’s actions – you control when to attack, block etc. in real time. The story is presented via a few main cut-scenes but is predominantly interspersed via item, weapon and armour descriptions, as well as what dialogue you can have with non-player characters (NPCs).
This method of story delivery is allegedly inspired by series director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s experiences reading Western fantasy books, in English, as a child. His lack of English vocabulary meant he could only enjoy fragments of the stories and had to piece the rest together with his own imagination.
What you are left with is one of the reasons I will forgive its indiscretions and go to bat for gaming as a medium of storytelling.
When everything clicks, when the game design meets the aesthetic, the narrative, the mechanics, the setting, the mood and the atmosphere just right you get a truly transcendent experience unmatched by most other visual media.
Paintings can be gorgeous, but they are a static and passive medium, they tell a snapshot of a story and are, by necessity, limited in their scope although that limitation can allow them to pursue aesthetics, style and beauty above all else.
Unlike books you are not necessarily locked into a particular narrative thread, though sometimes you need to go from A-C, you don’t have to go through B as you do in a (non-choose-your-own-adventure) novel. Instead you can attempt to navigate through to C via multiple different routes. This allows alternative situations, ‘emergent storytelling’ (where the player character, and thus the player, has their own unique journey and events), and greater freedom.
Movies and TV are exceptionally passive, one absorbs them and the exploration comes via interpretation and opinion, with videogames the onus is on interactivity, on being an active participant in events. This allows for ‘embodiment’, where the player effectively ‘becomes’ the character they are playing as and is thus permitted a greater detail of intimacy with the scenario’s events, since their actions directly invest them in those events.
These are all aspects of “Dark Souls” that I believe contribute to its lasting legacy.
The narrative itself is remarkably bland, but that’s one of its strengths. I shall summarise.
Before there was fire the world was exclusively dark and inhabited by the Everlasting Dragons. This is the ‘Age of Ancients’, but then a fire randomly springs up and causes disparity – a separation occurs between life and death, light and dark, cats and dogs, heffalumps and woozels, yin and yang, insert your own dualities here.
Four ‘beings’ happen to stumble across some powerful energies near this flame, known as the ‘Lord Souls’, they come into the possession of Gwyn, Lord of Sunlight and Zeus-like God of Gods; Nito the First of the Dead, very much a Plutonian reaper-like figure; the Witch of Izalith, a sort of Hekate-type figure and the Furtive Pygmy, literally described as “So easily forgotten.”
Everyone except the Pygmy takes their new found power and uses it to fight the Dragons and usher in an ‘Age of Fire’.
Unfortunately all does not go well. Though Gwyn’s lightning is enough to knock the immortality scales off the Dragons (because that’s how it works, apparently), Nito unleashes a miasma of death and disease upon the world which is probably not the best idea. What’s more it is discovered that the First Flame is slowly dwindling, inevitably to usher in an ‘Age of Dark’, and Gwyn doesn’t want this because that means humans get all the power. As an attempt to combat it, at some point the Witch of Izalith decides to attempt to recreate the First Flame but in so doing only unleashes the red-flamed ‘Chaos’ upon the world, seemingly turning herself into a tree-monster and a couple of her daughters into sexy spider ladies.
Gwyn, desperate to keep the flame from extinguishing decides the only thing left to do is immolate himself so her can be the fuel that keeps the fire burning. The fact that I’ve been reading the bible recently might explain why I don’t consider that as nonsensical as it is.
Your role, as the player, is to unlock the way to the Kiln of the First Flame and immolate yourself to perpetuate the ‘Age of Fire’ and be a hero.
Along the way, however, you can find all sorts of clues that maybe this plot isn’t all as simple as it’s cracked up to be. There are other NPCs, events and bosses that all hint at something deeper. Why should humans, who are said to inherit the world during the ‘Age of Dark’, having to sacrifice themselves to keep Gwyn and the Gods’ ‘Age of Fire’ going? What actually happens if you…just…don’t?
That open-endedness, the presentation of what is a seemingly quite derivative plot and leaving it fragmented, deliberately vague, open to interpretation, is the narrative strength of the Souls series. The ‘right way’ and the ‘wrong way’ are never signposted, and there is every reason to believe that there is no ‘good’ ending, only lots of different ones.
Much like how our life’s experiences might all lead to us reading and interpreting a book differently, Dark Souls presents us with a narrative you can literally ignore if you just want to stabby-stabby some bosses, but if you want to overthink it you can create an entire Youtube channel based around one game and make a living off of it.
For me I find the themes fascinating too. A plot concerned with an inevitable decline is paying homage to cultures, empires and generations past whilst also making us take a look at our own lives, roles and experiences. Is what we’re doing now really so important as to burn the world over? Or will we be tomorrow’s ruins? The desperate, cloying, self-immolating God’s who’d rather burn than accept our day is done?
What drives us ever forward? Climate catastrophe looms, difficulties are inevitable, a population is spiralling out of control, war, famine, disease, it’s all creeping steadily on the horizon and yet we forge forward, we move on, we may cry sometimes, maybe we’ll scream, but we also laugh in the face of despair and conquer it. One only needs to look at the recent human efforts regarding Covid and our response. Within 12 months we had multiple seemingly effective vaccines for what was a completely novel illness. Why did we persevere and not just accept the losses and move on? Why do we work hard to save others? How do we keep our sanity when death, destruction and despair are all around us?
These are questions that are all major themes of Dark Souls! It is said quite explicitly, even in the first game, never mind the full series, that this ‘Age of Fire’ is fleeting, that the immolation of so many heroes is only delaying an inevitable. Why do we delay? What is that spark that causes us to fight?
It’s a question I ask because, well, if you have read the “My Life and…” series you’ll know I’ve faced my share of difficulties in my day. My life’s not easy, it never has been, and I have tried to give up, I truly have, but I find it impossible. What compels me? What drives me forward? I despair for my future, when I can even contemplate having one. I am obsessed with death and its inevitability, and I believe that life is cheap and ultimately not really worth a lot, so why do I feel compelled to think, to write, to try, to achieve? What drives me forward?
These themes present various philosophical arguments, built upon foundations of nihilism, existentialism, absurdity and eschatology and present them in a way whereby, again, if you don’t want to think about them you don’t have to. If you do, however, you are free to engage with them either solely within the games world, or on a meta level, much as I have, asking these same questions of your own life and motivations.
Then we have the gameplay. “Dark Souls”, at least when it first came out, did not feel like most other ARPGs. It was heavy, weighty, some might even say clunky. This, however, is by design. It’s spiritual predecessor, “Demon’s Souls” (and to an extent the King’s Field series before that) made deliberate use of action and movement. Thus rather than having a rip-roaring, button-mashing, fighty-slash combat system your every move needs to be thought out and planned. Once you begin swinging your sword you are locked into that swing, there is no cheap or easy way to cancel it, much like in real life, and how momentum would carry you, so in the game.
It’s slower, more tactical and strategic and means you can enjoy “Dark Souls” as a purely mechanical exercise, even if you ignore the plot, the themes, the philosophy and the deeper ins-and-outs. It is also excellent in its execution as a ‘game’. It makes difficulty a part of the repertoire, death is an inevitable part of gameplay – with its own risk/reward system (you can only ‘level up’, or get stronger, at particular locations – Bonfires to level up yourself, blacksmiths to level up your weapons etc.) so all ‘experience’ – gained in the form of ‘Souls’ – is carried with you until you reach this point. If you die, however, those ‘Souls’ are deposited in a blood stain on the ground where you were killed and if you die before you have successfully retrieved them, they are lost. If you rest at a bonfire, however, all enemies get reset and come back to life. ‘The flow of time is convoluted…’ is basically the way a lot of these mechanics are explained!
There’s strategy even in the make-numbers-bigger, arbitrary, gamey aspect of the game. Do you continue onwards in the hope of finding that next bonfire, or do you go back to use your ‘Souls’ but knowing you have to make all that forward progress again?
To an extent it reminds us it’s a game! At a time when many videogames, your Call of Duty, your Uncharted, your Batman: Arkham series, were attempting to balance the ebb and flow of narrative and gameplay to give people a smooth, ‘cinematic’ experience, along came Miyazaki who said “Fuck that, throw that out of the window – You die, all the time. We don’t want smooth, we want stilted, we don’t want ‘cinematic’ we want ludic!” and it worked! It worked because for all of the so-called difficulty Dark Souls is fair. It tells you from the beginning it’s going to be a clusterfuck and a clusterfuck it is. Indeed, for beginners, that first run is a torture. Even experienced gamers will struggle.
For a while, and then you’ll either quit and proclaim it the worst game ever or else persevere, feel incredibly proud of yourself and then find yourself bored, playing something else, hoping it sticks on some Medieval fantasy leather and starts whipping you like the filthy little sub you are because you are going to want that challenge again!
Christ! We haven’t even talked about the setting. I mean, some of it is clunky looking and quite dated in appearance now, for sure, but the whole world is one massive, interconnected map. Some parts (Anor Londo) look better than others (Lost Izalith), but the areas of the game all have their own stamps of identity, their own unique eye-catching details and something that oozes character (even if we could do without the silly filters – I’m especially looking at you grey-green Blighttown haze!).
What you get with “Dark Souls” is a package that, if not justifying videogames as art, at least puts them in their own subcategory of ‘things that can sort of do what art does’. In the way it makes you think, the way it makes you look, the way it draws your eye, the behaviours it engenders and encourages, inspiring certain feelings that further inform your behaviour. I would certainly call it art, for me art is any creation intended to spark thought and/or feeling and “Dark Souls” does that for me!
I don’t suspect I’ll get a lot of non-gamers reading this, but I do think I have a sizeable audience of them. I guess what I want to do is give some idea of why it’s not all just teenagers in baseball caps, playing online games where you shoot each other in the face and shout racial slurs down the microphone.
There is more to gaming, there is more to games, than the popular presentation and I want to be a frontline activist in the fight to make videogames as good as they could be. They are a massively corporate exercise and that, right now, determines the direction. Instead of having a drive for increased embodiment and expression we have a corporate greed for increased engagement and net user-spend. Few are the auteurs in videogames because they can be prohibitive to make. That doesn’t mean excellent experiences do not turn up in the independent gaming market, but they are few and far between and massively outcompeted for resources; time, energy and money, by experiences that are increasingly about sapping our money and attention from the real world.
I will be the first to admit that much of gaming is in that wrong direction, but “Dark Souls” is a reminder of what happens when it gets done right. It is a notoriously difficult, niche, sword-and-shield, medieval fantasy role playing game that became a major mainstream hit! It led to grey-jogging-bottom wearing chavs telling each other to ‘git gud’ (or ‘get good’ to translate to real words) on street corners. It had a level of mainstream popularity that nerd shit like that should never have seen and the transcendence occurred because it was a well thought through, well designed, engaging and very personal experience.
If you’ve never thought about it before, give videogames a chance. Watch a few videos on Youtube, or ask to play a friend, a neighbour, a kid or grandkid’s console and give it a try. You might be surprised with the experience.