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Spoiler Warning: This essay will very obviously contain significant spoilers for Dark Souls.
I wanted to continue my foray into themes with another one of my favorites: the Dark Souls series. However, each game is different in how it’s approaching its themes, so I think it would be best to take that approach seriously. Rather than one big post on all three games, I’ll do a single post on each. Why yes, that does indeed give me less work for more essays! How convenient!
I’ve already tackled Dark Souls’ story from a few different perspectives already, so to some extent this will involve a bit of rehashing. But by collecting these thoughts into a single place and interrogating the themes more directly, it will be easier to see how the narrative and mechanics and world all work together.
Without further ado, let’s dig in.
It’s easy to pull out a lot of ideas from Dark Souls: cycles, stagnation, rebellion, etc. But all of the ideas we can pull revolve around the idea of persevering.
When I say “persevering,” I mean that the theme is investigated from both sides of the equation. There is the idea that we should persevere – that we need to push ourselves to overcome the obstacles that stand between us and our goals. But also there is the idea that maybe we shouldn’t – perhaps we are better off just giving up, and the struggle just isn’t worth it.
Dark Souls never gives us a straight answer, because there is no straight answer. The world is messy and complicated. And we’re ultimately seeing this question from multiple levels. For the world to persevere, we may need to give up; for the world to change (i.e. for the current age to “give up), we need to keep going. More on this later.
The nice thing about how the game incorporates this theme is that ultimately all choices are valid. That includes the decision to just stop playing entirely – not only is that choice narratively accounted for in the game, but it is a reasonable solution to the problem faced by the character (and, by extension, the player).
So let’s break the theme down in a few ways.
So how does the theme of perseverance work its way into the actual story?
The opening scene of the game is about the origins of the world – or at least the world prior to the one we’re in when the game starts. It is a land that stretches on and on with gigantic archtrees and populated by everlasting dragons. It is a world lacking, well, “life” in the fullest sense. The trees and dragons exist, but pretty much in the same way that a rock exists. They’re kind of just there the whole time.
But at some point a fire is born, and from that fire comes new forms of life. And some of those new life forms receive powerful souls from this fire. Thus are born the Four Lords of the world: Gwyn, the Witch of Izalith, Gravelord Nito, and the Furtive Pygmy.
Gwyn, the Witch, and Nito all gather together armies to wage a war against the dragons and overthrow them. The dragons are “everlasting” because of their scales, so by removing those scales these new beings are able to render them mortal and thus killable. Eventually, through attrition – and the help of the dragon Seath who betrays his own kind – the Lords win, and the dragons are overthrown. And so begins the Age of Fire.
So this is our first introduction narratively to perseverance. It is subtle here, so we can only really see it on going back. But the theme comes through from the story beat of change. To create a new world, we must overthrow the old one. But that conflict is necessarily a story of perseverance. It is the perseverance of the old world to retain control, and the perseverance of the new world to wrest that control away. It is the natural problem of persevering – if you want to change things, you must fight for it.
Alright, so where does that leave you? You aren’t actually part of this whole thing. Instead, you come in much later. The fire is starting to fade, and with it life and death start to lose their meaning. Some of those who die are branded with the Darksign, making them undead. As the undead start to become more numerous, they pose a problem, as some of them eventually go Hollow. So at some point the undead are gathered up and sent into various asylums to just keep them out of the way. And that is where you begin. You are an undead just waiting for nothing, because you cannot really die.
Now we need to cover an important topic here: what’s this “Hollowing” concept? Well, an undead who has lost their purpose in life goes Hollow – they essentially lose their identity and become a mindless husk, driven by instinct. Various characters will warn you about going Hollow, and many of the enemies you encounter in the world are themselves Hollow, doomed to a repeating cycle of life and death merely fulfilling the last task they were doing.
The concept of Hollowing is core to the game’s narrative and its theme of perseverance. Hollowing is an ever-present danger, and thus something your character wants to avoid. Therefore, you want to avoid it. But that’s easier said than done. So when your character is first released from the asylum, you come across a character who says that the undead are “chosen.” You have a quest! You have a reason to live! And maybe it will solve this whole “undead” thing, which will solve the Hollowing thing. So let’s get right on that!
In addition, Hollowing is a consequence of the world’s stagnation. As you continue and eventually complete your quest, you learn that the fire is just naturally fading, and that Gwyn took a rather drastic measure to prevent it from going out: he “linked” the First Flame to himself. In other words, he basically turned himself into a piece of kindling for the fire to consume. And consume it does: when you encounter Gwyn as the final boss, the First Flame has taken pretty much everything from him, and Gwyn is Hollow – a mindless husk protecting the fire.
From the story’s perspective, your job is to keep the Age of Fire going as well. As a new player, you’ll be directed on a path to “succeed Lord Gwyn” – to become the next piece of kindling to feed the fire. Within this story is the idea that the Age of Fire must persevere and live on.
Of course, I say “as a new player,” because if you start to pay attention to your surroundings – and also explore things a little out of order – you discover something different. The First Flame’s extinction is part of the “natural order,” just like its birth. And just as the Age of Fire replaced the Age of Dragons, so too must the Age of Fire be replaced with something else.
Thus we are brought back to the idea of perseverance. This time, with a choice. Should the Age of Fire keep going? Is it worth persevering? Or should it be allowed to just die…and at that point, what role are you going to play in that?
Dark Souls is tough. It might seem like it’s tough so as be sadistic, to merely punish the player. But the game is tough because that is how the game pushes the theme of perseverance. It is hard to “persevere” in the face of…no adversity. There is no real obstacle to be overcome. There is no real challenge to surmount. There’s just stuff in your way to be knocked down.
So the game is about continually trying, over and over again. This is baked into the gameplay in several ways.
Firstly, the challenge itself. As already mentioned, by making the combat tough, you are faced with a trial. And that trial poses seriously to the player whether they want to continue. Remember that ultimately you can quit, and that quitting is accounted for by the story. Whether you as a player – and thus your character – think it is worth persevering is a live question. It could very well be the case that it really isn’t worth it. And that is a reasonable solution to the problem. Ignore the people who say that quitting the game makes you weak: they genuinely don’t understand the game.
Secondly, the tools given to the player to overcome these challenges. Part of the key to a challenge that players might want to overcome is making them fair. Players need to be given the tools and knowledge to be able to solve the problems given to them. So enemy attacks need to work according to rules the player can understand and react to. That doesn’t mean that the game needs to always work in the player’s favor: just that the player needs to be able to understand and learn what to do and how to react. By making the challenge tough but fair, the player is presented with a real choice – persevering has a sense of weight, because you can succeed.
Thirdly, the nature of exploring the world. The confusing layout of the world – while it makes sense when you see it all from a map or construct a map in your own head – is designed to keep you wandering around. Much as you might hear players complain about not having a map (and certainly having a map would feel useful at various points), the purpose of not giving the player a map is to highlight the idea of being lost and finding your own way out. It is about whether you want to keep running around and trying to find the next place to go, or just quit because you feel lost. And to repeat: it’s okay to quit. Because whether you feel it’s worth your time to explore is a key part of the experience. Do you want to persevere or not?
Finally, the nature of your own progression. As you get further into the game, you as a player grow stronger. Both in the mechanical sense (your player levels up and gets better equipment) and in the interactive sense (you get better at playing the game). These two elements of the game allow you to more directly feel a sense of reward from persevering. Whether that reward is the rush of beating a boss, seeing your stats go up, finding an upgrade material, or anything else, you are being fed with a series of benefits for continuing your journey. Because again, the theme of perseverance is a question. The game isn’t trying to tell you that you should or shouldn’t keep persevering. It is just trying to feed you options. The rewards of continuing must always be juxtaposed against the challenges you will face.
Of course, you’re not in this world alone. There are a bunch of other characters you’ll encounter on your journey, many of whom are on similar quests as you.
And it’s through experiencing their journeys that you are again confronted with the problem of Hollowing.
Once you leave the asylum, likely the first character you’ll encounter is a man known as the Crestfallen Knight. He exists primarily to help direct your character (and thus you the player) toward your goals. He mentions the two Bells of Awakening you’ll need to ring to open up the next progress point. But it becomes clear that he used to be on this same quest, until he decided to give up. Now he has made his purpose to just sit in the hub area (Firelink Shrine), both to help direct and also to make fun of other undead hoping to make the journey. Which means that as you progress and eventually ring both Bells, there’s nothing else for him to do: you’ve proven that the task was possible, that he gave up for nothing, and now he has nothing to really live for. Soon afterwards he goes Hollow and needs to be killed. He gave up, but in giving up found a new purpose. Your perseverance, though, took that purpose away from him.
Another character you’ll almost certainly encounter is Solaire of Astora. Solaire is a friendly guy who introduces the mechanics of co-op. He is on a journey to discover his own “sun,” having a fixation on the sun’s radiance. You run into him every now and then as you journey through the world, until you reach a particular point where Solaire begins to doubt that he will actually find success. There are a couple of possible outcomes here, but the most likely outcome is that Solaire loses his sanity. His perseverance leads to his own downfall.
Perhaps some more interesting examples are to be found in the various magic teachers. You’ll encounter three in the game: the Pyromancer Laurentius, and the sorcerers Griggs of Vinheim and Big Hat Logan.
Laurentius can be freed about 20-30% of the way through the game, and upon being freed will settle in Fireline Shrine, where he will offer to share his knowledge of Pyromancy with you. If you invest in Pyromancy enough, you can get another character to spawn (Quelana) who will give you even stronger spells. Upon returning to Laurentius with your cool new powers, he will then want to learn where you got them from. Letting him know – which seems like only the right thing to do, since he helped you out so much – will cause him to leave Firelink Shrine in search of Quelana. If you head back down yourself, you’ll eventually encounter Laurentius again, having become Hollow. It’s not entirely clear, but likely that Laurentius is unable to locate Quelana or is rejected, and as a consequence loses his purpose in studying Pyromancy.
Let’s shift gears and talk about Big Hat Logan. Logan is a powerful and well-known sorcerer who is obsessed with studying and crafting new spells. He is undead, and loves undeath because it grants him so much more time than he originally would have had. When you free him about 40% of the way through the game, he heads to Firelink Shrine to sell you some pretty powerful spells. Once you clear the halfway mark of the game, he then leaves to go to the Duke’s Archives, the home of the dragon Seath and the birthplace of sorcery itself. If you then help him out there (he gets locked away in a cell) and purchase all of the spells he has…he starts to lose his mind. Once you defeat Seath, you can go to an old room and find Logan, completely naked (except for his big hat). His obsession with the sorceries of Seath have driven him to want to become like Seath.
How about Griggs? Griggs is found shortly before Laurentius, and serves as another merchant for a different set of spells. Griggs will remain in Firelink until about 60% of the way through the game. At that point, he wants to move on to follow his teacher (Logan), but first promises to make sure to teach you everything that Logan taught him. Which means you need to buy all of Griggs’s spells. But if you do that, Griggs will leave Firelink to try to find Logan. But Griggs will get stuck and go Hollow, forcing you to kill him.
Why do I highlight these three characters? Because they highlight a rather unique element of the side quests in this game. It is, essentially, not clear whether you should help these characters. Whether it’s telling Laurentius about your special Pyromancies, or letting Griggs and Logan teach you, being helpful to these characters causes them to lose their minds in one way or another.
This fact is all linked back to the nature of Hollowing itself: you need something to do to keep yourself from going Hollow. But in turn these kinds of decisions get in the way of playing the game itself. You are naturally inclined as a player to persevere, to see content. But in getting that content, you are ruining the lives of these characters, you are causing them to go Hollow. So there is a tension between your perseverance and the perseverance of other characters. Perhaps the best thing for you to do is “give up” on a character’s side quest, to frustrate them and prevent them from reaching their goal so that they will always have something to do.
I wanted to do this analysis as a way of being able to step back and look at various elements of Dark Souls and see how they fit together. One thing that the game does is make it easy to ignore the thematic and narrative elements of the game. There are a lot of people who don’t care about these parts, who see Dark Souls as a game that is fun for being tough. And that’s actually one of the things that I like about the game: it truly invites players to engage with it on their own terms. You can ignore or make use of the co-op systems; you can ignore or participate in PvP; you can ignore the story or get invested; you can throw yourself against the various challenges or just give up. All of those possibilities are not simply contained within the game, but encouraged – they are all equally part of the experience.
But while the thematic elements are easy to ignore, they’re still there. And it’s still worth investigating them and seeing how the various components of the game work together to lead us to these ideas.
And I really like this idea of perseverance, both sides of it. There is something appealing about constructing a game around challenge and making that challenge feel important. The game does not ask you to overcome challenge after challenge simply because it needed to ask you to do something, but because your willingness to overcome those challenges says something about you as the player. And even the decision to not overcome them says something. And the things they say are not bad.
Instead, like any good theme in a piece of media, it’s not about saying “this is the correct answer,” but rather posing questions to the audience. Is it worth continuing? Is it worth helping other characters? Is it worth keeping the Age of Fire going? All of these are live questions to be chewed over and discussed. And the answers we arrive at are most important. Maybe getting through Dark Souls really is worth it, for whatever reason. Or maybe you put it down and decide it’s not worth it. The game is just trying to ask you to stop and think about these things, about the decisions you make in how you interact with every part of the game, including the mere act of playing it.