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Spoiler Warning: This essay contains significant spoilers for the storyline of Dark Souls II. Obviously. But if that poses a problem, I suggest skipping this post.
In continuing this foray into themes in some of my favorite games, I figured the next logical place to go would be Dark Souls II. The game has a very polarized perception within the community: it’s often regarded as the weakest of the three games in the Souls trilogy, but there are also a lot of people who really love it.
I tend to fall more in the former camp, because I dislike a lot of its mechanical choices and some portion of its incorporation of the story from Dark Souls. But while I have generally thought it wasn’t as strong a game as its predecessor, I have still seen it as a good game overall. And one thing I’ve found rather interesting about it as I’ve played through it multiple times is its storytelling. There is something interesting about how the game also messes with you as a player that is quite subtle. And yet that subtle messing speaks to a larger question about what we’re really doing when we play a video game.
I’ve written about the idea of “meta-narratives” within storytelling, how games (and other forms of media) can break the boundary that normally exists between the story and the audience and ask what role the audience member plays in the story. In Dark Souls, this took the form of Hollowing – the journey of the player character is determined by the player, in such a way that the decision to quit is incorporated into the story itself, and the main character gives up and goes Hollow. These kinds of meta-narratives are fascinating because they ask us to step back for a moment and think about these stories as more than the mere interaction of pixels. It is easy to say that these stories and characters matter, but much harder to get players to feel that they matter. Meta-narratives are a way of asking players why they care, allowing players to interrogate the way that they interact with games.
And the thing I ultimately enjoy about DS2 is how it effectively asks the player at many junctures what they’re really doing. You are struggling over and over again…and for what? Is it really worth continuing? In my essay on Dark Souls I proposed that the major theme was perseverance. And a flipside of that thematic coin was that the game was posing the question of whether you should keep persevering. DS2 borrows from that concept, but from a different perspective.
Coming up with a name for this theme is tough. I say “want” because that is the name of the ultimate goal in DS2: the Throne of Want. But “want” here is a mishmash of several things. It involves our desires, the things that we want out of life, our goals. It also reflects the things we do moment-to-moment, what we are trying to accomplish in the here-and-now, whether those actions are in accord with our bigger goals or not. But it also reflects a kind of emptiness: the feeling that what we have is not enough, and so we must have more.
The reason these all coalesce into a singular theme is that they are all fundamentally related. We are not simple beings with simple desires. We are complex, and that complexity is manifested in numerous ways.
So to explain how this theme is portrayed in the game, I’ll begin with the basic narrative, move to the characters you encounter, and then finish with the gameplay. This is a different order from how I tackled these ideas in the previous essay, but by the end it should make sense why it is better to present these facets in this order.
The story of DS2 is much more personal. Dark Souls’s story is somewhat generic on its face, being a sort of epic fantasy narrative about ages. DS2 begins with a much more focused problem: going Hollow. Specifically, how it feels to go Hollow. To lose sense of who you are, to lose connections as the people around you pass away.
And so of course this fate is something that anyone would wish to avoid. So your character seeks advice on how to undo Hollowing. Which leads to the mention of a place called Drangleic. The journey to Drangleic involves falling through a portal, hinting at the idea that there is something mystical about the land, as though it might not even be entirely real.
As you journey through in search of a cure for Hollowing, you learn more about the land and its history. You learn that it used to be ruled by a king named Vendrick. Vendrick had hoped to find a cure for Hollowing as well, but eventually became dismayed. The original plan had been to ascend the Throne of Want, in reality just a new construction of the First Flame from the previous game. But if you are familiar with the story of Dark Souls, you know that in linking the First Flame, you do not “undo” Hollowing so much as “delay” it. The cycle will play out again. So Vendrick was hoping to find another solution.
Meanwhile, Vendrick took on a queen named Nashandra. Nashandra urged Vendrick to ascend the Throne of Want, but it turned out she held a dark secret: she was actually a creature of the Abyss – the Dark Age that lurks beyond the Age of Fire. So Nashandra wished for Vendrick to take the throne so that she could harness the First Flame’s power for herself. Upon discovering this secret, Vendrick sealed the Throne and left the castle, going Hollow in the process. So a cure is never discovered.
Your goal in DS2 is essentially to just ascend the Throne of Want yourself. So you journey to find Vendrick, get from him the King’s Ring which will open access to the Throne, and eventually defeat Nashandra. You have the option to leave the throne, but this option wasn’t actually added until much later, in the Scholar of the First Sin update to the game.
But what is shared between you and Vendrick is a massive shift in your goals.
So stop to think: Vendrick’s initial goal is to cure Hollowing. The original plan is to ascend the Throne of Want, but that plan falls through as time goes on, and eventually Vendrick abandons it. As he tries to figure out a new plan, he learns more about his queen, and then suddenly his goal changes completely: he now is no longer concerned with curing Hollowing, but with preventing Nashandra from taking the throne at all costs.
Conversely, your own goals shift. Your initial goal is also to cure Hollowing, though specifically just your own Hollowing. And so you simply wind up at Drangleic to find out what information you can. But as more is revealed to you, suddenly your goal becomes “succeed Vendrick as the True Monarch.”
And where do these shifts come from?
This is the core theme of DS2. How we begin with goals and plans, but as time goes on those goals and plans change. And as a consequence of that changing we lose some part of ourself in the process. At the beginning of the game you have a fairly clear goal, but by the end…what are you doing? Why are you doing it?
The same idea is reflected in Vendrick’s own downfall: he had a goal, but once that goal changes, what is there left to do? Once he has escaped Nashandra, what is there left for him?
Recall the nature of Hollowing from the previous essay: once you lose your sense of purpose, you go Hollow. And that loss can result from giving up, or from success. Sometimes winning becomes a form of losing.
And so think about your own character. You came to Drangleic in search of a cure for Hollowing, and instead you find the Throne of Want. And upon ascending the Throne…what is left to do? Of course, in ascending the Throne you are linking the First Flame and resetting the clock. But if we recall the story of Dark Souls, we know that the end result of that is going Hollow. Our own narrative journey is self-defeating – by winning we wind up losing, and don’t even realize it until it’s too late.
I think the final sequence is really emblematic of this sense that the victory isn’t really a victory. The player character sits at the Throne, and the doors shut, trapping the character within this confined space. You have taken the Throne of Want, you have become the True Monarch…and for what? What will you accomplish in that tiny space? Once the doors are shut, you are left only with darkness.
This idea of shifting goals and the loss we suffer is most clearly represented by the other characters you meet throughout the game. Just about every single NPC you interact with begins their conversation by mentioning that they are in Drangleic for…some reason.
I don’t mean that in a snarky way. I mean that in the most serious sense I can convey: the characters themselves don’t know why they came to Drangleic anymore. I mentioned before that the kingdom has a sense of mysticism about it, and part of that mysticism is that it almost seems to rob people of their memories. People show up in Drangleic, but wind up forgetting what they were supposed to be doing.
For some characters, forgetting their immediate goals winds up being okay. Some of them have things that they are able to care for. Two characters that end up residing in the central hub area – Majula – are the blacksmith Lenigrast and Chloanne. Lenigrast is undead and basically sticks to his craft. He has mostly lost his memory, excepting that he remembers he has a daughter, and that’s he’s a blacksmith. The daughter, by the way, is Chloanne. Ironically, Chloanne does not recognize her father. Both have come to Drangleic for different reasons, but eventually lose parts of themselves in different ways. Lenigrast loses his memories of his homeland, while Chloanne loses memories of her family. And both ultimately forget why they came to Drangleic.
Another character in Majula we could look to is Maughlin the Armorer. He is a merchant who sells – naturally – armor to the player. When you first encounter him, he is very shy and meek. He is not a successful merchant, and seems ultimately more concerned with going home than trying to build a business in Drangleic. But if you start buying things from his shop, he gains more and more confidence. And at a certain point, Maughlin feels that he is rich…so rich that he might as well stay. Of course, in finding that success, he starts to lose sense of who he really is and where “home” was. You could almost imagine him going Hollow, because he barely even seems to care about selling once he reaches this point. He came to Drangleic for an unknown reason, began with the goal of trying to get home, and then over time that goal shifted to simply being a merchant…but in turn he has lost himself.
The final example that is useful to turn to is another Majula character – the cartographer Cale. You find Cale out in one of the first areas of the game, at which point he returns to the little village. Inside the house that Cale is squatting in he has discovered a large map, which Cale is certain is a map of Drangleic. But he doesn’t quite have proof, and he is hoping you’ll help. Cale is not certain of why he came to Drangleic in the first place, but this map fascinates him and gives him a purpose. But as more of the map is filled out, he starts to lose sense of himself, until he eventually goes Hollow and attacks you.
The theme back from Dark Souls about how helping people is sometimes not the best idea is brought back again. But now the idea is visited from this new angle. As characters spend time in Drangleic and complete their respective quests, their goals change. And as those goals change, they lose a part of themselves. Sometimes it’s a small part, and they’re able to keep going, like with Lenigrast and Chloanne. Sometimes it’s a much bigger part, and they undergo a massive shift in who they are or even go Hollow, like with Maughlin and Cale. But the idea is that in chasing our desires, we lose a part of ourselves in the process. There is something almost destructive about want.
Alright, so let’s step back and look at our actual journey through DS2. Here’s where we get to see this theme presented in our own interaction with the game.
We as a player have no way of interacting with the world except through our character, and so we are fundamentally tied to the character and their journey. But in tying us in that way, we are also forced to share in the confusion that comes with it.
Recall that our character originally arrives in Drangleic to seek a cure for Hollowing. We don’t have much information to go on, but at least we have a goal. We have something to do. So we press forward, and it is shortly after starting that we come to Majula and meet one of the key NPCs of the game – the Emerald Herald. The Herald explains that we need to find King Vendrick, and to do that we first need to find four “powerful souls” that will open the way to the castle. So that provides us with our first main quest.
But we should note that the Herald’s directions mention nothing about why we’re originally in Drangleic, nor refer in any way to Hollowing. We’re just told to go find Vendrick, and here’s what we need to do.
Pretty much immediately our questline changes, and neither our character nor we as player bat an eye. We progress from one boss to another not necessarily for any real narrative purpose, but because it’s there. Because we want to play the game, and the next thing to do is simply defeat these enemies, kill this boss, progress to the next area, and repeat.
And when the quest to find Vendrick becomes a quest to succeed Vendrick by ascending the Throne of Want, we again don’t think about it. We just accept the new task as though it is simply part of the process.
And in doing all of that, we are losing part of ourselves. We are forgetting what we’re doing and why we’re here. Both in the sense that our character is losing their sense of why they’re in Drangleic, but we are losing our sense of why we’re playing the game.
Which is why the ending is so poignant. We sit at the Throne, the doors close on us, and all we are left with is…why did we just do that?
This is the fascinating meta-narrative component of the game. The game is essentially warning us in numerous ways that we are going to forget who we are, and that is precisely what happens. We as players simply accept new tasks as they’re given to us without question, and by the time we’ve moved on we completely forget what we were doing, how we got here, and so on.
If Dark Souls has a meta-narrative that focuses on quitting, Dark Souls 2 has a meta-narrative focused on playing. DS2 continually invites us to think about the fact that our journey through these games – and really any game – is a quest through a set of objectives, which are continually handed to us without any ability for us as the player to think about them. And we as players don’t think about them: we just do what we’re asked because that’s what we’re supposed to do – that’s what we expect games to do to us. It is a poignant commentary on how we relate to games in general, almost a case of poking fun at us as players. Why are we really here, playing these games? Is it really worth it?
Of course, we can ultimately arrive at the conclusion that it is all worth it. Whether because we find the game fun, or because we want to see the story through to the end, or because we want to overcome a challenge, and so on. DS2 does not invite these questions merely to pull the rug away and tell us that our journey genuinely was pointless. But it asks us to just take a moment to think about that question. It is an opportunity for us as players to consider what we’re doing – why do we play this game…why do we play any game?
It’s easy to say that DS2 is the weakest in the series, pointing to issues with hitboxes, the Adaptability stat, complaining about boss design or the world layout. These changes are going to be a source of debate within the community for a long time, sometimes in good faith – though very often in bad faith.
But I think that we should remember that as much as the FromSoftware games inspire love because of their mechanics and layout – how they work as games – we should also be paying attention to them as stories. And the ways that they use all of these components to explore themes of games and gaming. We can kill Gwyn and Vendrick and the Lords of Cinder over and over and over again, but at a certain point those victories are going to feel hollow. There’s only so many different ways you can triumph over the game before that triumph loses its meaning because it doesn’t feel special.
But the narratives, lore, and theming of these games are sources for near-infinite discussion. They are a way for us to share the experience with other people, to bond with others over a shared love of the game. You and I can beat these games, but our experiences may be so vastly different that it’s hard to do more than just congratulate each other on a job well done. But it’s by digging down more into the details of these games – talking about design, narratives, and so on – that we can communicate on a deeper level.
And that’s why I still really enjoy Dark Souls 2. I agree with a lot of the criticisms of it. I agree that it’s the weakest of the trilogy. But there is a beauty in it that still makes me say it is a good game. It is a beauty that leads me to sympathize far more with those who say it is their favorite than with those who scream about it being terrible. I agree with the latter, but the former are those who are worth carrying a conversation with.