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Spoiler Warning: As you can easily guess, this essay is going to spoil significant portions of Dark Souls III, will also rely on the reader being fairly familiar with the preceding games.
So the natural endpoint of discussing the theming of Dark Souls and Dark Souls II is to discuss the third game. And here’s where things are probably going to get weird – relatively speaking, anyway. Because in trying to wrap my head around DS3’s themes, I’ve been having a harder time. Not in the sense that it doesn’t have themes, but in trying to figure out something that would differentiate the game from its predecessors.
DS3 is one of those games that made some pretty significant changes to the formula, though not entirely for the better. And yet, it is at its core the same game as its forebears. There have been so many analyses of the mechanical differences between the three Souls games that it feels almost pointless to write an essay on them.
But I think what’s bothered me the most about DS3 is a more recent take on its storytelling. About two months ago a video essayist named Noah Caldwell-Gervais, who does a lot of longform content on various video games and game franchises, did a retrospective on the trilogy. Specifically a retrospective from the standpoint of a new player: Noah only recently got into the series after having been scared away by annoying fans and the buildup surrounding Dark Souls as an incredibly difficult game. It was nice to see him engage with the material on his own terms and have a lot of fun with the games, and it is experiences like this where people are allowed to just play a game for themselves and figure out whether they like it or not and what they decide to like that marks the wonderful variety of video games as a medium.
Suffice to say, I didn’t agree with everything in Noah’s video. I had minor quibbles here and there, but not much of major significance, though. I am primarily sympathetic to his position about the relationship between the game’s mechanisms of leveling and summoning and the perception of diehard fans that using these systems is “cheesing” the game. While I am one of those players who also never summons and tries to beat the game entirely on my own, I do this entirely as a matter of personal preference, and recognize that as such. I do not regard anyone who uses summons or magic or anything else as a “lesser” player. I agree with analyses that point out how all of these systems are specifically intended to be used by players. In a sense, I would more readily agree with people who say I (and people like me) are playing the game “wrong.” Which is all to say that while I disagreed with things here and there in Noah’s video, a core point brought up over and over again was the idea that however we approach these games, that approach is valid, and we should not denigrate players just because they aren’t sufficiently hardcore in their playstyles.
The major disagreement I had with Noah’s video was in his analysis of Dark Souls III’s narrative and theming. And I don’t blame him for his take at the end of the day. Noah points to a lot of repetition of characters and ideas and blasts them for being mere references to previous triumphs: “hey, remember this character you loved, well here he is again!”
To some extent, my desire to write these essays on theming in games is driven by that disagreement – which of course makes this a long windup for what will probably be an unsatisfying payoff. Because the theming of Dark Souls III relies on an understanding of the narrative, themes, and gameplay of the previous two games. People can leap into DS3 perfectly fine. But to analyze it thematically, we kind of need to see the whole series at once.
So this essay is going to presume a basic familiarity with the games, as well as knowledge about the themes of Dark Souls and DS2. In particular I’m going to be building indirectly on a lot I said back in the essay about DS2.
We could definitely look at the Souls series in general as being about cycles. You have cycles of life and death, cycles of success and failure, cycles of rebirth, cycles of eras, and so on. And the games themselves undergo a kind of cyclical nature as well – each new game starts you as the player over in order to basically accomplish the same task.
But the interesting thing about DS3 is that it is the end of the cycle. By which I mean that this game was designed with the intent that there would be no more games in the Dark Souls series. FromSoftware has of course made other games which may or may not have sequels and spinoffs, and they are still developing games in general. But Dark Souls specifically is done (or, at least, is supposed to be done).
And I don’t think that this finality is merely coincidental. I see a lot of stuff in the design of the game that doesn’t just merely state that this is the end, but actually explores the reasons why this needs to be the end. Why FromSoftware – and we as players – need to move on.
I suggested in the Dark Souls II essay that a core component of the theming was a meta-commentary on how we as players engage with the game. By contrast, Dark Souls III involves a meta-commentary on how FromSoft engages with the game.
I think one of the problems with analyzing the theming of DS3 is that in many respects it is the weakest narratively and thematically of the three games. The game is still working within the boundaries of the Souls mechanics and narrative and world, and thus can’t really accomplish as much or say much that is new. But I also think these constraints are a strength and help to solidify the thematic element of stagnation that is being explored in DS3. This claim sounds paradoxical, but it will make sense by the end.
I wanted to tackle this essay in the order of explaining the narrative, then the characterization, and then end with a discussion of gameplay. The reason why I tackle things in this order will become clear as we dive deeper.
Dark Souls III takes place far in the future of both DS and DS2. With the First Flame constantly fading and being rekindled, there have been multiple cycles of decay and rebirth. Multiple kingdoms that have risen and fallen over the millennia.
Over the course of these cycles, five special figures have taken up a particular mantle known as being Lords of Cinder. Their role is preparing the way for someone else to sacrifice themselves to the First Flame and renew the cycle. The five Lords are Aldrich of the Deep (an oozing mass of god-eating goo), Ludleth of Courland (a diminutive man whose backstory is unknown), the giant Yhorm (one of the race of giants introduced in DS2), the Watchers of the Abyss (a group of fighters who are essentially acolytes of the ways of Artorias, a major character from the DLC to Dark Souls), and Prince Lothric (a frail young man who was actually supposed to link the fire, but decided not to).
There’s just one problem: of those five Lords, only Ludleth is sitting at his throne. The other four have wandered off to somewhere else, essentially abandoning the world. So your job as an “Ashen One” is to bring those Lords back. And how do you do that? Well, you kill them and put their skulls on their respective thrones. That should be enough, right?
Once you collect your four Lords and everyone is ready, you open the way to the Kiln of the First Flame, where you find the Soul of Cinder, a boss that is the physical manifestation of everyone who has kindled the flame beforehand. This manifestation is shown by the Soul switching between different weapons and movesets that mimic stuff the player can do (a faith build, a strength build, a dexterity build, a magic build), and culminates in the second phase where the Soul adopts the moveset of Gwyn from the first game.
This story is pretty short and likely sounds familiar: fight four big bosses so you can rekindle the First Flame. Keep that in the back of your mind.
The really interesting stuff comes with the DLCs. The first DLC released was Ashes of Ariandel. There, the player is sent into a painted world covered with snow. This is literally a repetition of the Painted World of Ariamis from Dark Souls, only now the area is much more expanded. As you explore this Painted World you find a bunch of areas that are very clearly rotted away, and you encounter a number of decrepit bird creatures, one of which begs for you to help burn the world away. This quest is actually at odds with the wishes of the final boss, Sister Freide. Freide wants to preserve the Painted World as it is, and thus works with Father Ariandel (after whom the world is named) to prevent any flame from sparking – in this case by having Ariandel literally flail himself and using his blood to put out any embers.
The story here introduces this concept of stagnation in a very direct sense with the world’s rotting, and the idea that it needs to be burned so that something new can arise. This theme is driven home more clearly by the small girl that you can save about halfway through the DLC. The girl is found later in a small loft in the main church area, and talks about trying to paint a new world for people to live in. But in order for her to create that painting, she needs to see flames – in order for a new world to be created, the old one must be destroyed entirely.
She also needs some paint, which is a bit of a problem. There aren’t any paint items in the game for you to give her. Luckily, the next DLC will solve that problem.
The second (and final) DLC to the game was The Ringed City, which really helped to drive home the sense of finality to the franchise. Players of the base game could certainly wonder if there would be a Dark Souls IV, but this DLC put to rest any such notions.
The Ringed City sends the player to the Dreg Heap, the literal end of the world. Here are a bunch of structures that are crumbling and turned to the dust (providing the player with safe spots to fall large distances). The initial sights of crumbling towers give way to views of more familiar places, such as Lothric Castle and Anor Londo. You even come across some ruins of a tower encountered in DS2. The idea is that the entire world is collapsing in upon itself. The exact reason why is never explained, but the explanation is less important than what it means.
The purpose of The Ringed City is to show how the Souls world is collapsing under its own weight. All of these facets that needs to be kept in order – the history of the world, the layout of areas, the lore, and so on – make this massive constraint upon FromSoftware. It is, essentially, too much. And so Dark Souls as a franchise needs to end, which means the world of the Souls games needs to end as well.
So as you journey through the Ringed City, you eventually reach a boss named Slave Knight Gael. Gael is the character that first tricks you into the Painted World, and occasionally may help you out against some bosses if you summon him. He reached the lords of the Ringed City, who supposedly hold the Dark Soul – the final soul given by the First Flame aaaaaall the way back in the first game. The problem is that the Dark Soul has “dried up.” So Gael eats the lords to consume their souls and use his blood to make the Dark Soul something more liquid. The point of all this is to create that paint the girl needs to form a new Painted World.
Eventually you defeat Gael, get the Dark Soul, and give it to the girl. Does this mean that you unlock a new area? Nope. You just get an extra line of dialogue. There is a new world to be created, but it is for someone else, not for you. Dark Souls is done.
I cover all of this because Dark Souls as a franchise started to become stagnant. There is only so much you can cover narratively and thematically in its world before things get stale. Hence the repetitive narrative: defeating four lords is something that both DS and DS2 had you do. The basic narrative is itself a cycle that you as the player are repeating. And if it feels boring or played out, it should.
I don’t think that this repetition, these visual elements of rotting, the ideas of burning away the old world and how the world is just literally collapsing in on itself are all accidental. These are elements that are all driving towards a point. FromSoft as a developer and we as players have gotten stuck. The Souls games can’t really deviate too far from a prescribed formula, both because they need to remain consistent in their worldbuilding and because they have set an expectation for players about how the game just works. There is, of course, value in sticking with a particular property. But sticking with that property leads to stagnation and stifles creation. And we as players struggle to see how that stagnation impacts us – how we have difficulty thinking of any other form of game as acceptable as the Souls games. Everything needs to be compared to Dark Souls. DS2 and DS3 need to be compared to the first game, and other games need to be compared to the series. It is stifling for us, because we are unable to engage with a wider range of experiences.
The Souls games have always had rather limited characters with fairly deep stories, and DS3 isn’t all that different. You usually have trainers for particular skills, a handful of merchants, and then a few additional characters who have their own special questlines (often pretty obtuse in their design).
Of course, strictly speaking, the enemies and bosses are also characters in their own ways in these games. They come with their backstories and motivations that can be determined through careful examination of lore and environment and placement.
I mention these things because the main criticism I saw from Noah’s video was pointing to a few key characters as being emblematic of this idea that DS3 is nothing other than a kind of empty repetition of highlights from previous games. The main examples are the character Siegward, and the bosses the Watchers of the Abyss and Aldrich.
Siegward as a character is colloquially known as “Onion Knight,” because his armor is white and bulbous like an onion (the top of his helmet even has a little spike on top, kind of like an onion’s stem). But important is that Siegward isn’t the first Onion Knight. In Dark Souls there was a character named Siegmeyer, who not only wore the same armor, but actually speaks the same way as Siegward (they’re actually both voiced by the same voice actor). The questlines for Siegward and Siegmeyer in their respective games are roughly the same: they often get stuck in various places, and your job is to help them out, usually by killing stuff in front of them so they can progress.
The Watchers of the Abyss are one of the Lords of Cinder. This is a slightly confusing statement, because the Watchers aren’t one person, but rather a collection of fighters. The Watchers essentially dedicated themselves to fighting back the encroaching Abyss (the darkness that you encounter in the DLC to the first game). But important to their design is that they are effectively a fan club dedicated around Knight Artorias – the first knight to fight back against the Abyss. Their fighting style involves a lot of spins and flips, just as the Artorias fight in Dark Souls involved.
Aldrich is another one of the Lords of Cinder, and he is basically a big mess of goo. He began as a priest, but eventually started consuming other people. As he did so, he grew in power, and eventually was forced to link the First Flame because of his immense power. When he revives as a Lord, he basically leaves do to his own thing. During that time, he comes across one of the old gods of the realm, Gwyndolin (an optional boss you can fight in the first game), and eats him. When you fight Aldrich, you can see the form of Gwyndolin at the top, and many of Aldrich’s moves mimic Gwyndolin’s own moveset from the first game.
All of these examples could be met in a few ways. For some experienced players, especially those who were with the series from its inception, these characters and bosses might seem like a satisfying callback. A way of connecting the player’s journey through the three games they’ve been playing.
Noah’s take was that these characters felt dull. The repetition was trite, in such a way that it felt forced – FromSoft was including these things not for any real purpose, but just as a way of making references to things that past players would be familiar with. They’re the equivalent of an in-joke.
While I think a fair amount of Noah’s take is constructed in part from how he experienced the games (he played in rapid succession, whereas many other players would have had a long period of time between the referenced material and the reference itself), I think he’s actually onto something. I think his experience of these references as dull is right…just for the wrong reason.
Because the repetition of these characters is just a microcosm of the repetition of so many other things in Dark Souls III. The narrative, the gameplay, the world, and so on.
So think about how these characters work within the game’s own narrative. Siegward is a literal copy of Siegmeyer, right down to the studio hiring the same voice actor to do the same voice. They could have had the same actor do a slightly different voice. They could have hired a different voice actor. They could have retained the “reference” without needing to have a copy. But they consciously decided to go with a copy.
Or the two boss fights. Both the Watchers and Aldrich are essentially given in to corruption. While the Watchers are a large group of fighters, by the time you get to them only a few are actually alive to fight you – and one of those has been fully corrupted by the Abyss. And reaching them requires trudging through a bunch of crumbling towers mired in a massive, poisonous swamp. Meanwhile, the visual symbolism of Gwyndolin gives way to the gooey sludge of Aldrich – the imagery of Dark Souls is being literally eaten up. While the actual bosses invoke these memories, those memories exist within the confines of the corruption that surrounds them.
So in a sense, these references are supposed to feel somewhat cheap or hollow. They are supposed to feel like something from the original game is being corrupted. Because something is corrupted. The games are stagnating, and these references are a symptom of that stagnation.
So let’s step back and ask how the player experiences Dark Souls III.
A key problem, of course, is that the basic gameplay is the same. Combat is the same, leveling is the same, the corpse run is still there. FromSoftware has made changes along the edges to the basic formula – for one the game is a good deal faster – but it’s still the same basic gameplay.
But more than that, the experience of the DS3 is literally a repetition of the previous games.
I mentioned how the narrative of DS3 involved tracking down four big bosses to open the way to a final boss fight. But that setup isn’t just familiar…it’s the exact same setup used for the second half of Dark Souls and the first half of Dark Souls II. In the first two games, “boss collection” was a component of the game, one step among others. In this last game, boss collection is the entire point. It is an internal trope to the game design that the game has completely embraced.
Again, I don’t think this is accidental. DS3 could conceivably have any number of possible storylines to guide it. But if it were to provide a different quest for the player, it would also feel radically different from the other Souls games…so much that people would feel it is an unwarranted deviation from the formula. To make a game that feels like Dark Souls, the team is constrained by its past and the expectations that have been set. To make a truly new game, the team needs to move on.
So FromSoft is basically trapped as long as the Souls games remain alive. The series has stagnated, but keeps limping onward. What is the solution? The series needs to end. It needs to end in such a final way that there can be no question that it is done.
How is this shown to the player? Well, the main game suggests a continuation of the cycle – it leaves open the question of a Dark Souls IV. Of course, lurking within the main game is already the visual hinting that the series is corrupted, that it is being crushed and needs to be let go.
But then the DLCs basically push the player to witnessing and accepting that finality. The player becomes a participant in the end of the world. To truly complete the game to do everything, is to burn away the Painted World and kill off the last vestiges of the old world, just to prepare someone else to make a new magical painting. There is no way for the player to not accept the end of the series – you have utterly destroyed the world. There is nothing left for you. The only way to refuse the end is to refuse the game itself. If you want to play Dark Souls III, you need to actively destroy all hope for a sequel. If you don’t want to do that, you can’t play Dark Souls III (and, as a consequence, you remove all possibility for a sequel). The series ends no matter what. And the gameplay makes you an active participant in that ending.
I started on this journey about theming in the Souls games because they’ve always grabbed my attention in a way so few other games have. And much as I enjoy the games, there is always the lingering question of why FromSoft would want to end with DS3. After all, it’s a popular franchise. The studio could certainly churn out more games in the series for another decade or so and be fairly certain to make money off of it. So why just end it?
And I don’t think this feeling that there is a kind of emptiness to the third game is something restricted only to this one retrospective that I watched. It’s very common to see fans say that they like the first game the best, the second the least, and the third falls somewhere in the middle. And it’s hard for any sequel to overcome its predecessors. A sequel must always live in the shadow of what came before, and that shadow often haunts it.
And so as I reflect on that problem, I wonder if maybe there was an ultimate point to the references. If the finality was not just something done because FromSoft wanted to move on, but if they were trying to help us as the player see why they needed to move on. Both for their sake and for our own.
In a sense, this reflection makes me appreciate the final game more, but doesn’t move the needle too much. It’s a strange theme to explore in a game. It’s essentially a theme in a video game about how we shouldn’t play a game. And I’m not entirely sure that Dark Souls III succeeds on these terms. I don’t think it quite captures the idea of stagnation, the thematic finality that it needs, to get this idea fully across. The basic narrative certainly helps to suggest the end. And interviews with the studio’s director help to cement that idea. But it’s easy enough to find articles asking “Will there be a Dark Souls IV?” And the fact that these questions exist suggests that if I’m right – if FromSoft is really trying to get us to see that the Souls games are stagnating and we all need to move on – then at the end of the day it seems to have somewhat failed in communicating that theme.