I won’t be the person who proclaims everyone should love Dark Souls. By its very concept, the game is incredibly divisive amongst the gaming community, some like its challenge and others falter in its wake. But for me, Dark Souls can be appreciated by all – because it’s a fantastic story. Spoilers? Lots of them!
It would be fair to say it took time for Dark Souls to grow on me.
It was the very concept that baffled me, as I got lost very quickly after leaving The Undead Asylum for the first time. I instead headed down into the graveyard, where some rather powerful skeletons decided to spank me around a little bit with their shields and swords. And when I was getting the hang of those, suddenly – towering huge skeletons with huge two-handed blades slamming my face into the dirt. And when I had FINALLY managed to clear that area and headed deeper into the bowels of The Catacombs, I realised the skeletons were respawning on me. They would not die, and then I found a humanoid – a Necromancer – and struggled to take him down. Which, eventually, I did.
At no point was I meant to do this, because I should have taken the turn up into Undead Burg, but by the time I’d realised this, I was actually realising something important. Sure, it was masochistic and punishing to do this area at such low levels. It would of course have been easier to take it on later, with Divine Weapons and perhaps a Quelaag’s Furysword in tow, but I didn’t. I was taking it on at level twelve, as a thief build with a poxy little dagger that had the slicing power of a stalk of celery, and making headway with it to boot.
This taught me a lot – that if you time things well, and think carefully, the game isn’t that linear. It’s quite open in many regards, save a few required bosses. But in playing it without the aid of guides, what struck me about Dark Souls most of all was not its difficulty – which you adapt to, it makes you a better gamer – or its gorgeous vistas, nor was it the feeling that it was doing something perhaps Castlevania could have done had they not decided to ape God of War. It was the story. The NPCs. The general feeling of oppression and loneliness in this time-stalled, inhospitable land.
For you see, Dark Souls is a game that doesn’t thrust a story into your face. Your journey, and its many variant threads, is the story. And this can be enhanced, enriched and enlivened by those you meet along the way. Whether it be a co-op partner that wants to fight a boss with you for some free souls and humanity, an enemy invader wearing something that makes them look like a can of condensed soup or the many NPCs that are littered along the way, each with their own story arc and bitter endings – the story is yours to tell. The game is framed to ensure that you, and you alone, dictate your inevitable fate.
Which is often one of death. Your character is, after all, an undead – marked, branded, cursed. Those tainted with the Darksign are ferried north, away from the warmth of civilisation, to the Asylum – a place for them to spend their days waiting for the end of the world, or at least their last days of sanity. For you see, the problem with the Darksign is one of hollow – a state of being whereby the very soul has escaped the body, all trace of sentience and humanity lost for all of time. Whilst it isn’t told, you understand in this very realisation why the Undead are ferried away from the rest of the human race – their existence is too much of a risk, the chance they could become hollow and kill indiscriminately too great. As cold and harsh as it is to expel someone from the human world into a region where time means nothing at all, the reasoning behind it is one of basic survival of the human species. Why keep around someone who you know could snap and kill you without any hesitation, no emotion or mercy to stay their hand? The Undead Asylum is not a harsh lonely prison – it’s a necessary evil, a fortress designed to protect thousands more innocent lives at the expense of one.
This is not reading too much into it either. The very framework of the game tells a tale, if only you pause long enough to see it.
Your character is, his or herself, an undead. Trapped, no-where to go. So you venture onwards to find that this area has a rather big demon in it – the Asylum Demon, a massive hulking chunk of demonic flesh with an incredible hammer. In this, you understand that this is in itself a failsafe – the Asylum Demon stands as a guardian, a keeper, something destined to one day fall to the chosen one. An undead who, by constant rebirth in the flames, will venture onwards to a greater destiny. Those who fall to its might are not worthy of progression – they are destined to continue to be thwarted by this creature.
And yet, thwarted it can be – whether it be in the power of Black Firebombs, or falling upon it from a height after running from it initially, you will encounter an NPC soldier along the way explains that an undead every so often is chosen to venture beyond the Asylum, to the ancient ruined landscape of Lordran; a place where the fabric and passage of time has stalled. This soldier, sadly, knows his fate. He is destined to go hollow. But encountering you, he feels his place may be to point you in that direction. Maybe his part in the grand scheme of things is simply as a waystone, someone to point in a vague direction the hero of legend.
Lordran itself is an unusual place, with many interesting locales and enemies. From the hollows who litter it, drawn and indeed taunted by the humanity in ones very body, to the Knights of Lord Gwyn, a brigade of huge named and nameless armoured husks who, upon his own ascension into the flames, consumed their bodies. These people were not meant to ascend themselves, and so their very beings were twisted and taken by the very thing that was supposed to save them. Whether this is why the great Lord Gwyn went mad is never mentioned; but he clearly doomed many a good man in his quest to harness the power of the fire. They dot the landscape, guarding ancient treasures or acting as barriers into more fertile lands, again waiting for those who will free them. It is interesting to point out that many of these Knights are actually mortal – they can die, permanently, and they cannot return. They themselves are not undead – their humanity lost, but their bodies were never meant for rebirth. Their end at your hands is the end of their tale – their release from the curse that blights them.
Indeed, it is strange that “Undead” doesn’t always mean eternal. It varies from person to person, and the tales that unfold in this confusing place are both inspiring and moving. You have your Firekeeper, Anastacia of Astora, the Ash Maiden – a silent woman whose soul is tied to the bonfire above her. Under the right circumstances, she can be made to speak again – but only briefly, as her voice was removed ages beforehand. Her rescue at your hands undoes this punishment, and yet it is a gift alien to her – speech seems unnecessary. She is locked behind bars, fenced off from the world, her only task in this place of limitless time is to keep the fire burning. You have Seigmeyer of Catarina – a stalwart, proud hero of his land who has unfortunately found himself branded with the Darksign. His story seems almost parallel to yours, until later his daughter, Seiglinde, comes into the equation. She, it is made clear, is NOT an undead nor does she carry the Darksign. But she is here to support her father, and kill him if he goes hollow. Worryingly, she alludes at times to having to kill him “again”, as if this is not the first time she has had to end her fathers life.
Everyone has a story – some can be saved on this treacherous, difficult road – Siegmeyer can be saved. Solaire of Astora, a faithful summoned hand, can be spared his own rotten fate. Worryingly, Solaire even alludes that he himself purposefully branded himself with the Darksign to find a light that would let him rival that of the sun itself. This is a man on a mission, and his story can spiral out of control. He can assist the final fights, and be very useful. Or he can meet a cruel end, discovering a light that does indeed make him stand out – but one that, unfortunately, then robs him of any purpose in life. This weakness allows for a cruel and unusual punishment, one that you can take no real pleasure in seeing.
Even the bosses have tales to tell – Quelaag the Chaos Witch, a being whose peoples were cursed a thousand years prior, a blend of spider and young woman. They had reached out to the Bed of Chaos, but in doing so, were punished for their greed in doing so – to be hideous abominations. You feel sorry for them, as Quelaan (also known as the Daughter of Chaos) is a woman whose body seems to react differently to her human upper half – pumping out eggs to infect passing undead, those who are eager to please. It is alluded that these eggs rob those who they are attached to of free will – that the very curse is that the seven Daughters of Chaos enslave and corrupt the very individuals who want to help them. That a thousand years have gone by, and they are no closer to their release. As is noted by Quelana – a pyromancer tormented by the guilt that she ran away when the Bed of Chaos did its whole curse thing. She was spared the indignation – her sisters were not. And this haunts her.
The reason for this is many talk about the complex mechanics and the deep RPG notes and the well-crafted and hazardous environments. But no-one notes how beautifully the games tale unfolds. It is all in the hands of the player – everything is explained, if you take a moment to talk to those you meet. Everyone has a role to play in your story – the story of an undead with a mission, a purpose, perhaps even as a saviour. You can ignore them and focus on the game as a simple game – and miss out on many secrets and items. To discover everything, you need to take the human step and interact with others, see what they do, buy what they offer. Their fates, tied or not to your own, offer glimpses of a human element. These people are fallible. Their tales are not of great heroics or deeds, they are often of shame, greed or simple idle curiosity.
And whilst Dark Souls may indeed not have reams and reams of narrative, the truth is – less is more here. You don’t hear someones life story the first time you meet them. It’s not always obvious why they are there, or why you are there, or why there’s a talking crow or why there’s a dragon guy who looks suspiciously like a penis (My brothers comment, not mine!) and transports you by effectively gulping you in its mouth and dragging you down into the depths. You control the flow of information, you control your destiny – and the destiny of others.
Dark Souls works as a narrative because it can be a shallow, challenging dungeon crawl if you want. Or you can scratch at it a little more and uncover an emotional, moral mess of human complication.
People may not all love it as a game, but as a story – it’s exquisitely told. And I hope if nothing else, in the future we can look back at this game and all agree that it is one of the finest tales in gaming in years – sure it has a few cliches, and sure it’s got its problems. But you control how much story you get. How much the game feeds you, and how the fates of those you meet will begin – or end – in the flames.
You get out what you want to get out of it. Few games offer that much freedom. And few rarely touch on human failings or the human condition.
Dark Souls does. And it’s a triumph because of it.