What Dark Souls is Really About
[Note: Very mild Dark Souls spoilers ahead.]
The Dark Souls franchise has been so influential both inside and outside the games industry that it almost feels like an insult to spend too much time introducing it. Though far from perfect in every respect, few franchises are better examples of a whole being greater than the sum of the parts; the uncompromising design, the audio and visuals, the multiplayer-without-social take on online play – every component feels right at home in a series that demands that you either love it on its own terms, or leave it alone altogether.
The storytelling in the franchise has also received a fair bit of attention. Some would call it “light-handed”, others “convoluted and weird”. I for one love the fact that the story and lore are “opt-in”, in a way that only really works in the video game format. Much of the story is found through careful observation of the environment and the reading of item descriptions, and since there is so much that the player can overlook or fail to contextualise, the plot will likely retain an air of mystery and ambiguity even for the most thorough of players. Additionally, the player character is written into the story of each game only after some great calamity has struck its world, letting the player feel like some sort of dark fantasy CSI agent, figuring out what the hell happened by fighting their way through and examining a massive crime scene.
As for the plot itself, there’s been a fair bit of coverage that takes it at face value, like what can be found on the excellent VaatiVidya channel. Others have taken another route, looking at the whole thing through a more Freudian lens, as in this The Philosophy of Dark Souls video. For my part, I was always leaning more towards the former point of view, taking the game at its word for most of the franchise, accepting it as the kind of quirky fiction one would expect to result from writers seeing Western fantasy through Japanese eyes. I really didn’t feel like I had any reason to be suspicious of the game in this regard. Until, towards the end of Dark Souls 3, when I bumped into this character:
Her name is Karla. She’s very helpful, as she can read spell tomes, and teach you spells, that other NPCs can’t. She also identifies herself as a “monstrosity” and a “child of the abyss”; an anomaly among the game’s already eccentric cast of characters. So it’s not unfitting that she’s also the one who finally broke the fourth wall for me, and dragged me down the rabbit hole that I’m about to invite the rest of you into. And all it took was this one chunk of monologue:
“There is one thing that you should know.”
“There is a darkness within man, and I am afraid you will peer into it.”
“Whether the fear will spark self-reflection, or a ruinous nostalgia…”
“…is up to you entirely.”
“Fear not, your choice will bring you no scorn.”
I paused. Then I triggered the line again. And again. Self-reflection? Nostalgia? What the hell was this lady talking about?
Slowly, the gears inside my head started to turn. It was like the big jigsaw puzzle that I’d been putting together while playing the Souls games had suddenly fallen apart, and now the pieces didn’t fit together any more. Moreover, I remembered statements made by the game’s developers that I’d originally not given a second thought, but that now made a whole different kind of sense.
After finishing Dark Souls 3 I immediately proceeded to run through the previous two games again just to make sure that my theory held up. From the second the opening cinematic of Dark Souls concluded, I felt that yes – there really was something to this. I felt clever. But also apprehensive, afraid even. Because once one has learned that a work of art is, in fact, filled with allegory and metaphor as I felt that I had, would it ever again be possible to enjoy it as the piece of escapism one initially fell in love with? Or would one’s perspective forever be tainted? If you’re struggling to answer that question for yourself, you may want to stop reading here.
For everyone else, here’s my theory:
Dark Souls isn’t really about what it seems to be about. Instead, it’s a commentary on itself. It’s a metaphor for what it’s like being a struggling artist in a harsh market, specifically (but not exclusively) working in the games industry. It tackles topics such as impostor syndrome, becoming a victim of your own success, overcoming adversity through repeated failure, becoming disillusioned with your heroes and role models, and having to decide whether you want to risk stepping out of your comfort zone or if you’d rather succumb to the temporary warmth of sticking to what you already know how to do – rekindling the flame at the expense of everything else the future might hold if you didn’t.
If this last paragraph was enough to make you want to go and replay the games for yourselves, I’d be more than happy. Confirmation bias is a real problem whenever one tries to look for patterns, so the fewer of my own interpretations you’ve read before coming up with your own conclusions, the better. That being said, I’m going to provide a few more bits of evidence below for those who aren’t yet convinced.
First of all, I want to touch on the symbolism of “the flame” throughout the Dark Souls series. In my interpretation, the flame that one is trying to rekindle can be thought to symbolise the franchise itself – but also at a higher level of abstraction it can mean any work of inspiration, or indeed an entire artistic paradigm encompassing multiple works. The lore of Dark Souls itself talks about the “age of fire” after all.
The fire is destined to fade and give way to darkness, unless the Chosen Undead can rekindle it by conquering the throne. Doing so, however, means simply repeating a cycle and postponing the inevitable. Fire is destined to fade; games have a finite “lifetime value”, and eventually you’ll have to make a choice to either rekindle it again or to risk Darkness descending upon the world. Darkness is not inherently bad, as within it may be found embers which might themselves grow to become great fires in the future. But there are no guarantees (read: going bankrupt while trying to make another hit is a real possibility). And even if you do succeed in making something new and fresh, you may well find yourself in a position to have to make the same choice yet again. In fact, the whole thing is summed up beautifully in the first few sentences of this Honest Trailer for Dark Souls 3. Quote:
“From the developers of some of your favourite niche franchises comes a series so successful, it ensured they’d never make one of those again.”
That’s what I mean when I say that one of the themes is “being a victim of your own success”.
If you want something more “from the horse’s mouth”, consider what From Software spokesperson Yasunori Ogura said in an interview with Swedish games magazine Level about the studio’s evolution as a developer:
“I actually think that it’s been to our advantage that all of the games we produced weren’t very good. One learns a lot by making bad games. We’re good game developers today because of all the mistakes we made ten years ago.”
This is something reflected beautifully in the game’s way of handling death. Though the specifics vary in subtle ways between the different Souls games, you’re generally punished for dying in various ways. Death results in a lowering of your maximum health, which actually makes the game slightly harder each time you respawn – or at least one would expect it to. Because just like when you fail at making games, what you’ve gained in knowledge and skill is often worth more than what you’ve lost in “hard” resources. In Dark Souls these resources may be maximum health or “humanity” or a big chunk of currency. In real life it might be prestige, publisher/partner relationships or… a big chunk of currency. But the point is that by making the mistakes, you will ultimately have earned more than you’ve lost; you will have made a net profit in overall capability, and the hit game that lets you redeem yourself and reclaim your resources and your humanity will now be more attainable than it was before you suffered all those setbacks.
Here’s Karla again, voicing a similar sentiment:
“Oh, are you lost on your journey?
No matter; today’s lost are conquerors tomorrow.
It only demonstrates the making of a champion.”
Unless, of course, you succumb to despair and lack of direction and go hollow, becoming just another zombie with no hope of ever lighting a fire again. When asked about how it felt to not be making Dark Souls any more, series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki said this to Kotaku:
“I’m actually working on the DLC for Dark Souls 3, and have been focusing on a number of new projects. With how busy I’ve been, I really haven’t had much time to feel hollow, so to speak.”
When he says it like that, the whole thing feels so in-your-face that I feel a bit dumb for not having figured it out sooner, though I do think that these themes have gotten a bit more blatant in Dark Souls 3 than they were in its predecessors. Even the intro cinematic is full of what I can’t help but feel are real-world parallels. Quote:
“The fire fades… and the lords go without thrones. […] Only, in truth… the lords will abandon their thrones…”
Kind of like these guys?
Now, this interpretation doesn’t really work if “the fire” means Dark Souls itself. But it does work if one zooms out, and as I hinted earlier, see these people as key contributors to a game development paradigm or an era, rather than any one game. The idea that From Software must’ve felt like walking in the footsteps of giants when making their third person combat and exploration game is not really that far-fetched. I remember reading somewhere that they felt that the Devil May Cry franchise had set a gold standard for third person combat mechanics that their own efforts would most likely be measured against. Only the most arrogant would take that challenge lightly.
Then there’s the player character in Dark Souls 3, who is different from those who have gone before him, in that he himself is not able to kindle the fire on his own. Quote from the intro cutscene:
“… and the unkindled will rise. Nameless, accursed undead… Unfit even to be cinder. And so it is… that ash seeketh embers.”
Perhaps the character is meant to represent Hidetaka Miyazaki himself. According to Wikipedia he
“…began playing the 2001 video game Ico, causing him to consider a career change to a game designer. At age 29 however, Miyazaki found that few game companies would employ him, with one of the few being FromSoftware, where Miyazaki began working as a planner on Armored Core: Last Raven in 2004, joining the game’s development halfway through.”
What’s this meant to represent? Well, a nameless, accursed undead, unfit to even be cinder might well mean someone who is not themselves a game developer (and thus unfit to lit the fire on their own), but who has stake in the fire being lit (or not!). That could mean Miyazaki in his early career, suffering from serious impostor syndrome. But it could also mean something else entirely.
In the game, the player must literally drag the Lords back to their thrones against their will, dead or alive, to keep the flame going. Indeed, most of the aforementioned dialogue during the intro cutscene to Dark Souls 3 shows someone dragging a lifeless corpse while a bonfire burns in the foreground.
So perhaps the main character in Dark Souls 3 is not meant to represent a person, but rather market forces, like publishers or indeed the consumers themselves, leveraging their financial muscle to make it impossible for these Lords to let the fire fade and reimagine themselves. They’d have to keep doing what they always have in one form or another.
Kind of like these guys?
This interpretation should then be kept in mind when examining the game’s different endings. [Spoiler alert!] What does it mean to usurp the flame? What does it mean to do it for the benefit of the Hollows? [End spoiler.]
There is more. Like how so many of the bosses in the game, especially the ones key to the canon, are both awe-inspiring and tragic at the same time. Powerful, terrifying and decaying. Shadows of their former glory, slaves to powers greater than themselves. Those among us who’ve had the chance to work with people we idolised as kids will have no problem understanding the parallel. There’s something depressing about finding that someone who once seemed so powerful and influential to our industry is now being “kept alive” artificially, as some sort of mascot, to add “star power” to products; just another piece among many in an elaborate marketing ploy. Having been Hollow for a long time, they don’t really contribute any value to the project itself, and are only really in it for a pay check these days.
There is still more. The witches of Izalith and their chaos flame. The Scholar of the First Sin. Dragons. Disparity. True Dark. This guy, so easily forgotten:
Small… like a Pygmy..? *dramatic reveal music*
But no list that I provide can ever beat playing through the games with this perspective in mind. I invite you to do this. Maybe you’ll find that my thesis doesn’t really work for you. Maybe my interpretation of the game says more about me as an observer than it does about what’s being observed. Maybe I’m simply projecting experiences from my own career onto From Software and their work. Maybe you’ll choose to devise a theory of your own.
Or maybe you’ll choose to leave well enough alone. Maybe you have strong feelings about your current understanding of the franchise. Maybe you see no point in trying to poke holes in it and risk losing a treasured memory.
It’s up to you entirely. Fear not, your choice will bring you no scorn.