Music fades away as you jog down an innocuous hallway. You chart a mental map of your surroundings, and check your inventory to see how much insurance you packed to help you survive. You reach the end of the hallway, and round the corner. There is a doorway and a white light. You traverse the light. A moment passes; another; then you are left with two celebratory words printed across the screen.
Welcome to “Dark Souls,” a world where no one holds your hand except to break your fingers. If you’ve played this punisher of a game, then you know that it takes the sentiment of “meeting with a terrible fate” to a whole new level. In PvP (‘player-versus-player’), your peers unite to kill you, seeing that you die even more frequently. And every inch of progress made comes with the quiet threat of being lost with your next death.
Today, the one meeting With a Terrible Fate is “Dark Souls.”
Like I did with “Xenoblade Chronicles,” I’m going to bracket a lot of the broader game culture in analyzing “Dark Souls.” From “praising the sun” to “trolling fellow players,” this game has had a substantial impact on the gaming climate at large. While this is certainly worthwhile to discuss, I’m more interested in understanding the fundamentals of what makes “Dark Souls” so frustrating and alluring at the same time. To that end, the argument I defend in this article is as follows: “Dark Souls” is a piece of art that is functionally mimetic of real life, while simultaneously maintaining the pretense of being a non-realistic video game. Furthermore, I posit that this thesis is the ultimate explanation both for why “Dark Souls” is so frustrating, as well as why it can be so rewarding. The argument goes in three parts: firstly, I examine the metaphysics of “Dark Souls” in comparison to my model of metaphysics in “Majora’s Mask”; secondly, I offer a means of understanding the role of narrative difficulty in “Dark Souls” by comparing it to James Joyce’s notorious Ulysses; lastly, I explain how dynamical nihilism and transcendentalism emerges from the experience of playing “Dark Souls.” (Please note also: this article only aims to analyze the actual game “Dark Souls,” as opposed to the entire series of which it is a member.)
We don’t need to dive too deeply into “Majora’s Mask” theory to get the point that’s useful for “Dark Souls.” Recall merely that Link is able to instantiate new timelines of Termina by playing the Song of Time, and that, together with the extension of player agency through Link, it follows that the player has the authority to direct the reality of Termina in relation to the shape of these timelines. So the universe is iterative by virtue of it being in constant decay, but the authority in choosing when to instantiate each iterant of Termina and how to shape those iterations is vested in the player.
In Dark Souls, the universe is not locally in flux, as is the case in “Majora’s Mask.” It is true that the narrative of the game takes place at a point when the world of Lordran is at a crossroads, when the Flame of the First Kiln, the primordial fire lighting the world, is weak; but the world is stable over the course of narrative, with its only potential change happening at the endgame (more on this later). The result is that the player and her character are dropped into a world that is substantively stable, unlike Termina; rather, in “Dark Souls,” it is the player’s character who is substantively unstable.
The player’s character is tethered to the reality of Lordran by the curse of the Darksign, which renders him deathless and causes him to respawn at the last bonfire he has found whenever he is killed. This mechanism leads to each death being narratologically significant, unlike the majority of games which merely “reset” each time a player dies, not counting the death as relevant to the progression of the narrative. So while both “Majora’s Mask” and “Dark Souls” tell a narrative in which the player’s relation to the universe is fundamentally iterative, the locus of iteration is drastically different in each case: Termina’s iterations depend on Link, whereas, in “Dark Souls”, the iterations of the player depend on the world’s metaphysical structure.
The difference in iterative locus might be interesting in a vacuum, but what makes it experientially crucial is its relation to the game’s stance on difficulty. Of course, it’s trivial to say merely that “Dark Souls” is an exceptionally trying video game, so I will be more precise with what I mean.
The “universal currency” of “Dark Souls,” as it were, is souls, which the player’s character reaps from corpses and enemies, and which can be used both to purchase items and to develop through the process of ‘leveling up’. In this way, souls unify the game concepts of currency and experience. But the fact that death counts in “Dark Souls” adds a caveat to the mechanism of soul collecting: whenever the player’s character dies, the total number of souls he was carrying is left as a pulsating green mass wherever the death occurred. The player then respawns at the last bonfire rested at. If the player can make it back to the point of prior death, then she can collect the lost souls and “recover”; however, if she dies again before reaching that point, then those souls are lost forever.
How does this set “Dark Souls” apart from other games? Well, one of the clearest metrics in my mind of what’s vaguely termed “game accessibility” is how a video game ascribes worth to the time someone spends playing it. For an example of what I mean, let’s return to my last analytic subject, “Xenoblade”: if one is traveling through the world, accruing money and experience, and is suddenly cut down by a powerful enemy, then one will respawn at a point which is proximate but prior to where the fatal encounter occurred. When one respawns in this way, all of the money and experience gained up to the very point of death is carried over to the respawn — and, if one dies again prior to the point of the first death, then that experience and money still remains. In this way, even if one dies in the game, the time one spent on the game leading up to that death is still worthwhile insofar as it served to advance the experience and funds of Shulk and his party.
Return now to “Dark Souls.” Suppose the same set of circumstances: the player advances through the world, amassing souls, and is then cut down. All the souls that the player was carrying at the time of death are separated from the player, and left at the point of death. The player returns to the last bonfire rested at. Suppose, now, that the player is killed before reaching the remains from the last death. The player returns to the same bonfire, and all souls acquired from the first leg of her adventure are lost. By returning to the same bonfire, no physical progress has been made through the game’s world; by losing the souls, no intangible value has been accrued. Now, one still might have acquired weaponry over the course of this endeavor, which would carry over, and ostensibly the player has hopefully learned something by the series of deaths; yet the potential loss of souls, relative to other games, implies to me that the game constantly puts the player under the threat of meaninglessness. The reason that loss of souls feels so devastating is that the fundamentals of the game conceptually link loss of souls to rendering your interaction with the game worthless. “Dark Souls” directly imposes the nihilism of its world on the world of the player, because every death could ultimately render huge spans of time spent on the game devoid of result. (It’s worth noting, too, the fact that “souls” are what’s being lost, adding to the narrative of life being rendered meaningless every time you fail.)
If the game wasn’t difficult in terms of enemies and level design, then this theoretical obstacle wouldn’t be an issue in practice — but the game goes out of its way to introduce enemies in novel ways, surprise the player with obstacles, and, in short, make it a merciless trial to progress a single time, let alone to recover lost souls after a death. The game takes the quality of unforgiving difficulty as a virtue, not unlike Joyce famously did with respect to Ulysses. Although the analogy is imperfect, the cases of Ulysses and “Dark Souls” share features which help shed light on what’s at work in the game’s narrative. The difficulty in Ulysses, I submit, is a result of presenting a narrative as streams of consciousness and starting those streams in media res: the characters of the novel make sense of events in their consciousness by reference to the prior contents of their consciousness, but since we as readers are not privy to their minds prior to the start of the narrative, we must depend only on the overlap of our knowledge base with the characters’ knowledge base in order to understand their thought process (and, by extension, to understand the narrative). So, when Joyce throws us inside the mind of an intellectual and begins a chapter by alluding to Aristotelian philosophy (Proteus, viz. line 4), he gives us no explanation of the reference or its purpose beyond that which our own prior knowledge allows us to interpolate. This particular sort of unforgiving textual barrier to entry underpins the difficulty at play in Joyce’s concept of the aesthetic.
What of “Dark Souls”? In the case of Ulysses, the reader is at a loss to derive meaning from the text if she does not understand the reference which are rendered difficult by virtue of the narrative design (i.e., the stream-of-consciousness formula); just so, even though the world of Lordran is metaphysically constant, the player is unable to derive any meaning from it if she does not understand how to negotiate its unapologetically difficult architecture with respect to enemies and level design. In both cases, the form of the narrative intentionally interposes itself as a barrier to the reader deriving value — the “casual gamer,” I argue, is just as lost in “Dark Souls” as the “casual reader” is in Ulysses.
III. Nihilism and Transcendentalism
At this point, we have a problem. It’s easy to say that we play games because we enjoy playing them — in fact, under most circumstances, such a statement seems trivially true. But “Dark Souls” is a game that, by the fundamental architecture of its world, threatens the player with no return on huge amounts of time invested. The game, in the sense we’ve been discussing, is designed to make you fail at every turn. So the question of why someone would play a game, so trivial in the case of most games, is crucial to any hope of understanding “Dark Souls.” Why, given the analysis I’ve offered, would anyone willingly play this game?
People have said that the game succeeds because it represents the learning process; I think this is misguided and does not do justice to the aesthetics of the game. Any game, by virtue of allowing a player to retry after dying, facilitates learning; that’s an interesting feature of video games, but certainly not peculiar to “Dark Souls.” I do ultimately contend, as I said at the outset, that “Dark Souls” represents life, but not with merely with respect to learning: rather, I think that what keeps people engaged with “Dark Souls” is that the threat of meaninglessness comes hand-in-hand with the opportunity for transcendence. There are three ways I conceive of this, which I present in turn: flow states; the aesthetic of struggling; and the decision point presented to the player at the endgame.
If you’ve played “Dark Souls,” you probably know the feeling that comes with inexplicably making an atypically large amount of progress without dying: you enter, in transcendentalist terms, a ‘flow state’, in which you’re not passively experiencing the game but actively thinking and operating in a way that is perfectly in synch with it. On the level of theory, this makes sense: in this world where your existence is constantly in danger of being rendered null and void, a stretch of not dying is identical to establishing a pattern of meaningful existence within the world. Not dying in “Dark Souls” means substantively more than it does in other video games, precisely because it allows your time to be valuable in a way of which dying would deprive it. Of course, one death will send the player crashing back to the game’s harsh reality — but memories of the ephemeral state will persist as a guiding force in the game’s narrative. After my first of this sort of experiences within the game, I was significantly more motivated to pursue progressing through the game, regardless of its difficulty level.
But of course, flow states do not always obtain, and this is where the aesthetic of despair enters into the equation. The game establishes value metrics of souls, experience, and currency; then, it introduces a mechanic that takes all of these away from you again and again. If you cannot rely on the metrics of meaning stipulated by the game, then what meaning can you give to your actions within the game? This is an open question, and that’s the point: the actual exercise imposed upon by the game upon the player is to derive meaning from the game independent of the game’s own system. You will despair at losing souls forever, souls which it may have taken a large amount of time to amass; but that despair creates the hermeneutic space for the player to critically consider what meaning they find in the process of the game. Maybe they recognize that their ultimate motivation is merely getting to the credits at the end; maybe they recognize that they don’t want a game that imposes this flavor of nihilism, and so they simply turn it off and walk away; maybe they accept that the struggle is of itself a valuable enterprise, if only to learn how to fail. Regardless of the specific answer, the relevant aspect of transcendence is that the player is urged to move beyond the game’s own concept of value — because that value is beaten out of the player every time they walk through a white light and die once more.
And lastly, there is Gwyn, Lord of Cinder, who sacrificed himself to kindle the Flame of the First Kiln, bringing fire to Lordran. It is he who waits to be killed by the player at the end of the story, at the First Kiln itself: he must be slain for the player to earn the right to choose the world’s fate. After killing Gwyn, you can either sacrifice yourself to rekindle the Flame and let light persist in the world in a new Age of Fire; or, you can let the Flame die, and usher in darkness, ruling over the world in the Age of Darkness. Either way, the game immediately prompts you to begin a ‘New Game +’, which is a new cycle of the world with stronger enemies, leading back to Gwyn and the same choice point.
This is the music that plays when you face Gwyn in the First Kiln. Consistent with the sparse narrative explication of the rest of the game, there is no cutscene, nor any dialogue: the player enters the First Kiln, the score starts, and Gwyn attacks. What is inconsistent with the rest of the game is the haunting melody, solely on piano, seemingly out-of-joint with everything one expects of a video game’s climax — and all the more so for a game as unapologetic as “Dark Souls.” The music compels you to stop and consider the implications of what is going on; yet this is precisely the moment at which such contemplation is impossible, for Gwyn is hurling fire at you, and a single misstep will lead to the alert that “YOU DIED.” But from a safe distance, at the end of our analysis, we can see what makes this incongruity so salient.
I once characterized the entropy of “Majora’s Mask” as pernicious, and I contend that a similar aesthetic is at play here. After being thrown through the gauntlet of a merciless, minimally explained world, the player is offered a choice of how to reshape it — a choice, seemingly, that puts the universe’s design in the hands of the player at last. Yet regardless of choice, the game has an immediate next-step: the New Game +, representing the next cycle of the world. Gwyn represents that even the very shaper of the universe, who might be framed as its architect or decider, must ultimately die and be killed; like Termina persists in three-day cycles even after the credits, Lordran continues in ages of light, darkness, and killing Gwyn — always at the end, the player kills the being responsible for instantiating the current age. What the killing of Gwyn and the choice point at the First Kiln do is initiate the player into the meaninglessness of the universe on a metaphysically deeper, architectural scale: rather than being a mere victim of nihilism, the player participates in instigating it. Perhaps the cycle of death and suffering would end if the player chooses to extinguish the flame; but the reality of the game refuses to acknowledge this possibility, throwing the player back into the fray immediately after such a choice is made.
Yet regardless of all this, the player must choose in order to complete the game. And to be able to exercise a meaningful choice in the face of nihilism is, on my interpretation, the innermost conception of transcendence. What reason, justification, or teleology can you give to picking one ending or the other? Yet you cannot say you chose at random, for it would no longer seem that such an act is a choice at all. So it seems to me that the player must accept that the choice, in spite of ostensibly molding the world for a moment, will ultimately not matter in the grand scheme of cycles of the universe; yet at the same time, she must ultimately say, “I saw the world for how I would prefer it, and chose this path to assert my preference — even if that choice will someday be washed away, I will still have chosen it.”
At first glance, the dropping of souls and the counting of deaths seem like novel game mechanics, offering players a novel way to experience a video game. This was very much the lure for me when I first picked up the game. Yet spend some time in Lordran, and you come to see that the functionality of the narrative rebukes everything we have come to expect of a video game’s form. Rather, when you peel away the artifice of “Dark Souls” being a novel video game, I think that what you find is a mimetic object closely resembling the experience of life. Just as the player does in “Dark Souls,” so too must we wrestle with questions of how to locate meaning in a world that seems to ultimately be fleeting; so too must we wrestle with how to give value to decisions that will ultimately be buried under layers of other generations and history. Beneath the reputation of the game is a mechanism that allows us to meaningfully meditate on our experience of the real world, and to find opportunities to transcend. Ultimately, we will have to kill and become Gwyn — how shall we make our choice, when the Flame rests in our hands?