71. Dark Souls, part 2

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Title: Dark Souls
Platform: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Date: 2011
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: From Software




This is a continuation of my Dark Souls writeup. For part 1, click here.

– – –A Living World – – –

Players’ first taste of Dark Souls is Oscar, Knight of Astora, an essentially faceless and nameless knight, tossing a rotting corpse down into their dungeon cell from high above. The corpse holds the key to said cell. This situation is entirely misleading, that there are NPCs who will actively help players on their quest. Lordran is not a place where a knight in good-guy armor normally gives players the key to their escape, which players will realize quickly once they stumble upon Oscar’s dying body several moments later. This scene is the real Dark Souls, the one where even a fully equipped knight can be felled by the tutorial stage, which does not bode well for players, who control a frail decaying frame of a person. Death is not permanent, though, in Lordran, as players will realize, and there exists a convoluted hierarchy of undead social classes, including the mindless Hollowed, which all undead are destined to become. Later, players can return to where Oscar died and find him turned into a Hollow enemy, which blindly attacks the player.

Many NPCs met during the player’s travels will eventually turn into an insane Hollow, and many nameless Hollowed undead can be seen dotting the game’s areas, banging their heads into walls and writhing on the ground, their charred skeletal bodies jarring dried blood stains on an already disturbing surface.

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One of the more tragic sightings of the Hollowed is around the Altar of Sunlight, where several of the Hollowed mill about the seemingly sacred area. The Lovecraftian cosmic indifference and mechanistic materialism and the resulting insanity are rampant in Dark Souls and are especially highlighted at the Altar of Sunlight, as the Hollowed continue to remain at this meaningless religious altar without any connections to reality. The world of Dark Souls has no compassion for these meaningless sacks of infected skin and frail bones, and the only way players can interact with them is by putting them out of their misery with an offhand blow. “Killing” one of the Hollowed does not even mean much, though, as they are worth little Souls and respawn quickly. The only purpose they serve is to remind players of the cruelty of Lordran, the cosmic indifference, and the non-existence of universal justice.

Players will meet a handful of NPCs during the first hours of their quest, but most treat players with disinterest, haughtiness, and seem generally aloof and unsympathetic. Many seem to speak in code or just gibberish, and most only seek to benefit themselves and no other.

There is one NPC, though, that appears decent, and seems to be actively trying to assist the player. Solaire of Astora is met after the game’s (typically) first boss, the Taurus Demon, standing at the edge of the great bridge leading into the Undead Parish, gazing into the sun. Cautiously, players approach the knight, but he greets them with welcomed cheer and even gives players an item for use in online-play as well as the ability to summon him during some boss battles. Newer players will find immense relief from summoning him for the next boss fight (the Bell Gargoyles), as traveling with a partner makes the world seem a bit less dark, less dense, and much less foreboding. It is nigh impossible to find a buddy in Dark Souls, but Solaire is by far the closest thing. Solaire will be encountered elsewhere throughout the game, offering his assistance when necessary.

However, even the most jovial character in the world can lose his mind and his meaning, and Solaire, toward the end of the quest, will assault players while blithering like a maniac (unless the player goes through a series of steps to prevent this). Stumbling upon Solaire in the inhuman Lost Izalith appears to be a blessing, but instead of offering help, Solaire will attack the player without hesitation.

On my initial playthrough, being forced to fight my only friend, the good-natured Solaire, without so much as a cutscene to warn me, was the most awful and depressing moment of the game. For a moment, Dark Souls had abandoned its mysteriousness and vulgarity, and even though I was aware of its grand indifference, I had never been so personally affected by one of its cruel decisions. Here is Solaire, this goofy Jesus/Captain Falcon archetype character (rumored to be the firstborn of Gwyn, one of the original lords), searching for his “own sun” and spreading good will, turned into a mindless enemy.

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Upon defeating Solaire, players collect his armor and can read their descriptions. Apparently, Solaire painted that goofy sun emblem himself on his armor, a “projection of [his] upstanding, unwavering faith.” His armor is described as “powerless,” and his Sunlight Straight Sword is “unlikely to live up to its grandiose name.” Solaire’s armor is far from divine, and “as it turns out, Solaire’s incredible prowess is a product of his own training, and nothing else,” meaning that any spiritual guidance he believed in was an absurd lie. Whatever he held his faith in did him no good, and like all other undead beings, he succumbed to the mindlessness. Worse, players could never know these details unless they slay him. Solaire stands as one of gaming’s most tragic characters and grants new dimension to the world of Dark Souls, again, without any cutscenes and very little dialogue.

Following the minimal details that make up any one of the characters inhabiting Lordran recalls the varied and lurid fables of Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and One Thousand and One Nights, or at least Pier Paolo Pasolini’s scorching, dreamy versions of the them, his “Trilogy of Life.” Every character seems allegorical and highly archetypal, but are minimally visible enough to seem vague and real, rumored people rather than game characters. They are unlike the archetypal characters that populate Jean-Luc Godard’s beautiful satire Weekend (1967), for instance, and the fact that many of them are never explained away with plot adds to their surreal and natural existence.

– – –

A useful comparison to Dark Souls would be to two works of fiction, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) and to Ibsen’s epic play Emperor and Galilean (1873). The former, a philosophical science fiction novel, follows the transgressive adventure of Maskull, an ordinary man astrally projected to Tormance, a volatile, barren planet. Maskull encounters monstrous individuals who represent various philosophies and religions and he usually ends up killing and becoming them. Maskull’s physical self transforms numerous times throughout the novel in order to better interact with Tormance’s inhabitants, and many strange universal laws affect his adventure.

For instance, in one section, Haunte, whose airship hovers due to its ability to repel the planet’s femininity, takes Maskull to meet a faceless woman who acquires his facial features, which kills Haunte in the process. Most of Maskull’s companions die, and most preach their own warped world view.

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Lordran is similar to Tormance in its transformative and transgressive properties. The player’s story is one of evolution, as he or she assumes great power through soul consumption, takes on the appearances of various NPCs he or she kills, and moves in and out of religious and philosophical covenants. Like Maskull, the player character can steal souls and appearances, and kill anyone, usually with only vague consequences. And like Tormance, Lordran is a world destined to bring pain to all those existing, and to be human is to be greatly burdened. The player, like Maskull, is tasked with sifting through various doctrines and metaphysical decrees, and at the end of the game, must make a final, universal decision.

Likewise, Emperor and Galilean recounts a history concerning spiritual unrest and transgressive behavior. The play, based on real world Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate, the last non-Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, chronicles Julian’s distrust of his cousin’s, the Emperor Constantine II, use of Christianity, which leads Julian to pursue other philosophies and paganism.

When Julian is crowned emperor, he completely rejects Christianity in favor of paganism and neo-Platonism. The empire quickly devolves into madness, with Christians destroying pagan temples and vice versa. Julian, led by his visions, then wages a war against the Persians, and is killed in battle. The play ends with the rejoicing Romans at the news of a new, Christian emperor.

While not nearly as explicit as in Ibsen, the world of Dark Souls is constantly combatting itself, with a struggle between the Age of Fire and the Age of Darkness, which are also referred to as the Age of the Gods and the Age of Humanity. While fire is usually a sign of man overcoming the natural order (as in Prometheus), here, the fire represents the extinguishable power of the Lords and their unwillingness to let go of Lordran. Gwyn, Lord of Cinder, as the lore goes, refused to relinquish the Age of Fire, and thus prolonged it, which caused the curse of undeath to begin.

For Julian, the strife in Rome is more than just man’s free will versus the will of the indifferent gods; it is a choice between bodily paganism, the Dionysian orgiastic celebration of man and Christian theology, morality and sterility, blind devotion and faith. The player character in Dark Souls is something of a Promethean archetype, though, and his decision is weighty. It would be interesting if Dark Souls explored the sexuality of the various religions of Lordran, something that is strangely missing in a narrative consisting of high religiosity and bodily transformations.

– –  –

Having played through Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen (2013) recently, I have to make an obvious and necessary comparison to the two games. While Dragon’s Dogma’s gameplay is similar to that of Dark Souls, the two are essentially different kinds of games, with an emphasis on Skyrim-level do-anythingness being Dragon’s Dogma’s focal point. One of my biggest criticism’s with Dragon’s Dogma, though, is its approach to narrative (its gameplay and exploration are great).

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The game opens with “Coils of Light,” a J-pop track that does not fit well with the game’s dense, somewhat horrific aesthetic (the original Dragon’s Dogma featured the even more hyped up “Into Free,” which seems to be ripped out of a shonen anime opening). What follows, once the main quest starts, is a series of over the top scenes involving dragons, literal and figurative hearts, and the protagonist, a customizable, daft silent type. Each cutscene in the game involves a lot of passion, pretty awful dialogue, and the theme of being destined for great things. In a way, the protagonist here and the protagonist from Dark Souls are similar, as both are characters that are supposedly “destined” to “save the world.”

Whereas Dark Souls builds tension through being mysterious, and without much dialogue, Dragon’s Dogma’s plot is told in a few bad cutscenes. It’s not a game that is dialogue heavy, as are most JRPGs, but what’s there is not very good. The game’s aesthetic, a sweaty, deep darkness, a world of endless ruins and catacombs, is marred by the insistence of (only a few) cutscenes inspired by anime and action films. One scene in particular, when the Arisen must face a longtime foe, some evil druid, his dialogue holds no tension and is as laughable as his jarring facial expressions. After facing hordes of skeletons and zombies, this cutscene diminishes the anxiety and suspense. And unlike some games, such as the early Resident Evil titles, these mediocre cutscenes hold little value in terms of humor, are not surreal or weird.

Dragon’s Dogma gives a new perspective to Dark Souls’ minimal storytelling and virtual absence of cutscenes. Dark Souls’ lack of concrete plot, its lack of insisting that the protagonist is truly some hero of time (something that Dragon’s Dogma obsesses over), makes for an incredibly tense narrative, adding to its hostile tone.

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– – – Gameplay – – –

I have already written at length about the gameplay without explicitly talking about it. The game is brutally difficult and has a steep learning curve. Rather than relying on cutscenes, the game uses item descriptions and item and enemy locations to build its narrative and context, granting the game a convoluted, vague, and grand story (all good things). Players are left to piece together bits of the story from finding the Hornet Ring under the grave of Sir Artorias the Abysswalker, from seeing Crystal Golems wandering the Darkroot Basin, or from fighting Ornstein and Smough.

The layout of the world is somewhat akin to Metroidvania titles, but instead of focusing on collecting keys or power-ups that make available new areas, Dark Souls allows players much more freedom, and usually the only key of entry is a player’s wits and skill. On its surface, Dark Souls is an open world action-RPG, somewhat of a dungeon crawler in that the emphasis is placed on character evolution and customizable equips. Players can speed through the game, equipping whatever they find and upgrading their equipment with whatever shards they have, or they can grind for hours, defeating the same batch of enemies in hopes of getting a rare drop.


Dark Souls begins by allowing players to choose a character class from among the usual assortment of warriors, thieves, and spellcasters and to select an item to bring, but most of these decisions do not have much influence on the whole of the game. Stats can be arranged to a player’s needs, and simply acquiring and equipping a spellcasting item makes one a user of one of the game’s many types of spells.

The flow of the game is a mad dash between bonfire save points, carefully avoiding enemies and environmental hazards, trying out the huge assortment of different kinds of weapons, upgrading armor, joining covenants, getting killed by bosses, and occasionally being invaded by PvPers who will either destroy players or have no idea how to play. Boss battles dictate how far a player is in the game, and by defeating them, new areas sometimes open up, though a large portion of the world can be visited initially.

One of the well designed aspects of Dark Souls is the use of glowing light to denote objects on the terrain, usually on the body of a mangled corpse. The glowing light acts as a guide to the player, often giving clues on where to explore, or giving players ideas on how to reach out of the way areas. The glowing light works simultaneously to provoke curiosity and to punish poor judgment. In one area, the Archives, there are glowing items atop high shelves that require dropping down from even higher shelves to reach, but with poor planning, it is easy to fall to one’s death.

Also, players frequently see bloodstains and glowing orange messages blotted onto the ground, especially while playing online. Bloodstains offer a glimpse into the death of another player, a vague warning for players to watch out in the ensuing moments. Messages can be left by players anywhere, and can be useful for tipping players off on the locations of secrets. Some players also leave messages that are meant to deceive players, often lying about traps in some areas.

Coupling these with the fleeting images of ghostly players around bonfires and the occasional invasion gives the world of Dark Souls a strange interconnectedness and distortion of reality, a mystical incoherentness. Players weave in and out of worlds, some helpful, some tricksters, most bloodthirsty, in this large, all-encompassing metaphysical quest. Solaire mentions once that the flow of time has been “convoluted” and that “heroes centuries old [phase] in and out.” The rules of Dark Souls, both for the game and its world, are unruly and unforgiving.

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Firelink Shrine, as already mentioned, is one of the greatest first areas in any game, as it gives players such a plethora of options of where to go and items to dare to collect.

Traditionally, Zelda games guide players with differing amounts of direction and most Zelda games feature a tutorial area similar to the Undead Asylum. Every iteration of Hyrule has a varying degree of explorability, though, and Firelink Shrine is comparable to the beginning of The Legend of Zelda in terms of freedom and choice. In the NES classic, dungeons and bosses do not have to be defeated in any specific order, though the dungeons are numbered, and certain items (found in dungeons) are necessary for completing certain dungeons. But that lack of direction and “handholding” is parallel to the lack of direction in Dark Souls once players reach the Firelink Shrine.

Like in the first screen of The Legend of Zelda, there are three directions to choose from. The Crestfallen Warrior, a fatalist jokester, tells the player to ring the two Bells of Awakening, which is true, but hardly useful advice, and then laughs at the player. At least the old man in the cave gives Link a sword to defend himself.

Firelink Shrine is also comparable to the somewhat frustrating La-Mulana opening area in terms of having little direction, though Firelink is more interesting (and devastating) to explore. As far as dungeon crawlers go, Diablo II willingly gives out quests to guide players, who could essentially run in one direction, dodging enemies, indefinitely. The plains and caves of Diablo II, though, while offering a wider assortment of loot than Dark Souls, are usually flat and not exactly a joy to explore (loot and terror aside). Dark Souls is in no way as open as Fallout: New Vegas or a game of its nature, which offers a high level of player freedom, but Dark Souls does what it does practically perfectly, offering a high level of game design that “fixes” design choices of past games in its ancestry.

Dark Souls has an interesting connection to larger open world games, Fallout 3 and Skyrim, for example. The draw of those games is their realistically scaled, well detailed fantasy worlds that offer a huge amount of freedom to players. Players can travel wherever they want, join whatever side they want, pick and choose quests at will or never do any of them, and even kill important characters.

The worlds in these games are much larger than the whole of Dark Souls, which is already pretty big. And unlike in Dark Souls, players have many more options of how to play the game. Perhaps a Skyrim player merely wants to collect every item in the game and horde them in his house. He can do that. Maybe he wants to go around killing every guard in every town, making himself an enemy to the public at large. He can do that, too.

Dark Souls, other than its PvP, has only one real thing to do, that is, beat the game. There are a number of ways to do this, including different character builds, different orders of events, and the plethora of covenants and options players can participate in. But there is little in the way of role-playing.

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Yet, Dark Souls is the best kind of open-world game. One of my biggest qualms with games like Skyrim are their higher requirements of suspension of disbelief. All games require imagination to enjoy, but these games are so realistically huge that they cannot possibly be as detailed or as well thought out as something like Dark Souls (a sort of uncanny valley of game worlds).

One can play Skyrim for hours and never see anything particularly surprising or weird, and most NPCs are throwaway characters with uninspired, samey dialogue that live in towns that look similar to every town. The many caves one explores all look very similar and feel less deliberate. They lack personality. That is not to say that Skyrim is somehow less valid than Dark Souls, it is just that the latter achieves more. Dark Souls sacrifices some hugeness for a very well crafted, both artistically and gameplay-wise, environment that is exhausting and rewarding. It still offers a large amount of freedom (players can kill any NPC they want) without being too large.

Dark Souls’ Player versus Player (PvP) can be completely ignored as long as players travel in offline mode. For the unadventurous type (or for those just deeply frustrated), this is a welcome option. PvP consists of players invading (and it really does feels like an invasion) other players’ games and dueling them. Without warning, an invader can appear and kill a novice player while he’s just trying to play the game. Though, the opposite can happen, too, where the invader is a novice, only to find themselves matched with an expert duelist. There are rules to keep things fair, as well as items that affect online play, but bad luck and a poor skill level can easily ruin the game for some players. Though players in need of help can also “summon” other players to co-op difficult bosses, Dark Souls’ online component is mostly centered around destruction and humiliation.

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An anecdote: on my initial playthrough (the one where I gave up halfway to start over), the game’s invasions were a source of added fear and frustration. While most anonymous encounters were evenly matched fights, some of which I won, there was one particular player who invaded my world in the same location three times, each fight ending in a crushing defeat.

There is an area in the Undead Parish (fairly early in the game) where the player can rest and save and then make a quick ascension to the area’s boss, the Bell Gargoyles. Solaire can be summoned for the battle, which is practically mandatory for new players, but in order to summon him, the player needs to be in human form, which means they needed to have acquired and consumed the semi-rare (for new players, especially at the beginning of the game) item, Humanity. Like souls, players lose their humanity and human status when vanquished, only the human status cannot be retrieved and another Humanity must be consumed.

From the bonfire at the Undead Parish, I would use a Humanity and then begin to jog up toward the roof of the area to fight the boss. The invader, who was obviously better than I was, invaded right outside the bonfire area, around the outside of the transept, and made short work of me. So again, I consumed another Humanity and charged toward the goal, only to have the same invader come into my world. This time he trolled around a bit, recognizing me, but still easily dispatched me.

By this point, I was pretty annoyed, but stubbornly continued in online mode. I was playing at a strange time, a weekday, early in the morning, on the Xbox 360, and apparently we kept getting matched up. The third time, I did not consume a Humanity (wow, smart) and again the player invaded and killed me.

The fourth time, I had luck on my side, and made it through to the boss area. I have never really paid much attention to the PvP community (which runs pretty deep, with dedicated players organizing their own clubs and groups to fight in) and I am not sure if that location in particular is known for invading new players to harass them (this area is about when the game starts to get brutal), but I wonder if it is, as such stigmas are associated with certain areas in the game.

– – – Dark Souls – A JRPG Hellworld – – –

So, Dark Souls is a special game, a rare kind of game that is only released a few times a console generation. Past its ecstatic gameplay and thick aesthetic, though, I have found its theme of the futility of physical identity particularly striking. There exists in the world of Dark Souls two opposing forces, the gods, the lords, who seek to keep the Age of Fire going, and those that oppose those gods, who seek to bring about an Age of Darkness, where, interestingly, man holds his destiny in his own hands.

Beyond these two archetypal forces is a third, vague energy that persists over Lordran, a rotting, indifferent predetermination, which can be read as the developer’s hand in the game, but does not have to be. This is the force that kills players mercilessly, the force that fills every pool of water with poison and bones. It is also the force that dethrones the idiot gods, as even their control over nature is limited. Strangely, due to this third force, this cosmic weight, it would be curious to see how Lordran transforms if a godless age was brought about, as the gods themselves have nothing to do with the paradoxical cosmic indifference and free-will erasing predeterminism. Would man bring about a prosperous Lordran? The game seems to lead one to believe this.

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Being alive in Dark Souls is a weakness, and existing at all is a pretty awful, meaningless trial. It is a rampant landscape of existential and, in particular, moral nihilism. Søren Kierkegaard’s (1813-1855) ideas on nihilism, which he referred to as leveling (sort of ironic in the context of an RPG). Leveling, “at its maximum,” to Kierkegaard was the process of suppressing individuality to the point where individuality loses all meaning, and “is like the stillness of death” in his words. Interestingly, Kierkegaard uses similar language to that found in Dark Souls. The individuals of Lordran, the Solaires and the Knights of Astora, are punished for their wills, and turned into the Hollowed, a meaningless, violent existence. The player character can occasionally “save” one of these NPCs, but the obscure methods of doing so only emphasize the futility of the situation.

Relationships between characters are equally meaningless and violent, as the player character can kill any NPC whenever the player wills it, join any religious covenant which is not indicative of any real faith, and be attacked by a false friend at any moment. The religions of Lordran and the very gods themselves are meaningless and hold no real power as no such power or faith truly exists. PvP players act as unknown assassins, invading worlds they have never been to just to kill and purge.

As already mentioned, Dark Souls is a world without sex (where would a character even have sex?) and certainly a world without love. Deep in the lore are buried lovers, yes, but love can never be depended on for tenderness or meaning. Upon death, players are forced to retrieve their bloodstains to retrieve their souls and humanity. Souls and humanity are not metaphysical notions but bodily ones, being represented by bloody pools on the ground marking death. Souls and humanity are reduced to items, currency, and hold little spiritual or existential value.

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There have been a plethora of great heroes who have faced what I have deemed the materialist JRPG-hellworld, including the original JRPG hero, the legendary hero of Erdrick of Dragon Quest fame, but the player character in Dark Souls is a bit different. Erdrick, like the player character in Dark Souls, fought off mindless enemies full of gold and trudged through poisonous marshes and over beds of spikes. However, like most RPG heroes, Erdrick made little in the way of moral decisions. He was tasked with saving the kingdom and vanquishing evil, and that’s what he did. He used the King of Tentegel Castle’s save features, and other JRPG heroes used an inn’s save features, or a church’s. There are rules and roles in place, JRPG tropes.

The story of the player character in Dark Souls is a much more vague affair, where every action is morally ambiguous, but not in the way of other open-world games. The player character is a shapeshifter, much like the protagonist in A Voyage to Arcturus, and a killer, who could kill the King of Tentegel Castle with no remorse just to get a rare drop, sacrificing the game’s save feature in the process. There is no karma system to guide players’ actions, nor are there any real cues to let players know what they are doing is immoral.

Since Lordran is a morally nihilistic nightmare, the player character emerges as something of an existential hero. For Camus, in his The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), an unintelligible world devoid of God and eternal values poses only one question: does the realization of the absurd require one to commit suicide? Such a hyperbolic question deserves an equally hyperbolic answer: “No. It requires revolt.”

It could be argued that the player character is the Chosen Undead, that he or she is destined for this quest as the prophecies in the lore dictate. The player character therefore has no free will as fate predestines he or she be the legendary hero despite whatever he or she may actually seek. From this reading of the lore, the player character then is nothing of an existential hero, but merely a pawn in the plot of Lordran’s history.

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But this is not the case. From my understanding of the metaphysics of Lordran, no fate willed the player character to do anything. Obviously, characters like Kingseeker Frampt try to guide the player characters’ actions, and characters like the Knight of Astora are catalysts for the player character’s adventure, but it is the player character who eventually stands up to the indifferent world of Lordran and its idiot gods, proclaiming himself free of their laws and the natural laws that plague existence. The player character never becomes fully Hollowed and is ultimately in charge of his own destiny.

For Sartre, since there is no Creator, there is no specific human nature or eternal truths imbued in humans, what he refers to as essence. His famous quote, “existence precedes essence,” means that people are fully responsible for their actions and that they have no inherent properties willed upon them. This can be seen in Dark Souls in the bloodstains left behind when players die. Their existence (blood, body, physicality and actions) is how they are measured and to be whole is to reclaim that. Their essence (soul, humanity) is important to the game, but it is merely a currency with no intrinsic value associated with it. There is nothing moral about holding onto souls and humanity, and their value is only measured in what they can buy. The gods of Lordran (the lords) are not true creators as there are none, save the game developers, the third force I wrote about earlier.

Thus, the player character, faced with an absurd, meaningless existence, without essence in a world without justice, explores Lordran, amasses power by killing those the player deems worthy of killing, and eventually discovers an option to change Lordran, an option essentially devoid of morality. It’s a gnostic game, but even more stripped and bare, vague.

– – –

At the end of the day, Dark Souls is just a cool game, possibly the coolest game.

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It pushes the limits of what an action-RPG is, and is years ahead of its very competent competition (Dragon’s Dogma, I’m looking at you). For all the claims that the game is unfairly difficult, or that its difficulty is “artificial,” Dark Souls is a game that is meant to tax and exhaust its players. The drama that is the player against Lordran is entirely Wagnerian, a contemporary, dire gesamtkunstwerk, one that requires both Apollonian and Dionysian efforts in maximum proportions. It is very rare that a game demands to be played so hard. It is a masochistic field trip to hell, both existential and literal, and when the credits roll, most players sign up for another go.

It’s addicting, to feel so helpless and terrified, to be covered in blood and sweat, and to amass power, and eventually feel strong. In Dragon Quest, for instance, through grinding, spending time, players gain strength and when they return to the beginning areas of the game, can easily overpower lower level enemies that were once a serious threat. Dark Souls houses power for the taking, but it is not necessarily awarded by merely grinding in the same field for hours, tapping the A button over and over again. Dark Souls offers only power to the wise and to those who pay close attention.

For this writing, I had to grab a few more screenshots, and as per usual, ended up playing the game more than planned. But I didn’t just screw around in the beginning. I ended up beating half the game in only a few hours. I’ll never master Lordran, nor even come close, but my hard-earned knowledge paid off. I felt at home there, in the same way one feels at home in Hyrule Field, only with much more danger lurking around each corner. And more skulls.

Critics will often shy away from wanting to give a review score to a video game that they deem worthy of being labelled “art.” Games like Dear Esther (2012) and even, weirdly enough, Fez (2012) have not been given traditional, something-out-of-ten scores on occasion, whereas a masterful piece of work such as Ocarina of Time (1998) will have, with no question, a plethora of “great” scores. Dark Souls is tough, it’s shocking, it’s art, and it’s a game, and it deserves a great review, maybe even an almost perfect one. It currently holds a 89% on Metacritic, a far cry from Ocarina’s 99%, but maybe that is a fair number for the game. I don’t really know.

The game isn’t art because it emulates El Greco or Herzog, recalls Hughes or Pasolini, because it refers to Gothic architecture or because it has a great soundtrack (“Great Grey Wolf Sif” is beautiful music, game or not).

Dark Souls is play, the essence of life, to its furthest extremity, though. Few works, in any medium, can compare to its glaring brevity and immensity.

I guess that’s it:


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