When people talk about Dark Souls, they often talk about how hard it is. That’s because it’s hard. Just over the New Year’s holiday, I got to watch a good friend play it for the first time. It did not go well for him. He died over and over and over again, falling down pits and being immolated by his foes. He built a good deal of character that weekend.
It was fun watching him die over and over again, but one thing about his experience really stuck out. He was asking me what character class he should choose and a after a good deal of stuttering and thinking, he and I came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter. I had some time to think on the way home after the holiday and came to conclusion that the developers didn’t give anything in Dark Souls any intrinsic value. That’s because Dark Souls is a nihilist manifesto. Mind games are normally reserved for PvP, or player versus player, games, but this is one single player game that has them in spades.
I’m not well versed in the theory of nihilism, so we’ll use the popular definition that people are generally familiar with:
a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless
Dark Souls goes to great pains to show the player that the things that are normally thought of as being “important” in video games are not important. Checkpoints, bosses, and visual gratification are not the goal here. In order to overcome Dark Souls, the player has to find satisfaction in growing their skill enough to pass through the game rather than a neat cutscene or piece of exposition.
Now to the numbered paragraphs. All good essays are constructed with numbered paragraphs.
- Character Creation
This was what solidified this idea for me, so I’ll start here. Unless the player has very specific intentions for your character, the character class you choose at the start of the game doesn’t matter. Any class can wear any armor or accessory, wield any weapon, and cast any spell or miracle provided that their stats meet the prerequisites. Each class starts with different stat distributions, but characters level up so quickly early in the game that any differences between characters of different classes can quickly be erased.
Further, no matter how awesome you make your character look in the character creation screen, the default state for characters to exist in in Dark Souls is “undead,” which translated means “looks like a burn victim”. As a result, until you get much better at the game and can sustain some humanity, your sexy lady avatar will look like a burn victim.
- Loss of souls
When a player kills something in Dark Souls, they gain souls and humanity, which are the game’s currency. When a player dies, they drop those souls and humanity in a bloodstain. The dropped souls and humanity can be regained by reaching the bloodstain and touching it, but failing to do so results in a complete loss of the bloodstain and everything in it. The game just forgot all that cool stuff you did. Sorry.
This ties into my next point:
Bonfires refill a player’s health source and allow them to level up among other things like upgrading equipment and picking what spells you want to use. Bonfires act as the player’s only respite from the constant feeling that they”re going to die. However, they also re-spawn all of the enemies that the player has killed since the last bonfire. While this might lead one to believe that the game just forgot all of the cool stuff you did again, it also allows the player to regain any souls that they may have lost after failing to reach a bloodstain or just grind for souls to level up. Bonfires erase all of the good things you do, but they also have the ability to erase all of the bad things that are happening to you.
- Inscrutable story
Most games propel the player character through a series of events with a combination of cutscenes and in-game dialogue and events. This is not the case for Dark Souls. This game eschews the normal trappings of story and requires that the player dig for a story if they’re interested in it. The game gives the player a beginning cutscene and one of two ending cutscenes. Past that, the player must divine the game’s story from NPC, or non-player character, dialogue and the item descriptions in the player’s inventory. If you read the item descriptions and learn about the in game characters, you’ll soon learn that all of them died attempting what you’re trying to do. The only reason the dead characters have any tangible importance to the player is that they can use the powerful equipment that their corpses may hold. Of course, the player can just use their equipment without reading the item description at all, which further negates the importance of story in this game.
Let’s jump to the end of the game. Many people had problems with the ending because it’s short (as in less than a minute) and it doesn’t tell you anything. The player kills Lord Gwyn and then the player can either leave his chamber or “rekindle the flame” in the center of his chamber. Regardless, you get a 30 second cutscene and then your character magically appears back at the start of the game. The character retains their stats from the end of the game, but all of the enemies are now much stronger. This method of beginning a “New Game+” offers the game a Sysiphean feel. Other games have a “New Game+” feature ,but Dark Souls is so abrupt about it that it seems to say, “Nothing you just did mattered.”
- Connectivity between player worlds
When the player first meets Solaire of Astora in the Undead Burg, he alludes to the multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls with this statement:
“The way I see it, our fates appear to be intertwined.In a land brimming with Hollows, could that really be mere chance? So, what do you say? Why not help one another on this lonely journey?
We are amidst strange beings, in a strange land. The flow of time itself is convoluted; with heroes centuries old phasing in and out. The very fabric wavers, and relations shift and obscure. There’s no telling how much longer your world and mine will remain in contact. But, use this, to summon one another as spirits, cross the gaps between the worlds, and engage in jolly co-operation!”
Apart from birthing an obnoxious Internet meme, Solaire is explaining the diegetic reasons for the way the multiplayer system works. Each player’s character has their own world that they work through and other characters enter the world to help with bosses or attack the character as an invader. Regardless of the outcome of these visits, only the host’s world is altered; the invader’s/phantom’s world isn’t changed at all.
In addition to this, you can see how other players die by examining their blood stains and reading messages they left for you.
Each player has their own world that’s important to them, and what happens in other players’ worlds matters only insofar as they give you some humanity or try to kill you. What you do is important for you and your character, but no one else cares.
So if there all of these ways that Dark Souls tries to negate the significance of player actions, why have so many people played and enjoyed it? Like most games, the only real purpose of anything that happens is created by the player themselves, but Dark Souls is more blunt about making the player need to self-motivate. There will be no cutscene of your character taking on hoards of enemies alone or lightly dressed blue girls to give you some eye candy after a tough fight. The only reward the player ever receives are the words “You Defeated” flashing across the screen and a bunch of souls that are just as easily lost as the rest of the souls in the game.
Dark Souls actively tries to make the player feel like they don’t matter. The enemies and environments in Dark Souls are difficult to survive, but a more significant challenge is overcoming the constant demoralization and clinging to the small goals you may have set for yourself. In spite of how lonely Dark Souls is much of the time, one of the major themes is the importance of creating meaning in personal improvement and interactions with other players rather than any single action. You simply survive and move on to the next thing or you don’t, and that’s all there is to the game.
The Three Metamorphoses of Zarathustra by Mark L. Dotson