[Endgame spoilers for Demon's Souls, Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 to follow.]
As I prepared to sit down and finally write this piece, I did a quick Google search for the key words “Dark Souls” and “nihilism”. I thought I might get one or two hits with the game loosely orbiting the themes of existentialism, since that’s what usually happens when you go looking for specific matches of a game to a theme. But this time was different. The first, I don’t know, ten results wore their investment to the subject matter on their titles: Dark Souls through Sartre and Camus, Kierkegaard and Dark Souls 2, Dark Souls as a nihilistic manifesto.
Well. These are writers who clearly take their jobs seriously, who know what they’re talking about. Just that in itself can be quite daunting—you need a certain level of emotional investment to live up to the standards they’re setting for you as a reader. Maybe you don’t need to know any Camus or Kierkegaard before going in, they’ll explain everything as you’ll need it, but you still have to retain everything they’re throwing at you if you want to satisfy your end of the bargain. And it’s heavy stuff, trying to collapse decades-worth of a fellow’s life work down to a few summary paragraphs, trying to make sense of such a big thing as existentialism at the same time as relating as messy a videogame as Dark Souls.
But sure, it’s not just Dark Souls—every videogame is messy. They’re enormously complicated machines of narrative and function. That they’re often made by so many people, they’re the product of so many different societal factors that smudge and obfuscate and interrelate and form entirely new spheres of interaction. At one of their basest levels they speak languages we’re still puzzling out ways to decode. In a cultural space where half of us are yet figuring our arse from our elbows, officially speaking, as to what, in actuality, a videogame is.
It’s tiring stuff. And true to form, after reading a bunch of these articles, I was wrecked. I felt exhausted even keeping up with the gist of what they were saying. In that, they’re children of the medium, at least. I think there might be a vein in games criticism that values this capacity to affect exhaustion, if only to pay homage to the source. As I typed that out it was a joke, but the longer I stare at it…
You’ve already gathered that I overcame my exhaustion and took to writing my piece. I could say that this was all an allegory for themes of existentialism in Dark Souls, insofar as I stumbled face first into paralysis and dread at the sight of my physical, intellectual and spiritual limitations, but eventually climbed these obstacles and exerted this aspect of myself triumphantly. I could say that, and thematically it would be very nice if it was true. If there are any themes of existentialism in the preceding story, it is only through the accident that I am a person who exists. Which might be enough to prove the point, but since we’re getting into the realm of telling a story about my story, let’s not.
So, Dark Souls is a game which is often described as being nihilistic, deriving from how it centres its functions of play around cyclic routines of death and aggression and the stagnation of time. Nihilism in this sense is mainly encompassed by the shorthand: “nothing has cosmic meaning, therefore nothing has value.” I’ve never known a nihilist to part with a 50, though. Existentialism has the unlucky reputation of being associated with concepts of nihilism, the two being in many cases thought synonymous, and, for the purposes of commenting on human existence, critically interchangeable.
Personally, I have a fondness for existentialism as related by Nietzsche. I’m going to have to amend that to ‘existentialism’, however, because for Nietzsche it was a cumbersome and messy philosophical thing more than it was a cleanly identifiable doctrine. Amid Nietzsche’s writings of how terrible it is to be a living person wrought with all these frustrations and incapacities, and how dreadful the world is that we should exist in it, there was this huge guiding light of love and self-acceptance that validated the presence of these sorrows, if you were to let it. It is described as amor fati—love of fate—as if who you are now, you desperate, painful little creature, is you as you are destined to be. Which is wonderful.
By this, as I play Dark Souls, I often find my mind drifting to Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal recurrence, wherein a soul might find the strength to bear their whole life’s suffering an infinite number of times over. He wrote:
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more: and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
The Gay Science
And in part, it is exactly this love of life and love of fate that leads me to wonder whether Dark Souls, or Dark Souls 2 or Demon’s Souls, is actually existentialist in tone, or if this joyful version of existentialism is aside from that of the many nihilists convinced of Dark Souls’ hatred of life.
For those who interpret the Souls games as nihilist exercises in Sisyphean futility, the evidence is this: death is ubiquitous, currency is inhumane, the world is decaying, your very soul is trapped in a downward spiral into madness and depravity, and even if you succeed in your journey and save the kingdom you’ll only have earned another cycle of life before it begins to die again. Fair enough—the game’s aesthetic pays tribute to these narrative elements, and you’re told plenty of times by people who seem to know more than you that surrendering yourself to one grim fate or another is effectively your only option.
Each of these factors play into the core story to support themes of the kingdom of Lordan as a dying place. In the immediate tense for the player, it means jumping through hoops in order to grow powerful and sacrificing yourself to prolong the Age of Fire—the age of the gods you’re catching the tail end of. The logic here is that since the world is now dreadful but it used to be prosperous and healthy, you should do what you can to return it to its rightful glory. The language used promotes this idea to every end—you are the chosen one, your deeds have been prophesized, you are Lord Gwyn’s righteous successor—enticing you to believe this path is of a good and true design.
Another way of looking at it is this: you are being manipulated to propagate the status quo by people who directly or indirectly benefit from its continuation. The Age of Fire is implicitly denoted the age of life, with fire and life being held in concert within the story’s myth, but in truth life began well before the Great Lords warred against the dragons and established a new era with a new ruling class. This is how Lordran is divided up, after all—by class. The more magnificent parts of the kingdom are built for the stature and bulk of the gods who reign from there, while the few humans about the place are kept as servants and guards. Farther afield humankind lives in suburbs and burgs in comparatively earthly settings, set aside from the domain of their upperclassmen, but even here they bow to sovereignty in the kingdom’s form of coin.
Lordran is literally built on the expenditure of human souls. Even those in the suburbs abide by that economic and are made complicit in their own dehumanization and objectification. Through the complicated relationships between Lordran’s political structures, socio-economics, and spiritual caste system, humans in Lordran are oppressed. So too are you supportive of the trade of human souls, by virtue of being affixed within this system, powerless as you are to escape it if you want to succeed, and thereby of your own subjugation as little more than a tool to be used by your betters. You support the pillars upon which this society stands, you entertain the values and superstructures which denote you as servile and lesser.
But can you do otherwise? If the Age of Fire is truly the sole era where life can flourish, and its end would cast a curtain of death upon all living creatures, what choice have you but to comply with this status quo, even if it entails your oppression? Affirmation of this premise leads the nihilistic interpretation to certainty in the futility of your in-game actions. The cycle mustn’t be broken and all that.
I’m leaving out a massive chunk about the importance of cyclic phenomena within Dark Souls’ gameplay, just as I am glancing over some of the nuance of this economic system within the other two Souls games. In Demon’s Souls, the trade of human souls is quite deliberately pinned to the hubris a greedy king named Allant, contributing to his fall and the kingdom’s steady obliteration. In Dark Souls 2, the king is named Vendrik, and he is said to have turned to the manipulation of souls on a high from his victory in a major war. For both Allant and Vendrik, the use of human souls as a token to be exploited marked a step on their journeys to self-destruction. But for Gwyn of Lordran, no such chastisement is presented, implying the currency simply is as if naturally, simply will be for the good of the people, and that nobody should have any regrets.
As to the importance of cyclic routines, here we go. As you play it, Dark Souls fits the routine of combat into the larger pattern of progressing from checkpoint to boss to checkpoint, with the goal being to systematically traverse each area and slay each boss until you reach the game’s end. Death is a given, to the point where it takes the starring role in Dark Souls’ reputation. It’s likely you’ll die a lot, and although it comes with a price, you might come to find death as less of an obstacle than it is in reality. Dying in Lordran sets you back to the last checkpoint, but by recovering your lost ground you can return to where you had died and retrieve the souls you dropped there as if they were an errant purse. So, getting killed delays you, but it grants you the opportunity to collect more souls and grow stronger. For all its notoriety, Dark Souls’ difficulty invites you to exploit the cycle of death for your profit.
This being the case, death is ubiquitous but it is also deflated as a barrier and as an existential burden. It is no longer the final hurdle of one’s life, now it is merely a condition of one’s continuing living that you may accept. I have to admit, putting it like that doesn’t make it sound so different to death in real life, except for the point that ‘one’s continued living’ in reality remains a point of mystery for those bewildered with existential dread. So I stress: in Dark Souls, death is simply another thing you can do. While all else in Lordran is ruined by decay, you have transcended death as a barrier to worldly life.
There is a recurring character of sorts throughout the Souls games, going by the name of Crestfallen something. In each case, he’s a morose lad fraught by the trials of the world, who recommends you give up and wither away to nothing as he himself plans to do. In Demon’s Souls, he grows confused and agitated before vanishing completely, leaving behind just the remains of his soul. In Dark Souls, he decides to venture outwards, but quickly loses what little mind he had left and turns rabid. Dark Souls 2 is more optimistic: here he survives the whole length of the game! Good on you, Mr. Crestfallen the Third.
In each case he more or less provides a vision for the player of what they might become if the trials ahead prove too much to bear. In-game this culmination of futility is represented by losing one’s form or going hollow: in essence disintegration of the self. These are the forms through which the player-character can finally depart from any semblance of life, since traditional death is barely a hurdle to their perpetual existence. So long as the player continues the game, however, these never occur. Instead you persevere through every hardship and eventually, eventually succeed in your quest. So long as you keep hacking away at that insurmountable obstacle, so long as you maintain the will to survive and the will to overcome, your play experience embodies the spiritual strength that fends off this sense of futility. Conversely, when the game finally beats you or when you simply grow bored enough to never return, by the narrative of the world of Lordran the character you were playing as presumably reflects your surrender and hollows.
A grim thought, but the flip side is this: while you play, you represent the spiritual antithesis of futility. Enjoyment in the mechanics compliments this narrative quite nicely, since if you’re playing it and enjoying it, presumably you’re finding value in it. Just the very act of playing Dark Souls represents a celebration of life and will within the context of the fictional world, so for as long as the wheels keep in spin and the cycle continues it is self-demonstrably not nihilistic.
This reading might seem at odd with the game’s plot, depending on how you interpret the nature of Lordran and your actions as its saviour or otherwise, with the game as a whole structured at its end to repeat from the beginning. Each time you finish it, the world of Dark Souls resets and the enemies grow a little bit harder to ramp up the challenge, so despite all your success you’re caught in a never ending loop of ever-increasing difficulty. Hence, Sisyphus.
The game’s endings feed this loop to a greater or lesser degree, since there are two endings you can choose from. After defeating Gwyn and symbolically taking his place at the summit of Lordran’s mythos, the player can thrust themselves into the First Flame to reignite it and perpetuate the Age of Fire (and the reign of Lordran) into one more cycle. This is most often interpreted as the ‘good’ ending because of all that rumour of how fire is life and the world can’t exist without it. So, self-sacrifice for the benefit of the ruling class and the continued oppression of all humanity within the kingdom’s borders. It’s certainly unpleasant but does it favour existentialism, given the implied disregard for human life?
The other ending—the ‘bad’ ending—is where you turn your back on the flame of the gods and allow the Age of Fire to finally peter out. It’s not quite clear what results from this but we can speculate. It likely means the eventual total ruin of Lordran, though what shape that takes is a mystery. Some folk see it as being an extrapolation of the horror aesthetic we presently see in Dark Souls—more demons savaging the world, more plague, more despair and hardship by all exposed, and the proliferation of the undead curse. Which is a fair perspective, but not one I share. The way I see it, the present horror of Lordran is the result of attempts to perpetuate its dominion far beyond its natural lifetime. In essence it’s a zombified kingdom kept intact artificially, and the horrors we witness are a symptom of that aberrance of nature rather than consequence of its decline. Oh, Lordran was magnificent at its height, I’m sure, and a pleasant enough place to be if you were not human. But as with its citizenry, this infatuation with its splendour subjects it to its own hubris.
The alternative to Lordran and the Age of Fire is the Age of Dark, which we’re conditioned to think means terrible things and spreading evil and the like. It’s especially those of Lordran’s ruling class who push this message, since it promotes them and reinforces their oppression as necessary and good. But perhaps the Age of Dark does not imply secession of all life, and instead entails the rise of a new form of life and a new way to exist within the world.
Known but unseen throughout the game is a character called the furtive pygmy who is said to be the progenitor of humankind. When Gwyn and the other great lords took their Lord Souls from the First Flame, the furtive pygmy took its power from the Dark Soul, and presumably rescinded into the Dark as its domain. The Dark, therefore, does not represent death but a different kind of life to that evidenced by Lordran; the Age of Dark would be an era where humankind can come into their own, unhampered by the governance of gods and other lesser deities. In this manner it is perhaps similar to the Age of Enlightenment and the dawning of human-centric worldviews versus that of gods, such as a deliberate revaluing of the worth of human life.
The ‘bad’ ending, so, is the uplifting of humanity, an end to the stagnation of the world and to oppression of humankind under the tyranny of gods and demons. In effort, at least—Dark Souls 2 features the Dark as just another cosmic power available to the player, alongside fire and magic and the like, suggesting the Age of Fire has diminished and the Dark has seen growth as a natural force since the end of Dark Souls. Perhaps to turn your back on the First Flame might be the canonical ending.
In Demon’s Souls, the same gesture more overtly marks the ‘good’ ending. In this case, the kingdom of Boletaria is besieged by demons coinciding with availability of the soul arts, the ability to manipulate human souls to benefit one’s quest for power. At the game’s finale, you can choose to perpetuate Boletaria’s plight and retain the soul arts as a terrestrial power or to turn your back and leave, allowing the source of this evil to be locked away interminably. The former option involves you literally stabbing in the back a character who has done nothing but aid you your entire journey through, which I think is pretty easy to label as not very nice a thing to do. Here, ending the status quo (of demons savaging the kingdom of Boletaria, of the Boletarian expansion in its thirst for power) is fairly clearly the morally benevolent choice. With less certainty it’s also the ‘existential’ option, since it’s constantly broadcast that entertaining the soul arts, while granting one immense power, warps and corrupts humanity (such as in the player’s subtle transformation into a demon).
So, by this reading, ‘turning your back’ is thematically consistent between Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls as being the ‘good’ or existentialist option.
But what about Dark Souls 2, you ask? My answer is… I’m not sure! From what I know there’s only one choice of ending in Dark Souls 2: to take the throne and commit yourself to re-igniting the flame, burning your soul for the benefit of Drangleic’s inhabitants. Boletaria and Drangleic share some similarities in how the soul arts proliferated, not the least through their king’s misguided grasps for power. Vendrik, however, unlike Gwyn of Lordran, made a point of defending his people by not sitting the throne, for whatever reason. So by sitting the throne and stirring the fire, perhaps the player is calling an end to the reign of Drangleic and the present era, and is ushering in a new era that is largely unspoken of?
If that’s the case, it again represents a denial of the status quo and of stagnation. I admit this is only a rough idea, but for the pleasantry of thematic consistency among the games, I’d like to just go with it.
For these reasons I find the souls games to be extraordinarily uplifting of humankind, where in the face of tremendous hardships and an indisputable cosmic unfairness coalescing as an aura of futility throughout all human actions, it nevertheless favours the celebration of human existence over themes of nihilism. With respect to Nietzsche, it asks you to accept the limits set upon you by an uncaring world and, to the best of your ability, to work within social systems inseparable from your identity in order to exert yourself as a living creature and enjoy the life you have. The routine of play in Dark Souls is most pertinent to this, since for Nietzsche the image of the child at play, blissful, unmindful of the cruelty of existence, is the highest elevated existential spirit. Life might be terrible but love it anyway. I should note that’s an impossible goal, and appropriate that it is so, since it thereby inspires further existential dread!
Despite all this, I still have trouble reconciling Dark Souls with existentialism, mainly for one pivotal component of the philosophy that it is missing: identity. Your character in Dark Souls—in all of the Souls games actually—is a blank slate to begin with. You go through a character customization screen and choose a name and all that for them before kicking off your journey. In Dark Souls, I gave my chap freakishly blue skin and called him AQUALAD in full capital letters (existential absurdity, if you’d like). But, as many other writers and critics cast into consensus, it hardly matters since you’ll be clad in armour the whole game and likely never think twice of it again. Functionally AQUALAD is a cipher for me to interact with the world—he’s vapid, passive, a shell that I possess. I can project all sorts of things onto the character and play-pretend that AQUALAD is, oh whatever, a roguish buffoon, as is typically the opportunity with shell-protagonists of this nature.
We could get into a complicated phenomenological debate over whether that bestows character onto him within the experience of playing the game, or whether my projections are invalid if I want to supply a ‘true’ reading. I’m going to try to sidle the issue by saying this: my use of AQUALAD as a tool through which I can exert myself is little different than how Frampt or any other quest-giver attempts to manipulate him to their ends. If we allow that he is primarily a tool deliberately constructed by FROM Software to serve as a shell for the player, it follows that he is an object. Likewise he’s an object for the use of the player in interacting with the world of Lordran. And again he’s an object for the whole of the story to roll its way to completion. Project onto him as I may, AQUALAD is objectified and repurposed fundamentally because he is a non-entity. He then self-objectifies through his complicity in dehumanizing social strata, such as the use of souls as money.
And there’s the struggle, because you can’t have an existential journey undertaken by an entity that is intrinsically lacking its own identity, because there is no ‘self’ to appreciate, to love and accept and reconcile as central to the viewpoint. You can still have a story that exudes existential themes and values, such as celebrating humanity and finding joy in the frivolity of human existence. However, these are themes and values that exist beyond existentialism, as well—they can be displayed and loved apart from embalmment within existential prose. I wrote elsewhere on how Demon’s Souls is a narrative celebrating the essence of shared human continuity, focusing on the communal existence rather than the individual. I think that is true of Dark Souls, too.
What have we, then? Is Dark Souls an existentialist parable without an individual as its source? Is AQUALAD a fully conceived character in his own right by virtue of my play experience, thereby satisfying the tenets of self-affirmation? Or should we forego that complication altogether and embrace whatever-it-is for what it is, that we should want nothing different? Should we obsess? I wonder if there’s something of Dark Souls in games criticism, the way we try desperately to make sense of (maybe) senseless universes, to exert our own personal vision of what is. Like it’s a contagion, this ambition, this gnashing desire to see ourselves out there, justified by our peers or by the text. We too have our own moments of joy in finding ourselves repeated by the world, where we throw out our arms in wide embrace and sing, ‘you are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ What else is to write, if not a tonic for this magnificent fever.
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