Dark Souls is not a place. What do we miss when we treat it like one?
The story of Miyazaki’s titanic Dark Souls series is astonishing, profound, and almost completely opaque. An example: the lynchpin character behind a series-defining plot twist is Dark Sun Gwyndolin, an optional boss in the first game. Finding him requires you to play for about forty hours, loot a hidden ring on one side of the game-world and take it to a statue hidden behind an illusory wall on the other; if you don’t have the ring, you need to attack what looks like an invulnerable, quest-essential NPC to reveal his boss door. There’s no in-game prompt to do this, even though Gwyndolin conceals one of the most dramatic and intoxicating secrets in the series. You probably won’t find him on your first playthrough. You probably won’t find him ever.
Dedicated players – VaatiVidya, EpicNameBro and countless others – hunt out these secrets, excavate item descriptions and plumb lost game files to piece together theories that will explain what’s really going on in Lordran, Drangleic and Lothric. Their lore videos resemble history documentaries from a dark cosmos, and if you’re a fan of the games who hasn’t watched them yet then they’re worth your time – spoiler warnings apply, of course.
“With a game so rich, coherent and compelling it’s easy to assume that Dark Souls lets us into a world that has internal rules…”
But there are gaps in the theories, where answers don’t sit comfortably side by side and resolutions escape us. With a game so rich, coherent and compelling it’s easy to assume that Dark Souls lets us into a world that has internal rules, rules of continuity, history, metaphysics, and by applying these diligently we can glean lost secrets from the game. If facts seems disjointed, incoherent or incompatible it’s because we haven’t found the missing piece to the puzzle. There are limits to that kind of logic. Because Dark Souls isn’t a place, and it will never behave like one.
In the 70s and 80s the criminally under-read fantasy author M John Harrison wrote the Viriconium books, an excellent series of weird Sci-Fantasy in the tradition of Moorcock, Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance. But the three novels and various short stories that make up the Viriconium ‘series’ don’t fit together as we might expect from a fantasy saga. Named characters are not the same person from book to book. There is no geographical or temporal way to situate the different stories relative to each other. Scenes and images we have seen before re-appear in strange new configurations, with different meanings and conclusions and characters cast in different roles.
He’s not just showing off or being weird for the sake of it: Harrison is pointing us at a truth about fiction that fantasy tales try and make us forget. As he puts it in the article “What it might be like to live in Viriconium”: “Viriconium is just some words. There is no place, no society, no dependable furniture to “make real.” You can’t read it for that stuff, so you have to read it for everything else.”
“… not places but settings, not people but characters – not a world, but a collection of metaphors, allusions, images, experiences, politics, ideas.”
When a work of art is as compelling, engrossing, immersive as a fantasy novel – or video-game – it’s easy to get hung up on the idea that it represents a concrete world, one with absolute truths and an independent existence. If we only knew all its secrets! But this distracts us from the real things it is made of: not places but settings, not people but characters – not a world, but a collection of metaphors, allusions, images, experiences, politics, ideas. This is a lesson that Dark Souls itself teaches us. The Primordial Serpents are liars, and their first lies are that their stories are not just stories, but the simple truth of the world.
Dark Souls is made of experiences and meanings. Big, ancient meanings, like fate and rebellion and sin, and primal experiences, like fear and war and Victory Achieved. How does it feel to almost abandon hope, and still fight on? What is the meaning of a choice if we are ignorant of its consequences? Do you remember all the confused thoughts and emotions that you were host to when a raven first carried you to Lordran? How those curdled and twisted when you woke from your grave in Lothric? Lordran isn’t real, but your response to it is, and it can tell you new things about yourself and the world.
Dark Souls 3 has brought the series to a close, barring some forthcoming DLC. Soon all the Dark Souls lore there ever will be, will be. All things must end. Fitting that Dark Souls 3 has four distinct endings. They can’t all be true at the same time – not if we try and understand Dark Souls as a world.
“A flame that can simultaneously glow on a little longer, and be extinguished, and be stolen like a pearl from its mantle.”
Understand Dark Souls as an idea, then we have a richer universe to consider. A world of contradiction. Light within Dark, Dark within Light. Cycles within cycles. A flame that can simultaneously glow on a little longer, and be extinguished, and be stolen like a pearl from its mantle. The plot of the Dark Souls games, the lore of the world, the mechanics of the game are media, vectors for a bigger experience. They are finite, but the productive chaos that comes when a human experiences them is bottomless.