On sitting down to review the final piece of the Dark Souls puzzle, I’m confronted with the most daunting of questions: ‘Is there anything left to say about Dark Souls?’
The answer is no. Not only is the answer no, but much of the wide-ranging, personal examinations that have cemented Dark Souls’ reputation as videogame-series-du-jour were recorded lovingly on this very website. Yet there is still an inner nagging – that something must be done to mark the passing of time – that in some small way we should pay our respects to the end of an era.
“Then I remembered that Tony Hawks’ Pro Skater 2 is the Citizen Kane of videogames.”
Like all Souls stories, this one starts in the past. I was late to the party with Dark Souls, only playing the first game a – frankly lackadaisical – five years after its release. I, like players half a decade earlier, was stunned by the tightly wound environmental design and nonchalant rejection of core game design tenets. Namely, giving the player a fucking clue. Dark Souls was a reminder that even within the ever narrowing possibility space of ‘games about hitting stuff with a sword’, the field was still wide open. Upon finishing the first game, I stumbled blindly into the cesspool vortex of Souls-lore, writhing franticly in a desperate attempt to understand just what it was I was confronted with. It was then I came appreciate Souls’ archaeological story-telling, its constructivist leanings and zen kōan aspirations. Dark Souls 2 had already been out some time at this point, and 3 was on the horizon. I was beginning to wonder if this was a Great Work. Gaming’s Infinite Jest. Or better, Citizen Kane?
Then I remembered that Tony Hawks’ Pro Skater 2 is the Citizen Kane of videogames. Never mind.
Needless to say, it was with high hopes that I finally plunged into the crisply rendered disrepair of Dark Souls 3. It has, for the most part, been my unexpected favourite of the three games. While in terms of mechanical and visual design it is by far the busiest of the family, it feels honed. The mournful reluctance of the previous games may have ebbed but it’s replaced by hummingbird hysteria, a violent death rattle as the series closes. Everything in this third chapter is faster, more vicious – starved to the point of mania.
Across this genre re-defining trio I sensed a theme emerging. I’ve no desire to delve into a plot summary of these games, because that would terribly dull and frankly the Internet hive-mind will do a better job than I can. Nevertheless, it is important to know that, thematically speaking, the Souls series leans heavily on cyclic models of time and cosmology, death/rebirth and the irrepressibility of thermodynamics.
“Again and again, characters, stories, and creatures are cannibalized by the series.”
In all Souls games we set out initially to ‘play the order of nature’ – to recreate past events and in so doing preserve a supposedly sacred cosmological cycle. A player’s decisions may push them to subvert this course, but it is usually fruitless. Across the trilogy characters disappear and re-emerge, often in mangled new forms. Again and again, characters, stories, and creatures are cannibalized by the series – chewed up, diluted and disseminated – reappearing years later to thwart and mystify you in uncanny ways. There are more than bloodlines at work here, these are lineages of (pun-intended) souls – in the broad sense: ‘the embodiment of some quality’ or ‘the essential element or part of something’ as Dictionary.com would put it.
“In Dark Souls 3 the first boss sprouts a fucking bouquet of writhing, carbuncular tentacles.”
As to thermodynamics and irrepressibility? The Souls series communicates this with body horror. Across the series the frequency of distorted enemies and characters increases, those with creepy malformations, bodies covered in pustules, limbs at uncertain angles. In the original Dark Souls characters with aberrant, pestilent bodies are mostly confined to one area (Blighttown, for those keeping track) – and the trope rears its ugly head, albeit in a different form, in the much loved Artorias of the Abyss expansion. In 2 this particular visual affectation starts to turn up in a number of locations and by Dark Souls 3 it’s literally everywhere. The first boss sprouts a fucking bouquet of writhing, carbuncular tentacles – claws, distended arms, and a massive snake head – if you irk it enough.
The longer the natural progression of time is diverted, the more twisted and corrupted the inhabitants of the Souls universe become. As we – the player – journey through the trilogy, visual corruption metastasizes in front of our eyes.
Rosaria, a character in Dark Souls 3, is emblematic of this. She is described as a goddess of rebirth and appears as a perverse mirror image of the first game’s Gwynevere. The mechanics associated with Rosaria and ‘rebirth’ likewise present a microcosm of the wider theme of corruption. Through Rosaria the player can choose to reshape their appearance, or reallocate attributes at will. Too many rebirths, and the player is warned that further alterations will transform them into a man-grub, which is pretty much as glamorous as it sounds. In this minuscule, relatively insignificant interaction, the underlying story of Dark Souls is writ: a world that is attempting to defy time, but with each rebirth mutates to something increasingly other until ‘rebirth’ seems a misnomer.
So, with the above in mind, there was a barely contained sense of excitement as I skirted my way through The Ringed City’s first area – The Dreg Heap. Full of ash it may have been, but also bursting with mashed together architecture, giant rotten knights teeming with black maggots, gloopy corpses rising out of the floor. Classic Souls, and well positioned on my corrupted thematic arc. I rubbed my critical hands together with unseemly glee. That was, until I got to the expansion’s titular metropolis. Minarets tickled the sky; enough glinting, terracotta domes to bankrupt the Ottoman Empire filled the expanse before me. “Have I completely shit out? Or have the developers?” I thought in a moment of astonishing – yet unsurprising – narcissism.
The Ringed City is not without its charms, aesthetically speaking. It’s hard to hope for much more than aesthetic changes this late in the day. As fresh as Dark Souls may once have felt, over the past six years it’s had to fight tooth and nail for every inch of innovation. That law of diminishing returns permeates this final instalment. Here, a series known for thoughtful-to-a-fault encounter design, that frequently manages to deliver touching vignettes with the placement of items and enemies, has finally succumbed. Instead of the cleverness I’d so long associated with the series, they just kept piling it on. More fuckers with more weapons and more health. More work. Which is a shame, because although the mundane enemies of The Ringed City’s latter half were a chore, it contains two of the most satisfying bosses of the series. Other commentators may complain that Slave Knight Gael and Darkeater Midir are re-iterations of older, nostalgia-coddled characters, but that doesn’t bother me. They’re part of the lineage – that’s the point. They manage to encapsulate some of the best of Souls.
“Midir requires another classic Souls skill – the ability to play against your instincts.”
Gael is a pitch-perfect composition with all the rhythmic musicality that one could hope for – mechanically it is a fitting crescendo to end the series, and one of the most elegantly designed encounters the series has ever delivered. Midir requires another classic Souls skill – the ability to play against your instincts. In contrast to so many oversized bosses across the series, the best place to be for Midir is right in front of his nose. Terrifying as that might be. I also can’t help but respect the choice to close the series with Gael, a seemingly inconsequential character whose motivations make absolutely no sense without the context provided by the previous expansion, Ashes of Ariandel. On top of that a narrative arc that oozes Shakespearian pathos, unerringly pitched as a human-scale story, despite the maelstrom of divine machinations and looming apocalypse that threaten to swallow it? Perfect.
The Ringed City stands out to me not just because of the contrasts between its mundane encounters and its bosses, not just because it takes a wild aesthetic diversion from the arc I was expecting, but because it’s the first time I’ve felt a Souls game come to life. Playing the first two games so long after their release had coloured my experience – they were empty, lonely worlds to begin with, but they were harrowingly isolated without even the trace of another human spirit. In comparison The Ringed City is positively seething. The floors are littered with summon signs. It’s barely possible to play ten minutes without a red phantom player invading your world. It’s finally a Souls game that breathes for me.
You may wonder why I’ve left my thematic arc back there in the dust. Well, perhaps there’s a version of me that ends this article in anger, that concludes only that the developers are fools and that Dark Souls is just a videogame after all. Thankfully, after three Souls games I’ve learned to stay a little more sanguine. For a series that has been trapped in cycles for so long, to end with ashes, beauty and human fallibility seems far more fitting. The Ringed City is an unclosed circle, an unfinished ensō as a welcome full stop to a trilogy that has spent too long – well, maybe just long enough – repeating itself.