There will be spoilers.
About three-quarters through Dark Souls, I was facing a moral crisis. As far as I understood, I was on the right and proper path. I did not know how the narrative was going to conclude, but I had been working towards trying to be as good as possible, to get what I assumed would be the best ending. Everything was fine until I found an optional character, “The Daughter of Chaos.”
The Daughter was a helpless NPC. The player can choose to join her covenant and help her – she is slowly dying. Her sister is a mandatory boss. It is only after killing her sister that the player may find The Daughter and realize they’re a monster for killing her sister, who was helping the poor sick beauty. I decided with unease that I must take up the mantle. The name sounded evil, and I was probably going to lose out on the “good” ending, but guilt overtook me.
This may seem like a novel piece of characterization of a single boss, yet my realization of what I had done fired off a series of questions in my mind. That boss was a mandatory fight, she had to be bad right? I was on a quest to rekindle the first flame and restore hope and love and all that, wasn’t I? It was justifiable, right? My mind began to think about previous bosses, and I remembered feeling confused over the role of one in particular. His name was Gwyndolin.
I was under the impression that due to my objective, Gwyndolin would love to help me. His sister, Gwynevere, is crucial NPC that helps the player progress through the game. Yet Gwyndolin was a hostile character, and upon entering his chamber (optional) I was forced to combat and kill him. Even stranger, behind Gwyndolin was a stone coffin too large for him, or his father, Gwyn, who was alive and well – he’s awaiting the player at the end of the game. The only person that coffin would be suitable for was Gwyndolin, but she was still living, helping players out.
There's actually a good justification for such gratuitous clevage in-game. Seriously. I'm not joking.
A video game had effectively confused my moral compass. Often, role-playing games feature good and evil paths via clearly defined choices such as “kill the high priest” or “rescue the high priest”, and in video game narratives elaborate double-crosses are handled through cinematic exposition and often are foreseeable. In Dark Souls, however, someone had lied to me, fed me bad information somewhere, and I was utterly confused and unsure of who was telling me the truth. The game hadn’t made a set-piece to define where things would branch off – I was expecting the game to hold my hand and tell me these things. That’s what hit me the hardest: it was I, the player, who had made the decision all on my own to kill without thinking of the repercussions.
Even after realizing this, I was still holding to the good and evil binary of lesser RPGs. I knew I had screwed up and was probably getting the “bad” ending. Careless of maintaining a “good” character, I was free of my moral bindings, and went back to Gwyndolin’s mystery. Not afraid of messing up, I experimented with the NPCs and came to discover Gwynevere herself was merely an illusion. I suppose that coffin was hers. My suspicions now had evidence: I had been lied to. I just wasn’t sure why or for what purpose.
I marched on through the game and linked the flame. I was unsure of whether or not I was going to get a good or bad ending. I knew it had to be one of the two. Either way, linking the flame was the most sensible thing for me to do. It was the whole point of the quest – even if I was being lied to by some minor characters for some side-plot, in the grand scheme of things linking the fire was the best and only reasonable outcome of this endeavor.
The ending was brief yet apt, and it appeared I had succeeded in avoiding a bad ending. Lighting the first flame seemed to be just a passing of the torch, perpetuating the existence of the game world. Why was I lied to for this? Did my worries of morality hold any merit?
A Stanley Kubrick quote came to mind, “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent.”
Dark Souls is this quote. There is this weird misconception in most video games that due to the player’s control of a character within the game, that they have a ridiculous amount of agency over the outcome of the story. The player is messiah to narrative. Dark Souls’s story has been criticized for adhering to this narrative frame, that the player is the “Chosen Undead.”
This title is only bestowed upon the player after completing several tasks within the world; the player is not a messiah figure, but only the chosen one in the same sense that a shark attack survivor is a chosen one. The narrative makes it clear that there have been many chosen undead who attempt what the player attempts. Plenty of people get attacked by sharks, not all survive. You just happen to be the player who can tolerate it; the multiplayer components reaffirm this by providing more chosen undead doing the same tasks. Dark Souls only bestows the title upon the players who actually achieve. It is indifferent towards patting you on the head and letting you win, or telling you if you’re a good or evil person. That’s for the player to discover, not for the game to spoon-feed.
When you kill it, you will not need an NPC to pat you on the back and tell you Drago of Yore's descendants prayed to Geisher for the Alokha to appear one day, so that you may be awesome. You will know inside.
The second part to Kubrick’s quote reads, “but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death - however mutable man may be able to make them - our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”
The terrifying indifference of Lordran is what gives it atmosphere, it is what drives many players away from the game towards more forgiving pieces of escapism where they will be held up as messiah. The back of Dark Souls’s box tells you immediately that you’re going to die, but there will also be reward and fulfillment. Much like said shark attack victim gaining a new perspective on life, or watching a good grungy movie that crawls under your skin and forces you to take a shower afterwards, Dark Souls offers players a chance to gaze into the abyss and reflect upon themselves.
The indifference of Dark Souls towards the player also excludes the game from being malicious to the player. Often the game is criticized as being hard. Many of the challenges boil down to slowing down and thinking about the scenario. Enemies need only be observed. Keep an eye on them, study their attacks and defenses, then move in and exploit them to your advantage. That’s combat. Experiment with various weapons and armors. Avoid pitfalls and arrow traps – the world is not just decoration, the floors and walls themselves are alive and breathing, giving them much more character than the all too common bland hallways other games describe as dungeons.
You will die.
It's how you die that leaves a mark. What you do with the time that is given.
Death, in video games, holds too strong a stigma. It is often treated as the end. Dark Souls understands that it is a temporary inconvenience. A lot of players act like the death of a digital character inflicts physical pain. Dying in Dark Souls only results in a loss of experience points and your humanity – which, if you are a responsible spender of experience points – means very little. By the time you get back to where you died and recover your body, you’ll have earned back the lost experience, and if you played well, doubled it. Death in Lordran is a casual occurrence. As in the real world, people die, and civilization continues on. Players can seek solace at the bonfire, or give up. Another chosen undead will come along. Your character will go hollow, lacking its humanity. The player is the animator, the fire.
“…and they watched the fire which does contain within it something of men themselves inasmuch as they are less without it and are divided from their origins and are exiles. For each fire is all fires, and the first fire and the last ever to be.”
Dark Souls is a game that evokes much imagery from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for me. Wayward players lost and roaming an indifferent landscape, unable to communicate with each other beyond simple messages, ghosts only representative of fragments of each other’s experiences. Buddies may come and go for cooperation, invaders may come and go to satiate their own needs. Everyone’s purpose their own, their actions dictated by their own choices, covenants not forced upon them but willfully joined. The fire links us all, good or evil.
It may sound base but it works. Too often a video game entrenches itself in dense lore, furthering itself from the player, from human empathy. Fantasy is derivative of mythology, mythology descended from religion. At its core, the most basic fantasy archetypes touch upon the most primal spiritual beliefs of human beings. Dark Souls is effective because it keeps it simple: fire, and death. Light and dark.
Rather than treating the player as an exposition sponge and loading them with histories of clans and guilds, families and deities, explicit details on how magic is possible in this realm, yadda yadda yadda, Dark Souls plays fantasy simple and allows the player to wander about its morally ambiguous world without worry. It’s a game. A win state is inevitable. The end is inevitable. Books eventually run out of pages, a film reel will run out. Reaching that point is only a matter of persistence. Understanding is something different though.
I eventually discovered why I had been lied to. It cleared up a lot of confusion; it did not clarify morally what the player should do. I realized I was trying too hard to fit Dark Souls into a genre category plagued with labels and routines that exist to distract players rather than allow them to think or introspect on their actions. By this time, I had come to appreciate Dark Souls’s indifference, and its respect for the player, allowing them to provide their own light.