The Nihilistic Story of Dark Souls 06/13/21

We made our way down to Lawton this weekend so that the kiddo could hang out with his grandmothers. It’s been really nice, because they’re more than willing to hold the kid and make goo goo noises at him all day long. Meaning I can finally get some work done, and (in the evening) actually play the rest of Dark Souls.

I stopped playing when my son was born mostly because the game doesn’t have a “pause” feature, so I took to Resident Evil 7 and Call of Duty, which do. Last night I plugged the Xbox into the TV in the guest bedroom and rolled through Gravelord Nito, the Lord of Death, a hulking figure wearing a cloak made out of skeletons. Metal as fuck.

After that I went to tackle the DLC. I’m following the course of the game proscribed by Fighting Cowboy on YouTube, which gets you to complete nearly the entire game before tackling the side quest of the Abysswalker (which, if I ever pick up instruments again, will be the name of my one-man band, for sure). I rolled through the guardian of the Sanctuary Gate and the mean motherfucker Artorias himself. Then I thought to myself…maybe I should just warp out and finish the game. Leave two bosses unfought. Kalameet the Dragon and Manus the Father of the Abyss. I got to the gate of Gwyn, the final boss, and turned the system off. I’d sleep on it. Upon waking, I’ve decided to go back and finish the other bosses. It seems wrong to cut the thing short after I’ve come this far. Who knows when I’ll get to play again, but when I do, I’ll finish it up properly.

Throughout the game, I’ve been reading You Died, a companion book to the game, written independently by Jason Killingsworth and Keza McDonald. It’s got a lot of cool stuff in it, but none cooler than the “explainer” bits about the lore in the back. There’s a whole community of gamers who have pieced together the story of Dark Souls, and I think there’s an interesting metaphor in there.

The story goes like this:

At first, there was nothing, then there was a Flame. We are introduced to the ostensible “Good Guys” of the lore, those who created the world as it is. The gods, basically. Lord Gwyn created Fire, which subsequently created Light and Dark. Along with Nito, the Witch Izaleth, Seath the Scaleless, and something called “the furtive pygmy,” they waged a war against a race of ageless dragons and ushered in an Age of Fire, or an Age of Man. This lasted for thousands of years, until the Fire started dying. Gwyn keeps himself locked away in the Kiln of the First Flame, having turned himself into The Fire Itself, in order to keep the world alive and keep the Dark away.

Until you come along. See, in the Dark Souls universe, you’re technically “The Bad Guy” (this is true in Sekiro, as well). You start the game locked away in an asylum, because once the Fire started going out, Men were born with something called the Darksign, a curse that makes you Undead. You are doomed to die and be reborn over and over again, losing your Humanity until you become Hollow, or completely insane, a shell of your former self. Until one day you’re let out of your cell by a fellow Undead, to continue his quest. He’s going Hollow. He’s almost done.

And so you set out into the blighted landscape, fighting monsters along the way. Everything is falling apart. Everything save for Anor Londo has fallen into ruin, the grass growing up around the ruined architecture. Every creature you meet has been twisted by various attempts to keep the Age of Fire going. The spider creatures in Queelag’s Cave are the result of the Witch of Izalith attempting to create a New Flame, which backfired and created a Chaos Flame. Seath the Scaleless, the dragon traitor, stays locked away in his library, old and blind, conducting experiments to prolong his life. Even the God of Death, Nito, sleeps in his tomb, unable to perform his function any longer.

This is an intensely nihilistic read on the world, in which the “heroes” of the past, the ones who invented the beautiful and meaningful world people inhabited for years, have themselves become shells of their former selves, fighting against the tide of time to keep things going. Lord Gwyn’s lair is nearly empty. The floors are covered in the ash of his former army. He’s an old man and (though I haven’t fought him yet) is relatively easy to dispatch.

This is a game about putting a dying world out of its misery. You’re there to euthanize it.

You kill all of the twisted and monstrous former heroes, completely unaware of what you’re doing. You’re told, once you get out of your cell, to ring a bell. So you do. Then a gate opens in Sen’s Fortress, so you fight your way through that literal snakepit (they’re Man-Serpents, big scary fuckers) until you’re carried by demons to Anor Londo, the Seat of Lord Gwyn, still shiny and polished as a motherfucker, but completely barren. There’s no one left but a few True Believers, cultists who have forgotten why they worship. You kill them all. And you don’t know why.

At the end of the game, you have two options, now that you’ve snuffed out the final Keeper of the Flame (who is, actually, the Life Support of the Flame itself): you can step into the fire and keep it going for who knows how much longer. You can sacrifice your body and suffer in Hell to “save” the world…but for what? The Age of Dark is still coming. In the other, better ending (the one I’m gonna do when I get to play next), you walk away from the Kiln, and a group of primordial serpents (older than all of this drama) bow before you for ushering in the Age of Dark. You did it. You showed mercy. This is How Things Are Supposed to Be.

Now, if that all sounds nihilistic and depressing, it’s because it is. But the game seems to be suggesting that, just as in a human life or civilization, there are cycles. And some people have the unfortunate distinction of being a part of the Dying Cycle. You can fight against it, or you can embrace your role. There’s still beauty to be had. There’s still mystery and the uncanny. But you’re just at that point in the timeline, as Gordon over at Rune Soup is fond of saying.

The real horror, Dark Souls suggests, comes from those who can’t give up the past and move forward into the Dark. It’s too easy to draw a parallel with transhumanists or vampiric elites IV’d up to teenage bloodbags. Instead it is all of us who would rather go Hollow, who would rather suffer a hundred deaths and the certain madness at its end rather than embrace the Collapse and go boldly into the next stage of things. We have to let things fall apart, because there’s nothing more frightening than prolonging the inevitable. There’s nothing worse than being Undead, nothing worse than going Hollow.

And that’s why I think it’s the best story I’ve been told in a very, very long time. I’d recommend this game to anybody, but especially to those in need of an example of how nihilism actually works, how it can be just the thing we have to embrace in order to fulfill our roles and continue the Cycle.

We have to become the Dark Lord and snuff out the Flame. There’s nothing more metal, or true, than that.

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