Hey welcome to a bonus VideoDrone. While a lot of my videogame playing has been filtered into this project (thankfully, actually), I still get time to play stuff just to play it. And so, when I finish these games, if they have any relevance to the project here, I’ll write up a quick account of why.
Sadly, this one will be a bit light on pictures, since I played it on console, but it’s not like if you’re reading this column you’re unaware of what this game looks like: Dark Souls has become ubiquitous in an era of critiques of and calls for videogame difficulty. I just finished the first one, and it was super, super difficult, so well-advertised there. But more than that (and frankly, no one needed another paean to the difficulty of the game, though I’d happily write one), the game is remarkable for its ability to displace and demoralize its protagonist. This sounds a lot like my last column — it really isn’t.
The main reason that Dark Souls is different from other narrative-hijacking games like Hotline Miami and Spec Ops: The Line is that from the start of the game, your character is treated in a completely disinterested way. You’re just one of many undead, in an asylum left to “go hollow” and die, when you’re freed. No real reason is given for this stroke of good luck; the closest you get (from a dying knight that may or may not be the one who freed you) is that you’re meant to fulfill a prophecy and “link the fire” in Lordran. I know, it’s kind of high fantasy so far; that does and does not change as we go on.
It doesn’t change because, well, you go to Lordran to link the fires. It does change because, after the Northern Undead Asylum, the game decides to completely ignore the explication of the plot. You get snippets as you go along, but these come in the form of off-the-cuff explanations from non playable characters (NPCs) or central game figures, and neither really gives much of an explanation of what’s going on in Dark Souls. Item descriptions, of all things, give some more detail, but ultimately, you’re left with a strange world full of dead or dying people, crumbling ruins, and a nebulous mission to, first, ring two bells “to see what happens” and, second, to “link the fire” (what this means always remained pretty nebulous to me).
I feel like I need to clarify something here, though — I think this totally obscure story is fairly brilliant. As someone — I’m misremembering who but I know twitter’s @aritruscan and I have had this discussion — pointed out to me once, if you laid out the story of Dark Souls in like a scrolling form in the beginning of the game, it would be deeply embarrassing. It’s all about collecting the souls of kings to satisfy a giant serpent; it’s, on it’s face, a pretty bad DnD night. But that’s the beauty of Dark Souls — by making the whole narrative effectively optional, the motivations and reasons behind your actions and the actions of everyone in Lordran remain essentially secondary to the beautiful, difficult, and engrossing environments.
But these stories also provide a very important thematic element, namely the displacement of the hero into the too-late hero, or, perhaps worse, the cog in the machine. As one of the NPCs, a shop-keeper gone hollow behind a cage in a sewer (it’s a really grim game) tells you, you arrived to Lordran at a bad time, a time filled with death, ruin, and decay. To say Lordran is an empire in decline is to say that Rome in 476 was in a bit of a pickle. And this is kind of brilliant — you’re meant to save this impossibly broken world, and you’re just one person. You die constantly because, well, because of course you would in that situation. You’re literally overmatched at every turn.
And more than the game’s formal mirroring of your situation in its difficulty, the various threads of the game’s side stories continue on with or without you. The souls that wander Lordran that you run into can come, go, live, and die without interacting with you at all. Unlike side stories in other RPGs that demand player attention and commitment from beginning to end, Dark Souls’ approach to side stories is just this side of “guy in a bus station who maybe you ask how his day is or don’t.” The world, in other words, doesn’t revolve around you.
I want you to know that I know that I’m only scratching the surface of Dark Souls here, but there’s something that’s very important and very easy to miss about the way the narrative works in this game. Not only are you made to feel small, as in many early videogames that encouraged grinding and difficulty, you’re also never made to feel big, in the know, or even remotely central to the game’s story. Even after you link the fires (and god there’s a post to be written about that boss fight, it’s soundtrack specifically), you immediately get the credit scroll and you wake up again in the Northern Undead Asylum. All your armor and levels remain, but the cycle has begun again.
There’s a desire, especially in avant garde literature, to write a novel that is “not even a novel” — to escape the form entirely. One way to do this is to formally break the novel, writing something like William Gaddis’ JR. But another, more popular way to do this is to alienate the audience, exhaust and decenter them as witness as meta-protagonist. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 does this, exhausting the reader and destroying its narrative by its 2nd of 5 books. Dark Souls is more like 2666 in this way, but functionally (if not artistically; I love Dark Souls, but 2666 is a masterpiece), it does it one better.
Dark Souls offers you goals without the promise of reward, difficulty without the promise of mastery, and plot without the possibility of resolution. It drops you in the middle of a world without a map and without a clear guide save a sarcastic man telling you to ring two bells “to see what happens” while assuring you that “it will make no difference.” And ultimately, the man’s barb is both accurate and descriptive. Anything we do in videogames is cyclical and, ultimately, for the hell of it. The lack of story in Dark Souls is simply the game self-reflexively remarking upon its own status as game. “Beat me or don’t; it’s up to you” NOT “Beat me, everyone is depending on you.” Because the you in Dark Souls is small and insignificant.
Sadly, tragically, but also poetically, like the you in real life as well.