Dark Souls, FromSoftware’s dark fantasy masterpiece, is a seemingly impenetrable work from an interpretive and thematic standpoint. First, famously, much of its worldbuilding and story can be reached only by careful attention to environmental set pieces, optional character interactions, and item descriptions. Second, and more of an obstacle for our present analytical purpose, Dark Souls is a game which seems to be about death, decay, and annihilation—but which is simultaneously a game starring a prophecy-driven character who survives death, and in which souls are demonstrable realities.
But would-be Souls scholars should not despair. As for the subtlety and density of its worldbuilding, this is no rarity in the wider world of art. While it’s nowhere near as complex as a Modernist novel, I would contend that Dark Souls is similarly rewarding to careful attention and study as are, for instance, the works of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. So, obviously I don’t consider the difficulty of accessing its story to be an insurmountable detriment. And as for the seeming thematic contradictions of the game, these are not intractable.
A reading of Dark Souls as being in conversation with the canon of existentialist philosophical thought yields a relatively straightforward path toward interpretation: Dark Souls, especially through its story and gameplay mechanics, is an allegory for the human condition in an entropic universe with no inherent meaning. That might seem vague and insubstantial, but hereafter I intend to provide support for it (and eventually specificity) through careful attention to both the game and the relevant philosophy.
For the purpose of this article, I have assumed that the reader has some familiarity with the characters and plot details of Dark Souls, although I have not assumed that the reader has any prior experience with existentialist philosophy. This approach is one that I arrived at after considering at length the most likely audience for this work. But if that doesn’t describe you, do not fret; I did also make an effort to ensure that anyone (regardless of their level of familiarity with either philosophy or Dark Souls) could at least follow the ideas in the analysis if they so desire. Now, let’s get to it:
Existence Preceding Essence in the Undead Prophecy of Dark Souls:
A key tenet of the most broadly recognized formal presentation of existentialism is Jean-Paul Sartre’s contention that existence precedes essence:
What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that [a human] first of all exists, encounters [themselves], surges up in the world – and defines [themselves] afterwards. (Sartre “Existentialism” 27)
In Sartre’s view, humans simply are, before they are something. An essence, then, would be any predestination, function, or purpose which is preassigned to a being or object before it comes into existence. Unlike a person, a tool that is manufactured for a particular use, such as a fork, could be said to have an essence that precedes its existence. A human lacks this kind of fated purpose, and must make sense of their existence in some way prior to seeking a purpose or meaning.
But this would seem to face an immediate complication in the case of Dark Souls, as the game presents a prophecy to the player very near to its beginning. After freeing the player-character from their cell in the Undead Asylum at the beginning of Dark Souls, Oscar of Astora uses some of his last lucid moments to share the following words:
Thou who art Undead, art chosen… In thine exodus from the Undead Asylum, maketh pilgrimage to the land of Ancient Lords… When thou ringeth the Bell of Awakening, the fate of the Undead thou shalt know… (Oscar)
On the surface, this would appear to immediately destroy any notion of existence preceding essence in the universe of Dark Souls. After all, there is perhaps nothing so essential and purpose-driven as a proverbial Chosen One in a work of fiction—for it to also mention the chosen undead’s “fate” seems downright gratuitous. Must we then retreat, like the protagonist Antoine Roquentin in Sartre’s novel Nausea, into a metatextual interpretation regarding the notion that only fictional beings and works of art have essential purposes? Well, no; consider carefully what the prophecy is saying, and the context of its presentation.
First, notice that the initial line of the prophecy contains an ambiguity. While “thou” is singular, it is still unclear whether it is meant to address a particular undead (i.e. the prophecy is meant for a single person to whom it is addressed), or is meant to be stating that all undead are chosen (i.e. the prophecy applies to any singular undead in the Undead Asylum who happens to hear it). Undeath and being shipped to the Asylum—we have already learned from the opening cinematic—are now very common. And it is apparent from Oscar’s prefacing of the prophecy (“Regrettably, I have failed in my mission”) that he thought of fulfilling it as his personal duty. The narration presented on leaving the Asylum is similarly unclear, stating that “an undead shall be chosen” but describing no mechanism or authority by which that choice would be made.
Second, similarly, there is an ambiguity in the final line: after ringing the bell, will one learn the fate of the chosen undead, or of all undead individuals? There is also the double meaning of the word “fate” to consider: fate may mean destined purpose, or it may mean final end. On all matters of specificity and definition, this brief ‘prophecy’ is silent. The only way to even know if the prophecy might apply to oneself is to see if one is able to accomplish the bell-ringing described within it.
Third, we learn almost immediately that the prophecy is fallible. Upon arriving in Lordran, the crestfallen warrior eagerly informs you that “you’re not the first” to arrive in Lordran from the Asylum, and, in direct contradiction to the wording of the prophecy, that there are two bells of awakening.
Fourth, actually ringing the bells does not, in fact, present the player with a clean and tidy destiny for the player-character. It may seem to do so, for new players who don’t look around too much in Anor Londo and the New Londo Ruins. But the truth is that two primordial serpents, Frampt and Kaathe, can separately engage the “chosen undead,” presenting mutually exclusive descriptions of the player-character’s “fate.” Whose advice to follow remains entirely in the hands of the player, and the fact that most first-time players will simply blindly follow the behest of the first serpent encountered is a conscious exploitation of player preconceptions in order to make the later revelation of a competing narrative all the more impactful.
Fifth, interaction with the NPCs from the Way of White makes it clear that the prophecy is not commonly accepted everywhere. Rhea of Thorolund explicitly states, “You are undead as well—then we have no time to fraternize; I have my mission, and you no doubt have yours.” She is referring to her awareness of the undead mission followed by the player-character and by Astora nobles like Oscar, despite the fact that undead Thorolund clerics like herself and her attendants are instead sent to Lordran to retrieve the Rite of Kindling from the Catacombs.
Sixth and finally, the prophecy is much younger than a new player may initially believe. Oscar calls it ‘an old saying in his family;’ the narrator calls it one of the ‘ancient legends;’ and I have been referring to it as a prophecy. But in the course of the game, we can learn that—while the Age of Fire is at the very least thousands of years old, and Gwyn linked the fire roughly a thousand years ago—the prophecy is likely about 100 years old:
The legend of the undead is likely created about 100 years previous to the game beginning. 100 years is from [. . .] the crestfallen merchant [in Sen’s Fortress], who says that for 100 years the undead have tried and failed to get to Anor Londo. (Hawkshaw 1:17:43)
So, to what, ultimately, do these lines about the “chosen undead” amount? At best, the prophecy is a fallible edict pointing one undead individual or another toward choosing what the next era of the world will look like. At worst, the prophecy is a willful invention spread to humans by one or more agents of Gwyndolin and Frampt in order to find a powerful soul to burn on the First Flame.
A tame interpretation of this prophecy would be that it embodies our experience of advice and life coaching. That is, it could be grouped together with the various gurus, professionals, and experts whose opinions on how to live a good life manage to shape, in both conscious and subconscious ways, how one lives. But seeing as it does form a compelling (and ludologically determined) motivation for the player-character, a less tame and more direct analogue for this prophecy in reality (particularly in an existentialist context) would be the various religious doctrines vying for status as truth.
What the prophecy ultimately explicitly reveals is that the “chosen undead” is one who, in the course of their actions, chooses themselves. The chosen undead is not known by a special mark (all undead bear the darksign) nor by a special lineage nor by a special name nor by a special piece of equipment, but merely by being that undead who is able to make it to Lordran and ring the bells. This essence is in no way prior to the player-character’s existence. But what is that existence like?
The Indifference of Reality and Malevolence of Beings in Dark Souls:
It is often remarked that Dark Souls does nothing to teach or guide the player, but this is trivially untrue to some extent. Even ignoring the outright tutorializing of the messages spread around the Undead Asylum, one could point to both the relative linearity of many subsections of the game, dialogue hints from the various NPCs (especially Oscar, the crestfallen warrior, Gwynevere, and the primordial serpents), and the way that players’ various paths through the game are encouraged or discouraged at different points in a playthrough by the placement of stronger or weaker foes.
It would be more accurate to say that the possible paths of the player are uncommonly unrestricted, with a few points in the game even feeling almost like setting off into an intricately realized open-world title. But even dedicated open-world games, in the vast majority of cases, will bombard the player with advice, hints, missions, map markers, and more to shape their actions.
The lack of restriction across the majority of the gameworld is one of the many clues as to how the world of Dark Souls feels about its potential protagonist: it doesn’t. In stark contrast to classical works of fiction—in which the universe literally revolves around the narrative in a fashion now known as the pathetic fallacy, with sadness bringing rain and anger bringing storms—Dark Souls instead presents a universe which could not care less about its protagonist.
Whether the player-character sets off from Firelink Shrine into the graveyard between the shrine and the Catacombs, down into New Londo, or up into the Undead Burg—no in-game admonishments will chastise your decision.
In fact, there are inarguable benefits and tradeoffs to going in either of the less easy directions first. The Catacombs are home to the rite of kindling, a blacksmith, and numerous other weapons and items. The New Londo Ruins contain a smith of their own, further items and benefits, and (even without the master key) a possible route into the Valley of Drakes by killing Ingward to drain the ruins early (which in turn grants quick access to nearly every early-game environment). If you desire these benefits, the option is open for you to fight your way to them.
The tremendous openness of the early game, the lack of thorough directions, and the tone of the game overall recall for me the following lines by Friedrich Nietzsche:
At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the [discerning person] is permitted again: the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea.” (Nietzsche 279)
Nietzsche is speaking of what it is like for those who properly grasp the full ramifications of the widespread abandonment (by 19th-century Europeans) of older religious modes of thought. His sentiment is built on the notion—core to his overall philosophy—that such a transition in thought is a massive and far-reaching undertaking, owing to the fact that those older ways of thinking continue to underpin the systems of morality (and by extension law, government, and more) in the relevant societies.
With their erroneous centers hollowed out—their rickety old foundations utterly compromised—all such societal systems would be in danger of collapse. And so it would fall to the first who recognize this state of affairs (and who are sufficiently willful) to create new versions of those systems on new and more tenable bases, a phenomenon Nietzsche referred to as “the transvaluation of all values.” The player sets their own priorities in Lordran, acts in covenant structures which align with those priorities, and (of course) navigates the world according to those priorities. And it is precisely that player who best comprehends the precarious, indeterminate trajectory of the events in Dark Souls (who has played the game before, perhaps), who can most willfully and powerfully ‘set sail’ into the dangers of Lordran.
For, while the world of Lordran doesn’t care what you do, the enemies and the NPCs do care. They too are active agents in this world, and in the vast majority of cases, the inhabitants of Lordran are hostile and pose a significant threat to the player-character. Nearly every enemy and boss in the game intends to halt your progress, destroy you, and take your souls. And, as you will slowly realize, a concerning proportion of the NPCs are also principally agents of self-interest who intend to get some kind of benefit from the player-character or from other NPCs.
Every being in Dark Souls has a will of its own, independent of the player-character. NPCs will show up in a given location and then later move on, according to their own priorities, irrespective of the convenience of the player. And many of the enemy inhabitants of Lordran would seek to subjugate the player-character to their will and their own ends. In particular, this usually translates to them attempting to vanquish the player-character to achieve some extrinsic goal. Most random enemies do it to take your souls; others do it to protect something or someone; others do it to satiate their animal instinct or hunger; and still others do it out of simple self-defense.
In effect, the harsh violence with which every enemy greets the player is in actuality a further expression of the world of Dark Souls being indifferent—existentialist rather than essentialist. No intervention will appear to automatically tune the difficulty down, to hold NPCs in a convenient spot, or to prevent an opponent from hitting as hard and as often as that opponent is hit. Remember the way in which the Nietzsche quote presented earlier emphasizes danger, daring, and an unhopefully dim horizon.
Like Lordran, our universe can be an intimidating place to live. Not everything is fair or friendly. Of course, it is not without doses of kindness. But on a grand scale, the universe is a desolate and inhospitable place, in which one lives out a life so short that it could be discarded as a rounding error in comparison even to the age of the earth. But on a small scale, success or failure may be a matter of self-direction and fortitude, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds—a matter of setting sail into a vast, open expanse of unknown waters with every intent of surviving, thriving, and exploring.
Even if life seems to one an unfair, unfeeling, unrelenting procession of cold tragedies, one can nevertheless pursue and attain goals within the context in which they find themselves—which brings us to a core topic in Dark Souls: motivation.
Hollowing, Motivation, and Authenticity in Dark Souls:
Further underscoring the game’s subversion of traditional ‘chosen once’ story structures, the protagonist rarely obtains a victory against a noteworthy foe when the foe is at full strength. Many of the bosses are extremely old, perhaps maddened, and have stood at their current posts for centuries—including the Four Kings, Ornstein and Smough, the Bell Gargoyles, and the Demon Firesage. Others are not even warriors by trade or practice—including Priscilla and Ceaseless Discharge. Still others are physically impeded, injured, or otherwise weakened when fought—including Gwyn, Artorias, the Bed of Chaos, and Kalameet. Some even incorporate more than one of those categories of impediment—including Seath and the Gaping Dragon. Indeed, very few seem to credibly be giving their peak performance when the player-character fights them: the Sanctuary Guardian, the Moonlight Butterfly, Manus, and the remaining demon bosses are some of the possible exceptions.
So, the majority of the bosses in the game are at a significant disadvantage when they are finally conquered by the player-character. And more telling still is the fact that, despite the weakness and vulnerability of the bosses, few players will beat any given boss on their very first attempt. It is an impressive feat, to be sure, for the player-character to conquer all of these beings, whether the beings are impeded and weakened or not. But even so, what is important to notice is that the player-character is undead, and is often repeatedly slain by each boss before victory. Being killed over and over by every disadvantaged or even weakened boss one faces in order to eventually kill them once is hardly a description of a classical hero; rather than destiny, what sets the player-character apart is simply their tenacity and the motivation that underlies that tenacity.
Indeed, consider further what happens when the player fails:
Unconscious, hollowed, and ostensibly dead, the player-character regains sentience at a nearby bonfire due to the darksign, and (bereft of souls and humanity) must make it back to the site of their most recent death to regain their lost power. Still, if they are able to retain their motivation, they can throw themselves again and again at each embattled boss until victory is achieved, having learned the habits and fighting style of their opponent through their own successive failures. It is not prowess alone which allows the player-character to emerge victorious over their weakened adversaries, but also their motivation, patience, and resilience.
The relationships among failure, motivated resilience, and success are enshrined in the lore of the game as the process of hollowing by way of the undead curse.
So, what about the undead curse? It may, after all, be fairly remarked that if the analysis in this article is on the right track—then it is curious that the game features such a heavy emphasis on a curse that prevents dying. But I would point out that the undead curse does not actually prevent dying. New players will quickly become familiar with the fact that losing all hit points by any means presents text in huge red block letters reading simply, “YOU DIED.” Rather than preventing death, the curse of the ‘undead’ is really the curse of the ‘repeatedly dead.’ Cursed individuals die again and again, being slowly diminished. The characterization of the player-character as an undead allows the game to focus on death and decay in ways that may not be possible otherwise.
Undeath in Dark Souls is not really an escape from the lack of consciousness that awaits us at the end of our lives. It merely takes what would have seemed instant (a single death with immediate loss of consciousness, then bodily decay to follow), and stretches it out into something that can be observed, contemplated, and slowly experienced (many deaths, concurrent with gradual bodily decay, concurrent with gradual loss of consciousness). It dramatizes the process of dying (or, if you’re a pessimist, the process of living) by elongating it considerably and placing it under scrutiny.
For an undead, a death is a small setback. An undead’s story does not end until numerous deaths have ground them down sufficiently—have destroyed their body and their mind to such an extent that they are robbed of the motivation to carry on. Death may not be the only way for an undead to hollow, but the relationship between repeated deaths and hollowing is explicit in the game, as Andre or Astora counsels: “Don’t get yourself killed. Neither of us wants to see you go hollow.”
The situation is strikingly similar for the player, on another scale. A death of the player’s character is a small setback. But the concatenation of deaths has the potential to destroy one’s resolve, ultimately driving them to give up on the game. Their character would then cease to make progress toward its goals; in effect, it would hollow. Only a player who can maintain motivation in the face of sustained adversity can achieve success and prevent their character from hollowing. Rarely is there such an intimately tight relationship between a game’s mechanical relationship with its player and that game’s core thematic concepts.
The clearest existentialist connection to draw here would certainly be to Albert Camus’ work, The Myth of Sisyphus, at the end of which human existence is compared to a Greek mythological figure who is condemned to push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again, repeatedly for eternity. Camus concludes,
Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. [. . .] This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. (Camus 123)
Dark Souls builds its depiction of the difficulty of maintaining motivation (and hence sanity and consciousness) in its universe through the sustained indifference of its reality; the methodical process of wandering its haunting vistas and uncovering details of the world; and the continual, slow-paced struggle against the aggressive, unwelcoming, and often also undead inhabitants of Lordran as they attempt to break your will to live. Everything from the overall length of an ordinary playthrough on down to the pace of the moment-to-moment gameplay makes Dark Souls a semi-Sisyphean affair.
What is it, then, to be the Sisyphus of Camus’ imagination? What is it to maintain motivation in Lordran? For existentialists, this would be to proceed according to a property known as authenticity. To be authentic, such philosophers contend, is to live and act while fully aware of one’s situation—both its striking physical limitations and its radical metaphysical freedom. To properly clarify the relevance of authenticity, it is necessary to consider what it would mean to be inauthentic. For this, there is no passage more well-known (nor perhaps more misunderstood) than Sartre’s discussion of people fulfilling job roles in the section of Being and Nothingness on “Bad Faith:”
The public demands of them that they realize it as a ceremony; there is a dance of the grocer, of the tailor, of the auctioneer, by which they endeavor to persuade their clientele that they are nothing but a grocer, an auctioneer, a tailor. A grocer who dreams is offensive to the buyer, because such a grocer is not wholly a grocer. [. . .] In a parallel situation, from within, the waiter in the café can not be immediately a café waiter in the sense that this inkwell is an inkwell, or the glass is a glass. (Sartre “Being” 355-356)
While this is a bit imprecise for pedants, for our purposes you can consider ‘bad faith’ and ‘inauthenticity’ to be interchangeable. And in a sense, a hollow is something akin to a thoroughgoing inauthentic bad-faith actor: a hollow is fulfilling a role without a clearly defined and ever-present sense of self, autonomy, and freedom. A hollow’s identity is reducible to their actions and their garments, and the titles that can be appended to them: soldier, knight, butcher, barbarian, and even merchant. They are fading into the world as objects—losing track of their status as existential agents.
A person can not be a role (such as grocer or waiter, knight or barbarian) before they are a person. If they could, such a thing would cease to be a person and be only the role; in effect, they would be a hollow. But if one manages to not lose track of their freedom within their situation and the goals to which they’re applying that freedom, they may indeed avoid hollowing: “Good bye then. Be safe, friend. Don’t you dare go hollow” (Laurentius).
Restriction, Freedom, and Goals in Dark Souls:
Similar to the common misconceptions about its teaching strategies, there is an even more widespread misapprehension (partly to be blamed on marketing) that Dark Souls is an exceptionally challenging game. But struggling players have no end of available assistance: leveling up, upgrading weapons, upgrading armor, kindling bonfires, staying hollowed to avoid invasions, using the seek guidance miracle, summoning allies, acquiring ranged attacks, using humanity to heal, using consumable buffs, and upgrading estus are all ways that players can make the game easier for themselves. When compared to something like an unflinching, high-difficulty platformer or a complex puzzle game—the numerous helpful mechanics in Dark Souls are downright accommodating.
Just as it would be more accurate to say that Dark Souls is uncommonly unrestricted as opposed to aimless—rather than exceptionally difficult, it would be more accurate to say that Dark Souls is uncommonly consistent and punishing in the event of failure. There are precise and inflexible rules, discussed earlier, governing the process and accompanying challenge of dying in Lordran. This is one potent example of a restriction that faces the player-character in Dark Souls: the player-character is not truly free to do anything in a boundless field of infinite options. Like any gameworld, it is a place with laws and boundaries.
But the game’s laws are more like the laws of physics than the laws of society. They say that a being can not sustain a certain amount of damage without dying, can not roll acrobatically while encumbered by heavy armor unless unusually enduring, can not murder a merchant and still do business with them later, and can not properly wield a tool they are too weak or unskilled to wield. Similarly, the game’s boundaries are more like geography than facades pushing linear storytelling. They are positioned at walls, doors, magical barricades, and the edges of regions; Lordran is a place utterly devoid of that most hated unrealistic game object, the invisible wall.
A small note: this latter fact is almost comically underscored by the game’s illusory walls—such that Dark Souls not only fails to erect unseen barriers, but even contains visible barriers that yield to the slightest attempt to pass them.
But ignoring that digression, within the game’s overall structure of logical, consistent restriction and imposition, the player can make any choice for their character—build their character however they want, wield whatever weapon their character is sufficiently built to wield, help or harm any NPC, and even face or avoid a large number of the game’s ostensibly-primary bosses. This sort of ‘absolute freedom, within a context’ is what is meant by the notion of ‘radical freedom’ discussed by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
This degree of freedom, coupled with the list of mechanics at the start of this section, creates an interesting situation in which the player organically tunes the difficulty to their own preferences while they play, in a manner that is far more granular than would be found through conventional difficulty options before a playthrough of some other game. Here’s why that level of granularity and control is so interesting to me: the difficulty of Dark Souls is closely connected to its meaning.
Much of the analysis in the preceding sections is related to playing the game at a high degree of difficulty—that is, it is largely assumed in this article that a player will not be excessively abusing the game’s systems to trivialize the experience. But why am I able to make this assumption? The reason is that many of the helpful mechanics listed at the outset of this section will be opaque to a new player, and require curiosity, attention, and experimentation to uncover. This more-or-less guarantees that a person’s first playthrough will involve a level of challenge that is above a casual and comfortable level for them, for at least part of the campaign.
But if Dark Souls is to survive as an artistic work long into the future, then—like a great novel or a great film—it must maintain its vitality and thematic content on repeated playthroughs. Yet the experience of Dark Souls diverges in two possible directions on repeated plays. That is, an experienced player has a choice to make in regards to the game’s methods of manual difficulty tuning:
On the one hand, a player can intentionally challenge themselves to maintain an experience substantively similar to their first playthrough. This is the path toward which I myself lean. On each subsequent character who I’ve taken through Lordran, I have incrementally increased the challenge by cutting out helpful-but-not-essential mechanics. For instance, my first playthrough was the only one in which I ever kindled a bonfire, my second playthrough was the only one in which I ever summoned allies, and in each succeeding run I have capped my character’s level at a lower number. This has culminated in my most recent effort, which was my fifth time playing the game, in which I did no summoning or kindling; used no ranged attacks, magic, or consumable items; and never leveled my character above level one. (That character can be seen in possession of Gwyn’s soul in the screenshot above.) I push these restrictions each time in order to ensure that there is still some challenge each time through the game—that at least a few of the bosses take more than one try. And one could take things much farther than this (as many players have), by also not upgrading equipment, not using armor or rings, not using estus, and/or by setting some kind of meta goal (e.g. no deaths, no hits, or fastest completion).
On the other hand, a player may choose to utilize their knowledge of the game’s systems (together with their coordination and skill with the game’s combat) to beat the game with more and more ease. In a particularly egregious scenario, one could imagine an experienced player choosing to . . . spam soul levels in the early game; rush to the Depths to pick up the Large Ember, farm humanity from rats, and farm large titanite shards from slimes; go the Catacombs to kill Pinwheel for the Rite of Kindling; kill Ingward to drain New Londo for the Very Large Ember and farm titanite chunks from darkwraiths; return to the Undead Asylum to kill the Stray Demon for a titanite slab; and then progress to Andre. This hypothetical player could obtain a +15 weapon and at least +9 armor before fighting the Bell Gargoyles, and could proceed to kindle every bonfire to 20 estus, summon allies for every fight, use ranged magic, and likely accrue enough souls throughout the game to achieve a character level above 100 before fighting Gwyn. Their reward for doing this would be a cakewalk through Lordran in which they melt through every boss encounter in a matter of seconds. (Imagine Sisyphus flicking his boulder, and watching it shoot to the top of the hill.)
On the surface, this would seem to be yet another sticking point in the analysis. What would it mean for a work depicting a darkening, threatening world—if a knowledgeable and experienced player can navigate and conquer it without breaking a sweat? Even a more reasonable version of the second category I’ve just described, who simply uses all of the game’s mechanics as they come up organically, will have a very easy time in the game when compared to their first run.
Well, if you go back and check the earlier sections of this article, you’ll notice a curious fact: that I never actually say the world of Dark Souls has to be malevolent, only that it has to seem malevolent. For the foregoing analysis, it is enough that a player’s first playthrough be noticeably challenging and test their motivation, even if that is the only one that is so and does so.
After all, a meaningless world is not necessarily hostile, only indifferent. This is a distinction I was careful to make in the earlier section about the world, the enemies, and the NPCs: that the hostility of Lordran’s beings is not necessarily shared by Lordran itself.
While one could think of each roughly-bonfire-defined section of the game as something akin to a Sisyphean act, one could also think of each run through the game in its entirety as being like a single trip to the top of the hill with Sisyphus’ boulder; New Game + even sees the player-character being unceremoniously dumped back into the Undead Asylum after the credits, without even a repeated showing of the full opening cinematic to soften the roll of the boulder back to where it began. And the most important facet of the Sisyphus myth in Camus’ analysis is not the difficulty of the boulder task (although it is undoubtedly difficult), but that is that it is an extrinsically meaningless endeavor.
In this way, creating your own difficulty level means choosing your own goals within the context of the game, which is to say choosing your own psychological orientation toward, as it were, boulder-rolling. It’s a somewhat interesting coincidence, after all, that rolling plays such a crucial and frequent part in the moveset of the player-character. Anyway, by being a further actualization of one’s will in the gameworld, this phenomenon of increasing player skill, knowledge, and control over the experience of the game becomes a matter of increasing one’s power, in the Nietzschean sense.
So, to decide how to play and why to play is to create for oneself a destiny, a fate, a goal, and, yes, even a purpose, where previously only dubious and spurious destinies, fates, goals, and purposes existed. It may not be everlastingly, cosmically, supernaturally meaningful—but that doesn’t stop it from being immediately, personally meaningful. Eternity may make an absurd mockery of our actions, but we fight on. As VaatiVidya puts it,
There are no happy endings in Lordran. Even if you do no wrong, tragedy finds you. Maybe [like Solaire] you’re searching for the light in a dark place. Maybe [like Quelaag] you’re fighting to keep your sister alive. Whether [arguably like Siegmeyer] you’re adventuring for the sake of adventure, or [like the adherents of Gwyn] risking your life for your lord, it will do no good. But despite futility, we do these things anyway. By fighting against the inevitable, we carve meaning from meaninglessness. (VaatiVidya “Gwyn” 4:58)
Well, that ties a nice bow on many of the ideas presented up until now in this article . . . except, there’s something that’s being left unsaid in that sort of assessment, which will take us into new material in the sections to come. Here it is: the way that Sartre paints the meaninglessness of the world as tragic, the way that Camus advocates rebellion and scorn against the meaninglessness of the world, and most existentialist discussions of bleak topics like despair, suicide, and angst—all betray a misunderstanding, a mistake, or even a contradiction in the best-known works of many early-20th-century existentialist thinkers. An explanation of this idea will come into sharp focus when discussing the physicality, and later the inevitable quiet apocalypse, of the Dark Souls universe.
The Physicality of Divinity, Souls, and Life in Dark Souls:
The mythos of Dark Souls is very far from being the first to feature a heavenly castle in the sky and a demonic pit of fire under the ground. But most sincerely believed human myths depict such locales as being in some sense ethereal, with their inhabitants incorporeal. Not so in Dark Souls. The world of Dark Souls is physical, bounded, and is even geographically consistent in a way that few other gameworlds are. The gods of Dark Souls are gods only insofar as they are considerably more powerful than most humanoids; the demons of Dark Souls are demons only insofar as they are chaotic and incorporate animal forms; and the souls of Dark Souls are souls only insofar as they are wispy and rush out of dead beings. Even ghosts, like those found in the ruins of New Londo, are physically interactive wisps, which can be destroyed utterly by cursed beings or weapons.
All of the gods featured or mentioned in Dark Souls—from Lord Gwyn who led the elite knights of Anor Londo to the black-haired witch Velka who leads the rapier-wielding pardoners of Carim to Gwyn’s uncle Allfather Lloyd who leads the Way of White in Thorolund—are, as far as we can tell, very large humanoids with particularly powerful souls. And the most powerful and most significant souls in Lordran are the lord souls, four distinct souls found within the First Flame and wielded by progenitors of four distinct groups of beings: gods, demons, humans, and the dead. So, with all of this in mind, the key question then becomes as follows:
In Dark Souls, what is a soul?
I would contend that the evidence offered in the game presents a soul as a physical manifestation of power and energy—something analogous to a kind of invigorating electricity that beings can wield directly through their bodies. A being with no souls is not necessarily dead, and a being with many souls is not necessarily alive. Dealing in souls is a way for beings to see, obtain, and wield power. This is to say that the universe of Dark Souls, while it contains arguably supernatural elements like ghosts and curses, operates according to a system of physics in which all forms of power (from the bodily to the abstract) are tangible. It is a uniquely naturalistic fantasy mythos, especially when compared with traditional fantasy universes like those of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
Sorceries, for instance, are clear and present applications of souls as physical actions. Even a cursory look at the list of sorceries will make this obvious, including techniques such as soul arrow, homing soulmass, and soul spear. Or, to take another example, the estus flask is a curiously exact method of translating the soul-burning flame of a bonfire into a consistent, invariable, quantifiable restoration. Every element of the world fits into a material system so precise as to seem (as will become clear in the following section) as mathematical as the field of physics.
But there is a consequence of this kind of thorough physicality in the worldbuilding of Dark Souls, and it is basically what makes the content of the game so thematically dark: that the directed, motivated inner life of the player-character (as imbued by the player) which prevents them from hollowing, can nevertheless only avoid its inevitable eventual annihilation through imagination. To illustrate this further, consider the following structuralist portrait of the human condition written by the cultural anthropologist and psychoanalyst Ernest Becker:
We might call this existential paradox the condition of individuality within finitude. [A human] has a symbolic identity that brings [them] sharply out of nature. [They are] a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. [They are] a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place [themselves] imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly [their] own planet. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to [a person] literally the status of a small god in nature, as the Renaissance thinkers knew.
Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, [a human] is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: [they are] out of nature and hopelessly in it; [they are] dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. [Their] body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to [them] in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. (Becker 26)
The philosopher Thomas Nagel contends that it is not the mere fact of death, but rather an awareness of the arbitrariness and potential pointlessness of human endeavors that brings about what Becker here calls an “existential paradox,” and which other philosophers have called a sense of absurdity. But at any rate, the core idea is the same: that humans can use their minds to occupy an imaginary position outside of themselves, and that from that imaginary vantage point their lives seem ignoble, meaningless, and doomed to an eventual, usually-unwelcome ending.
But why would this be so in Lordran? How does the robust fantasy world of Dark Souls require that its beings face existential positions so analogous to our own? Apart from the lack of a credible metaphysical dimension as explained in this section, the answer (perhaps unsurprisingly) is souls. Like energy in our universe, the souls from the First Flame are a finite resource. And this seemingly simple fact contains not only the justification for individual life and death in Dark Souls, but also the way in which its entire physical, bounded universe tends toward an eventual end.
Kindling Flames, Entropy, and the End of the World in Dark Souls:
Our universe, like our planet, like every one of us, is dying. It’s happening at an extremely slow rate, but it is happening. Every expenditure of energy by every chemical process in the universe moves it one microscopic step forward toward an equilibrium state in which its energy is dispersed into inert, useless distribution. Unless some other physical process (such as a theorized big rip or big crunch) intercepts this process, at some point entropy will maximize in this way to a point known as ‘the heat death of the universe,’ or (for consistency’s sake) the big freeze.
The universe of Dark Souls faces a strikingly similar eventual end. Its present existence is predicated on keeping flames lit, and the universe as such exists only by the temporary separation of heat from cold, light from dark, and life from death. But flames require fuel to continue burning:
In the end, it doesn’t matter what you do. If you link the flame, you’re just delaying the inevitable; if you let the flame fade, the darkness comes a little sooner, with you at the helm. The one canon ending to Dark Souls is in the prologue: “One day the flame will fade, and only dark will remain.” (VaatiVidya “Which” 5:27)
Burning souls—be it through linking the First Flame, kindling bonfires, or even leveling—is a matter of dispersing the energy of the universe in an irreversible process toward spent, ashen nothingness. And what does nothingness look like, in Dark Souls? “In the Age of Ancients, the world was unformed, shrouded by fog—a land of grey crags, archtrees, and everlasting dragons” (Narrator). Consider the following words by game director Hidetaka Miyazaki:
The ancient dragons of the “Dark Souls” world are a bit different from your conventional dragons. They are almost like the very minerals of the land in that they are transcendent creatures that existed before life itself graced the world. [. . .] I was asked what is happening to the dragons now, and I explained that it is like they have been eaten away by the toxins of life. By this I meant things like the emotions and acts that came along with the lesser creatures. (Miyazaki 118)
The Ancient Dragons are not living creatures. The Age of Ancients is an era entirely devoid of life, movement, and experiences. Whether the dragons could even move or act before fire came into the world, bringing the disparity that included life and death, is unclear in the opening cinematic—in which we see only a static and motionless dragon prior to that pivotal event. A world with nothing but archtrees and immortal stone dragons is something akin to a pre-big-bang singularity: a motionless, unchanging, unformed, lifeless, timeless conceptual landscape. This may be why Seath and Logan go mad: they come to understand that the true immortality of the ancient dragons, which they had ever sought to understand and (at least in Seath’s case) obtain, is synonymous with nothingness.
Aside from the obvious analogies so far drawn between the lore of Dark Souls and the depletion of finite useable energy in reality, is there specific evidence in the gameplay of a parallel between the game and big-bang-to-big-crunch or big-bang-to-big-chill cosmological models? Yes, plenty!
To begin, think about the slow and steady (yet practically inevitable) accumulation, consolidation, and expenditure of souls that occurs among the combatants and undead inhabitants of the world over time. Consider: Why do even the lowliest enemies in Lordran have dozens of souls to lose to the player-character upon defeat?
Imagine the world shortly after the defeat of the dragons. By splitting the power derived from the First Flame (as the lord souls) into smaller and smaller cohesive souls, the lords spread power and existential identity into numerous beings. While the exact nature of reproduction in Dark Souls is ambiguous (even after careful attention to areas of the lore concerning families: Gwyn and his children, Izalith and her daughters, Siegmeyer and Sieglinde, Seath and Priscilla, and more), it is nevertheless clear that there were further generations of beings after that first set. Thus, the existing souls would have been split further. But as the first generation dies, and the second generation acquires their souls—they don’t now have bigger souls than existed previously. They either have multiple souls, summing in power to the original might of their parents’ souls, or one soul brought back to the might of their parent’s souls through a process like leveling.
Now, extrapolate from that set of events to the time period containing the events of the campaign. The splitting has proceeded, perhaps as far as possible: there is a minimum standard soul unit, which can quantifiably be called ‘one soul.’ This is what allows the player-character to transact business in souls with various merchants, and to know precisely how many souls are required to achieve a higher level. This is what is being counted in the lower right box of the game’s HUD (Heads-Up Display), and this is why one can crush a boss’ soul to increment their total. Every agent in the world now possesses some subset of the universe’s souls, either unified into one larger soul to bolster their own power or kept fluid as a multiplicity of souls. There is an obvious parallel between this arrangement and the first law of thermodynamics (in effect, a particular form of the law of conservation of energy): the total amount of ‘soul’ in the universe is not increasing or decreasing—just moving from one place or form to another.
On a similar note, there is an interesting alignment between this same basic consequence of the fact that energy can be neither created nor destroyed—only relocated—and the way in which every stray item in the game is associated with a corpse. With the singular exception of chests, every item picked up in the game is either dropped by a dead enemy or found on a dead body. The player must physically enact the fact that one only possesses matter and energy by taking matter and energy from someone or something else. One’s power, one’s versatility, and one’s arsenal ultimately result from pieces of power, versatility, and equipment harvested from others.
In theory, this splitting and re-coalescing of the universe’s souls and associated resources seems like it could go on forever—if not for the fact that souls can be spent over time for life in the Age of Fire to continue largely unchanged. Souls can be spent by using fragments of the dark soul (i.e. humanity) to reverse the effects of hollowing; by burning such fragments to increase the recuperative power of a bonfire (through kindling); by practicing trades like smithing, whereby souls are used to create, enhance, or repair equipment; and by linking the flame—if any of Lordran’s sufficiently powerful inhabitants intend to keep the First Flame, that apparent wellspring of existence, from burning out. Add to all of that the fact that it is unclear whether the same number of souls can be extracted from a dead being as were imbued into that being’s primary soul through leveling (the fractional soul rewards for killing invaders would seem to imply that it can not), and one can see how the power of the Dark Souls universe is being spread out and used up, bit by bit, in a manner reminiscent of the second law of thermodynamics.
And what will become of the world when there is nothing left to burn?
Darkness, the Abyss, and Existential Despair in Dark Souls:
Dark Souls is a dark game. Literally. Its level design and lighting systems shroud most of the game areas in shade and darkness; one of the brightest areas of the game, Anor Londo, can be revealed to be a very dark place concealed through illusions; and the game includes three of the darkest regions I have ever encountered in any game: the Tomb of the Giants, the Abyss under New Londo, and the Chasm of the Abyss under Oolacile. Darkness waits in every corner of the world, and when the flames finally subside, its domination of the world will be total.
But for the player-character, is this such a bad thing? After all, if one enters the Abyss under New Londo with the Lordvessel (rather than presenting it to Frampt), Darkstalker Kaathe provides the following valuable context: refusing to link the First Flame means ushering in an Age of Dark, which is an age of humanity. Sounds pretty good! And yet . . . having just battled the darkwraiths and the Four Kings, and after meeting Artorias and Manus in Oolacile, one may be understandably uneasy about this whole ‘Age of Dark’ thing. In the latter half of his six-hour commentary video on Dark Souls, Matthewmatosis notes yet another alignment between the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and the content of Dark Souls:
[Artorias] was corrupted by the Abyss after joining a covenant with them, to attempt to destroy them from the inside out. This is reminiscent of the Nietzsche quote from Beyond Good and Evil which says, “He who fights monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Nietzsche just meant this in a philosophical sense, of course, but I suppose it could indicate that there’s a psychological element to the Abyss in Dark Souls which drives people mad. (Matthewmatosis 4:43:05)
The Age of Dark is the age of humanity only to the extent that it is to be a period governed by the power which brought humans into the world—that of the dark soul. This does not mean that the age will be hospitable or amenable to humans. In fact, the sad tales of Oolacile and Artorias seem to provide very strong evidence that just the opposite shall be true. Perhaps an Age of Dark is desirable only to some of the primordial serpents and their adherents, and is an aspect of the world as being cyclical, which must turn entirely to a lightless expanse or an ashen wasteland before it can again enter a seemingly endless dominion of “everlasting” dragons and archtrees.
That may be all well and good for the serpents, but it doesn’t sound like an especially favorable outcome for humans. In fact, it just raises questions: why would an Age of Dark—which, if it is an age of the Abyss, should be horrendous for humans—be an age of humanity? In effect, why is it the dark soul that begets humanity? My answer to these questions would be that this topic contains one of the game’s greatest kernels of insight regarding the human condition.
Succumbing to the Abyss has a lot of similarities to hollowing, including madness, disfigurement, and animalistic behavior—but it has additional elements: despair and rage. The citizens of Oolacile invited the spread of the Abyss by disturbing the grave of their progenitor, Manus, on being informed of the grave’s presence by a primordial serpent. The primeval man rested beneath the city, yet, like many of the bodies strewn about Lordran, still bore its soul: in this case, a lord soul, a large portion of the dark soul. Such an immensely powerful soul must have been a tremendous temptation to the zealous sorcerers of Oolacile. Surely, they must have thought, this would provide an ultimate meaning for their lives, a worthwhile purpose: the acquisition and utilization of the soul of Manus.
But there was a problem: Manus was not really dead, per se, only ritualistically put to rest at some point in the past. Unable to simply take the soul with ease, the people of Oolacile imprisoned the awakened Manus and attempted to extract the soul by force. But Manus’ soul was too powerful; it transfigured him into a monster, which broke through the wall of his cell and escaped. Filled with rage and despair, Manus emanated dark Abyssal power from his person all around the nearby caves, filling them with writhing humanity sprites—large manifestations of the dark soul, entities of pure longing. Dusk of Oolacile provides further context on Manus at this stage:
I still think on that creature from the Abyss that preyed upon me. My faculties were far from lucid, but I quite clearly sensed certain emotions: a wrenching nostalgia, a lost joy, an object of obsession, and a sincere hope to reclaim it. (Dusk)
Due to the vagueness of the lore details concerning Manus’ pendant, it would be unwise to carry an analysis of Manus’ obsession too far. But in this context, one would be hard-pressed not to read a longing for simpler times into the “wrenching nostalgia” and the “lost joy,” a desperate longing for a time before cognizance of the potential nihilistic darkness within humanity (both the literal darkness that transforms Manus’ body and the metaphorical darkness that induces the Oolacile sorcerers to torture people in their quest to discover new dark sorceries).
This dark, despairing, raging Abyss then spread further, seeping up into the city. Robbed of their newfound purpose and keenly aware of a fearsome existential threat close at hand, the people of Oolacile would have been gripped with a deep despair of their own. In this state, they were infected by the Abyss, due to their own ambition and striving: “Seduced by a dark serpent or no, they awoke that thing themselves, and drove it mad. One’s demise is always one’s own making” (Hawkeye Gough).
Later, Artorias is dispatched to Oolacile to stop the Abyss pouring from Manus. When faced with utterly overwhelming odds, he leaves his greatshield with his wolf companion Sif in an act of compassionate chivalry. As a knight, he intends to do his duty to his lord and save those close to him as well. But without his greatshield, Artorias must block attacks with his left arm, which results in the arm being broken. Whether because of this injury or merely coincidental with this injury, Artorias fails in his mission. And what is an elite knight who can not do his duty to his lord? It is not an elite knight. The role, the identity, breaks down. In its place there is a question: if not who he thought himself to be, who is Artorias? In this physically and mentally weakened state (despite his powerful soul), Artorias is overcome by the Abyss and filled with rage at his situation. He becomes a thoroughgoing bad-faith actor, comparable to a hollow, and goes on fighting Abyssal creatures (and whoever else should encounter him) in a caricature of his former mission, drawing additional strength and additional anger from the Abyss itself.
What is the evidence that Artorias and the people of Oolacile required some additional susceptibility to the Abyss, beyond simple exposure to it? Simply, that we are aware of at least seven individuals who enter (and in some cases live within) the infected township, yet do not succumb: Gough, Ciaran, Chester, Dusk, Sif, Alvina, and the player-character. The latter four of those individuals even enter the Abyssal chasm below the city, come within arm’s reach of Manus, and are able to exit without infection.
Think, also, of the covenant of Artorias. Without it, exposure to the Abyss under New Londo will overwhelm and kill the player-character in an instant—either by allowing them to fall to their death within it or by enveloping and consuming them from below—which, only because they are undead, sends them to a bonfire rather than killing or claiming them outright. But with it, the player-character can dwell in the Abyss, fight there, and exist within that void. Perhaps, in actuality, the covenant itself was the true inception of Artorias’ undoing. And after spending time in the Abyss oneself, and defeating the Four Kings there, one does not even need the ring to traverse—as though one has unknowingly begun one’s own covenant with the Abyss.
So, the stories of Manus, Artorias, and the people of Oolacile reveal the psychological component to the Abyss noticed in passing by Matthewmatosis. The infectious spread of the Abyss in Oolacile does not end until the player-character defeats Manus. That is, the progenitor of humanity and the source of the Abyss are one and the same; this is why there are such close relationships among humanity, darkness, and the Abyss—because to become a creature of the Abyss is to become mired and frustrated in the apparent hopelessness of one’s struggle, of the absurdity of one’s actions, of the human condition itself; to despair of or rage against one’s existential position, to live in fear of it or anger at it; in short, to be consumed by nihilism, the Abyss at the heart of humanity.
But is the human condition really hopeless, or only apparently so? Is there any way to fully recognize and embrace the natural darkness with which humanity is tied, without succumbing to the Abyss? As Nietzsche counsels, there is indeed another way to see it. Sure, the existing systems may rely on a faulty vision of life and the universe as supernaturally significant (i.e. essential), and thus set people up to experience rage and despair on noticing the lack of supernatural significance (or, at the very least, the lack of any evidence in favor of supernatural significance). But one can create new systems. To use Nietzsche’s terms, one can put away illusory, impotent, “other-worldly” concerns in favor of immediate, actionable, “this-worldly” concerns. One’s goals do not have to answer for all people at all times; one’s achievements do not have to last eternally; and one does not have to live forever. To wish for all of that is to wish, like Seath, that one was an everlasting dragon: an unchanging, unmoving, permanent stone fixture of reality with no prospect of interiority or emotion—a truly hollow being in the final assessment. It can be enough to live, however temporarily, and to achieve goals for the betterment of this life and this world.
To finally tie up the last loose ends of this section and the earlier sections, the notion that it is unambiguously, necessarily tragic or enraging that the world lacks an inherent meaning (as presented by figures like Sartre and Camus) includes a contradiction. A truly indifferent, meaningless universe does not have any inherent emotional dimension; therefore, it can not be necessarily tragic that the world is meaningless any more than it can necessarily be joyous, or embarrassing, or boring, or disgusting. The only way someone like Sartre can decide that it is unquestionably sad that the world is meaningless is by not fully accepting their own claim—by clinging to the idea that it categorically should be otherwise, by being vulnerable to the Abyss. Nietzsche’s famous parable of the mad man and the death of God is about figures such as these, caught midway between worldly awareness and superficial delusion: “This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars — and yet they have done it themselves” (Nietzsche 182). If the existentialist premise that the world is inherently meaningless is true, then its meaninglessness, unaccompanied by adjectives, simply is. Or, as Thomas Nagel puts it,
[That our lives seem absurd to us when we notice their arbitrariness and inherent meaninglessness] need not be a matter for agony unless we make it so. Nor need it evoke a defiant contempt of fate [as advocated by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus] that allows us to feel brave and proud. Such dramatics, even if carried on in private, betray a failure to appreciate the cosmic unimportance of the situation. If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair. (Nagel 727)
It is crucial to notice that what one is accepting here is the lack of inherent, cosmic meaning, not the lack of any meaning at all. Just because something doesn’t matter on a cosmic scale—just because the world is tending toward an inevitable darkness to negate any pretensions of eternal achievement through human activity—that does not mean that human activity doesn’t matter at all. It can still matter on a small scale, a personal or interpersonal scale. So, taking the spirit of Nagel’s irony-praising position (although straying a bit from the exact ideas he was presenting), I would like to close this section—and by extension, the bulk of my analysis—with a brief discussion of an element of Dark Souls that seems to be left out of most serious articles about the game: its sense of humor.
There are numerous characters with humorous dialogue or even outright jokes—including Solaire, Siegmeyer, the Giant Blacksmith, and Patches. There are elements of enemy, character, and world design which come across as in some ways comedic—such as those relating to the mushroom folks, Kingseeker Frampt, the traps of Sen’s Fortress, and the ragdoll physics of felled enemies. There are even mechanics in the game that seem expressly designed to allow for humorous interactions between players—such as the gestures, the orange soapstone, Gough’s carvings, and the Chameleon sorcery. Dark Souls is not a laugh-a-minute affair by any stretch of the imagination, but the game’s overwhelmingly dark tone serves to make these bits of light shine all the brighter. These elements can seemingly do much to keep the player’s spirits up and motivation steady, as evidenced by how tightly and enduringly the game’s community has latched onto these small elements as emblems of the entire experience.
The true protection against the despairing Abyssal path, then, may not necessarily be reducible to qualities like bravery, fortitude, righteousness, and rebellious scorn. Artorias, after all, was plenty brave. And the Four Kings, originally, were plenty righteous. Instead, the key may simply be ironic self-awareness and, as before, authenticity: “a certain balance of the humors, that quite fits your semblance” (Dusk). The kind of authenticity that keeps the player-character motivated and moving forward despite the doubtful prospects of the presented quests; the kind that invigorates Sieglinde, Sif, Quelaag, and Ciaran through those they love; and, yes, the kind that makes Siegmeyer and Solaire so charming.
This is an essay I have intended to write for some years, ever since encountering in 2014 a brief, typo-infested, superficial, poorly written article about existentialism in Dark Souls published elsewhere on the web. In the intervening years, I have perused numerous other articles and videos which also promised to tackle ‘the philosophy of Dark Souls,’ but which nearly always focused on the design philosophy of the game and almost not at all on the thematic philosophy. The rare writers who did have some legitimate philosophical context to provide, meanwhile, often had a poor grasp on the details of the game itself. The notion of providing an existentialist reading of Dark Souls struck me as an excellent idea; but the existing work in that area was of such poor analytical quality (and superficial engagement with the philosophical concepts it mentioned) that I felt duty-bound to someday provide people with what those titles kept tantalizingly promising: an analysis of the thematic content of Dark Souls.
Alright, so this has been a tour through many minute units of analytical content on different aspects of Dark Souls through an existentialist lens. Yet there are still more things that could be covered—especially topics like chaos, necromancy, firekeepers, architecture, and so-called ‘miracles.’ And, of course, I have not even touched on the unquestionably important pendant starting gift . . . but I feel, in this already-quite-lengthy-article, that I have provided enough material to make my case. If any readers have further analysis of their own for such un-covered topics, I would love to hear about it.
Now, back on track, here in the conclusion section, the task falls to me to sum up my whole argument into a coherent sentiment—the most important key takeaway from the philosophy of the game! . . . but after careful consideration of the game’s themes, as you might have guessed, it seems to me both misguided and even incorrect to try to select one perfect summation. So, instead, I am going to present five possible conclusive interpretations, in no particular order. And whichever one or more of them seem like they could provide the most valuable insight to you in your life—in your own existential position—that is the one or group of them that I would encourage you to pursue further, expore relevant philosophy about, and consciously think about during your next playthrough of the game.
Here they are:
Dark Souls is a game about motivation and authenticity. In the early existentialist sense that crops up so often in the works of figures like Sartre and Camus, it is about carrying on against the overwhelming and potentially discouraging nature of reality. And in a wider existentialist sense, it is about deriving meaning from moments of human authenticity and from self-assigned goals—regardless of the broader apparent meaninglessness of physical reality and the inevitable end of the world. The amazing thing about this particular interpretation is that it is so deeply baked into the game’s mechanics (from hollowing and using humanity to the entire basic gameplay loop of repeatedly dying and persevering to retain resources and defeat bosses) that even the most stubborn and dense of lore-averse players (who refuse to speak to any NPCs, read any contextual descriptions, or think about the world and plot any iota deeper than what is presented in cutscenes) will still experience this theme.
Darks souls is a game about authority and skepticism, and the ways in which authoritative figures, texts, and groups are often manipulating people. Existentialists (and related philosophers before and after existentialism) have nearly always had contempt for the traditional peddlers of cosmic truths, whose ideas do not hold up to scrutiny and who so often both consciously and subconsciously uphold systems which primarily benefit themselves and the groups with which they identify. So too does Dark Souls present the player with numerous factions who have competing narratives concerning correct behavior in Lordran, only to sooner or later cast aspersions on each of those factions and narratives. This can be seen centrally in the ambiguities provided by the primordial serpents, Gwyndolin, and the undead prophecy—but also peripherally in the underlying stories of nearly all of the game’s covenants. And, lest we forget, Lordran contains Oswald, a career pardoner selling indulgences like something straight out of a corrupt medieval church.
Dark Souls is a game about studious, patient, creative pursuit of information and goals. This interpretation incorporates the slow, methodical, repetitious, stamina-defined pace of combat; the obtuseness and occasional incompleteness of the lore details; and the focus of so much of the gameplay on exploration and navigation. This is the approach that is most in accord with Miyazaki’s anecdotes about being inspired by his experience of reading English-language fantasy fiction without being fluent in English. This interpretation was only implicitly present in the article until now, as its relationship to existentialism is somewhat more tenuous than the others, relying on an abstraction: that existentialists—those who honestly try to come to grips with their positions within a phenomenally open-ended, seemingly absurd, and intricately physical universe—are philosophers by trade, and it is usually their pursuit of knowledge which leads them to such positions. As Camus wrote, “Thinking is learning all over again how to see, directing one’s consciousness, making of every image a privileged place” (Camus 43). But do note that this is not some kind of end unto itself; the contrasting tragic stories of Solaire and Logan should make it clear that one must have both creative personal goals and a sincere pursuit of real knowledge, not merely one or the other.
Dark Souls is a game about the inevitability of both personal bodily annihilation and general universal annihilation. Even those who survive death—whether as undead or as ghosts or as agents of Nito or as Abyssal creatures—nevertheless inhabit the universe and can be destroyed, marking a total and final end to their individual existence. The scholar Big Hat Logan is seemingly well aware of this when he refers to Seath, under the temporary protection of the primordial crystal, as a “true undead, unlike you and I.” This interpretation relates to the physicality, corporeality, and bounded nature of the world and concepts of Dark Souls. And every moment of every day carries Lordran that much closer to an equilibrium state without a hint of disparity: with all souls collected into dead, inert units and the fire burnt out entirely. After an Age of Dark, there may again—for an incalculable, effectively infinite span—come a gray expanse with a stagnant ecosystem of everlasting dragons and archtrees, but this movement-lacking, disparity-lacking place would always be emblematic of nothingness. The parallels between this sequence and big-bang-to-big-crunch cosmological models, or at least to discussion of thermodynamics and the heat death of the universe, are myriad. Still, as philosophers like Thomas Nagel and Shelly Kagan have insisted, it is possible to acknowledge that there are no grand, permanent, everlasting cosmic meanings for the universe, and yet to recognize meaning and mattering on a smaller scale—while being strengthened against the absurd and the inevitable by cultivating a sense of irony about existence.
Dark Souls is a game about the imposition of power, will, and personal agency on the world. For this, there is no better body of work to consider than that by Friedrich Nietzsche. There are tons of fruitful essays that could be written on the relationship between Nietzsche’s texts and Dark Souls—including everything from a comparison between the influence of Greek mythology on Dark Souls and the ideas in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, to an analysis of Dark Souls’ depiction of natural universal cycles through Nietzsche’s thoughts on eternal recurrence. But for the purposes of the analysis in this essay, the key ideas from Nietzsche are those related to power and transvaluation of values. The gods and the other possessors of powerful souls have shaped the world in the Age of Fire according to their preferences, their wills-to-power—and through the accumulation of power (i.e. souls) for yourself, your character enters into a position to do the same. What decision you ultimately make between your perhaps-equally-undesirable alternatives after defeating Gwyn is not remotely as important as the fact that you are the one who makes the decision for your own reasons—who has the power and the will to achieve the outcome that you happen to prefer. As Nietzsche would stress, it’s not about seeking rewards in a world-to-come; it’s about shaping this world and this life through your free actions in accordance with your wills. After all, the player-character begins the game locked in a cell, and some players may see the entire quest through right to the end simply as a sufficient favor to the man, Oscar of Astora, who returned their paramount freedom to them.
Those are the five interpretive schema I came up with, which struck me as being the best-supported by the content and evidence within the game. They incorporate resonances that exist between the dark fantasy world and story of Dark Souls and the rich bodies of 19th– and 20th-century philosophy under headings like phenomenology, pragmatism, and existentialism. But still, the questions remain for you, the player: you arrive as an existential entity in Lordran as in life, now what will you do? Where will you go? Who will you trust? What will you believe? How will you act? Who will you be?