The Grimly Perfect Circle of Dark Souls' Storytelling
I just finished the whole series, opting to break the cycle of fire. So why am I so excited to jump back in again?
All images courtesy Bandai Namco
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Dark Souls III is the close of a series, and while I’m a couple years late on experiencing that close, the past few months of streaming and appreciating Dark Souls and Dark Souls II has prepared me for the grand finale of the whole ordeal. Those previous games dangled the opportunity of the end of the world in front of us, and in those games I wanted it to happen. And now, having gone through the whole series, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get beyond it.
My experience playing Dark Souls III might be better written as “playing.” Like the previous couple of games, I’ve experienced the game entirely through streams with my good friend Danni, and while I was the hand-on-controller for those experiences, he was the actual operator this time. Diligently, screenshared on Discord and live on Twitch, we made our way through the Dark Souls III experience with the help of our dedicated community of watchers and commenters.
We’re big fans of the “lore” of the Dark Souls games, or at least big fans of yelling about the concept of the lore, and Dark Souls III doubles down on that in a way that’s almost comical. While all the games in the series have a strange relationship to time and space, often compressing events or allowing characters and locations to zip around in relation to one another, Dark Souls III is undeniably further ahead in time from the previous two games. Set in the country of Lordran, the same as the first game, Dark Souls III constantly references and evokes the past of this place in order to push its story along.
To put it bluntly, the core narrative conceit of Dark Souls III is that all of the chickens have come home to roost. The previous two games in the series have taken place during the waning periods of Ages of Fire, periods of time in which the civilizations and the sovereigns that govern them are coming to a close. In each of those games, you are asked to make a choice: Do you rekindle the flame and restart this cycle, or do you let the fire die out so that you might find out what happens outside of this structure of cyclical time?
There’s an uncanny resemblance between the world of the Dark Souls games and how I’ve played them. Separated by time and and space, my co-streamer and I get together to play the game, and we’re assisted by a few intrepid heroes who pitch in some commentary for a stream here, or give some tips on a boss there, or even get summoned in as a ringer every now and again so that we can make something really special happen. They’re just as interested as we are on seeing what’s at the end of the game, but more than that, they’re interested in seeing how we feel about the bosses, the areas, and the plot points that we get through to get there.
If Dark Souls III is narratively all about the past haunting the present, and the gameplay of the game is about finding allies and avoiding enemies from across vast scales on your way to an ending, then our real-world experience of play is a strange doppelganger reflection. It’s mimicry all the way up and down the ladder, no moment unique or original in the context of the game, its lore, or its gameplay, but it is unique to us and the people watching us at any given moment.
What does it mean, then, that my streaming partner and I wanted to finally break the cycle? Over the course of this game and its predecessors, we learn of the horrors that linking the fire creates. It resurrects the dead in service to a force beyond them. It demands the sacrifice of human life, over and over again, without end. The fire, and the cycle it generates, seems to serve no master and have no purpose. It is simply a ravenous force that can, and will, be harnessed by anyone who has the gusto to go out there and grab it. It is power for power’s sake, existence merely to exist. It’s a kind of petty god, ignorant and uncaring about its own impact on the world and only desiring its own continuation.
We decided that it was bad, and that it had to be stopped. And in the parlance of the Dark Souls III ending, we “usurped the fire.” In the previous games, after all, the binary choice of keeping the fire alive or letting it die was answered with its recreation in time. If our choices to end all of this had taken, then we wouldn’t be inheriting the exact same problems in Dark Souls III.
As the second game showed, the immune system of the fire kicks in if you choose not to link. King Vendrick, in his wisdom, chose to go hollow in a tomb rather than link the fire; the various Lords of Cinder of Dark Souls III have made the choice to not give themselves over to the fire again. And yet in both of those instances, the player is brought into existence to usurp those people. The fire demands its cycle, and you’re always the agent of it.
So in the end of Dark Souls III, we chose to do our own thing. We took the fire for ourselves and refused to be sacrificed to it. Whatever existed before was bad, and whatever comes next couldn’t be worse.
But as we finished Dark Souls III, we started talking about Dark Souls Remastered. We talked about how excited we are to dig back into the game. And I wondered about all of that compressed time, all of that lore, and all of those other players who are going to appear in that world. I thought about all of that time and space that are going to be compressed, in that special Dark Souls way, into the game. We’re coming back to it, again, for another go around. We played the games, were unhappy with the endings and the cycles, and wanted to break free. Narratively, we did everything we could to challenge the allure of getting sucked back into it.
If we as streamers and players are the grim reflection of the game world, then I don’t have a lot of hope for those who usurped the flame and brought on a new age of dark, of difference, and of change. After all, I’m about to dive right back into the same old things. My willingness to hop back in, to play the cycle out again by replicating the same boss battles, actions, and moments, makes me fear for those undead who tried to break free. After all, I have fun doing these same things over and over again. What else are they supposed to do?
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