Dark Souls Dark Souls Dark Souls

So, Dark Souls 3 is out, and, like many, I’ve been captivated by it (the contrast between my experience of the first game — lowish but optimistic expectations constantly being surpassed — and the inevitable but slightly hollow expectations for the ‘true sequel’ is a topic for another time). Time for a few preliminary notes about the series as I try and get a better grip on my thoughts.

One of the things that always impressed me about Dark Souls was how limited its world was. It is, still, so very videogame-y, not just mechanically (an eternal moment of respawns and carefully laid traps) but spatially and aesthetically; and all the more so for the fact that its cramped surfaces crawl with baroque detail. The original game’s stilted level design is truly dreamlike: full of involute spirals and nightmarish traps, but ultimately small and empty. With a few exceptions, it evokes rather than displays its febrile greatness (as to whether the third game achieves this, my answer at this early point is a resounding ‘sometimes’ — the game reaches farther, but perhaps grasps less).

Interestingly, just as Dark Souls’ mechanical conceits only seemed to reinforce its story (a static, insane, chronologically disjointed twilight of the gods), its spaces are all the more effective for being so limited. The palaces of Anor Londo are all the more powerful a statement for being empty and dysfunctional; Darkroot Garden will easily get you lost, as a good enchanted forest should, without actually being that large; and so on. Even the Ash Lake, which offers an unlimited, primordial vista (previously referenced at the game’s start), is weirdly isolated and claustrophobic, the expanse that stands at the beginning and the end of time — while still being physically connected to the overworld via the Great Hollow within one of its infinite number of trees.

I’m reminded, not for the first time when playing a videogame, of Frederic Jameson’s ‘reduced worlds‘ (it’s a good essay, read it). It would be a bit of a stretch to claim Dark Souls is an naturalistic thought experiment after the manner of Zola — this is not any kind of realism– but there is a sense in which the peculiar, suffocating interconnectedness of Lordran makes the whole experience more coherent, more interesting, and more emotionally challenging (as it should). Determination is notably absent — the associations between characters, places and events are relational or metaphorical but seldom causal, giving the world a creepy, primordial feeling. By pruning the world down to its bones and making that skeleton stand for everything else, the developers leave us to consider what each of these fragments (the quiet despair of the world, the unspeakable crimes that created the New Londo ruins, the nature of the fire keepers) implies about the rest of the world. One of the reasons Dark Souls is so effective, I think, is that it functions well as a myth — something most fantasy games and literature are actually astonishingly bad at. Dark Souls’ Hesiodic creation myth is strange and ambiguous, and yet seems to obey a certain kind of logic, and the rest of the game continues in the same fashion. By contrast, the second game has greatly expanded, but utterly disconnected, sights and stories which cross well into the realm of pastiche, without the feeling of indeterminate gravity.

Souls games have always had an ‘intertextual’ relationship to each other, mythology, and the broader sword and sorcery genre, being filled with references (or dead references, in the form of tropes) and mechanical conventions, but the first Dark Souls nonetheless seemed to make them its own. In the second game, this internal coherency (or hint of coherency) broke down, leaving something more like Azuma Hiroki’s ‘database’ of disjointed pastiche elements that can be sampled to produce affect. Compare Dark Souls’ Fire Keeper with the Emerald Herald of Dark Souls 2, both analogues of a Japanese shrine-maiden character. The first has very limited ‘screen time’ and is literally and metaphorically distant from the player, being mute, shrouded in a hood and darkness, and placed behind bars. Her story is simple but dramatic and suggests volumes about the world she inhabits. The Herald, on the other hand, is omnipresent, seemingly designed as the kind of moe-object shrine maidens often represent in anime and manga, and rarely shuts up, but suggests (dimly) too many disparate plot points to really say anything of interest. Likewise, the shining skyboxes of Dark Souls 2 are pretty, but don’t mean anything in the way that the ash trees or Anor Londo do.

It’s too early to say for certain how Dark Souls 3 fits into this schema, but from what I’ve seen, the improved technological capabilities and development budgets may end up being counterproductive. That’s not to say I don’t like the game, or that it isn’t well written or well designed — quite the opposite. More time with the game, and a better understanding of the knot that binds genre, the games that obsessively employ it, and the broader trend away from both realism and the genuinely fantastic toward pastiche and the striking moment, might help me to unravel the whole business.