Being Lied to in Dark Souls

This post continues my discussion from yesterday, and I should mention that it concerns the ending of Dark Souls—though whether it’s even possible to spoil said ending is frankly up for debate.

As in innumerable videogames before it, Dark Souls casts the player as the Chosen One and blathers about fate—but the game also subverts these expectations. As the game begins, the player is told that the Undead have been confined to a far-flung asylum “to await the end of the world,” and that “this is your fate,” only moments before a stranger gives you the key to your cell and frees you. Once you escape the Undead Assylum, as though making it up as she goes along, the narrator says that it was foretold (by… someone) that a Chosen Undead would one day leave the Asylum for… some reason.

You never hear from the narrator again after that.

And when someone finally sits you down to explain your chosen-ness, the information is spotty and suspect at best—and then another character, visually identical and voiced by the same actor—gives you conflicting information about just what it is that you have been chosen to do. At the end of Dark Souls, you do indeed choose the fate of the world, but you do so without full knowledge of what decision you’re making, or what its implications will be.

It could be that you’re choosing between preserving the old order of ruling gods and monsters (and monster-gods) on the one hand, or on the other, giving human beings a chance to rule a new and darker world for themselves. Or you could be choosing between preserving an imperfect but sustainable world, and claiming sovereignty over a dying one. (Better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven, and all that). Or you could simply be casting your lot with one or the other of the horrible “primordial serpents” who outlined your supposed fate for you in the first place. Who the hell knows?

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The uncertainty inherent in the narrative is compounded by the fact that the player-character’s primary (almost sole) interface with the world is violence. The player can talk to non-player characters, and buy things from them, and so on, but all of these can also be killed, some with tempting loot adorning their corpses.

The player can join in-world religions called covenants, but all of these involve fighting the world or fighting other players in one way or another—and one covenant’s deity must be killed in the course of completing the game, and the other deities and prophets and devotees are, again, temptingly mortal. The player confronts the current ruler of the world, but cannot speak to him. A battle simply begins while mournful music plays, because there is no other conceivable way to resolve the conflict at hand.

All of this is commonplace in videogames: the excessively violent relationship to the world, the determinism to which the player gradually becomes aware of being subjected, all of it. The whole beast of videogame production has recently become self-aware, and reflecting on these sorts of structural tropes (and their narrative implications of sociopathy, limited vision, or an outright lack of free will) has become and medium-wide pastime.

Some games use this as a twist, a moment of revelatory horror (Bioshock, Eversion, Braid), while others try to create an ebb and flow between rote, unconsidered virtual violence and increasingly unsubtle signals that Something Is Wrong Here (Spec Ops: The Line). The Extra Credits crew has argued that this latter group is actually creating a new genre of videogame, more akin to cinematic drama than any before it.

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Dark Souls, I would argue, is doing something different than that. The game has very little interest in shaming or berating the player for acting violently. Murdered NPCs will cry out or curse you, but that’s tonally consistent with the rest of the game, and a far cry from Bioshock, in Clint Hocking’s famous formulation, “openly mocking the player for buying into the game’s fiction.”

Half of one’s playtime will be taken up by the most wonderfully indulgent considerations of equipment and character growth (with no apparent critique of that pleasure, despite its compulsive nature and wide-openness to critique), and the other half will be a process of feeling out and mastering the world through a series of weightless deaths, rendered weighty by their pedagogical potential.

And yes, there is a Shadow of the Colossus sort of pathos to bleaching the world of its monster-gods, but the game offers no pearl-clutching implication that you should be doing anything other than slaying the monsters. You’re just feeling around in the dark, playing with or being played by forces beyond your comprehension—which is presumably how it would feel to be a Chosen One.

Dark Souls thinks hard about one of the laziest tropes in videogames, and injects it with some resonant and much-needed uncertainty. That’s a huge part of what makes it feel so much richer and ring so much truer than other, otherwise identical Chosen One narratives.

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