The Hope of Dark Souls

Dark Souls is a game fundamentally about hope, and I’m going to explain why.

Normally on my blog, I don’t write much about games. I had written about Sekiro and how much I disliked it as my first post on this blog (and subsequently went back and rescinded that opinion completely – projectors bad), and I’ve written some reviews on a handful of titles here and there, but otherwise, I’m usually writing about philosophy, life, psychology and other nonsense.

I’ve been off the game reviewing bandwagon for the better part of a decade. I think Dark Souls was one of my last reviews back when I was writing for a site (and it was metacritic’d, too! The PALGN review, though I gave it a 10, not 9.5), and it’s the only game I’ve ever given a 10/10 to. I called it the game changer title that will shift the market because of just how good it was, and I wasn’t wrong. You only have to look at the genre of “soulslike” and the thousands of games influenced by the combat philosophy of Dark Souls to see how it changed the market.

But I digress, because I’m not going to talk about how good the game is from a design perspective. There are so many people who’ve written about this at length and did a much better job at it than I could. No, I want to talk about why Dark Souls pulled me so deeply into its depths in the first place, why I lost countless nights playing through it and what it was that fundamentally gave me the impression that this game was one of the best ever made, without question.

When you play Dark Souls, the “point” of the game is never quite clear barring the dying words of a knight that freed you from a cell. You must light the fire as the prophecy proclaims that one of the darksign undead shall light the flame. There’s not much else to go on here, but that’s what you become focused on as you begin your pilgrimage across the world of Dark Souls.

That’s really it. The game gives you nothing else – it only peppers you with dialogue from NPCs you meet across your travels who are strained, stressed, have their own motives, are slowly losing their purpose and will to live, and are all in the dark just like you. You gain some understanding of what’s happening around you, but it’s all contextually disjointed. It’s second-hand accounts, rumors, hearsay and myth, which intertwines with the world design that tells some kind of story to you in its long-lost history and murals.

This is how it is all the way up to the very end of the game, too. It’s deceptively simple – you must light the flame (or choose to walk away from it, my preferred ending) to prevent the world from falling into darkness. The problem once thought about though is “why?”

Why do you need to light the flame? What’s the point behind this, and what’s the point behind the journey you’re making, or anyone else’s journey for that matter?

There’s this overarching theme of existential hollowness that pervades the world of Dark Souls. NPCs you encounter all have their own motives, but they don’t really know why they have these motives, or it’s some purpose that has nothing beyond it once achieved. It’s the same for the player character – you’re in a cell, and some guy frees you, tells you to light a flame, and that’s all that keeps you going in the world. What motivates you is all made up, it’s bullshit. None of it matters.

You could argue it does matter, because the age of darkness must be prevented, but there’s never any hint of what the age of dark is, whether it’s bad, what the flame does apart from preventing it – nothing. You’re not here to save the world – you’re just some guy that is following through on a prophecy. Why?

This is why Dark Souls is so fucking good. None of these things are on the nose as you explore and engage yourself with the game. You’re driven by some ambition that is ultimately hollow, because you don’t even know what it’ll bring and how it’ll affect anything. You’re the same as all the other NPCs. You’re trying to find some meaning in a world that is devoid of any meaning. People die and go mad every moment, and you can even see it happen with many of the beloved NPCs across the game, who – once they’ve achieved or failed their goals – turn hollow and attack the player, Solaire in particular being the most impactful. From a jolly and radiant personality to a despairing, lost soul. The world breaks everyone down as their purpose for being slowly turns to dust.

And yet despite the overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere of the game, the punishments endured, the despair radiating from everyone as things fall apart, the player perseveres, like Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the mountain. It is absurd, and on some level, the player knows that this is all absurd, and yet they keep pushing the boulder back up, regardless of how many times it has given way and flattened the player, knocking them back down to the bottom of the mountain.

This is what I mean by Dark Souls fundamentally being a game about hope. It is a very dark, oppressive game, and it’s hard to point to a sound reason for getting through all of its trials and tribulations, and yet the player refuses to give up. They refuse to go “hollow” like all their friends did. It’s a refusal to die. There is an inherent absurdity to continuing to persevere through such oppression, but part of the answer to the existential void that the game places on you is the very act of rebelling against it and lighting the fire anyway. You don’t know what it’ll do, but what have you got to lose? It matters to you, regardless of the world refusing to give you an answer why.

For the veteran players, they can also discover more context or second hand accounts on what lighting the fire may actually entail, and that can lead to them choosing to walk away from the fire and beginning the age of darkness. This is my personal favourite of the endings, because why sacrifice yourself to something you don’t know much about? What’s the point of that? I’ll make my own age, thanks.

It’s a game that over the long term encourages the player to make their own meaning in an ultimately pointless, fractured world with no answers and only questions. It is an actively hostile world towards people who seek meaning, but the ultimate, underlying goal is what all humans share, and that is resisting and fighting on anyway. Pushing the boulder up the mountain.

It’s a world that reminds you that no matter how dark the world can become, you always have the will to act, and the only time the world beats you is when you give up.

And that’s why I think Dark Souls is fundamentally a game about hope, and why I still consider it one of the best games of all time, and a crowning achievement of what kind of experience games can create for people. Elden Ring is good, but it’s not even close to Dark Souls.

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