Further Thoughts on Narrative in Dark Souls

I said earlier that Dark Souls doesn’t have story, it has lore. That’s not quite true, it turns out. In the early-to-mid part of the game, you get a lot of lore as flavor text on items, and it really seems like that’s all it is, just flavor, safely ignored. But once you unlock the game’s final layers, two things happen: you finally get an explanation of what your ultimate goal is, and you start directly encountering the legendary beings you’ve seen referenced over and over, usually to fight them. Story and lore merge, as what you’ve picked up incidentally about these characters establishes the weight and stakes of these encounters.

It’s a peculiar way to convey story information ambiently without exposition dumps, reminiscent of environmental storytelling. I’m trying to think of other games that do something similar, and the best I can come up with is Magic: the Gathering, where you can see numerous flavor-text references to a Planeswalker character before encountering the card for the character itself. That’s not quite the same, though, because M:tG really does just have lore without narrative.

The downside is that, as you may have gathered from my posts, it really does make it easy to overlook what story is there. I’ve been trained by so many other games that lore is inconsequential, a sort of optional extra of only tangential relevance to what I’m actually doing, and it takes a very long time before Dark Souls does anything to contradict that assumption. There’s got to be a better compromise.

Dark Souls: Full Circle

The story of Dark Souls is at root a solar one, although this isn’t obvious at first. The lore, revealed mainly through item descriptions, heavily involves one Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight, a god who fought dragons and demons in ages past to create and sustain the Age of Fire. His time is nearing an end, which is probably why the whole world seems so run-down. The player’s assigned task is to unlock the way to his sanctum, the Kiln of the First Flame, a barren place filled with ashes, to defeat him and take his place, becoming the new fire of the world. Getting to that point, proving yourself a worthy successor, involves a whole lot of descending into darkness to symbolically pass through the abyss under the earth, meeting challenges on the way. There’s even an area specifically called The Abyss, a place of total featureless darkness containing nothing but screaming, anguished monsters.

Even the diegetic die-and-respawn cycle fits into this, if you think about it. The whole idea of returning from death is a big part of myths both solar and seasonal, and so it’s not swept under the rug like in most games, but made into the focus of the story. So I suppose it’s also fitting that the game just sweeps you directly into New Game+ at the end, starting a new iteration of the eternal cycle. It feels anticlimactic, though. After all that effort, you’re just told to do it all again, with no congratulations, no celebration, no credits. But then, this isn’t a celebratory, congratulatory story. It’s a story of decay and renewal, but with a strong emphasis on the decay. The great monsters you defeat are the previous age’s heroes, turned sour by the centuries, so even in the end, there’s still an implication that the same fate awaits you. “Hollowing” at a larger scale.

And with that, I think I’m done. There are still zones I haven’t visited, whose names I only know from the wikis, even an entire DLC expansion that I haven’t touched. But I find myself less motivated to pursue them now that I know that the designers never intended satisfaction. I’m told that the sequels come to emphasize the wrong elements, too — that Dark Souls had a (mostly undeserved) reputation for brutally punishing difficulty, so they leaned into that more. So I might give those a miss, too. But Elden Ring is being touted as a more accessible version, so maybe I’ll give it a try in ten years.

Dark Souls: The Dragon

The first real challenge area in Dark Souls is called the Undead Burg. It’s a series of buildings and towers and battlements that are all part of a large castle on a bunch of cliffs. At its end is a wide stone bridge leading to a massive gate leading out to the next area. That bridge is guarded by a dragon.

The dragon is red and spiky, and it breathes intense blasts of fire down the bridge. The closer you get to the dragon, the more damage you take from the fire, until it’s completely unsurvivable. This is one of those bosses that you’re not meant to actually fight on first encountering it. Halfway along the bridge there’s a stair down, which lets you clamber along the bridge’s supports until you find a way up, on the other side of the gate. (The gate cannot be opened from the outside, which makes perfect sense — it’s part of the defensive structures for a castle!) You can still see the dragon from the other side. You can climb up a tower nearby and look down and fire arrows at it, for all the good it does — they do damage, but only a little, and you definitely don’t have the resources to buy enough arrows to kill it at that point. No, you’re really meant to just put it behind you.

But all the same, I kept coming back to it every so often. There are times when you have no Humanity and very few Souls, and thus little to lose from challenging something likely to kill you. “Who knows? Maybe I’m strong enough by now.” I wasn’t. Lately, I hadn’t done this in a while, due to making encouraging progress elsewhere in the game — I seem to finally be slightly ahead of the difficulty curve. But then I noticed that I had somewhere picked up the Black Iron armor set, which gives very strong protection from fire (this being the reason it’s blackened), and in addition had access to an unlimited source of Twinkling Titanite, the substance needed to upgrade it.

Even with this protection, defeating the dragon took multiple tries and a certain amount of strategizing. I found it more effective to lure the dragon down the bridge and hide in a niche while it approaches than to try to charge into its flames. I found I needed a weapon that arcs upward, which is the one big failing of my trusty halberd. But in the end, the dragon was gone, and I could finally reach the other end of that bridge.

And the reward for this accomplishment was… marginal. You get 10000 souls for killing the dragon, which would have been a substantial boon earlier in the game, but at this point I can get that much in a single grinding loop. You get to open that gate, providing easy passage between two places that I have no reason to go to any more. And there’s a bonfire I can warp to. And that’s basically it. The difficulty of this fight is so out of proportion to its rewards that it really reinforces what I already knew: that the dragon’s purpose is not to be fought, but to be circumvented.

Dark Souls: The Use of Spoilers

I’ve gotten three great Lord Souls now — one of them, Gravelord Nito, on the first try, thanks to my holy greatclub! But it’s not enough to satisfy the Lordvessel. I begin to grow impatient with this game. I want to get it done and move on. Presumably its length is a selling point for the sane majority, who purchase new games at a rate of maybe one a year, but not for people like me, with our deep and luxurious backlogs.

And so I’ve been making copious use of wikis to speed things along. (Wikis, plural? Yes: for whatever reason, there seem to be two separate but largely equivalent Dark Souls wikis at the top of the search results, with similar content arranged and formatted differently.) This is something I was reluctant to do at first, lest it spoil the joy of discovery, but which has become more and more necessary as the known world becomes larger, and so does my inventory. The boss called Bed of Chaos (the platforming boss I mentioned previously) was something of a breaking point for me: I spent a lot of time running all the way through the lava fields into Lost Isalith and into its lair, only to get about five seconds of face time with it before I got pushed into a bottomless pit and had to do the whole run all over again. “Surely there must be a closer bonfire!” I cried, and lo, there was, behind a fake wall where I wouldn’t have noticed it in a thousand years.

I’m told that when the game was new, discoveries of this sort were part of the fan chatter, something excitedly posted on forums where everyone was making discoveries together. That’s one thing you miss out on by playing games ten years too late: participation in the community. But at least I can salute that community, and honor the labors I’m benefitting from.

Dark Souls: When You Can’t See

Sometimes, Dark Souls prevents you from seeing stuff. I think this is my biggest complaint about the boss fights: Most bosses are immense, and if you’re primarily a melee fighter, you have to get really close to them to fight them (which also tends to make a lot of their attacks pass harmlessly over your head). So you have this beautiful artwork doing impressive animations, but the camera is just a few feet away from its flank where you can’t see anything happening. I don’t think this was a deliberate design decision, but it’s what happens.

There are, however, places where interfering with visibility is definitely deliberate. In the Tomb of Giants, things are very dark. You find a lantern early on, but it only illuminates a very short range (basically, just long enough to keep you from stumbling into bottomless pits), and in addition, you have to be wielding and using it to get any benefit from it at all. What’s the difference between “wielding” and “using”? Using a lantern means holding down a button to keep it upraised, just like you do with shields. Note that executing an attack always lowers your shield or lantern, and doing a two-handed attack for extra power requires you to manually stash anything in your off hand (which can be done with the press of a button). So in the Tomb of Giants, basically every attack is done blind. Fortunately, you don’t need light to use target lock.

The Demon Ruins take the opposite tack, blinding you with excess light. The lava pools emit an intense glow, and everything else fades to silhouette, thanks to HDR lighting. There doesn’t seem to be a lantern-equivalent for this area, like glare-reducing sunglasses or whatever, but you can deal with it somewhat by looking away from the lava wherever possible.

Whether with glare or with darkness, reducing visibility has one practical effect for the level designer: it helps to hide graphical sins. The Crystal Cave and its hilly immediate exterior lack the graphical fidelity of other brightly-lit outdoor areas, like the Firelink Shrine, being made of distractingly coarse polygons. Perhaps the Tomb of Giants and Demon Ruins are like that too, but you can’t tell as easily.

Dark Souls: Complaining about bottomless pits some more

The tutorial area of Dark Souls has some graffiti explaining how to execute jump attacks and kicks and other special moves. I immediately forgot how to do most of them and have instead relied on brute force to achieve my goals most of the time. Occasionally I do a kick in the middle of combat, but it’s never on purpose and I honestly have no idea how it happens. There is one move, however, that I rediscovered midway through the game: the simple jump, activated by briefly releasing the run button while you’re running so you can tap it again. I’ve used this in several places to access ledges with things on them.

And that is about the extent of my interest in Dark Souls as a platformer. It’s just not the game’s strong suit! In particular, the idea of falling into a bottomless pit and dying instantly doesn’t mesh well with the incremental progression in the rest of the game, where doing badly in one fight just means using more Estus Flasks than you had planned and maybe having to turn back early. There’s a certain amount of platforming content built on a similar design, particularly in Sen’s Fortress, where many of the falls are survivable setbacks. But at my current point, fairly late in the game, the game is emphasizing those bottomless pits more and more.

And in my last session, this emphasis reached a new extreme in what I would describe as a platforming boss: beating it involves running across the room while its attacks make bits of the floor crumble away, forcing you to jump over gaps. This is not what I want from this game! Thing is, though, this is the first boss I’ve seen where your progress in beating it is, to some extent, preserved across deaths — only your progress in breaking environmental objects that affect the fight, but that’s the part you need to run around the room for.

I suppose I’ll deal with it. I’m too committed to stop now. Elsewhere, there are some fights over bottomless pits where my usual tactics, circling around the enemy to avoid their attacks and dodge-rolling when necessary, become extremely risky, but for those I think I can keep upgrading until it’s feasible to just stand still and slug it out.

Dark Souls: The Clearing of the Way

After you retrieve the Lordvessel (a big bowl) from Anor Londo, the next step is to fill it with souls — and not the generic Souls that you collect and lose by the thousands in the rest of the game, but specific “great” souls, presumably the souls of bosses that I need to kill to harvest them. It occurs to me now to wonder about the morality of what I’m doing. The big goofy-looking “primordial serpent” who gives me my marching orders tries to reassure me by saying that everyone on my hit list has either turned wicked or “outlived their usefulness”, which isn’t reassuring at all. It’s a very “I cannot be bothered with the petty concerns of mortals” thing to say. I don’t expect the game to push moral dilemmas too hard, but I can easily see it pulling tragedy out of necessity, pointing out how sad it is that this noble creature had to be sacrificed or whatever.

The cutscene where you get this assignment cuts away to three magical barriers in different parts of the gameworld dissipating to let you into the next chapters. The zone where this cutscene happens must have its own little dioramas of the barriers and the area immediately around them, just so it can show them in the cutscene; for all that the game does an excellent job of creating the illusion that it’s all one huge continuous sculptural object, it can’t possibly be holding the entire world in memory. Two of these barriers, I recognized immediately. The third left me in that uncomfortable state of not being sure if I should recognize it or not, like a stranger at a party, but I found it before too long, and as of this writing I have explored all three to varying extents. As anticipated, the addition at this late stage of the ability to warp between bonfires helps a lot here, allowing for quick exits whenever I feel like things are getting too heavy — although the game pointedly denies this at one juncture, throwing you in a jail cell with a bonfire that isn’t connected to the others. Why wait until you can warp to spring this? Wouldn’t it be easier to do, and to justify narratively, when you don’t have warping ability, and are just naturally stuck wherever you are? Ah, but it wouldn’t have as much impact then. You need to experience freedom before its removal can be meaningful.

Dark Souls: Humanity

Two of the central concepts in Dark Souls are Souls and Humanity. Souls, we’ve already covered: it’s a combination of XP and money which is also used to repair and upgrade your weapons and armor. Your basic unified limited resource. What, then, is Humanity?

According to the flavor text, Humanity is a “tiny black sprite found on corpses”. Boss monsters generally drop some, but its main source is rats. You find it in the form of useable Humanity objects, which, when crushed in your hand, increase your Humanity stat (and incidentally heal you). As well, sometimes my Humanity seems to just spontaneously increase for no obvious reason. Humanity in stat form increases both your defense against every type of damage and the rate of random item drops, and in addition can, to a limited extent, be sacrificed to stoke bonfires.

You might think that Humanity is linked to having a human appearance, but in fact they’re orthogonal. You can have a high Humanity while zombie-faced, and you can have a clean, unhollowed appearance while having no Humanity at all. The only connection is that you have to sacrifice a unit of Humanity to take the zombie face off — so choosing to look human means actually having less Humanity than you did before.

So basically it’s a weird grab-bag of effects with no clear unifying principle, and hanging it all on the peg of “Humanity” is just a way to make it all seem simpler than it is. “Souls” is similarly misleading, but at least it’s a misleading term for something conceptually unified. But there’s one way in which it kind of fits, and it has to do with its loss.

Your Humanity stat, along with your Souls, is left behind when you die, sitting in a pile waiting for you to pick it up. If you die again before you pick it up, it’s lost forever. But Souls are relatively easy to regain — you get some from every single kill. It’s possible to farm Humanity — there’s a bonfire in the sewers that’s nice and close to a rat colony, which is great for this purpose — but it’s tedious, and it requires breaking away from the interesting stuff for a while. Also, if you’re really afraid of losing the Souls you’ve accumulated, you can just spend it all before you do anything risky. When I’m exploring new territory and I realize that I have more Souls than I’d be comfortable losing, I usually go grinding somewhere safer until I have enough to level up. You don’t have options like that with Humanity. Humanity just sticks around providing passive benefits until suddenly it’s gone.

So consider what all this means for player motivations:

  • When you have Humanity, you’re afraid of losing it.
  • When you lose it, you’re desperate to get it back.
  • Once it’s truly gone, you have no reason to care if you die.

Dark Souls: Multiplayer Fakery

I haven’t been partaking of the multiplayer aspects of Dark Souls. This is a deliberate choice: letting more-experienced players invade my game and kill me while I’m trying to make progress does not sound like it would enhance the experience. I keep finding items with effects related to “summoning” and “invading” and I keep ignoring them. NPCs keep inviting me to join “Covenants”, which I understand to be basically a multiplayer thing — I joined the first Covenant I was invited to, not knowing what it would do, and it’s had no discernable effect.

But the game does try to give the solo player a limited, watered-down version of the multiplayer experience. In the Darkroot Garden, you fight enemies that are clearly just the player character under different builds. In some zones, you can be fake-invaded by NPCs. There’s even a bit where you can fake-invade an NPC’s world. There’s this one NPC I’ve encountered multiple times, Solaire of Astora, who suggests that I should call on him when I need help — and I’ve only just figured out how to do this. I managed to clear the boss fight against Executioner Smough and Dragon Slayer Ornstein on the first try, and it’s entirely because Solaire kept one or the other of them distracted most of the time.

Apparently the key to all multiplayer activity, both real and fake, is that you can’t do it in zombie face. Since zombie face re-asserts itself every time you die, and getting rid of it costs valuable Humanity (a stat worth describing fully in a separate post), I spend most of my time in no-multiplayer-mechanics-allowed mode. But there’s one situation where I ditch the zombie face temporarily: kindling bonfires. See, resting at a bonfire refills your Estus Flasks (healing potions), but the number of flasks you get depends on how many times the fire has been kindled. Each kindling costs Humanity, but it can be well worth the expense, because your ability to explore is limited mainly by how many combat encounters you can survive. More importantly, though, you can’t kindle in zombie face — giving the process an additional Humanity overhead that encourages doing all the kindling you plan on doing in a single burst. And so I’ve been sporadically human-faced throughout the game, in the moments between deciding that I’m not getting enough healing from my current bonfire and my next death. The Smough and Ornstein fight was just the first time this period coincided with a possibility of summoning Solaire.

Dark Souls: The Hard Bits

Well, the game is finally earning its reputation. Getting through Anor Londo is proving tricky, and it’s because this is where the game stops letting you overwhelm problems by upping your stats. There’s been the occasional bottomless precipice providing the possibility of instant death in most of the game’s zones, but they’re usually passive hazards, only really dangerous if you take stupid risks near them. But here, in the rooftops and ledges of the lost city, the game actively aims for death by cheap shot — specifically, shots from a pair of archers on ledges above you, out of reach of my own bow. My shield can block their arrows, but the impact still pushes me backward.

The worst part is the extent to which you’re locked in at this point. That is, there’s always a possibility of leaving Anor Londo and satisfying your desire for forward progress somewhere else, but the game discourages it: backtracking would involve going back through Sen’s Fortress, a place full of its own perilous pitfalls. Come to think of it, the game made attempts at pushing me off ledges there as well, using pendulums swinging across catwalks, but their regularity made them fairly easy to avoid and, in some cases, survivable, the fall being simply a setback. Still, it means there’s no “just give up for now and do easy stuff for a while” option. The nearest friendly bonfire is a long way off. I remember feeling similarly trapped in Blighttown, where the way back was confusing enough that I genuinely didn’t know how to navigate it, but I figured it out eventually. Here, though, there’s another factor: dialogue with the Anor Londo fire keeper suggests that I might be nearing the point where I get the fast-travel option, which would make backtracking the hard way particularly silly.

Checking out the web for tips, I find that this section is one of two points that people seem to find particularly sadistic. The other is the goat-skull-headed Capra Demon, which gates passage to the Depths. The Capra Demon comes at you fast and hard in an enclosed space, accompanied by a pair of attack dogs to keep the encounter from being too simple. I managed to beat the Capra Demon in something like three tries, but I have no idea how. It certainly wasn’t through any kind of clever strategy or planning. I think it was basically a fluke.

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