In Death’s Dream Kingdom: Dark Souls as Allegory and Initiatory Experiences in Games

Posted on: May 11th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

“Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us-if at all-not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men”

– An excerpt from The Hollow Men, by TS Elliot

This is Dark Souls

Dark Souls 2, the latest (not quite second) installment in From Software’s tough-as-nails action roleplaying series, has only been out on PC for a few short weeks and already it seems to have captured us in its powerful grip (which is part of the reason why this article has taken me so long to post). It is still too early to evaluate and critique this specific game judiciously (as our about page implies, we at Cloud Monster like to take our sweet, sweet time with that sort of thing), but my own recent return to its melancholy universe has led to some interesting musings on the series as a whole.

The Souls games, while hardly short on lore and content, are famously sparse and opaque in their presentation. After a brief tutorial, you are dropped into the world and left to your own devices. In the case of Dark Souls 2, you’re given some idea of what it is you’re actually supposed to accomplish (break a curse, restore your humanity, seek a king or some such). In the first Dark Souls, you’re treated to a dense, poetic exposition dump in the opening cinematic, but the whys and wherefores of your strange destiny are left relatively vague until about the halfway point. You’re sort of supposed to figure it out as you go along.

The Souls experience can be said to be the gaming equivalent of a walkabout, except you’re not expected to avoid dying. You’re expected, instead, to persevere in the face of the sometimes ridiculous level of difficulty and constant discouragement. As a paunchy, well fed individual who is, predictably, terrible at sports of any kind, I can’t exactly claim that Dark Souls is anywhere near as intense as physical labor. Nor can I claim that surviving any number of its various virtual perils should be classed as a true “accomplishment.” But it can undeniably feel that way.

stalking

Series devotees return in part for that rush of adrenaline in the midst of a contentious fight, that rush of endorphins after finally slaying an especially troublesome foe, that rush of dopamine on discovering a new area or exploring a new tactic. The games are known to punish the player, sometimes mercilessly, almost sadistically, but they’re also known to be commensurately rewarding for the adventurer with the patience, the resolve, and the acumen to take them on, the adventurer who is willing to take the time to learn their quirks and secrets. Mechanically, they are about as deep as action RPGs can possibly get. It is this balance between madness and reason, between pain and tenacity, between punishment and reward that makes these games as successful as they are.

Much has been said and written about that inimitable “I did it” feeling that the Souls series, among precious few other titles, provides. While progressing through Dark Souls won’t make you richer, more handsome, or otherwise better off, it nonetheless *feels* important. You aren’t merely playing. You’re engaging in an undertaking, an expedition, a virtual journey in the true sense of the word. It stays with you.

For Whom the Wedding Bells Toll

I contend, however, that there is a great deal more to the series than extreme challenge and mechanical depth. Souls games aren’t known for their graphics, which are generally quite competent, but not exactly gasp-inducing — the overly repetitive approach to texture tiling in Dark Souls 2 is my biggest peeve right now, seriously. And while the understated presentation of the background lore is done exceptionally well, I rarely feel invested in its larger universe per se. It’s not that I don’t enjoy learning more about the game world, or the usually morose, sometimes downright depressive characters who inhabit it. It’s just that the specifics, at least for me, are much less interesting than the overall effect.

The series is remarkable because it accomplishes something rare and fantastic, and manages to do so quietly, almost offhandedly. With so much discussion centered around the unyielding difficulty and the compelling combat and advancement mechanics, the achievement in question tends to fall by the wayside, and perhaps that’s as it should be. I suspect that it’s impressive precisely because it is so subtle. The Souls games are all examples of a nearly perfect marriage between theme and content. Bear with me, if you please.

lifeaquaticsouls

Gathering of Exiles

The most common enemy type in the Dark Souls series is the “Hollow” a creature that was once human but that has, with the passage of time, irrevocably lost its humanity. The player character is undead, just like the Hollows she must mow through during the course of her journey, and while she isn’t hollow herself, it is generally made clear that it’s only a matter of time before she too succumbs to the degenerative condition…unless, of course, she finds a way to cure it. While the precise terminology in Demon’s Souls is a touch different, the spiritual predecessor to the Dark Souls games presents us with a very similar premise.

It is also made clear that the player character isn’t the only one undertaking the journey. She isn’t inherently special. She isn’t Dragonborn, or Arisen. She’s just another traveler on a desperate quest. The multiplayer component (especially the fact that one can see ghosts of other players running through the world, and dying), serves well to reinforce this idea. Many of the NPCs our adventurer encounters throughout the world are on the same or a similar quest, and pretty much all of them are in the same predicament (it’s implied that the ones who claim that they aren’t undead are either lying, in denial, or delusional). In short, your character isn’t the first, and she isn’t the last. In Souls games, you only get to feel special if you truly deserve it, and even then only for a little while. This isn’t some millennial trophy party, folks. You don’t get to be the Harbringer, the Listener, the Archmage, and the Master all at once. There are no awards for participation.

demon

The games take place mainly among ancient, mysterious ruins of one kind or another: keeps, temples, sewers, towns, cities that are now just as feral and undead as their inhabitants. The primary locations aren’t post apocalyptic remnants. They are merely abandoned, insular, out of the way spots that normal people don’t travel to, that normal people either don’t really know about, or don’t want to know about. These are the kinds of places where a person might ends up when she is down on her luck. These are difficult places, dangerous places, dark places. Simply being present in one of these places means that you’ve taken a really bad turn somewhere.

At least insofar as we know, somewhere beyond Boletaria, Lordran, and Drangleic is a whole world, a world of living people going about their daily lives, of markets, of nations at war or at peace, full of lovers, and scholars, and merchants, and soldiers. We get glimpses of this outside world through dialog with the NPCs, all exiles themselves, of one kind or another, and through the cryptic item descriptions. Any direct engagement or interaction is very pointedly denied us. That world is out there. But it isn’t meant for us. We’re stuck in a desolate, hidden ruin, a place where time itself doesn’t flow as it should, a place (not a whole world) infested with rats, zombies, and ghouls. And we’re essentially told to either make the best of it or…just give up.

…Everyone Does

In light of this, ultimate failure is actually possible, and even likely. Humanity is a major mechanic in the Dark Souls series. The player character can temporarily restore her humanity by using certain items or performing certain actions, and may thus gain the benefits of looking human (which serves mainly as a comfort), a larger hit point pool (in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls 2), and the ability to summon other characters (both players and non-players) to aid her. Humanity tends to be a fairly precious resource. But while the player character will spend much of her time in her undead state, the possibility of actually, permanently going hollow isn’t officially built into the game. Well, not in the traditional sense.

So long as the player remains engaged, so long as the player returns, even occasionally, to take control of the avatar, said avatar retains agency. It has a mind. It has, for all intents and purposes, humanity. But this humanity is not guaranteed. What happens to a player character that has been permanently abandoned by her player? What happens when a player starts a brand new game without finishing the original play-through, or simply moves on to Skyrim? What becomes of the player character then?

I’m sure that you’re picking up on what I’m laying down. Whether intentionally or not, From Software has managed to make the act of not playing a game, or of not beating it, canonically and symbolically significant. The game becomes more than a piece of entertainment, to be picked up and dropped on a whim. It becomes a test of a player’s mettle, a test of her dedication, devotion, patience. Dropping the game has consequences, albeit imaginary ones. A Hollow is mindless. A Hollow is without identity, without humanity, without agency. A Hollow is an unvoiced character without a player. One goes Hollow when one gives up. And almost everyone goes Hollow.

It’s, Like, A Metaphor, and Stuff…

I could read a great deal more into it, of course. I could write a whole separate article about the way the isolation and desolation of the series’ locations is redolent of mental illness (in Dark Souls, you begin play in an asylum, and going Hollow is generally portrayed either in terms of psychosis or dementia), or about the way that the various bosses one has to slay to progress through the games are potentially representative of the inner demons that we humans must face on a daily basis. Partly because of their narrative minimalism and partly because of their many surreal elements, the Souls games are uncommonly suited to unorthodox readings and speculative interpretations. But their core theme, and their core message (and I do believe that there’s a message), is a good deal more straight forward than that.

At heart, The Souls games serve as a fairly simple, archetypal allegory. They are about passion and perseverance in the face of adversity and alienation. They are also, by the same token, about failure. Sometimes we find ourselves alone in a dark, forgotten place, and we have little choice but to go forward, ever hopeful for the welcoming glow of a bonfire, all the while knowing that even then our respite will be temporary. The objectives in real life aren’t especially clear. We aren’t expected to take over the world, or to save it, or, let’s be honest, even to change it very much. We aren’t expected to be great. We’re merely expected to live. And sometimes it’s wonderful, and sometimes it’s okay, and sometimes it’s awful.

bonfire

This isn’t exactly a revolutionary idea. The basic themes are old as the ocean, and there is no shortage of myths, books, movies, short stories, and etc. that address them. What’s different, I suppose, is the medium itself. The lessons of the Souls games are almost entirely experiential. The world, the characters, the dialog all tilt us in the right direction, of course, and not always in the most delicate of ways, but it’s one thing to hear a love song, and it’s another thing to fall in love. Text and context can color, enhance, and guide an experience, but they are not the experience itself. The experience itself is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

The Esoteric Order of Praise the Sun!

While we can learn a great deal from a good book or film that centers on the subjects of struggle, failure, or perseverance, the Souls experience provides, in digital form, something a great deal more direct, more visceral. It successfully serves a function for which games have always been uniquely suited, but which only the rare title has actually managed to truly realize. By virtue of its interactivity (through its very mechanics), this experience manages to transcend the merely instructive and become, instead, initiatory.

praise

Since the dawn of time, initiatory experiences have been manufactured with the intention of imparting wisdom and a direct, intuitive understanding of “the mysteries.” The phenomenon of initiation is often associated with tribal peoples, esoteric societies, and gangs, but most of us have been through something similar. And while certain groups use initiations (which are sometimes downright brutal and sometimes downright silly) for no other reason than to establish and cement collective cohesion, an initiatory journey in its purest form (a vision quest, a rite of passage, a walkabout) can be an extremely powerful instrument for internal transmutation, a way to gain insight and understanding, whether profound or relatively shallow, that one hadn’t possessed prior to the experience.

An initiatory trial or ritual, one that is designed to reveal as opposed to merely teach, tends to take on the form of a simulation, an interactive allegory. The person undergoing the trial is generally aware of this fact. She is, in any case, aware of the fact that the experience is occurring under controlled conditions, that it’s merely a facsimile, a shadow of the real thing, an inoculation as opposed to the disease. The initiate is, in short, well aware that she is merely playing a game. She willingly allows that game to become real to her, to become numinous and even transformative. She consents to a suspension of disbelief.

Video games, which are played within the consensual hallucination of cyberspace, are the perfect medium to reveal and impart lessons through experience, in much the same way as esoteric inductions into the mysteries do. Games can provide for a safe context within which to explore themes and ideas, and, unlike other media, are capable of engaging the audience in a profoundly visceral way. It’s a shame that more of them don’t take advantage of this aspect of the form. When it does happen, however, it can border on the sublime.

And Now For Something Completely Different!

Years ago, I experienced something singular while playing through The Lost and the Damned, (the first long-form expansion to Grand Theft Auto IV, later followed, of course, by The Ballad of Gay Tony). It was a dark and stormy night in Liberty City, and my motorcycle gang was, as is customary, out for blood. I’d activated one of the “Gang War” side missions, in which Johnny and his “brothers” take on another criminal organization in a sort of quick and dirty free-for-all death match. You ride up on them. They open fire on you. You open fire on them. Pretty standard stuff. The icon on the minimap led us toward the beach. From the side of the road, I spied the rival gang gathered by the seaside. I was positioned at the crest of a hill. They were far below me and initially unaware of my approach. If you’re even remotely acquainted with military history, you can guess what happened next.

I managed to eliminate about half of them with sniper fire and heavy artillery long before their digitized state-machines could process what was happening. In less than a minute, I emerged as the clear victor. Well, almost. According to the mini-map, there was just one guy left, somewhere in the shadowy expanse below. Using his red-radar dot as a my guide, I set off after him (otherwise, the mission wouldn’t count as a success). The rest of the gang didn’t follow. I suspect this was due to a glitch.

I spotted him in the distance, running wildly along the beach, with the darkness of the ocean to his right, the electric cityscape to his left, and the storm raging all around him. I gave chase. There was no music. Only the sounds of rain, thunder, the occasional passing car, and our footsteps. I chased him, and he ran, and he ran. He ran further than it would be reasonable for his artificial intelligence to run. He had probably “glitched out” as well. The pursuit lasted for a good five minutes, but the outcome was never in question. I knew it, and the robot gangster knew it.

tears

Those five minutes of chasing a desperate, defeated foe down an empty beach on a dark, rainy night stand out in my memory much more vividly than any of the fully developed, fully scripted events and missions in GTA IV, either of its two expansions, or, for that matter, GTA V. It was a moment of pure (if simulated) experience. It was an accidental illustration of something primal, something terrible, and powerful, and raw.

After having finally dispatched him, I had to put my controller down. The “Mission Accomplished” screen suddenly felt petty and out of place, almost grotesquely so. While the Grand Theft Auto series is generally (and justly) thought to glorify violence, to make a grisly cartoon of it, here was a sudden, and completely emergent, completely unintentional, moment that acknowledged, at least in my mind, the absolute horror of it all. There was something awfully pathetic about the situation, and something awfully honest. All he wanted, in that moment, was to get away, to live. And because it was my mission (a mission born of an entirely senseless and brutal “war”) to hunt him down, I did. The event felt akin to a dark martial poem with a deadpan finish.

This was, oddly enough, a turning point for me. I didn’t renounce violent video games or anything. But the experience allowed me to better understand the inherent potential of interactive storytelling. If an unscripted, possibly glitch-induced gameplay sequence could accidentally wield so much poetic power, could so effectively communicate something that is, ultimately, ineffable, imagine what could be accomplished if games were to direct their experiential power in a more consistently thoughtful way.

Resolute as Always

Shortly thereafter, of course, we got Journey, and Gone Home, and The Stanley Parable, all excellent examples of intentionally experiential art, art that could very much be said to have sublime, revelatory, and initiatory qualities. I was emotionally shaken after playing Gone Home (I mean, really). It taught me about love, about hope, about pain, about what “home” really is. The Stanley Parable challenged me to think about free will, agency, and choice, among other things. Journey allowed me to experience something akin to pure being (streamlined, genderless, nameless, and yet somehow still me) and had me pondering the nature of human interaction and communication. It taught some how to serve as teachers, and others how to be good students.

journey

Adding Dark Souls (and its kin) to the mix seems a bit counter-intuitive. An indie art house title it isn’t. It’s a medieval fantasy hack and slash with a distinctly Japanese sensibility (which means repetitive grinding can easily become par for the course). Its characters routinely make reference to fancifully named and entirely made up kingdoms, organizations, and luminaries. It is heavily laden with staples of the genre, and as such is a distinctly genre piece.

The Souls series does, however, deserve its place on the above list. It might not have been intended as “high art,” but it is art of a kind, and it does what it does amazingly well. If you’re willing to stick with it, it will hurt you, and it will hurt you, and it will hurt you. But it will also reward you, and it can very well make you think: about life, hope, frustration, desire, about the sting of defeat, and the bliss of victory, about trying something truly difficult and not giving up, not allowing the fire of your humanity to die out, and eventually, after countless failed attempts, after banging your head at the wall, after wailing at the heavens, after learning your lessons, succeeding.

A Souls game is a complete and elegant metaphor in and of itself, wrapped though it might be in complex, sometimes arcane systems. If you start and fail to finish, you haven’t really failed at anything significant. They’re just games, after all. In a very real sense, there is absolutely nothing wrong with letting it go. Even in the process of giving up (a process which is sometimes natural and even necessary), there is a sort of lesson. In my case, of course, the games continue to fascinate. No matter how bad my last beating, I keep being called back. I know that my avatar is just that, an empty vessel, but I feel a strange sense of duty to her. I have to keep going because I am her humanity. And I can’t bear the thought of her humanity abandoning her. I can’t bear the thought of letting her “go hollow.”