Dark Souls II is out this week. No, I haven’t played it yet. Before I do that, I want to take a moment to revisit what made the first Dark Souls—or the previous game in the King’s Field of Dark Demon’s Souls series, or whatever—so special.
You know what really got me thinking about this again, aside from the impending release of the sequel? Reading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. No, seriously. Stick with me on this one.
Kundera tends to approach his stories of love, sex, engagement, disengagement, and revolution with a sort of detached, analytical, almost extraterrestrial reflectiveness. So in that mode, he opens The Unbearable Lightness of Being not with a introduction to a setting, nor to any of the novel’s characters, but rather with an explanation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “eternal return.”
Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return sates that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, or beauty mean nothing.
Life itself is inevitably a sort of first draft. We never get to revise it, and because every situation in life is unique, neither can we go back and retry past decisions in order to see whether we did the right thing. So Nietzsche wants us to imagine that everything we do will, as a direct result of our doing it, be done again an infinite number of times. This gives our actions infinitely more weight, even if that weight is essentially imaginary.
Without wading too deeply into the garbled mythology of Dark Souls: the Age of Fire, wherein human life became viable, is coming to an end. Most of the remaining humans are undead, meaning that they can die again and again and again and still resurrect, lingering between life and death in endlessly repeating and hopelessly overlapping timelines.
Which is of course a very familiar state of affairs in videogames: the idea that events repeat, and that death is frequent but not absolute. To steal Kundera’s terminology, there is a lightness to the death of a videogame character, but the very fact that their short lifespans are repeatable and perfectible—that they are performing some broken version of the eternal return—gives them weight.
Kundera’s character Sabina memorably says of her paintings, “On the surface, an intelligible lie. Beneath, the unintelligible truth.” Robert Boyd (among others) has made much of Dark Souls’ use of vertical space. Every surface-level location in the game has a world below it (except for Anor Londo, which has an imaginary world within in, which might amount to the same thing).
And beneath these subterranean locales are deeper ones still. You descend into Blighttown and think that you’ve laboriously reached the bottom of the world, and then you descend even further into Quelaag’s Domain, and deeper still into Lost Izalith, the Demon Ruins, and the Bed of Chaos. This process is repeated in the Catacombs, which lead to the Tomb of the Giants, and in an alternate path onward from Blighttown, with the Great Hollow leading to Ash Lake.
These three journeys down share two important features. The first is topographical: the more confined and labyrinthine spaces come first, and then, once you have found your way through the curving passageways of the earth, then you open up into huge, continuous, high-ceilinged spaces, taking Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy of compression and release to a ghoulish extent.
Secondly, past a certain point, going deeper means making it less and less possible to find someone to talk to. Quelaag’s sister is (usually) unintelligible, and Gravelord Nito, the Everlasting Dragon, the Four Kings, the Bed of Chaos, and Lord Gywn are entirely mute. Even if you could get to the heart of the world and manipulate its workings, the game’s topography seems to argue, you would never have any hope of understanding what you were doing.
There is the encounter with Darkstalker Kaathe in the Abyss, true, but that’s the exception that proves the rule. He appears mysteriously, the conversation takes place not so much at the bottom of the world as nowhere, and never is it clearer that you are being lied to, or else that you have been lied to previously. The conversation takes place in the dark in more ways than one. (Also, Siegmeyer appears once in the Demon Ruins, and again with his daughter at Ash Lake, but these appearances are intentionally uncanny, disruptive, and potentially tragic: There shouldn’t be other people down here!).
The significance of being lied to and misled in Dark Souls is damn near impossible to overestimate, so I’ll save that for a separate post tomorrow.
Hopefully this is helping. I’m trying to get my head straight about the meaningful intangibles in Dark Souls before beginning the inevitable discussion of whether its successor is a worthy one.