With Elden Ring on the horizon, it might be time to revisit the series that put developer From Software on the map, and one of the most intriguing video game worlds ever created.
The Dark Souls trilogy is infamous for its difficulty and for the amount of people who compare games that are only vaguely similar to it. But beneath the surface level, beyond all the knights and monsters that kill you in two hits, is a story that only works in a game that demands you try over and over again.
The story of Dark Souls is as inaccessible as the game itself. Very little of the story is given to you upfront, most of it is hidden in item descriptions, the environment and pieces of missable character dialogue.
The games take place in a dark fantasy world that is constantly going through cycles. Humanity is afflicted with the “Curse of Undeath,” which forces them to come back to life every time they die, but they lose their mind more with each death. The world itself is threatened by an encroaching darkness, held back only by the First Flame, lit by the god Gwyn, the Lord of Light.
The plot of each of these games revolves around this conundrum: the First Flame needs to stay lit to prolong the Age of Fire. This is where things are still pretty bad, but at least there’s light, but whenever it inevitably dies out, the Age of Dark begins until the Flame is lit again. That is, in essence, the state of the world. Humanity is cursed, and doomed to endlessly repeat the cycle of fire and dark. Each game in the series involves you fighting through an unforgiving world to reach a point where you can sacrifice yourself to prolong the Flame, or let it die out.
The correlation of good and evil to light and dark seems obvious, but this too is twisted. The story and meaning behind everything is left up to interpretation, but one character in the series has perhaps one of the most compelling takes.
Aldia is a man turned into some horrific monstrosity, who is obsessed with “the first sin.” It’s in the second game that he appears sporadically to speak to you, and he eventually shares what he thinks this sin is in one of my favorite lines of dialogue: “Once, the Lord of Light banished Dark, and all that stemmed from humanity, and men assumed a fleeting form. These are the roots of our world. Men are props on the stage of life, and no matter how tender, how exquisite, a lie will remain a lie.”
Most characters in the series are indifferent or just downright depressed by the state of the world, with little energy in their voice. But this piece of dialogue breaks that. Aldia is furious about Gwyn’s lighting of the First Flame, the first sin. Gwyn cursed humanity and began the endless cycle that the world has become a prisoner to, all the while preaching that the Flame must be preserved.
The suffering of being trapped in a cycle is told through gameplay: you’re made to die over and over, having to repeat the same section multiple times just to get through it. The question I think the Dark Souls trilogy asks is this: is it all worth it? There’s nothing you can do in any of the games to truly end the cycle. Even in the final game, you can choose to watch the First Flame fade from the world, but a character remarks that the embers will still one day return.
The world has been put in a sorry state by powers completely out of your control. Anything you do is ultimately meaningless, but is that really so bad? There’s still a deep sense of satisfaction that comes from overcoming the series’ obstacles. As long as you’re enjoying yourself, and as long as you’re doing something that makes you happy, who cares if it’s meaningless?