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I believe that, for most of us, it’s clear that the Dark Souls games try to, at the very least, convey a semblance of meaning through gameplay and story. This notion slips naturally into our subconscious as we play the game and if you spend any time at all thinking about these games, you may also start to notice an overarching philosophy that binds everything together.
It’s common knowledge that Miyazaki, creator of the Souls series and director of Dark Souls I and Dark Souls III, has a wide range of influences and he’s mentioned it in interviews before, discussing philosophy with his team, so it doesn’t take such a huge leap to assume that he may have had an actual, established philosophy to inspire him during the act of creation.
“In order to get this [Armor of Favor] from my designers I tried talking to them about all sorts of things, for example I spoke at length with Nakamura [art designer] about philosophy.” (Hidetaka Miyazaki, Design Works Interview)
Now, despite the gloomy nature of the series, I think that its philosophy is a lot more optimistic then you’d have imagined. I think it draws a parallel to Camus’ ‘Absurdism’. And I say “draws a parallel to” rather than “is inspired by” because I couldn’t possibly prove the latter. What I do hope to prove is that, either way, both Camus and Miyazaki shared the same philosophical grounds for the ideas they were trying to convey.
Welcome to the “Absurdity” of Dark Souls.
Albert Camus (1913 – 1960), father of the Absurdism, was a highly celebrated French philosopher. He lived through World War II, when he was a part of the French resistance and an editor for the underground newspaper ‘Combat’.
During his lifetime he concerned himself greatly with matters of politics, freedom and oppression, and also with the nature of human existence. His works include many fiction and non-fiction writings, such as novels, plays, and essays but we’ll be focusing mostly on The Myth of Sisyphus.
Parallels could also be drawn to the ‘Rebel’ or other more political works, but oppression being exerted by an entirely different, god-like species and the possibility of humanity’s extinction in face of this oppression, would probably paint those works in a gazillion different shades and render its present conclusions somewhat useless for our comparison… in my opinion, at least.
In the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus describes the absurd saying that “[a] world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. […] This divorce between man and this life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.”
Mankind strives constantly for unity with the absolute world, through knowledge it seeks meaning to its life. But the world is ultimately uncaring to our plight and devoid of meaning, or rather devoid of any transcendent meaning for, even if such thing exists, it transcends mankind. And “[w]hat can a meaning outside my condition mean to me?”
This disparity between what we lack and what we need, and the impossibility of reconcilement between the two, is the absurd. It gives rise to the question of what does it mean to be alive. Is it even worth it? What is the meaning of death? Should one kill himself in face of this ceaseless struggle carried throughout a meaningless life?
For him, the realization of the absurd would entail either recovery or suicide, which could be literal or philosophical, the latter being a return to a previous state of ignorance, usually through hope.
“Hope of another life one must ‘deserve’ or trickery of those who live not for life itself but for some great idea that will transcend it, refine it, give it a meaning, and betray it.”
Recovery, on the other hand, is to conclude that all is well. That all has not been exhausted. That without knowledge of the after-death, death itself is just as meaningless as a transcendent meaning would be to our lives. That the only useful meaning is the one you can experience, that life is full of these experiences, that all of them have meaning, and that the only freedom you have is the freedom to live your life.
At the end of it, he illustrates his point using the myth of Sisyphus from which the book borrows its title. Sisyphus challenges the will of the gods in order to experience life to its fullest and after a very contrived series of events, as Greek mythology usually goes, he is condemned to push a boulder up a hill, only to watch it fall back down once it reaches its peak. For all eternity. It’s a punishment for sure and, naturally, people usually imagine him desperate and disillusioned, a prisoner to his plight. But Camus asks us to see him under a different light.
After the boulder rolls down, on his way to the foot of the mountain, we should imagine him smiling. “One always finds one’s burden again.” But after the inevitable struggle, there will always be a respite. Sisyphus will rejoice in his leisurely stroll and with this act, revolt again.
Fate is, either way, beyond our ken. But if he cannot be the master of his fate, he’ll be the master of his life.
Just like Camus’ philosophy, Dark Souls presents the player with the very literal question of: “should I commit suicide (by linking the Flame)?” And just like Camus, it concludes that that would be absurd, in the practical sense of the word, since it solves nothing. All the plights and conflicts still exist, and the cycle just keeps on going. All you achieve is to deprive yourself of the experience of being alive.
Also, they both revolve around a theme of duality which is at the very heart of the absurd and quite blatantly presented in Dark Souls:
In the beginning, there was the world of Archtrees and Everlasting Dragons, unchanging and unformed. “So long as the mind keeps silent in the motionless world of its hopes, everything is reflected and arranged in the unity of its nostalgia.” “But then there was fire” and “with its first move this world cracks and tumbles: an infinite number of shimmering fragments is offered to the understanding.” And “with fire came disparity. Heat and cold, life and death, and of course, light and dark.”
The First Flame is the physical manifestation of the absurd. It gives us “our” world. And as it fades away, our world starts to crumble back into its unchanging, unformed self, as seen in the Ringed City. And as Camus points out, “living is keeping the absurd alive.”
That gray world also serves as a reference to our inability to conceive that which transcends us. They (the game) give us the tools to “understand” our own world. The gods are of this world and so we can “understand” them. We can piece together their history, infer their reasons, and even fight them on their own terms. “Then from the dark, They came”… so they are just like us. But that which precedes this world is and forever will be lost to us. We know that it was here before man and that it will remain after man is gone. That transcendent world lying beyond our understanding is separated from us by death and so we fight it, tooth and nail, for the right to be here, alive, as the individuals that we are right now.
The fight starts with the awakening. “It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, [long walk], four hours in the [castle] or the [cathedral], meal, [long walk], four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm […] But one day the ‘why‘ arises and everything begins. […] It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows. What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening. At the end of the awakening comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery.”
In this scenario, becoming undead is the awakening. The Chosen Undead wasn’t always neither chosen nor undead. Presumably, they had a “normal” life as a knight, a cleric, a thief, or any other kind of acceptable blue collar profession. But by turning undead, they are forced to face the underlying disparity that drives all the conflict of his world. It doesn’t matter where they stood before, they are no longer free to watch from the sidelines. And “[t]he only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” We, the undead, cannot be stopped and our existence inevitably leads to some form of rebellion. Either by actively challenging the rule of the gods or simply by existing in a world that believes we should not exist, and that will go to any lengths to get rid of us.
Then, the outcome follows. Hollowing is the “gradual return into the chain.” A form of philosophical suicide in which we forget all about our newfound selves, slowly slipping back into the habit of living a meaningless life. The alternative between suicide and recovery can be found in the many endings that we may encounter throughout the series, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s back up a little bit and talk more about the fight.
The protagonists of both stories, Sisyphus and our very own undead avatar -be it the Chosen Undead or the Champion of Ash-, ought to play the role of the absurd hero. “As much through [our] passions as through [our] torture. [Our] scorn of the gods, [our] hatred of death, and [our] passion for life.” And even though Sisyphus has already claimed his position, we must still prove ourselves capable of overcoming our challenges and to learn from them, becoming that much stronger for it.
In Dark Souls, challenge is twofold and the first, more obvious one, is death. Death is our burden, our boulder. Just like Sisyphus, we’ll be faced against it, over and over again. Will the protagonist of our little story commit suicide through ragequit or will they learn from it, to appreciate the life they have and to live on?
“I don’t necessarily think I’ve been educating the wider audience about playing relatively high difficulty level games. The basic approach is to let players experience a sense of accomplishment through overcoming difficulties.” (Metro Gamecentral – Dark Souls 3 hand on preview)
“Before Demon’s came out, both Sony and players would have thought ‘What the hell is he talking about, death as education? What is he thinking?’ But now everybody is fully aware of the concept,” smiles Miyazaki. “But the main concept behind the death system is trial and error. The difficulty is high, but always achievable.
Everyone can achieve without all that much technique – all you need to do is learn, from your deaths, how to overcome the difficulties. Overcoming challenges by learning something in a game is a very rewarding feeling.” (IGN – The mind behind Dark Souls)
The second challenge is the lore. That enticing, obscure promise of understanding that is the lore. “[I]t is wrongly assumed that simple questions involve answers that are no less simple” and “[l]ike great works, deep feelings always mean more than they are
conscious of saying.” To say that untangling the lore of Dark Souls is a challenge is the understatement of the year. Will you pick up that challenge? Will you learn from it to how to translate your (in-game) actions, how to derive from them the meaning that we all yearn for? Will you learn from it that there are some things one simply cannot know and that doesn’t have to detract from the experience of living?
Camus invites us to live his philosophy but failed to teach through experience, not to his fault, though. He simply lacked the means to do so. But where he failed, Dark Souls succeeds… Would Camus be a game developer if he were alive today? Is Miyazaki the Camus of our generation?s
And so, we have awakened. We are undead and well on our way to claim our place as the absurd hero in this story. The character and the player must strive to become one and, together, to realize that while they cannot control their fates, they can control how to live their lives. To realize that to obtain the meaning they so desperately long for, they must live their lives to the fullest and that they must always revolt against the shackles that would bind them. This is the true fight of the absurd hero. And at the end of this fight, would any of the games’ endings be in accordance with this philosophy? Well…
Like I said before, linking the First Flame is not only a literal suicide since, well, you burn in the pyre but also a manner of philosophical suicide in which you’d choose the hope of an ideal that would refine your existence, “getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give [you] a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying).”
In Dark Souls 1, the Dark Lord ending would seem like the better one. Even though it is somewhat diminished by the revelation that Frampt had been working with Kaathe all along (the primordial serpent says “We are here to serve your highness. Frampt and Kaathe are here to serve your highness.”), meaning that no matter which ending you chose, you’d still be a puppet, the cycle of linking and fading would continue on its path, and the plights of the undead would still be a reality. But all and all, it’s still a whole lot better than burning.
Dark Souls 2 kind of went in a different direction, regarding both the philosophy itself and how to present it. Which is only natural, considering that Miyazaki didn’t direct this installment. Its original ending is a no-ending. You take your sit on the Throne of Want and then… nothing. It may have been somewhat in tandem with the series’ original philosophy but, by denying us the ability to choose, they have also denied us the ability to learn. The SotFS ending is a mirror of the first Dark Lord ending in which you walk away from the First Flame. It would have been slightly “better” than its first version, since we don’t immediately fall back into the shackles of manipulation, but again, by denying the character the chance to refuse the serpents (at that point, the character knows nothing about Frampt or Kaathe or any other primordial serpent for that matter), they are denying us the chance to learn from the choice we would have made.
In Dark Souls 3, from a philosophical perspective, the new endings are mired in shades of gray.
The End of Fire has the advantage of momentarily revolting against all forms of manipulation. There will be neither linking nor fading. No age of dark (you don’t get the promised age of darkness/abyss that lurks within man, you get the age of lack of actual light). No age of fire. But the Firekeeper herself says that “[i]n the far distance, [she senses] the presence of tiny flames.” Meaning that the cycle will eventually continue. And why wouldn’t it? You may be a badass but the powers that be won’t simply give up on their schemes, just because you told them to. But this advantage is undermined by the fact that, for an immortal undead, momentarily -independently from how long that moment may be- doesn’t really mean all that much… I blame it on a lack of foresight!
The Betrayal ending, in which you step on the Firekeeper’s head, is basically the End of Fire on fast forward. You momentarily revolted against all forms of manipulation… for a minute or so, then you got tired and turned the lights back on. Philosophically speaking, your character simply doesn’t give a fuck.
The Usurpation of Fire ending, I believe, is the one that keeps this philosophy closer to its heart. For the first time, the cycle has been broken. There is no more First Flame to be linked. No champions will be sent to the Kiln. We, the player, know that this is ultimately in compliance to the serpent’s plans but the character doesn’t. From its perspective, they are simply choosing to revolt against oppression (in a stroke of genius, the serpents have removed themselves from the equation and by relegating their position to the Sable Church, they have removed the impression of being manipulated by them). And we, the player, may know that this is ultimately in compliance to the serpent’s plans but, if it ever comes to it, we choose to at least give ourselves a fighting chance.
Conclusions and Consequences
Art has always been on both ends of culture, being influenced by it and, at the same time, helping to shape it. Video games haven’t been “just a game” for a while now. They’re great for killing time and having fun with your friends, but they are also a powerful tool for learning. Abandoning the “just a game” mentality not only helps us demand better games, but it also improves how much we’re able to enjoy games that take the time to add that extra layer of depth to them.
Even if you don’t agree with my comparison between Dark Souls and absurdism, I think there’s no denying that the game has a philosophy of its own. A philosopher isn’t someone who’s read and memorized all of the books, a philosopher is someone willing to search for the truth and to face its consequences.
Play the game, have fun, and let it teach you. Let Dark Souls be more than just a game, let it become a way of life.
Revolt: “The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end[… F]or he knows that in that […] revolt he gives proof of his only truth[:] defiance. This is a first consequence.”
Freedom: “It is clear that death and the absurd are here the principles of the only reasonable freedom: that which a human heart can experience and live. This is a second consequence.”
Passion: “The preceding merely defines a way of thinking. But the point is to live.”