Last updated on August 8th, 2015
The most important component of the departure is context. We must acknowledge that the game and our character do not exist in a vacuum. Dark Souls does this through the opening cinematic, introducing the setting and story premise. Together with our own selections of character class, features, and gift, a rudimentary sense of continuity is established. That sense is crucial to grasping some later concepts, but the game leaves the finer points of imagining who your character once was to you. Few players pause to give much thought to the life of their character before they were marked by the Darksign.
The first step on the journey is known as the call to adventure. It’s the circumstance that forces the hero to move beyond their ordinary world. In Dark Souls, this hurdle has already been crossed at the beginning of play. Both the player and the character are in the Undead Asylum, already isolated from normal humans. The call to adventure is a narrative device intended to pique the interest of an observer, though, and Dark Souls possesses a second call, a more narrative summons directed to the player to give direction as they begin to interact with the world. This is Oscar of Astora’s role – the knight you meet in the Undead Asylum. He gives you a key and the Estus Flask, but he also tells you of the land of ancient lords, the Bell of Awakening, and presents the adventure’s fundamental mystery. This hook is an integral part of the call, aimed to both explain the adventure, and to set the stage for events to come.
Associated with step one is the the refusal of the call. This is sometimes difficult to properly integrate into games, since nobody plays a video game to escape from adventure. Dark Souls implements the refusal in a deep and effective way that incorporates both mechanics and narrative. In traditional terms, the refusal is the moment when the hero hesitates, doubts themselves, or tries to abandon the call of their destiny to return to the simpler, easier life. In well-constructed stories, this has some sort of consequence attached, if it’s even possible at all – some calls simply can’t be refused. Oscar helps to set up this concept as well – he speaks of not wanting to harm the player when he dies, and loses his sanity. This is a reminder to the player that your character is also undead. The same challenges lie ahead of you. Death, the loss of sanity – Many players experience this, rage-quitting after a frustrating defeat. It lies ahead of your character as well, withering to a worthless and impotent hollow like those you encounter as listless bodies or enemies. Further, the game reinforces this with every death – you lose your Humanity, and are reduced to a burnt-out husk, and you can see how withered you are. This is also highlighted by the encounters with NPCs who have gone hollow – the game shows you that it can happen, and what it looks like. It’s not a huge stretch, given Oscar’s setting the stage for the situation, to realize that it can happen to you, too. There are also theories milling about in the community that the narrative fate of deleted or disused characters is, inevitably, to go hollow, lacking a further purpose.
While we’re on the subject of death, we come to step three – Supernatural Aid. This is the moment when the hero acquires their iconic tool, weapon, or power that allows them to face the journey ahead of them. Typically, this is an acquired item, a weapon or a treasure map, something with utility that allows them to undertake the quest. In Dark Souls, this would seem to be almost any weapon you decide to use, until you consider the other crucial aspect of the Supernatural Aid; it helps to define the world in some way. It’s a deeply descriptive item, with a history, a mythology of its own, or some sort of personal significance that highlights a more human story. So what is it in Dark Souls? It’s the Darksign. The Darksign is a brand that separates the living from the dead. It’s the cause of you being sent to the Undead Asylum, it makes you eligible to pursue the Fate of the Undead discussed by Oscar. When you die, it’s the Darksign that lets you return to life at a bonfire. It allows you to try again to overcome the trial that bested you. In this sense, unlike many games where you ‘start over’ from a loaded save, Dark Souls incorporates all of your death experiences into the game narrative through the use of the Darksign. Some other forms of aid exist in Dark Souls, but none have the sheer clout of the Darksign in terms of claiming the ‘title’ of Supernatural Aid, though all are useful. Oscar’s Estus Flask empowers you to survive your trials, and the Blacksmiths make you more powerful by using Embers to modify your gear. Each of these says something about the setting, and represent aid external to the hero, but none of them are as fundamental as the Darksign. Even the information and guidance characters give you, pointing you on your way, is valuable aid in the largely directionless landscape.
The fourth step of the journey is called ‘Crossing the Threshold’. This Threshold is the boundary between the familiar and the unknown, and its passage signals the final step the hero takes before he or she fully departs the comforts of their old life. It’s easy to assume that this has already happened in Dark Souls, with the character beginning in the Undead Asylum, but the Threshold isn’t something people can cross so casually. It has a guardian, a protector, a being or presence who challenges those who would dare try to pass this divide, and who admits only the worthy. Again, it’s easy to jump to the idea that this is the Asylum Demon, and leaving the Asylum is the threshold. While it is true that this is a crossing, it isn’t a crossing with enough gravity to represent the passage of such a barrier. Dark Souls is home to a much better example of this step, but to find it, we need to look back at the idea of our character having a life before they were touched by the Darksign. They had a profession, they lived in one of the kingdoms – and when their Darksign appeared, they were exiled from their kingdom, sent to the Undead Asylum. This would mean that they have at least passing familiarity with cities, life in them, and civilization. When you first arrive at Firelink, all of your initial areas, despite being filled with Hollows and hostiles, are fundamentally cityscapes. Back alleys, wooden barricades, rooftops, stairways, an aqueduct and the Undead Parish all reflect this man-made dwelling aspect – an aspect that would be comfortable to the character. So now we ask ourselves, where does the familiar end? Our answer indicates the transition to the Depths – not many regular citizens would dig down into the sewer proper, after all. So, who would be our threshold guardian in this case? It’s got to be the Capra Demon – this actually makes sense, because the fight with Capra Demon is excessively difficult for many first-time players – even repeat players. Even players used to the game’s general, punishing lethality have trouble against Capra, because of the nature of his arena. This cramped, confined, claustrophobic arena, crowded by hostile beasts makes the character and player prove that they deserve to advance. The tight area of the arena – and the Lower Undead Burg area leading up to it foreshadow the cramped confines of the Depths ahead.
As you descend to Lower Undead Burg, you encounter wild hounds and more cutthroat Hollow thieves. It’s implied that these enemies are more clever than the almost feral Hollows you’ve faced before, as they attack by ambush, using group tactics and taking efforts to surround you. This was, in effect, an early glimpse of the next step in the journey, which truly comes into its own after the defeat of Capra, with the Key to the Depths. The next phase of adventure is called the Belly of the Whale by Campbell. Traditionally, this phase of the journey demands that the hero look inward rather than outward, and is frequently represented by a downward descent. It also requires the hero to face uncomfortable inner truths, to deal with realities they might not want to face, or to confront the darkest aspects of their own nature. It frequently represents a period of great danger – or from an external perspective, it can seem self-destructive. Here, there be dragons. This aspect of Dark Souls is a shining example of the concept.
What uncomfortable reality are we facing in the Depths? Perhaps our enemies can give us some clues here. So, what do we fight? From the beginning, we are faced with hostile hollows – but more over, one of them, for the first time, is in the perfect position to sneak right up behind us as we move in. And then we face a new kind of enemy – Non-respawning butchers fought nowhere else in the game. But why are they treated as Mini-bosses? Why are they so important? Because they’re a statement. When we save Larentius from them, he tells us that they were planning to eat him. Strange that this would be the first mention of food or eating in Dark Souls. As we continue further into the Depths, we encounter more threats – humanity-carrying scavenger rats, cursing basilisks, and slime creatures that threaten to suffocate you – and destroy your equipment. And finally, the Gaping Dragon lurks in the Depths, a beast so consumed by hunger that it lost its organs and warped into a nightmarish living maw.
But what do these threats actually mean? Let’s begin with the cursing and the damage to equipment. These issues serve to indicate to the player that they are not invincible. By this point in the game, most of the enemies in this area aren’t inherently threatening because the player has adapted to the game’s innate difficulty and accounts for their hostile behavior as a matter of course. These new mechanics, ways to attack the player less directly, serve to accent their limitations and cause more significant and lasting damage that can’t simply be purged with an Estus Flask. The threat of damage to equipment also serves to undermine the apparent strength and resilience of the player – if their equipment is damaged – or destroyed – it heavily impairs the player’s ability to take or inflict damage. These aspects serve to highlight how weak the player really is – even a high-level character is vulnerable and powerless without equipment, and even with it, they can die to curses. But what about all these hunger and cannibalism references, all packed into one section, a section traditionally intended to represent us facing our own inner nature? Consider how you acquire levels, repair and enhance gear, and deal with merchants – everything uses a currency of souls – harvested from your slain enemies. In order to grow, you must devour others, and even restoring your humanity is an inherently consumptive act. By this point, many players have also had some experience with PVP or invasion. It’s a statement about how greed and desire for power leads us to devouring others – both monsters and players. No matter how you’re growing in play, it costs souls, and you also have to face the fact that just because this is what you’re doing, you aren’t going to stop spending your souls as you rampage onward, through the Depths. The Gaping Dragon drops the key to Blighttown when slain – and when you open the gate, the ladder leads you to an even deeper descent – the introspective continues.
Having confronted hunger and greed, the metaphor continues on into an unstable, dark realm. Blighttown models your own instability, the darkest parts of your nature. The witheringly powerful Toxic status forces you to face the reality that you are a withering, rotting undead, even beneath the veneer of false humanity you might have constructed. Mechanically, more than a few times I’ve come into Blighttown and died to Toxin when I wasn’t able to out-heal it with my Estus Flask or cure it with a flowering moss clump. Dealing with such a realization is no-doubt difficult, even impossible if you don’t prepare yourself for it. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the toxin is that it can be taken as a form of condemnation of the player and character – typically, the belly of the whale forces the character to accept or come to terms with their darker nature – having defeated the Gaping Dragon and pressed onward can be seen as accepting that aspect – moving past it. Perhaps you have accepted it, and now face condemnation for that horrible aspect of yourself.
Mythically, these deep revelations in the belly of the whale permit the hero to emerge as a more complete, competent whole. This aspect of the inward search isn’t lost on Dark Souls. Throughout the course of this segment of play, you rescue Larentius and are first able to meet Quelana, the two Pyromancy instructors. Further, a more direct application is found in that right in the midst of Blighttown, you discover the Pyromancy ‘Power Within’. This popular damage-multiplier not only has a very thematic name and location, but tapping into it causes damage to you, just like poison and toxin – a reminder of what you endured to retrieve that wisdom. Another particularly intriguing aspect of this is that pyromancy is the form of magic in the Dark Souls setting most clearly governed by intuition and instinct – guttural, personal expression as power, rather than theoretical knowledge or transcendent faith. Also appropriate in that Pyromancy’s strength is based solely on the number of souls you’ve fed your flame with – this ties back into the ravenous, hunger themes from earlier.
As we continue through the mire, we encounter Maneater Mildred. Popular consensus regarding her – the sack worn on her head like the butchers, and her butcher knife weapon – indicate that she is a third butcher – or perhaps an aspiring butcher. This revisit allows you to defeat her – and then to summon her to help you challenge the boss of the arena. You accept and ally with your own ravenous drives to advance. And then we come to Quelaag.
A horrific, monstrous beast, fused with the upper body of a gorgeous, stunning woman faces you as you advance toward your goal. Quelaag is remarkably infused with meaning and symbolism, some of which is quite obvious, but other, reinforcing aspects can only be discovered by players with the Old Witches’ Ring, who explore carefully when they reach the Demon Ruins. Quelaag represents duality and the completed whole we aspire to become through this journey. We have faced our monstrous qualities in spades, and now we plainly are assailed by a half-human abomination, physically baring her feral aspects. And we slay her. It is only later, when we meet her withered, dying sister that we realize that even the most horrid of abominations can be beacons of humanity, mercy, and kindness. Not only does the Fair Lady stand out at the end of this journey as an example of a peaceful, kind monster, but we can also see Ceaseless Discharge, displaying humanity despite his inhuman form.
We learn that Quelaag, too, had a humanized aspect to her despite her aggression and violence. She fought to protect and to heal her sister above all else – and we must face the fact that we robbed the Fair Lady of her sister. For those who have the Witches’ Ring, they are reminded of that every time they speak to the Fair Lady. Some will kill her, to put her out of her misery and claim her Fire Keeper Soul for themselves. Others will join her covenant, and replace Quelaag, trying to heal her with offerings of Humanity. In this, FromSoftware has given the player a moral choice without a binary measure – and instead it holds a mythic meaning. It asks of the player to answer for what they’ve done, and calls on them to recognize what they’ve learned along the way. The game even quietly rewards a moral decision at this juncture here, opening up a shortcut and a path to saving someone else, in the future.
And then, we ring the bell of awakening. We ascend and depart, rising out of the muck and mire of our harsh ordeal almost effortlessly, thanks to the lift. And as you leave, treasures await along your path. The Remedy spell and the clothes of the sealer offer you transcendence, a solution to the poisons and toxins and curses that would plague you, moving forward. In a den of toxic frustration, a gleaming speck of humanity in the form of a long-dead Fire Keeper’s soul. And then you break out of the black and into the sun once again. Fresh air, the light of day. That first time we play through that moment, emerging into the Valley of Drakes, the sense of relief is breathtaking, a massive weight off our backs. This ascent counters the prior descent, lifting us back to the world we know. This belly of the whale concept is one of the oldest, deepest aspects of storytelling, and serves as a fundamental aspect of how we explore ourselves and our characters, even if we don’t realize it. The metaphorical concepts of this particular part of the journey are so ingrained that even players who don’t understand why this section is so powerful can at least feel its impact noticeably.
In our next article, we will begin to explore the second act of the heroes’ journey and begin to touch upon Dark Souls’ branching paths and the concept of the initiation. We will also begin to encounter divergence from the traditional, standard process of the heroes’ journey, and will see how that divergence is actually a very positive aspect of the game.
For those of you curious about the Great Hollow and Ash Lake, that material isn’t part of the typical, narrative story path, and while I do intend to dissect it, it will come later.