Dark Souls: Themes and Depth

I was chatting with a friend yesterday and trying to explain that games aren’t really always that deep, in terms of thematic content and so on. I’m from an English Lit background, right, so I’ve spent the last six or seven years reading some of the great books from different points in history – and frankly there isn’t a video game equivalent of Ulysses, or The Canterbury Tales, or Pride & Prejudice or something. Today, I’m going to take some time to more clearly lay out what I’m on about.

Let’s start with Alien Isolation. It’s written by Dan Abnett, who’s pretty great – I love his 40K books. Broadly speaking though, Alien Isolation isn’t necessarily that deep in terms of thematic content. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, because not every game needs to be thematically deep, but – it just doesn’t have much depth to it. It’s a great story – it’s self-contained, nicely paced, and generally just fine, but there’s… there’s just not a lot going on beyond that very surface story. What you see is exactly what you get: Ripley on a space station being chased by the Alien. That’s it. There’s not really anything else going on. Again – not really a criticism, I’m just making the point.

I got this far through the explanation yesterday and started floundering – I couldn’t think of any good examples of what that depth might look like. But today I started thinking again about Dark Souls, which has this theme of the relationship between sanity and insanity. If you’re not familiar with Dark Souls, there’s basically a bunch of people who become undead, and they make up probably the entire cast of the game (there might be one or two characters who’re normal humans, but it’s not clear). As undead, they can’t really die – or rather they can, but they’ll just come back. Aside from that, they’re basically still just normal human beings – they have personalities and wants and desires, and they’re more or less just normal people.

But the undead are not impervious to insanity. Some of them lose the will to live. They give up on everything, and little by little their psyche is stripped away. In the worst case scenario, they go Hollow. Hollows are more like your traditional undead zombies. They’re empty, mindless, violent creatures. And the key difference between Hollows and regular Undead is purpose. You’ve got to care enough about something to keep going through the world. You’ve got to have a purpose.

So in this game, there’s two groups of characters, and they’re set up as opposites – Undead and Hollows, sane and insane. And we know what the difference between them is – it’s a sense of purpose. There’s kind of a general comment on human nature here, right – the game is saying that having a purpose in life helps to keep us human – or perhaps even makes us human. You can see there’s a double layering here. On a very basic level, Dark Souls tells a story, but then beyond that, it also says something about human nature. That’s the kind of thematic depth that’s lacking from games like Alien Isolation. I really enjoyed Isolation, but it doesn’t really care about making comments on human nature, or anything like that.

On its own, that’s already the sort of thing we’re talking about. But Dark Souls takes things a bit further. We know that Dark Souls is hard. That’s probably the first thing people know about it. We can sub-divide Dark Souls players into two groups – those who push through, and those who give up and quit. I’m mostly in the first group, although Nameless King can just fuck off, honestly, who came up with that bullshit. Now, one of the key figures in each Dark Souls game is the Crestfallen. You’ve got the Crestfallen Knight in DS1, Crestfallen Saulden in DS2, and Hawkwood in DS3. Each serves as a mid-point between Undead and Hollow – they’ve all given up, but haven’t gone Hollow yet. For players, their desperation acts as a signpost. Don’t be like these people, the game says. Keep going. Find purpose. Keep playing. Obviously Dark Souls is a hard game, and the Crestfallen characters show us what happens to players who give up. Their characters just sit around Firelink Shrine, or whatever the hub happens to be. They just sit there and rot.

I’ve already said that in Dark Souls, having a purpose helps to keep us human. That’s one of the themes of the game. The Crestfallen characters don’t really have a purpose. In a sense, they’ve lost something of their humanity. Similarly for players, according to the game, persevering and carrying on is part of what makes us human. Yes, Dark Souls is hard, but perseverance is important. Beating the game becomes a goal, an affirmation of our humanity and our ability to overcome adversity. It gives us a sense of purpose as players. The Crestfallen characters aren’t Hollow (usually), but they do represent hopelessness. They’ve lost the will to carry on, and so even though they aren’t literally Hollows, they’ve lost something of their humanity. Hopelessness is the first step on the path to insanity.

By pushing its themes into the realm of gameplay, Dark Souls not only demonstrates thematic depth but also an understanding of the medium. People crudely say that video games are about interactivity, and that’s sort of true, but not true enough. You interact with a book when you pick it up and run your eyes over the words. You also – well, for example, we’ve just been teaching Lolita – I’m tutoring at the moment. In Lolita, Nabokov is playing a game with the reader. You have to try and figure out what’s real and what’s a lie and what to do with all the contradictory content going on in the book. In a sense, that’s interactivity too. Video games have gameplay. That’s the key difference – Dark Souls pushes its themes into the game mechanics and the gameplay. It says things about its own form.

And arguably Alien Isolation pushes into the game mechanics too – although in a slightly different way. The big thing about Alien Isolation is that most of the time, the alien’s behaviour is not heavily scripted. That is, you’re not dealing with a bunch of staged cutscenes – the alien just runs around with a basic AI and tries to find you and kill you. If you make noise, it’ll come fuck you up. It’s a great improvement for the horror genre, which arguably has relied too much in the past on scripted encounters that get stale the second or third time round. From that perspective, Alien Isolation develops the mechanical options available to the horror genre. That’s a good thing, without question – it’s just not a concern with any deeper thematic resonance.

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