It’s not controversial to note the special significance of place to the Dark Souls games, or to developing studio FromSoftware more broadly. Critics have long noted the way that place in Dark Souls seems deeper, more sophisticated than in other worlds. There’s a sense of depth, of history. You can see locations off in the distance and you can actually go and visit them. Even the concept of place has its rich layering. In Dark Souls, we can speak of place in two senses – as the different locations you explore, and as your position relative to an enemy in a fight. Place itself is a nexus, a hub, a meeting place for these two meanings, which overlap and reinforce each other, creating this complex interplay between your battles as a player and the environments that you move through.
Let’s start with the combat – it’s maybe the more difficult concept to grasp if you’ve never played these games. In some fighting games, whether you get hit depends on how close you are to your enemy when they swing. The attack animation shows you that a hitbox is being created, and if you’re close enough for that hitbox to touch you, you take damage. In Dark Souls, the hitbox is more closely wrapped around the actual weapon. It’s less about your proximity to the enemy character and more about where they swing their blade. So for example in the first image below, you can see my character swinging a Dragonslayer Greataxe over his head. It’s a vertical swing over the head: if an enemy character is in front of me at any point while it’s coming down, they’re going to get clipped. However, if they’re standing off to the side or behind me, they’re fine. You can also see the Follower Javelin in the second image – the motion is stabbing forwards, so it’s similarly an ‘in-front’ attack, but it probably has more reach than the axe, as it’s got that forward momentum rather than downwards. Even just from those two examples, you can see how combat quite quickly becomes a dance, where the most important thing is where you’re standing relative to your enemy. It’s about how you’re placed.
Obviously we’re only really scratching the surface here – in the full game, there are additional layers of complexity beyond this very short introduction. Different weapons have different attack patterns; many will allow you to chain attacks into combos, so that you might swing a sword from right to left and then back again, with all the attending calculations around how you’re placed for each swing. Many weapons are infused with elemental aspects – for instance, the Dragonslayer Greataxe deals both physical damage and lightning damage. We can actually infer that information just from the weapon’s name – in the story of this universe, the dragons were slain by an ancient sun king, Gwyn, who harnessed the power of lightning. Weapons belonging to Gwyn or Gwyn’s soldiers usually have a lightning aspect. That’s where place and place come together: this aspect of gameplay, the type of damage you do, has an opposite face peering over into the narrative. How you place yourself in combat ties into a sense of place in the world, into a specific concrete historical location where these items have their heritage.
I think every game tries to do this sort of world-building, to some degree – I don’t think Dark Souls offers us anything strictly unique in that sense. Arguably most games integrate their weapons into the narrative. It would almost be less common to see the opposite. What’s special about Dark Souls, I think, is a difference of degree rather than kind. Because the game integrates these aspects so closely into each other, you can actually carry out full autopsies of parts of the fictional world based purely on item stats. Take the Undead Legion armour, for instance. You find the Undead Legion in Dark Souls 3 fighting the Abyss, which – we’re not going to get into, right now – but the fact that they’re fighting the Abyss aligns them with Artorias, one of Gwyn’s knights from the first game. Artorias was sent to fight the Abyss in the first game, and in the third game the Undead Legion are fighting the Abyss as well. Using this and some other evidence, we can infer a link from the Undead Legion to Artorias, and from Artorias to his lord Gwyn. When we examine the armour of the Undead Legion, the stats seem to reinforce this connection. The fire and armour resistance are both rated around 13, higher than the other types of elemental resistance (12.6 for magic and 10.4 for dark). For comparison, the Mirrah Vest, which is sort of comparable (it’s about as heavy, so it’s about as ‘expensive’ in terms of how much weight it requires), averages about 10 to 12 for most elemental stats. So 13 is definitely a little elevated.
It could be, then, that these slightly elevated stats indicate the Undead Legion’s connection to Gwyn. Gwyn was the lord of lightning, and he fought fire-breathing dragons, and so this armour has strong fire and lightning resistance. However, as a possible point of dissonance, this armour also has fairly weak physical resistance stats. They sit around 9-10, and slashing defence drops as far as 5.9. This is unusual. If we’re oversimplifying, the basic spectrum of armour in Dark Souls runs from heavy knight armour (good physical defence, often low elemental defence) through to light sorcerer armour (bad physical defence, good elemental defence). The Undead Legion intuitively seem like they should tend towards the heavy knight armour end of the spectrum. They’re knights, after all. But their elemental defence stats are higher across the board. Are we wrong? Or is this a piece of storytelling? Maybe their armour is old, corrupted, like the Legion itself, crumbling to the Abyss that it’s sworn to stand against. Maybe the physical protection is fading while the spells and elemental protection remain strong. Alternately, if you pay attention, you might notice that their armour isn’t actually heavy sheets of metal, like the standard Knight Armour. It’s leather over chainmail. That makes sense too: the Undead Legion are associated with the wolf. They don’t block with shields; they parry with a knife. They don’t absorb your hit – they dodge out of the way. That lower physical defence could indicate their need for agility, how they embody the spirit of the wolf.
You can see how quickly we can slide into a rabbit hole here – we’re busily extrapolating quite nuanced elements of character and place from the most boring and frustrating bits of playing an RPG – managing armour stats. And you can see how tightly those two aspects are wound around each other. Both stats and culture inform our understanding of the other. The lower physical protection of the Legion armour is both a piece of storytelling and relevant to strategic gameplay. If you want to block and absorb hits, maybe you should think about wearing the standard Knight Armour, or versions from further along the knight spectrum, like the Catarina set. Understanding the Undead Legion – their history, their identity, the places that they come from – helps you position yourself in combat. In Dark Souls, place and place come together, giving you a rich tapestry against which to locate yourself.