There are stories you will appreciate and enjoy, others you will dislike and forget. Then, there are stories that will shake your view of the world and haunt you for years to come. The Dark Souls saga is of the latter, a deep and dark mystery that can be unveiled only through patience and observation. Getting to understand the story behind Hidetaka Miyazaki’s grim universe can often feel like an archeological investigation. Clues and hints are handed to you, but nothing tangible, nothing ever clear-cut. Prepare to experience a tale of uncertainty, where doubt is your greatest enemy.
First, let me paint you the picture. The story takes place in Lordran, home to the Lords, where long ago ruled an age of fire. When the flame came to fade, though, Lord Gwyn linked it to humanity in order to prolong its life and keep the age of dark at bay, sacrificing himself in the process to feed the fire. The first Dark Souls has us explore Lordran after it has become a land of undead. Over time, we understand that because of the curse, the world is now stuck in a cycle. A Chosen Undead will always rise to link the flame and renew the age of fire. The true order of the world, though, would be for the flame to die out, bringing about an age of darkness, as Dark Souls II tells us. We get to see that moment in Dark Souls III, when the first flame finally fades and the cycle is broken. Throughout the series, we learn of the gods’ motives to curse humanity and witness mankind’s discovery of their true fate and their struggle to break free.
Then, there is the perfect parallel that can be traced between lore and gameplay, and the beautiful metaphor it all spells out for life. The people inhabiting Lordran and every kingdom that came after can’t die, because they are linked to the flame. If it so happens, they simply awaken anew at the last bonfire where they rested. They lose their hope and sense of purpose over time, which drives them mad through a process called hollowing. The Chosen Undead is thus but a random individual who happens to be more determined than everyone that came before. In the same order of ideas, the players who beat the game are the ones who never gave up, while the ones who quit represent all the people that went hollow. Whether or not you keep pushing through adversity is entirely up to you and depends only on your mindset and willpower. This is where the life metaphor gets so powerful, as the most successful people are the ones who learn from their own mistakes and don’t fear failure. They keep pushing until they reach their goals and “link the fire”. Soon though, the flame fades like the feeling of victory and new challenges appear as darkness starts growing again.
In the end, what truly makes Dark Souls masterpieces is the way From Software handled storytelling. As you go through the games, everything and everyone gives you fragments of information, stories and legends that hint at a bigger picture when pieced together. Be it through cryptic dialogues, item descriptions or paintings, the things you learn are never complete on their own, rarely clear-cut and sometimes misleading. This all makes for a constant sense of dread and wonder as you slowly uncover the truth about this broken world. Dark Souls being a difficult game in every sense of the word, it makes sense that the story itself would be hard to understand. It makes for a more satisfying tale that is also more prone to personal interpretation. Thus, theories abound as to what’s really going on. This fosters discussion and the exchange of ideas within the community, rendering it one of the most healthy and dedicated out there. The fact that the game’s world is so mysterious also makes your goal ambiguous. What’s the point of all of this? New players ask. Many quickly become desperate or lose interest, joining the ranks of those who went hollow. They lack the mental resilience that is necessary to persist in the face of overwhelming odds and complete uncertainty.