It’s really difficult to summarize the themes and meaning behind Dark Souls, and equally hard to explain why the game carries so much weight for the people who love it. Dark Souls is typically thought of as just a difficult game, and usually people can’t see past that initial hurtle… I’m not going to say that Dark Souls isn’t a difficult game, but this game isn’t like others with an “insane difficulty” setting. I’m not a masochist who likes playing games on their hardest difficulty, and yet I play the game that’s stereotypically defined as the most difficult one on the market. In today’s post I’m going to attempt to explain “Why Dark Souls is important.” I’m going to be touching on themes of mental illness, depression, and dementia within this post. While I am no expert in these themes, I’m going to make ample use of others who have spoken about these in the same manner… hopefully in a way that will better define what this game is. This is going to be a bit of a theoretical deep dive, but I’m hoping to make it as digestible as possible.
To start, we need to talk a bit more about the backstory in this game and what it represents. If you’re at all familiar with the game, you’ll know that the backstory can be just as convoluted as it’s themes but I’ll try to make this concise…
When this world began it was a world of “gray,” no light or dark cycle, and was ruled by ancient dragons. One day there was a great fire that emerged, and fire brought duality to the world (light/dark, heat/cold, and life/death). Within the flame there were 4 “Lord Souls,” which are basically elements of great power. These Lord Souls represent four elements : Light, Dark, Life, and Death. Powerful beings took the Lord Souls of Light, Life, and Death… and teamed up. Meanwhile the “Dark Soul” was inherited by the progenitor of man. The beings that possessed the Light, Life, and Death soul started a war against the ancient dragons. Upon the dragon’s defeat, started the age of “Fire and Light”. Though, unknown to them, when the first flame erupted it started a new cycle for this world. It’s sort of like a pendulum where the world was no longer in gray but would sway between an era of light and then back to an era of dark. As the era of light started to fade, these beings became paranoid and fearful of losing their power and wanted to prolong the age of fire as long as possible. Desperate in their own way, each of these beings tried different methods of unnaturally prolonging the era of light. While moderately successful, these each resulted in some pretty hefty consequences to the world... one of which is the “curse of the undead.” Humans seem to be cursed to be reborn after death, yet on each rebirth they degenerate more and more… slowly leading to insanity. While the age of light persists, the world is plagued with the undead who have lost their humanity and wander aimlessly. This process is called “going hollow.” The player enters this world as one of the cursed undead and presented with the challenges of this decaying world. They must overcome insurmountable odds and in the end decide to either attempt to prolong the age, or let the age of fire naturally die and usher in the age of dark.
The curse of the Undead
This world is brutally indifferent to the player. Unlike many games, the world does not feel as though it’s centered around the player. It has its own rules and pushes back against the player at every opportunity. The Curse of the Undead is heavily present, certain enemies are feral and hostile, while others are too consumed with the anguish within their own minds to bother you… they’ve gone truly hollow. There are also characters that you meet along your journey that are fighting this curse. They are often cheerful and encouraging to the player, yet as the game progresses they start to become more forgetful, less and less of themselves, and after a while can truely go hollow. It’s easy to see the similarities of mental illness and dementia within the undead curse. I think it brings about a real fear that we all have, and struggle with. The thought of slowly losing ourselves, not being the person we once were, and effectively going hollow.
“While the game is unclear what turns an Undead into a Hollow - the passing centuries of an unnaturally long life, repeated deaths and rebirths, or some other factor of the curse – but its clear that Hollowing is the inevitable fate of all Undead. Almost every character you meet bears the weight of the curse, suffering some symptom or another of the Hollowing process. And almost all of these symptoms seem suspiciously like the onset of dementia.” - Nic Rowen
Nic Rowen describes this elegantly in this article, much more so than I ever could based off of my own experiences with dementia. I slowly watched my Grandfather go hollow, it was scary, incredibly sad, and truly a curse you wouldn't want anyone to endure...
The hollowing process, the persistent and repeated battles, also largely represent the struggle with depression. In his video “Don't You Dare Go Hollow” Nevyn describes Dark Souls as an :
I’ve never been diagnosed with depression, yet I’ve seen good friends struggle with this. We all have our own demons, inner voices we fight against, anxiety, and some days those battles are harder than others. This struggle, this cycle, is in many ways prevalent through both the themes and the mechanics within Dark Souls.
Indifference vs. Sadism
I want to take a brief pause here to talk a little more about this world. Up until now it likely seems like this game is purely depressing, sadistic, etc… and while this world is incredibly heavy, I want to make sure I accurately describe that this isn’t mean to just be a “Dante’s Inferno,” another weird jaunt through hell… Sadism in video games is easy, in most ways it means that everything in the world is out to get the player. While there are enemies in the world, Dark Souls specifically highlights how the world would exist without the player. It isn’t about being unnecessarily harsh and attacking the player. The experiences within the game often feel as though you’re interrupting events already taking place, rather than enemies placed specifically for “jump scares.” Also these events that you’re interrupting, don’t require the player to solve or fix… they would play out regardless. Just as in real life, you’re not the center of this universe… which is meant to make you feel small in this world… Hamish Black better describes this in his video “Dark Souls 3 : Indifference vs. Sadism.”
“Any progress in Dark Souls is an act of self betterment, even if it exists in a world that’s hostile and indifferent…. You don’t feel powerful or mighty having bested an enormous enemy. You feel small, you feel insignificant, but importantly you feel as though you’ve truly earned the sun shining on your face….. The goal of Blighttown is not to teach you how to best an enemy, but to teach you to appreciate the little victories. And once you have learned that, you can arguably handle anything the game throws at you.” - Hamish Black
“There are two main ways people handle depression, and two main ways people defeat Dark Souls. Some choose to go it alone, either trusting in their own strength or simply not wanting to be a bother to others. The rest will decide to call on the help of friends or strangers, gaining strength by having those friends or strangers by their side. Those who opt for facing the challenge solo, will undoubtedly have a harder time without the support of a couple of friends….. Despite how difficult things get, each battle CAN be won and each step forward CAN be made.” -Nevyn
“Playing through and overcoming it’s challenges, can act as a means by which to confront your own problems. Rather than adhering to the common talking point about video games, which is to say that they are considered a means of escapism. Of running away from the real world.” - Hamish Black
Escapism vs Power Fantasies
“Power fantasies allow you to pretend that you’re something that you’re not. Dark Souls subverts this by confronting the player with exactly what they are… A largely insignificant being with the power to improve only their own existence. Even if it doesn’t necessarily correlate with the fantasy of “saving the world.” Which so many games assert.”
“Failure and suffering are not to be avoided, they are to be confronted and relished. As that’s how you triumph…. “The meek shall inherit the earth”, but Dark Souls opposes this. It challenges us to sharpen our wits, our guile, and our resilience in a harsh but ultimately safe playground.” -- The Game Overanalyser
I make games, I play games... and sometimes I have some thoughts about that.