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The Moral Universe of the Dark Souls Games and Demon’s Souls

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

This is the cover art for Demon's Souls. The cover art copyright is believed to belong to From Software and ATLUS.

This is the cover art for Demon's Souls. The cover art copyright is believed to belong to From Software and ATLUS.

Though they are not all directly related, the games of the informally named Souls Series—Demon’s Souls, and Dark Souls One, Two, and Three—are all thematically united. Each game presents a world wherein the health of the king is tied to the health of the land, and the player’s character is introduced as an outside force of morality and restoration.

Demon’s Souls

The player learns that King Allant of Boletaria is responsible for the bizarre and desperate state of his kingdom. His lust for power and prosperity led him to dark rituals and contact with demons, especially The Old One. The demons bring an ever increasing fog that isolates the land as they devour the souls of the humans, driving their victims to depravity and madness. At one point, players encounter what they believe to be Allant himself: a fierce warrior with magic, unnatural agility, and the ability to absorb souls. Only later is it discovered this was a false king. The real Allant is a misshapen wretch, thrashing about inside The Old One, wailing about the pointlessness of life, and how The Old One and the annihilation it brings is a mercy to end human suffering.

A Boletaria filled with deranged, murderous denizens is what the player finds upon immediately starting the game. The character he or she creates is not from Boletaria, but an adventurer drawn there seeking either to liberate the land or profit from the immense power of the demonic souls—a distinction left entirely to the player. Either way, the player embarks on a course of slaying the demon lords and collecting their souls to confront the wreckage of Allant and The Old One.

As Demon’s Souls reaches its conclusion, players, if they are paying close attention, are presented with a choice: allow the Maiden in Black to lull The Old One to sleep, or kill her while she is distracted and inherit all the power of the demonic souls. Walking away lifts the fog, seals away the soul arts, and saves Boletaria, and by extension the world. Killing the Maiden in Black means the player inherits Allant’s place as the undisputed lord of Boletaria since the king and all competitive demons are slain. The player has no masters other than The Old One’s thirst for human souls. Either result is in the player’s hands, though one is clearly marked out as the “correct” ending, a distinction that doesn’t persist through the series. In either case, the role of the player is to present a vertical intrusion to Boletaria and answer the chaos therein, whether by defeating the corrupt king and the demons or essentially replacing them.

The Chosen Undead as seen in official art for Dark Souls.

The Chosen Undead as seen in official art for Dark Souls.

Dark Souls

Gwyn is the God-King of Lordran. When the player first arrives, however, he or she will notice the whole surrounding area is in ruins. When entering the capital—Anor Londo—the situation seems less dire, but the illusion of sunlight is easily dispelled. Lord Gwyn is nowhere to be found. Later, players discover that Gwyn departed long ago, and in a bid to extend the Age of Fire, he attempted to rekindle the First Flame. In the process he horrifically scorched his knights and turned himself into a sort of revenant, watching over the remaining cinders of the First Flame. While Frampt describes Gwyn as a mighty and benevolent lord, Kaathe says Gwyn “resisted the course of nature [….] sacrificing himself to link the Fire, and commanding his children to shepherd humans.” This interpretation paints Gwyn as a despot, afraid for the ending of his time and willing to perform terrible deeds simply to maintain his own power in the face of a natural decline.

The Witch of Izalith provides a similar example. In an attempt to recreate the First Flame, she instead creates the Bed of Chaos, which is the source of all demons. It also deforms and perverts nearly all of her children along with destroying her kingdom. Her reasons are not fully elucidated, but her fate mirrors that of Gwyn; she is another leader who ruins her whole kingdom through her questionable judgment and wicked behavior.

The player, this time often referred to as the “chosen undead,” is brought to Lordran after escaping from the Undead Asylum. Again, the player is not native to Lordran—it seems no humans are—and is literally dropped there by an enormous black bird. It is both Frampt and the illusion of Gwynevere that proclaim the player’s character as a fitting heir for Gwyn and only has to collect the remaining Lord Souls to take his or her rightful place. Opposed to this is Kaathe, who says the main character is the inheritor of the Dark Soul, meant to put an end to the artificially prolonged Age of Fire. Clearly, both sides are manipulating the player for their own ends, but both sides agree on one point: Gwyn needs to be removed and replaced by the player’s character.

When Gwyn is defeated in the Kiln of the First Flame, the player is again presented with the choice toward which the whole game has built. This time, walking away means the Fire dies. Even Frampt submits to the player’s choice, and he or she becomes the Dark Lord. What that entails is not fully stated, though it could mean anything from the continual disintegration of the world to it dissolving and something new being born. Relighting the Kiln of the First Flame links the fire, reestablishing the power that has driven the Age of Fire, but doing so likely immolates the player’s character in the process. Again, the details of what linking the fire does for the world is ambiguous, though it may involve restoring order to the world or ensuring that humanity is held enthralled to the remaining gods. The details of each ending, however, spur from the central act of the player—an outsider—arriving in Lordran to create order. Whether that order is to reestablish the dominion from the Age of Fire or a new one brought about by a Dark Lord, the central theme remains the same.

Official art work for Dark Souls 2 showing the Faraam Armor.

Official art work for Dark Souls 2 showing the Faraam Armor.

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Dark Souls 2

Vendrick, by several accounts, was for a time, a good and fair King of Drangleic. Some characters, such as Chancellor Wellager and Drummond, claim the real troubles began when King Vendrick married the foreign lady, Nashandra. It is she that convinces the king of the impending threat of the giants and helps him go to their land and claim the Throne of Want. With the power of the Throne, Vendrick is able to create and control golems (incidentally, the ones in Castle Drangleic are powered by souls) that build up his kingdom and enhance prosperity. This theft and “peace so deep it was like the Dark” not only draws the wrath of the giants, which destroys parts of the kingdom, but also appears to coincide with the birth of the undead curse. Horrified by these events, Vendrick disappears, leaving his kingdom in the hands of Nashandra, who has proven herself either untrustworthy or following her unscrupulous agenda.

This time the player takes on the role of the cursed undead, who has come to Drangleic in hopes of finding a means of removing the curse. Once more, the player takes on the role of an outsider in the setting—a wanderer comes to Drangleic from elsewhere, not entirely unlike Nashandra. Early on, the player meets the Emerald Herald who sets the player on the path of becoming the next king as doing so will allegedly remove the undead curse. In an interesting development, Nashandra seems to want this too, as the player will have to eliminate King Vendrick and discover the Throne of Want, which she can then possess for herself or possibly manipulate the player as she did Vendrick. The Emerald Herald appears to have a more off-hands approach, empowering the player’s character, trusting he or she will reject and defeat Nashandra to retake the Throne of Want, and use the lordship to create a renaissance of Dranglaic.

Following the Scholar of the First Sin update, Dark Souls 2 does have different endings depending on some player actions, defeating certain bosses and having encountered Aldia. The Emerald Herald says she is helping the undead because doing so will end the curse, suggesting that once the player claims the Throne of Want, the undead curse is contained or ended. Also, as King or Queen of Drangleic, there may be powers associated with that station that will revitalize the land. Aldia speaks cryptically about the failures of previous kings and suggests the player may free everyone form the cycle of kingship and entropy by seeking another path. There are several characters, such as Straid, who point out that countless kingdoms have come and gone in the region, and these comments allow the player to speculate that the ending will be positive as a reborn and possibly renamed Drangleic will arise under his or her lordship if the player chooses the ascend to the Throne of Want. Nonetheless, the same theme is still in play: a leader who is corrupt and has corrupted the land is brought to an end by the intervention of an outside agent. A sort of justice is brought to Nashandra for plundering the giants and helping to lead Drangleic into ruin. Taking the new alternative by defeating Aldia, the player may abandon the Throne of Want and watch the flames burn bright before guttering out as he or she stalks into a new darkness. These endings are both ambiguous and remain open to the player's interpretation of whether or not the world is saved or is even worth saving.

Dark Souls 3 promotional image featuring the Red Knight.

Dark Souls 3 promotional image featuring the Red Knight.

Heir of Fire

Dark Souls 3, like previous entries in the series, has a main plot that circles the idea of linking the fire to maintain the age. As with the other titles, the descriptions provided by the starting classes mostly suggest your character is not from Lothric or any of the other lands of the Lords of Cinder. The fact these kingdoms are converging suggests the rules of time and space are being bent specifically for the act of trying to maintain the age of fire. The ringing of the bell at Firelink Shrine to awaken the Unkindled (like the player character) appears to be a last ditch effort to force the Lords of Cinder to enact their roles in this cosmic, apocalyptic drama. Because most have vacated their thrones, it is the work of the player's character to bring them back to Firelink Shrine, by hook or crook, in an attempt to save the world. Whether it should be saved, however, becomes the point of the game.

Much like the previous games, though, there are contrary views as to whether the age of fire, this current status quo, should be maintained at all. More than one Lord of Cinder suggests their actions are pointless, and that it is better to let the world and all its ills and suffering gutter and flame out. Some NPC Unkindled believe they are on a holy quest, but as with other Dark Souls titles, the devastation and death that follows in the player's wake should give him or her pause to question the nature of what is happening. It is also important to note that Lords of Cinder need not be moral, just powerful, as is pointed out with Saint Aldrich of the Deep in particular. The counterpoint to this age of fire however, can be seen after the Untended Graves and remarked upon by Ludleth of Courland who has seen a world without fire and made his choice to become a Lord of Cinder.

The multiple endings of Dark Souls 3 again are a measure of what the player believes is the best choice among what seems to be a variety of bad options. Does he or she link the flame or have the Lords of Cinder and other NPCs made an impression with their belief that continuing the age of fire is a pointless errand? The choice is ultimately left in the player's hands, though in this game, prior actions have committed him or her to a particular ending rather than a choice made at the game's end. One ending in particular requires major efforts on behalf of another NPC to keep them alive and their quest in progress if the player hopes to see that particular end. While this is a gameplay change, it doesn't stray from the ur-narrative of all the other Souls games; the player represents and intrusive moral force who acquires power to affect change in the setting's cosmology by either maintaining, reordering, or destroying the status quo of the universe.

Bloodborne promotional image

Bloodborne promotional image

In the Blood: Bloodborne Addendum

Much like the games in the Souls series, Bloodborne follows several thematic elements. Yharnam is in the grip of the Night of the Hunt, and the player’s character is drawn into the nocturnal violence, hunting beasts. Not being from Yharnam is a point made by several characters, some openly voicing disgust and suggesting the outsiders are the cause of the Scourge and beasts. The deeper the player gets into the game, the more he or she comes to understand a central point of the game is to end the nightmare gripping the city through invasive violence that destroys the leaders of some of Yharnam’s remaining institutions like the Church of Blood Healing, the College at Byrgenwerth, and the secretive Choir and School of Mensis.

Perhaps even more than other games, Bloodborne’s endings are difficult to parse. This obscurity is an extension of the game’s story, which is difficult to penetrate even by the standards of Dark Souls veterans used to sifting through conflicting NPC perspectives and lore hinted at through item descriptions. Adding to this obfuscation are the layers of dreams and the thin line differentiating celestial wisdom and deranged madness. About the only thing that is clear is that the player’s character is an outsider and a hunter that has come to Yharnam and becomes an agent of potential restoration for the beleaguered city. Ruling institutions have plunged the city into insanity and chaos, so it is the evolving role of the hunter to track and slay the entities that have brought about the dire situation in the hopes that something better may come of it.

....So the World Might be Mended

In each case, the player takes the role of a character meant to restore order to a land that has become unbalanced from improper rule. Though in some cases the player may reject it, he or she begins as an outsider, an external force that is brought in to correct the moral order, often while seeking personal gain too. By eliminating the corrupt elements, and perhaps replacing them, the player’s character is an intrusive moral force in each setting, righting what is wrong in the same way that someone comes to restore order at the end of so many Shakespearean tragedies like Fortinbras in Hamlet and Macduff in Macbeth. Though the player can often chose a dark ending, or interpret one to be so, there is undeniably an ethical agenda to each game that forms the core of the story and playing experience.

© 2014 Seth Tomko

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