By Geoffrey Bunting
Dark Souls is a series that has sparked widespread discussion and debate since its initial release. Now, three instalments in, we are no closer to really having cracked the surface of a game which gives so little away and yet somehow has a mountain of lore for those who have the time and inclination to study.
There are things that one can be fairly sure about, that Dark Souls deals with many different timelines and time periods converging, that it is thus time-bending, that it has a rich history with a bleak presentation, and that it is bitterly hard. But perhaps, beneath all this medieval imagery and demonic lore, there is a concept that brings the game’s seeming disjointed narrative together. Not as a fantasy game, but as an allegorical one.
What if Dark Souls is actually representative of a journey through depression – particularly manic depression? Whether this parallel is by design or by accident, I couldn’t tell you. But there are definite elements that lend themselves to this concept; and there are several factors that play into this idea: primarily there are the literal representations and the more allegorical. But they all come together in a set of parallels that are difficult to blithely ignore.
Ups and downs
Much is made of Dark Souls’ vertical design. Rather than a linear forward and back level design, we are given levels that move upwards and downwards, with the clever use of height change to represent different levels of progress and to fit more into a relatively small square area. Once you reach the summit of something you are often driven downward again, once you make it outside, you are often directed back in. Generally, every area in the game has something lurking beneath it, and below it all waits the Abyss (more on that later).
The general layout, especially in the first half of the game, bears an interesting parallel to the relative ups and downs of manic depression. The areas above ground, such as the Undead Burg or Anor Londo, are bright and fairly easily navigated. Enemies are spaced out and not especially difficult to deal with, and you rarely find yourself overwhelmed by a group of foes. While fairly linear, these areas are also quite open, with few tight walls or corners They engender a sense of hope and progress as you can really see where you’re heading, and the feeling of ease that goes with them feels like they could be representative of the highs of the manic depressive. These are the periods that lead to moments of intense creativity, confidence, and clarity. They are often fleeting and drive one to momentary intense passions – hence the term “manic”. However, there is always the promise of darkness round the corner; the certainty that the high will end.
One could say that the illusion of sunlight in Anor Londo is indicative of this idea. After reaching what is likely the highest high in the game and defeating the most difficult boss, elation is quickly stripped from you should you kill the illusion of Gwynevere, as it plunges the whole city into darkness. The change is instantaneous, and without prior knowledge you might not know what you’re doing. Making you wonder if the whole feeling of ecstasy itself was an illusion. It gives a sense of, though in the middle of a high, any action might end it.
It’s as Kay Redfield Jamison says: “Which of my feelings are real?” the high and manic, so sure of one’s self; or the suspicious and frightened person – sure that things are about to plummet downhill.
Beneath all these high areas are those underground: the lows that are dark and unsure, where the opposition can appear from anywhere. New Londo Ruins, Tomb of the Giants, the Catacombs – and below them all, the Abyss – are all progressively darker and more foreboding, and full of images of death. Then there are areas like the Depths and Blighttown, with little room to manoeuvre, that are toxic and full of pitfalls. All of them hold a pattern of enemies that can easily become overwhelming. Progress is slow and difficult as it is fairly easy to trip and fall. It is these areas that so often lead to players giving up on the game.
These are the areas that are dark and tight. In New Londo, obstacles can appear from anywhere, and without the right preparation you cannot even fight its enemies. Tomb of the Giants is pitch black and full of holes that are easy to fall down or be knocked into by its hidden enemies or by your own carelessness, and the Catacombs too are full of false floors and pitfalls. In all these areas there is little room to breathe; little flexibility, and so little time to really think. Whereas the upper areas are bright and airy, these are claustrophobic and feel like they are closing in on you.
They are also closest to the Abyss, the constant menace of Dark Souls that threatens to overtake the world. In Oolacile it is presented almost as a kind of cancer; it slowly creeps in from below and overwhelms the world above it. So too the threat of a deeper depression overtaking you whether you are in the middle of a high or a low. This tendril-like overtaking of the world is so similar to the insidious nature of depression and its ability to infect every moment and thought in the most toxic way.
This may all sound very hopeless. But as bleak as Dark Souls is, it always shows visions of hope amid the dark. It may be as simple as looking up and seeing the clear sky when you’re underground or seeing an impending open area from an enclosed space. These moments are so often seen from the bonfires that litter the game: safe areas and little spots of light in the dark. Here are the markers of progress and the calm amid the chaos, where you can stop and think and examine what’s to come. Because Dark Souls isn’t just an allegory of depression, but of the journey one takes through it to reach the other end. It’s not about succumbing to the Abyss, but of challenging it and keeping at bay.
Confronting one’s demons
Then there is the very literal depiction of fighting one’s demons. While the verticality is both literal and allegorical, the battle against demons and monsters throughout the game is as literal as Dark Souls gets. I have written before about the sense of achievement that Dark Souls engenders, but this sense is also a mirror of the elation that can accompany genuine progress through one’s moods.
Those moments of noticeable forward movement can so often be accompanied by a feeling of such sheer relief that one can feel almost high on the absence of grief. These moments of coming up for air reinforce and validate any sense of hope afforded to you. So much so that as the Abyss claws its way back into our minds, that newly strengthened hope can start to keep it at bay. There is always the danger of falling back in, for sure. That difficulty runs throughout the game, and not just in boss encounters, mirrors how easy it is to trip up at any stage of the process. But those incidents of hope are a great help in overcoming the challenges of Dark Souls, as once the light has been glimpsed, you don’t soon forget it.
And as you progress, you begin to have moments of feeling less afraid; less timid of what might come. Jamison again puts it best: “with time, one has encountered many of the monsters, and one is increasingly less terrified of those to be met.”
Late in the game, the player encounters normal enemies they have previously fought as bosses. Capra, Taurus, and Stray Demons litter the Demon Ruins, yet they hold little fear. You’ve seen it before, fought it before, and prevailed before. Some may feel it is lazy design, but it also feels deliberate. It’s a way of saying “you’ve dealt with these demons before, and you can do it again.”
Doom versus Destiny
At the end of the game, after hours of struggling, you come face to face with Gwyn. Throughout the game you have been destined or doomed, depending on how you look at it, to defeat him and take over his position. It is one of the many mandates of the game that you’ve had little or no control over. The game won’t end until you defeat him. It is, in essence, one last battle before you are free from the journey; before you can finally prevail over the depression.
There is a sense in Dark Souls that your actions are not your own; that you are being manipulated by someone or something, the outcome of which is not clear. In Dark Souls you are guided by one of two primordial serpents, both of which have divergent goals. One wants you to link the flame and continue the age of fire, the other wants you to let the fire die and bring about an age of darkness. Yet, at no point do you find out which is the better result. Despite this, you choose one anyway.
A lot of the discussion over Dark Souls is which ending is the “good” ending. In this model, I don’t think the answer is any less ambiguous. The tropes of light and dark that play out in Dark Souls are still present in the idea of depression as a motivation for the game. In linking the flame you are keeping the light going, keeping the Abyss at bay, keeping the depression out. This may seem like the obvious good end to a journey through dark moods and manic depression, and yet, there is the idea of letting the Abyss take over. This decision may be seen as passive; as giving in, but there is also an element of confronting the Abyss instead of doing all you can to keep it at bay. It’s dangerous; it’s a risk, but it could also be the key to achieving a real good ending.
Depression never really goes away. It’s always there, simmering underneath, ready to be set off. You can overcome it, you can control it, but you can’t really be rid of it. In Dark souls, in the end, it doesn’t matter which option you choose. As soon as you end the game you are thrown right back to the beginning in a demonstration of the cyclical nature of life. It is not to say you cannot get better, but rather that these things stay with you. Getting better does not preclude one from getting worse again. Dark Souls tells you that this battle is ongoing and that it will get harder each time. But it also reminds you that if you’ve done it before you can do it again.
I mentioned Dark Souls’ time-bending mechanics, and these too have a part to play in this model. Most games, regardless of their themes, employ the protagonist as the sole hero or the only one who can save the world. Dark Souls makes it clear to you that you are not distinct; that you are not the first one to attempt the quest you’ve been given. Throughout the game, you meet others who are on the same path as you. Some have given up and stopped, others have lost the fight, and others are right there with you. But none – or few – of them are really there, they belong to their own time, and you’ve all just converged at a place where time is not linear. It is an interesting mechanic – in which you can literally reach backwards and forwards in time for help – that means that every player’s avatar can exist in the same space and still make narrative sense. But it is also, for those willing to look, representative of the fact that nobody is alone in what they are doing: there are hundreds and thousands of others going through the same thing, struggling through the same problems, and fighting the same battles. It is a rare reminder in gaming that, for a past-time that can be so isolating; you are not the only one.