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The Light in Dark Souls

I spent a couple hours exploring The Painted World of Ariamis to see what enemies and secrets laid about. Once I got my fill of the place’s snowy castle grounds, I gathered my focus to face Priscilla. I waited for the boss to pounce, but the strange, dragon-like woman remained still. I cautiously approached her and she said:

“Thou must returneth whence thou came. This land is peaceful, its inhabitants kind, but thou dost not belong. I beg of thee, plunge down from the plank, and hurry home.”

Based on the monsters I’d just come through, I begged to differ, but she was a unique boss that stood her ground without provoking me. I didn’t know what to do, so I turned to the internet to see if she was worth a trophy or had good drops for weapon forging…then I reflected in disgust. Am I really considering sacrificing an innocent person at the altar of these simple, unimportant goals? I tossed my phone aside, glanced at Priscilla one more time, and left her domain forever.

Most video games’ good and evil choices are like day and night. We’re used to being given extreme cases of right and wrong backed by visual cues and dialogue less subtle than a baseball bat to the head. On the other hand, Dark Souls is uncomfortably silent about the ramifications of your actions.

That’s not to say Dark Souls doesn’t have an internal system of good and evil. If you kill any innocent characters, you’ll be put in the Book of the Guilty for your “sins,” which provokes the ire of players who join a covenant that hunts down the guilty. But what is sin, really? Here, it only amounts to what a rogue goddess has to say. Why should her words bear weight?

By letting morality play its course in a space that favors the dark, selflessness still shines brightly.

The gods of Dark Souls are at fault for enslaving mankind to a cycle of sacrifice. You’re led to believe that kindling bonfires will end the undead curse of humanity, but extending this “Age of Fire” only staves off the inevitable darkness that was supposed to naturally consume the world and all of life in eons past. Over time, you discover that all that you’re told seems empty and contradictory, unveiling an entropic reality where good and evil seem pointless. The world may have characters who spout differing convictions, but the game itself never passes judgment over you. The ambiguity forces players to rely on their own moral perception.

Nihilism seems to define existence in Dark Souls’ universe. Various characters and creeds use your trust against you. Other players will prey on weaker ones by invading their own play session. All the enemies you slay will mean nothing because countless kingdoms have risen and fallen doing the same. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:

“Let us therefore limit ourselves to the purification of our opinions and valuations and to the creation of our own new tables of what is good, and let us stop brooding about the ‘moral value of our actions!’ We…want to become those we are — human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves.”

Dark Souls appears to emulate Nietzsche’s worldview. The game urges you to believe that life outside yourself is to be ignored. Players (and characters) will lie, taunt, and betray for power and prestige. How could you not wonder if turning inward and looking for the worst in everyone is necessary? Nevertheless, there are examples in the game that defy this negative outlook.

Solaire of Astora’s jovial, amiable legacy inspires players to join the most cooperative covenant in the game: The Warriors of Sunlight. Its adherents can be summoned in the most dispiriting places, for “it is their duty to deliver a great conquest to their summoner.” Another covenant, the Way of Blue, protects the innocent from ill-intentioned invaders. Players can also leave notes that hint toward hidden items or suggest helpful combat strategies.

I even read about one player who protects Priscilla by invading others’ worlds before they have the chance to meet her, but this would still be counted as a “sin” in Dark Souls despite his intentions. It’s a noble act unjustly punishing Priscilla’s protector with no reward to boot. In his ruminations over nihilism, I imagine C.S. Lewis would point to him as a moral anomaly in a meaningless world. He wrote:

“If we ask ‘Why ought I to be unselfish?’ and you reply ‘Because it is good for society,’ we may then ask, ‘Why should I care what’s good for society except when it happens to pay me personally?’ and then you will have to say, ‘Because you ought to be unselfish’ — which simply brings us back to where we started. You are saying what is true, but you are not getting any further.”

There’s a mysterious law of human nature interfering with our assessment of right and wrong to side with sacrifice over preservation, humility over pride, or generosity over accumulation. The same is true in Dark Souls. By letting morality play its course in a space that favors the dark, selflessness still shines brightly. Solaire said:

“Now that I am Undead, I have come to this great land…to seek my very own sun!”

The sun he’s searching for is likely a literal source of fire that will grant him purpose and peace. But if he’d known the gods had preserved the light for selfish reasons, he would’ve said they did the right thing for the wrong reasons. Good, hope, altruism—these are still caught up in the light. Solaire seeks to help Dark Souls’ players realize this point, and while some may close their eyes and hearts to this light, many choose to spread its warmth through their actions when everyone and everything seems dark. You’re led to believe altruism is artificial and pointless like the fading fire. Nonetheless, the game is resplendent with light in between the dark.

I remember when one invader killed me while I was away from the game. After despairing at my misfortune, I discovered I was better off. He’d left a bag of useful items as an apology.

No amount of darkness will ever dispel the mysterious light of moments like this.

Associate Editor
Joey Thurmond has two degrees in communication and English, and teaches on both for a living. He's actually a dragon in disguise who loves quiet, rainy days with a cup of hot tea. Videogames of the first-person shooter and survival-horror variant are his favorite, and he's a living repository of Star Wars and Bionicle lore. He also has bylines at Game Informer, Push Square, and Tech Raptor, but currently maintains his own content at saveasdoc.com.

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