Spoiler Warning: Light spoilers in the introduction. Full spoilers past the jump.
For Valentine’s day 2017, Lauren bought me a PS4 and “Dark Souls 3,” [From Software’s][from] final offering in the “Souls” universe and, at the time, the game to get for the platform. It follows the standard platform of taking the D&D that I used to get teased for, wraps it in amazing graphics, and sets it in a story universe that’s engrossing, fantastical, and labyrinthine.
As I came to find, “Souls” fans are die-hards, not just to master the game’s complex mechanics and to best the punishing bosses, but also because of the lore of the game. While I think that the battling quest across worlds is a key attractor in the game, a sizable portion of fans love the philosophy and patchy lore behind the game. For these fans the fights and the weapons and the choices mean something and fit into a larger, even grander epic than what you play strictly from beginning to end. As I played (and re-played) the game, I saw many traces of Nietzschean philosophy that I’d wish to highlight.
“Dark Souls 3” is an exploration of the Nietzschean universe: a world created by the sturm und drang of the “Will to Power” recalling Empedocles and Schopenhauer. It is a world wheezing its last breaths where Nietzsche’s “Last Race”* is preyed upon by the power-hungry in the guise of religious figures, mystical histories, and the pitiless conqueror. Amidst these last-day remnants of a proud culture of valor you fight, vie, die, and respawn and grow to face the duty of slavishly following the diseased Last Race culture, assuming the Will to Power pitilessly, or assuming the Will to Power and facing the terrible burden of the all-powerful when facing such a Last Race world.
Dark Souls is Hard
I realize (now) that it took me weeks to get through what was, likely intended to be, a 1-day jaunt. Consequently players (especially those like myself with no previous exposure to the game’s play-style) die often.
Dark Souls is Coy
There’s little-to-no framing narrative. For some strange reason you know the fire is fading, pilgrims are dying en route to some place, and powerful beings are also awakening from graves but are refusing to save the world. Go play!
Tantalizingly, as your game reloads you’re given a title-card with information about an item, its provenance, its wearer, and occasionally it’s lore. Sure it’s nice to learn about (say) flame arrows, but when gaining a lightning arrow we learn of their use against dragons in a great war of the past.
The game starts with you holding plot-shaping questions in your head and this keeps your eyes primed for clues like statues, paintings, title-cards, dialog that fill in the why you’re here or what has happened.
Dark Souls has a Creation Myth
Souls hinges on a creation myth that recalls Empedocles or Schopenhauerian creation myth. The world is ruled by immortal dragons and ancient trees and then Disparity emerges creating light and dark, heat and fire. From the dark bodies shuffle to the fire and it in find great souls (“Lordsouls”) aligning to 3 fundamental aspects of existence:
- Gwyn a Sky-titan, lord of Sunlight and Lightning à la Zeus and his knights
- The Witch of Izalith a goddess of Fire and her daughters
- Gravelord Nito, a god of disease and dark sorcery
But then in the darkness a creature called the “furtive pygmy” &emdash; man, scrounges in the flame and finds the Dark Soul. It is a tiny soul, not full of power like the other lords’ souls, but near-infinitely shareable. For when a lord gives a piece of his soul away he grows weaker. When the Dark Soul is passed, it remains identical. And the weak pygmies, they are Man. With Man’s creativity, power, and inherent Darkness preserved whole and entire life to life, child to child, man to man.
For those keen on mythology, this recalls the Titan / Olympian / Man descent narrative. The Titans ruled, they were usurped by the primeval Olympians who grew in number by elder-souls birthing lessers (e.g. Zeus and Athena) and, in turn, the Olympians had an uneasy relationship with man who, someday, might no longer see the need for the Olympians after-all.
Second, the primary action of the myth is the emergence of Strife to drive static stillness apart into Disparity, which creates the souls. In this sense Strife is required to birth the post-dragon age. Empedocles proposed that the four elements (earth, air, fire, water) were mixed by Strife sowing chaos between them and Love uniting them. The cosmos would, accourdingly, be drawn together into a lifeless one by Love and then rent asunder into a lifeless chaos. At either extreme there was no life, only in areas in-between was there life.
It is against this swirling battle between Love and Strife that the earliest Greek virtue-oriented ethicists began to form their conception of what the highest form of mankind should be. Interestingly, this is how Nietzsche characterizes the height of Greek drama and its function within Greek society.
- *: I use the translation of the “Last Man” as the “Last Race.” The singular mann is symbolic of the whole race. Given that Souls features more races than actual men, I wish to emphasize “All being in this world.”