My biggest game-writing project to date wrapped a while back, and I thank you who chose to explore even part of it. Like all things, the story grows in the telling. I never planned to publish the Dark Souls Diaries. It started as nothing more than an email series to disinterested friends. The first several installments were just heavily edited versions of those emails.
When I elected to put them on Tap, it stopped being a goofy thing and became a matter requiring a degree of journalistic integrity. As the Diaries grew in popularity, so also grew my responsibility to be accurate. As such, the evolution of the Diaries took place alongside the evolution of my knowledge regarding the game. This epilogue is the story of that journey, plus the final moments of the game upon which the Diaries are based, and a short look at the recent Prepare to Die PC port. It may not be the last thing I’ll ever write about Dark Souls. But it is the end of this particular (and for most of you, unendurably tedious) chronicle.
30 Frames Per Second * 1,000 Words Per Picture = 208,000 Words; Still Shorter and More Enjoyable than Anything Steerpike Writes, that Pompous, Bloviating Douchewicket
To get us in the mood, let’s watch my video.
All through my PS3 playthrough, and while writing the Diaries, I was at the mercy of YouTube and Google for media pertaining to my adventures. Now with the PC port I can do my own screenshots and capture my own footage. I decided to play through Prepare to Die as a spunky redheaded Pyromancer, and captured her adventures for the video above.
I’ve never been a fan of Dragon Age, Bioware’s “original dark fantasy” franchise. I find it creatively beneath Bioware, for two reasons.
First, it’s not original. Anything they didn’t cadge from Tolkien they cadged from George RR Martin. What Bioware terms “originality” most people would call “find/replace.” Changing names and slightly tweaking conventions that stretch back to Lord Dunsany does not reinvent western fantasy: making Dwarves into politically scheming miners rather than just miners, making Elves downtrodden instead of not downtrodden; these things are hardly the epitome of new creative.
Second, they made it “dark” chiefly by spraying blood onto every surface. You kill a bunny and your entire party is drenched in gore for hours. Blood doesn’t make a story dark, and as frightening as the doom posited by Dragon Age, that tale doesn’t go the extra mile. It means well, and I mostly love Bioware’s games, but they’d have been better off being honest about Dragon Age: it’s a reimagination of very conventional fantasy, not something new.
To be fair Dragon Age’s only real failure was in how it billed itself. The Souls games, meanwhile, don’t bill themselves at all. What they are is what you’re able to uncover about them. And for me – for most, probably – you uncover the truth after the fact. In my case it was while doing research to finish my Diaries. What I found in much study demonstrated a level of nuance and subtlety that blew my mind and changed the way I looked at interactive fiction.
Let’s talk about it.
Listen: the nation of Lordran has become unstuck in time.
The game takes pains to point this out. In Lordran, the flow of time is distorted, it says. A major character warns you early on that “time itself is convoluted here, with heroes centuries old phasing in and out.” Things do not happen in order, it’s impossible to accurately chronicle events, and use of time becomes a stylistic tool rather than a structural one when speaking of Lordran’s history.
This distortion is what allows players to enter each other’s worlds. Every time you see the phantom of another player, it’s because your timeline and theirs have intersected; every time you summon help, or are summoned, or get invaded, or invade someone, you’re temporarily forcing two worlds together. Lordran’s history, and the events that shape it, follow the same chronology as a dream. It is not a single, cohesive reality; it’s a heap of broken images, all moving, always.
Given this it’s natural to mistake the plot’s apparent disorganization for a shortcoming rather than an intentional mechanism. That assumption would be wrong, though. Dark Souls has a lengthy, vibrant, comprehensive set of lore for the entire world. People come to Lordran from many other places: Oolacile, Vinheim, Catarina, Astora, Carim, Thorolund. The Ancient Country of Lords could be a parallel to Olympus of Greek mythology, a land where the Gods dwelt, but fallen into ruin. Its story isn’t written down but meted out in bits and pieces tossed haphazardly into a box and upended for you to sort through, a jigsaw puzzle with no guiding picture.
Said my brother Marcus via email:
…of course I’ve been following the Diaries. The last entry was desperately sad and wrenching… my reaction to the game has been entirely built on your experience; I have literally never seen it. And at first… it sounded like a fun hack-and-slash. Then… in these [later] entries, the narrative arc… is crushing.
…while I enjoyed the diaries immensely, the farther into the world you got, the farther behind you left the rest of us. In the beginning, even Mom could follow and enjoy. By the end here, you’re casually spinning a rich mythology that means nothing at all to me, and yet which clearly consumed you.
By the time I saw the corner, and the paint I’d used to trap myself there, it was too late to go back and fix the often grievously erroneous misapprehensions I had submitted as fact. What’s worse, though I’d always known that Dark Souls was a bleak game with little to lighten its somber tone, I honestly had no idea how bad things were really going to get. Keeping my narrative at least somewhat funny felt increasingly disingenuous the more I learned.
So I had two challenges: how to tell the truth (now that I knew it), and how to do so without totally reversing the mood I’d started with. To be honest, I didn’t solve either problem very well.
To the degree I was able, from Deaths 581 on I attempted to weave a sense of growing dread organically, on the logic that my character had up to that point elected to be blissfully ignorant on the plausible ground that his situation was so dire he’d willingly ignore certain warning signs. This was credible because Dark Souls’ structure allows for it; since it doesn’t directly reveal anything, everything is easy to whitewash. Moreover, Lordran is such a terrible place, where life and death alike are meaningless, where practically no one has your back, that I could reasonably argue some degree of head-in-the-sand-ism. I made an effort to write into my story a growing recognition that this viewpoint wasn’t going to be valid in the long run. My attempts at humor therefore progressively dwindled in the face of growing in-character doubt. By the end I relegated humor to saying “fuck” a lot more often, sort of the equivalent of someone clinging to the Titanic’s tilting deck and brightly proclaiming that he still has his health between episodes of whimpering and sobbing.
As to revelations of story and character, the best I could hope for was to toss in occasional comments demonstrating that I had at least a vague understanding of how it all fit together and pretend that the discrepancies versus earlier entries were more a matter of new information and thinking things through than just being incorrect the first time around. Even then I got an enormous amount wrong.
Coveting and Other Stuff Thou Shalt Not Do
The mythology and philosophy of Dark Souls are based in the twilight of things. In its predecessor Demon’s Souls, itself a pretty grim experience, a certain character again and again repeats the same line, like a mantra: “…that the world might be mended. That the world might be mended.”
When he finished Demon’s Souls, Xtal wrote in the forum, “it is done, the world is mended.” Here it’s fair to say the line is the same minus one letter. What’s one letter? In Dark Souls, “it is done, the world is ended.”
My naturally florid prose lends itself to writing an epic but ultimately incoherent explanation of the plot. I won’t. I want to but I won’t. I’m going to try to be Faulknerian with this:
Originally the world was simple; unformed. It was supported by gigantic Archtrees, and ruled by the Everlasting Dragons, great titans made of stone. Things had only one characteristic, and nothing ever created dichotomy. Then, for some reason, out of the blue, Fire came into the world… and Fire did bring dichotomy: heat and cold; light and dark.
In the Darkness, new things rose. And as they explored their surroundings they found something in the Fire: souls.
With the strength of Souls, these beings became Gods, and rose up and destroyed the Dragons, ending the Ancient Age and launching the Age of Fire. The Souls gave the Gods power. They did okay for a while but eventually the Fire on which they depended began to gutter.
The fire – the Fire – was special; it didn’t burn fuel, it burned Humanity, something quite different from a Soul. It was only found in human beings. The Gods weren’t Human, but they ruled, so they took Humanity from humans and burned it. This caused the humans to become Hollow; savage mindless undead useful for nothing, suitable only to be locked away in an asylum and there to await the end of the world. The humans had a patron god, but he’d disappeared before the Age of Fire even got started and didn’t come back to help them, not even now.
Some humans tried to fight back. They stole all the Humanity they could find to keep it from being burned. But the Gods found out and flooded their city, killing millions of innocents and locking the upstart covenant away. But still the Fire diminished.
If Fire went out, the Age of Dark would come, which the Gods feared because it meant their end. All that mattered to the Gods was perpetuating the Age of Fire, but some things are beyond even their power. Still, they tried. One of the first Gods tried to rekindle the Flame using her magic and her Soul, but the effort destroyed her. Nothing was working. The Ancient Age had ended; the Age of Fire was ending.
Desperate, the Gods and their friends picked out a human being and tried to trick him, believing that if a human willingly sacrificed himself to the Flame, betraying his own kind, it would rekindle and burn away all the humans at once, enough fuel for an eternity. All they had to do was convince a human to betray his own kind, to act as a sort of catalyst that would ignite and burn away every human being on earth. Obviously they couldn’t tell the truth, so they had to manipulate a human into thinking he was doing the right thing.
…Did they succeed? Sure. No. Well. Depends.
The flow of time is distorted in Lordran. What happens happens and doesn’t happen, then, now, later, never. I can only tell you what happened to me.
Dark Souls Diaries: Deaths 1,240-1,259
At the behest of Kingseeker Frampt, the Primordial Serpent and giant snake-dog thing who had advised me for so long, I gathered four Lord’s Souls – the first Souls, the ones that appeared in the Flames when the Gods rose.
At the behest of Kingseeker Frampt, I placed them in the Lordvessel, a great stone bowl that opened an ancient door beneath a lonely shrine. Through that door lay the Kiln of the First Flame, the place where Fire had come into the world, bringing disparity for the first time.
At the behest of Kingseeker Frampt, I went to link the First Flame, which he’d told me would perpetuate the Age of Fire. What he hadn’t told me was what else would happen… specifically, to humans, or to me. He’d also neglected to mention that while the Age of Fire sounds nice, it’s also the Age of the Gods… and while the Age of Dark sounds scary, it’s also the Age of Man. The Gods called human beings the “Dark Race;” something else old Frampt kept to himself.
“I admit,” Frampt said as the door to the Kiln creaked open, “I am fond of you humans. May you enjoy serendipity… and may the Age of Fire perpetuate!”
Shortly before my arrival on the scenetheflowoftimeisdistortedinLordran
At some point the king of of the Gods – Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight – ventured down to the Kiln of the First Flame himself, hoping to reignite it. Something similar had been tried before; one of his God friends, the Witch of Izalith, had tried to use her Soul Magic to reignite the fires. The spell she tried was so powerful that it required her to touch the Chaos, the freezing babbling nightmare that lurks beneath fire and earth, beyond the very universe. It was too much for her to control; instead of reigniting the First Flame, she unleashed the Chaos into the world. The Chaos annihilated her, it obliterated her city, it tainted her children, and it tore open a path between its place and the world. It unleashed the demons, and it distorted the flow of time in Lordran.
Cognizant of the risk, Gwyn tried. By all accounts he was slightly more successful than the Witch had been; the Fire did gain a little strength, though the resulting explosion shattered the Kiln of the First Flame and all the subterranean vastness around it, and of course blew him (spiritually) to smithereens. Where Gwyn, Lord of Sunlight had fallen, now rose Gwyn, Lord of Cinder.
He knew it would happen. If he fell into darkness, and a human then defeated him in his Lord of Cinder incarnation, the Age of Fire would perpetuate. So he and the other Gods, along with Kingseeker Frampt, conspired to fool me into thinking that if I went down there and destroyed Gwyn, then linked the First Flame, I’d assume his throne and it would be party time.
I fell for it hook, line, and sinker.
The Kiln of the First Flame is an ash-choked waste. Lurking around it are the last of Gwyn’s Thousand Faithful Knights, whose beautiful silver armor was blackened by the heat of the Kiln’s detonation. By this point Gwyn wanted me to reach him, but his knights must not have gotten that memo, because those bitches granted me no quarter. Black Knights have never been easy to fight, though by this point – decked out in a suit of unburned silver, pumped to level 114, hauling an arsenal on my back – they couldn’t hope to stand in my way. I cut through them like reeds, and at last, I stood before the Lord of Cinder himself.
WHO LIT ME UP.
Who is this guy? I hate him.
Is the 20-foot sword strictly necessary, Gwyn? You’re already a God, and four times my size. Oh, and I see it’s on fire, too. That’s a nice touch. Ass.
If you get too close to Gwyn he’ll grab you, lift you up, shove his sword into your tummy and out between your shoulder blades, then spin you around and disimpale you like a human atlatl bolt, shattering your body against the seared basalt of the Kiln. That happened a few times.
If you keep your distance from Gwyn he’ll leap forward, that horrible burning sword swinging across in an arc to bisect you at the pelvis. That also happened.
In the interest of leaving my diplomatic options open I also tried stopping mid-fight and saying (out loud, to my TV), “Hey Gwyn, I’m sorry about calling you an ass. Let’s hug this out, man.” That didn’t work either.
Back to YouTube! Though don’t take this fight as gospel; whoever recorded it is a steely-eyed player.
No real secrets or tricks to Gwyn. He’s just a really, really hard boss who attacks relentlessly, and against whom any mistake can be catastrophic. Presumably if you’ve made it this far you’ve got the skill to defeat him, but truth is I kind of bumbled my way through Dark Souls. I saw the way to defeating him, but my thumbs weren’t fast enough.
I’d wanted to do it alone. I suppose with time I could have, but in the end I summoned help. Don’t even remember the player’s name – began with an M, I think; one letter, mended versus ended. Together we brought him down.
Oddly, at almost the precise moment Gwyn, Lord of Cinder fell, my niece was born in a distant land, where the flow of time is not distorted, to my brother Marcus and his wife GG. His text tweetled on my iPhone just as VICTORY ACHIEVED whooshed across my screen.
That was the weekend anything could happen.
Dark Souls gives you nothing that you haven’t earned. I finished the game on March 2, long before the last sections of the Diaries were written, long before I knew what I know now about the game’s narrative. And in keeping with that, once Gwyn was gone and my summoned help’s world had disengaged from mine, there I stood at a perfectly innocuous-seeming binary option.
LINK THE FLAME? YES/NO
Not even a choice, really. Kingseeker Frampt had told me to link it, and he was my friend. Everything I’d been given to believe throughout over 100 hours of play had told me that fire was good and dark was bad. So I linked it.
And I burned, the human who’d done the unthinkable – betrayed and destroyed his own kind that this fading Age might perpetuate. It had happened once before, when Seath the Scaleless betrayed the Everlasting Dragons and helped the Gods bring them down, with similarly dire consequences for all involved.
I brought down Gwyn, Lord of Cinder; I ascended to his role as king. Admittedly my time as ruler (about eleven seconds) was somewhat shorter than I might have hoped , but then… the flow of time is distorted in Lordran.
A Chosen Undead Will Leave the Asylum in Pilgrimage
Two endings are available in Dark Souls, a “good” one and a “bad” one. Technically I got the bad one. What’s most shocking is that I would never have taken that path if I hadn’t been so absolutely misled. Looking back now I perceive so many clues I ignored or overlooked, clues right out there in the open, plain to see, if only I’d had the eyes to observe them and the mind to analyze them.
I trusted people who had no right to my trust; they tricked me. I had been elegantly and utterly fooled, because I was told very few (if any) actual lies. Instead, my manipulators took advantage of a core human weakness – the desire to not be alone in the world. All they ever told me was what I wanted to hear.
It is done, the world is ended.
I Don’t Know How these Martyrs Carry On
As to what I learned after the fact, when my understanding of and appreciation for Dark Souls (beyond merely appreciating a masterful piece of game design) truly blossomed, I owe the most to a prolific YouTube contributor called EpicNameBro. His hours of exhaustively reconstructed Dark Souls analysis are brilliant, researched and defended with lawyerly precision. While he freely admits that his conclusions are just his own, I could find no fault with them. If you’re curious, you owe it to yourself to see his work.
The two most popular Dark Souls Wikis – here and here – were indispensable to me, not only in finishing the game (something I’d never have done on my own; you may have heard… Dark Souls is difficult, and I’m nothing special) but in comprehending the depth of its lore and complexity.
I summoned countless players for help throughout my game, far too many to mention. One, who goes by the PSN handle Neewop, actually emailed me months after we’d defeated Chaos Witch Quelaag together, having found my Diaries while idly searching for himself on Google.
To be honest I’m a jaded old bastard. I work in video games and as much as I wish they affected me the way they did when I was a kid, they don’t. I know too much about how things work – how the industry works, how games work, how players work. But I can’t say “the wonder is gone.” Sometimes it seems to have gone, but then I find a game like Dark Souls, and I realize that the wonder’s still there, I just need to look a little harder for it.
Thus my most sincere thanks go to Game Director Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team at From Software, without whose splendulous, resplinsive, brillormous, glittstanding work, you all would have been saved a solid 50,000 words. All I’ve done is recite the story they created. Thanks to them for creating it and you all for staying with me.
There. It is done.
Tell Steerpike to quit being so wordy at email@example.com.