Burnout and the Future

So… this is what burnout feels like.

I’m almost now ready to submit the manuscript for my first academic monograph. It will have taken two months longer than anticipated, which was a great disappointment to me – it’s the only piece of academic work I’ve ever had to ask for an extension on. There were many factors at play there, some within my control, and some outside of my control, but the bottom line was that had I taken on less than I wound up taking on (and had the circumstances I was working within been different), I would have been able to get it submitted on time. Although I’m very happy with the final product, and I’m confident the work will be a valuable contribution to the study of unpredictability in games (of all its forms), I find myself reflecting specifically on the process by which the final parts of it – the crunch, if you will – were written. From around the start of March until the start of June, I can truthfully say I did effectively nothing with my spare moments except writing the book. All day on both days of every weekend was book writing; every evening was book-writing; every train journey and flight and coach trip was book writing. During this period I spent effectively no time with friends, no time exercising, and no time whatsoever doing any programming, much to my chagrin.

During this period, I began to experience for the first time what I believe is called “burnout” – my appetite dropped, I developed some anxiety (a deeply new experience for me), I developed some depression (similarly), and it felt at times as if there wasn’t really any point to what I was doing; that was I just speaking into the void because nobody else would read it; that I was letting everyone down by not working on URR (which I still feel quite acutely); and other feelings I’m not going to share here. Although certainly not the darkest time in my life, it has been, in many ways, a deeply unpleasant three months. Travelling a lot in this period helped me, and finding some times to engage with nature – whether meeting wild bison and wolves in the frozen tundra of Northern Canada or meeting wild tropical birds and lizards in the equatorial jungles of Hong Kong and Singapore – helped my mood a lot, but it only stemmed the bleeding, without addressing the underlying issues.

Academia, especially early-career academic before one secures a tenured faculty position, is notoriously stressful and time-consuming. One is always in competition with vast numbers of recent PhD graduates for a ludicrously small number of postdoctoral or junior faculty positions; one is constantly bombarded with requests and obligations and things that need to be done; one is strongly encouraged to submit only to top-tier journals, and yet doing so leaves one waiting for potentially years until publication, damaging one’s employability in the short term. The other crucial element of academia is that there is always more one can do. As academics, we don’t really have working hours, as such – just contracts that say we must “fulfil the expectations of the job”, or some equivalent language, using however many hours across however many days per week that takes. Many contracts even explicitly state we are expected to use evenings, weekends and holidays to meet those requirements where necessary – and that, assuming one wants to spend one’s academic career actually doing research, will always be true.

Up until now, I’ve always been able to field this and maintain the other things I want in my life, but in these last three months, I am not exaggerating when I say every spare moment has gone into the book. For the three months before that extreme compression of my time, almost every spare moment went into the book, and looking back, I can see my free time shrinking into a smaller and smaller gap with every passing day. Something inherently enjoyable – and I do enjoy academic work tremendously – quickly ceases to be enjoyable when it is something one must do, and when it is the only thing one is spending one’s time doing. Because of this the book became something of a chore, which itself made it harder to write, and which itself made it more of a chore, and made more painful my inability to spend my time on other things, and so forth. As a result of the stress leading up to and during the book-writing, I screwed up. I made two serious errors of judgement – one being a different but major piece of academic work I submitted, and another being a piece of work I submitted elsewhere. In both cases I made poor judgements about what I wrote, and over-estimated my knowledge of those domains, and was – quite appropriately – brought down a rung by those who do know those domains. They were both humbling experiences, which really brought home how much my judgement had been impaired by the stress of finishing the book.

But now, the book is basically finished, and I’m on my final visiting position of the year, having also just been offered an amazing new two-year postdoc opportunity in Canada where I will be able to drive my own research and make my own hours. However, as I sit here for now in a cafe in Nevada, trying to take stock of things, I realise that there are four things I must make time for, and a fifth change I need to make overall, from now, moving forward, no matter what, in order both to be the kind of academic I want to be, and to have the life I want beyond the academy.

Firstly, I need to make time again for programming, starting now. It’s something I enjoy tremendously, it’s creative work which forms a crucial balance to the intellectual work I make my income from, it’s something a lot of people are following and counting on me for, it’s something absolutely tethered to my online presence, and it’s something I simply deeply want to start doing again, and which gives me valuable balance in my life. It makes me deeply sad that I wasn’t able to get 0.8 out before I went into this period of total time compression and book-only-focus, and I want to put this right and get 0.8 released as fast as possible, and certainly before my new position starts later this year. Once 0.8 is out URR will be more than half-done, and psychologically, that’s an important marker I need to hit. Therefore, starting next weekend, I intend to devote a day per week to programming, no matter what else might be looming over me or might be requiring my attention. Either Saturday or Sunday each week, but probably I think Sunday, my intention is to always spend that day – as a minimum – programming. Despite the long hiatus, URR is not cancelled, but has certainly been on hiatus, and it’s finally time for that hiatus to properly, and truly, end.

Secondly, I need to make time again for fitness and exercise. I haven’t exercised once in the last three months, with the exception of hiking up and down Victoria Peak in Hong Kong and a couple of hikes in Alberta and Nevada. Normally I would exercise for at least an hour at least four or so days a week, but the book has simply dominated my time and my thought to such a degree that I’ve let this slip completely, down to zero. I can tell and feel that I’m less fit now, I’m less strong now, and less healthy now, and I don’t like it. It’s an unsettling and disturbing change from the state of being I’ve become used to, and I want to get back to my previous level of fitness as soon as possible. I’ve now managed to get this back to exercising twice a week, and hopefully I can push that back towards four as I decompress in the coming months. As I’m moving to Alberta, I’m keen to do lots of hiking there, too, and I have some interesting future travel plans which should also help with that.

Thirdly, I need to make time for a personal life. The fact that I am likely moving to a new country/city in a few months feels like a good time to make this kind of resolution – both to renew existing acquaintances in the UK and elsewhere, especially important now that I’m no longer in physical proximity to my friends in the UK, but also to go out there and find new friends and new colleagues. I’ve always been someone with a small group of close friends instead of a far wider social circle, but this, also, has shrunk to nothing in recent months, and my personal relationships have definitely suffered for it. I’m making amends to those I have unintentionally hurt, which I believe to be an important first step, and from this point onward I’m going to make a lot more time with friends and family in the coming months. It seems that the importance of this to one’s mental health only appears after it is lost, and that’s a lesson I don’t want to have to repeat again in the future.

Fourthly, I need to make time to actually play games. I got into game design and game scholarship and game writing and competitive game play because I love games; because I’ve played hundreds, probably thousands, and certainly own thousands; and I’ve been playing them since I was as young as I can remember. But I no longer find myself with the time to actually play any; in the last year I’ve played only two games for pleasure, which were Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3. Both were incredible experiences, but that’s only a fraction of the time I would normally spend playing games. Even in other periods of stress – such as when I was simultaneously finishing my PhD and dealing with a life-threatening illness – I still found far more time to play. It’s fun (most crucially), but it’s also important for my ability to be a good game designer and good games scholar. As such, my goal is now to at least double the number of major games I play each year for starters, and hopefully increase this number as time goes by. Right now, The Witness, Demon’s SoulsShadow of the Colossus, The BridgeAntichamber, and perhaps even returning to playing roguelikes all look very appealing, and that’s where I plan to start.

Fifthly, and lastly, I need to focus. Forgive the cliched phrase, but I now realise I need to work smarter, instead of working harder. I’ve been trying to be a game scholar, and a competitive game-player, and a game designer, and a game writer, and all the other things in my life outside games. This is just too much. As a result, I’ve decided to permanently “retire” any competitive gaming from my life. I want to really focus on scholarship/writing/coding, and in turn, to present myself specifically at the intersection of those three things. My background in poker remains a major informing element on my academic career – especially as I move toward studying gambling more seriously as a topic of study – but I think I’m spreading myself too thinly, both in terms of my effort, and in terms of how I appear. I want to focus in on my strengths, instead of trying to be everything, and do everything, when it comes to games.I think this will, without a doubt, be for the best, and strengthen my ability to work in my core domains without “distracting” myself with others.

As for the wider future, academia certainly remains my career path of choice. I take tremendous satisfaction from the unfolding of intellectual ideas on paper; I love travelling around the world to do research, to attend and present at conferences, to meet colleagues, and to experience new parts of this earth; I enjoy the freedom of working hours that academia (generally) gives one, even if that same freedom means working a lot of those hours, and the ability to largely work where and when I want. But these last three or four months have shown me what can happen when I take on too much – I make mistakes, and my ability to do anything else with my time beyond academia gets reduced down to a minimum, and then disappears altogether. This is not a “New Year’s” resolution, but this is certainly a mid-year resolution: I need to adjust my life back toward the kind of life I want to have, and I am confident this will have benefits both within and beyond my academic work. So with this written, and with this posted, I’m going to head to the gym in this hotel and work out for an hour, then head back to my hotel room and play something, anything, on Steam, then do some programming in the evening. The change starts now.

How Basic is Basic Gaming Literacy?

I’d like to start this entry with an anecdote, which outlines the basic issue I’m pondering far more effectively than an abstract discussion. A few years ago I found myself in the position of trying to teach someone who had never played a single video game in their life – and had extremely limited experience of board or card games – the very basics of video games. I chose Castle Crashers as an introductory game. I’m sure some of you will think that was a great choice for the reasons I did (fun, witty and amusing, easy to get into, not very challenging on the standard difficulty, simple mechanics), although I’m sure there are reasons why it would be a bad game compared to some others (if you had to choose a “first game”, which would you choose, and why?). Nevertheless: that was the one I went with, and even though something very strange happened, I remain fairly confident that it was a good choice.

So, maybe half an hour later and some way into the game, I noticed that my friend’s character was nearly dead. I said something along the lines of “You’re nearly dead, be careful, and I’ll finish off the enemies”, and they replied with “How can you tell?”. That surprised me just a little, but then I realized: ok, they haven’t connected the health bars at the top of the screen with their character’s status. Perfectly reasonable for a total video game novice. I said something like “Your health is at the top of the screen”, and they replied: “Ah, you mean that blue bar?”.

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Here is a screenshot of Castle Crashers. As you can see, each player has a health bar and a magic bar.

Now, hold on! Stop there, and just think. You just read that previous sentence, and that all made sense to you, didn’t it? You didn’t need to ask “which is which?”. You glanced at the screenshot, and it was obvious from the get-go that the red bar will naturally be health, and the blue bar – since this is a game of swords and sorcery – must, therefore, be magic. Were it something like Deus Ex, for example, you’d have probably thought that bar was something like “Energy”, right? Nobody needs to be told that the red is health and the blue is magic… and yet my friend didn’t know this.

Now, the friend in question is no idiot: far from it. But when this happened, I wasn’t even sure what to say for a few moments, and it almost felt as if I’d been bodily removed from the situation: it was as if we’d been reading a book, and I’d said “hey, look at this scene where the heroes go to the shop”, and they’d said “which scene?” and I’d said “this scene”, and pointed to the appropriate paragraph, and they’d said “ah, you mean the scene where Bob steps into the shower”. It was, for a brief moment, just inconceivable; I even briefly entertained the notion that they were joking. Again, I must stress: I wasn’t trying to be rude at the time when I think I then uttered a puzzled “No, it’s the red bar…”, and I’m not trying to insult this person here recounting the story; I’m trying to focus on the shock of this comment, and the fact that this person’s comment about the blue bar was entirely honest, and innocent, and just thought the blue bar must be their bar of health since (presumably, though I don’t recall exactly) it must have been very low. Naturally, had there also been a green bar, we as experienced game-players would instantly know that has to be a “Stamina” bar (what else could be a green bar be?!), but perhaps that would have been mistaken for the health bar instead (an example of a classical three-bar system would be Oblivion, as shown below, where the nature of each bar seems “obvious” to us even if we’ve never played the game).

Infra

In a manner of speaking, this event has been a major influence on my entire academic research agenda. It got me thinking about so much: how much gaming literacy do we take for granted? Why do we take these for granted? How have we all learned these assumptions? How can someone learn them for the first time, and can these even be learned without being explicitly told?

In trying to answer these questions I first came to think about the different sources of cultural assumptions in games. There are some aspects of games which speak of other games, and only other games, and never speak of books or films. By this I mean: once we’ve seen dragons in cinema, and read about dragons in literature, we can reasonably know what a dragon looks like in a game, and come to some fair conclusions about what kind of powers and abilities that dragon might possess. By contrast, nothing in literature or cinema prepares us for the health bar. Shakespeare never said that Mercutio and Tybalt wisely checked their health bars during their duel and adjusted their tactics accordingly; Michael never checked the DPS of his pistol before executing Sollozzo and McCluskey in the restaurant in the original Godfather. Health bars are only in games, so you have to play games and use health bars in order to learn how to use health bars in games… as it were. These things are reciprocally defined through one’s use of them and one’s knowledge of that they are, and both the embodied everyday experience of use, and the knowledge of certain norms and standards and games, mutually inform one another.

I feel now it is impossible for me (or any other gamer) to unlearn the ability to “read” a game based on these “obvious” assumptions, every bit as much as it seems impossible for me to forget how to read the English language. We can vaguely understand what it might be like to be illiterate by glancing at a language we do not understand (and ideally one with a script which is completely alien to us, so Arabic or Mandarin rather than French or German, speaking as a native English speaker with no other language knowledge), but that doesn’t really do it: we (as literate people) still have a model in our heads of how one reads, and we can try to pick out the gaps in symbols and identify words and phrases, we might be able to identify common words, or important terms via their capitalization or placement in a sentence, and so on and so forth (something that, one assumes, an illiterate person would not be able to do, regardless of what language or script is placed in front of them). I can look at a language I know nothing of and still draw some vague conclusions about how it might be read or structured, even if I couldn’t decipher a single word of it.

Increasingly, I also find myself thinking of these questions in terms of eSports. Many in the competitive and professional gaming world are keen to see eSports expanding onto “mainstream” TV rather than or alongside Twitch, but there’s definitely a literacy issue here. Someone who has never seen Tennis, for instance, can watch a match of Tennis and, within perhaps a minute, have a reasonable appreciation of the rules – hit the ball back and forth, don’t miss it, don’t let it bounce twice, don’t hit the net. By contrast, consider someone inexperienced watching a MOBA game. I own several thousand games, have played most of them, and have been playing since I was a toddler, but I’ve never actually played a MOBA myself, and when I watch one, I can barely make any sense of what’s taking place on screen. This question of game literacy strikes me as a crucial barrier to the growth of eSports into this kind of domain, and although systems like “spectator modes” do much to ease the transition for the inexperienced spectator, they certainly don’t go far enough. But how else might we raise the game literacy of the average spectator, without making such games simpler? Is that even possible? Watching some eSports games (like Counter-Strike) are relatively clear even if one misses the tactical nuance, but MOBA games are profoundly visually indecipherable. Game literacy strikes me as a fascinating topic as a whole, but in eSports, in some ways it reaches both its most extreme form (given the complexity of some games), and in some ways its most politically important form, as concerned as many eSports actors are with the expansion of the medium.

To answer the initial question in the title of this entry, I think there are two elements of game literacy that demand our attention. Firstly, the question of basic game literacy in the sense of the colours of bars and other questions of that sort; absolute, almost unquestioned, almost axiomatic norms that pass across multiple games, multiple genres, multiple eras, and which have reached a point of being taken-for-granted by most players and designers that they are never even considered. How do people learn those absolute basics, and how does the assumption that everyone knows those basics shape the experiences of new players? The other aspect, however, is a question of how much game literacy is required to understand the entirety (or at least enough to appreciate it) of one game, rather than concepts and ideas that cut across multiple games. This is surely an integral part of game broadcast as a whole, but has found a new importance with the push in eSports toward “mainstream” television, and in many ways is question is harder to answer. How would one convey the information about a MOBA to someone who doesn’t play? Can enough information even be conveyed? Will viewers hang around for long enough to get that information? There’s a growing body of academic work on game literacy, and it’s a fascinating domain; in some ways, however, I think the absolute foundations of this question (for all games, for one game) are where we want to start, understanding the precise processes by which this kind of information is acquired and learned – or, possibly, not.

Dark Souls 3 (3/3): Gimmick Bosses

This is now the final part of our three-part series looking in-depth at the recently-released Dark Souls 3 and its two DLC offerings, Ashes of Ariandel and The Ringed City. In our first part I looked a bit at the narrative ambition of Dark Souls 3, set in a world millennia in advance of the world of the original Dark Souls, and how cleverly and skilfully it took that world and extrapolated how it might look immeasurably far in the future; new forces have risen and fallen, but those forces have not come from nowhere, but are instead entirely grounded in the story and the world of the first game, and develop this amazing sense of long-term continuity between the two. In the second part we considered how Dark Souls 3 answered a number of the fundamental questions about the world that those us interested in the games’ lore have had since the very beginning, and how this both reinforced previous beliefs – e.g. that the Age of Fire and Gwyn might not be as benevolent as they first seemed – and offered the answers to entirely unanswered questions, such as the identity of Gwyn’s firstborn son. In this part I’d like to conclude this little series by thinking a little bit about the “gimmick bosses”, where they go well, where they go less well, and the glimmers of other kinds of bosses within the Soulsborne formula they showed – and then, sadly, didn’t really take to their full potential.

“Gimmick Bosses”

In this final part, I’d like to offer some thoughts on some of the “gimmick bosses” in the game. These were nowhere to be found in Dark Souls 1, nor in Bloodborne, but there were a small number in Dark Souls 3. By gimmick boss, I mean a boss where one doesn’t defeat it by ordinary means – i.e. dodging or blocking its attacks, responding with your own, not dying, and proceeding until the health of the boss is reduced to zero – but there is instead something special one has to do to defeat it. This could be a special item, something in the arena, and so forth. These are sometimes controversial, but also sometimes appreciated for the gameplay variety they can provide. The two DLCs have no bosses of this sort, but the main game has three bosses that fall into this category, which do a range of things well, a range of things poorly, and I think are interesting to take a look at. Relatively few games ever try to shake up the boss formula, and although I think these are semi-successful, the best of them do seem to point the way for ways to innovate the Souls boss formula (although the series is now over!), whilst the least successful seems nothing more than an arbitrary way to reduce the amount of development effort.

High Lord Wolnir

For almost all players, the first gimmick boss encountered will be the mass of fused skulls and skeletons known as High Lord Wolnir. Wolnir’s boss fight takes place in a dark, abyss-like area with somewhat unclear physical boundaries, although much of the boundary is created by Wolnir’s abilities and behaviours. Wolnir occupies much of the screen in front of the player, and carries a toxic cloud with him; as he moves towards the player (blocking off a large portion of the arena) the space the player can move in becomes severely restricted. He has a range of attacks, although none are especially challenging or fast, although when he climbs up the screen and spawns skeletons (one of his abilities), things certainly get a bit trickier. When the player attacks him normally, only a tiny fraction of Wolnir’s health is actually taken off; this is the case whether you hit his hand, a part of his ribcage-body, or even his head. However, you will note from the picture below he wears three glowing bracelets; two on one wrist, and one on the other. Each of these takes several hits, but when shattered, Wolnir is thrown backwards (opening up the arena a little more) and one third of his health is taken off. With all three bracelets destroyed, Wolnir’s health hits zero, he screams, and plummets down into the abyss (rather than “exploding” or disappearing like most bosses too, offering an interesting conclusion to what is already quite a different fight.

The issue with this fight, therefore, is that there’s a reasonably large jump from “no idea what to do” up to “I know what to do”, but then a tiny gap from “I know what to do” to “I’ve done it”. One might fight him for several minutes without doing any damage, and then upon finding out what to do, it is relatively trivial to destroy all the three bracelets. This is especially true when we keep in mind the fact that he recoils and remains briefly “stunned” each time a bracelet is shattered, allowing a player to quite rapidly hack through all three of them if they get into a good cycle. The problem I felt with this boss fight was that this temporal flow of damage – minutes of nothing, and then once you work out what to do, he’s dead moments later – turns this into a potentially rather unsatisfying battle. Equally, once you work out what to do, it’s quite trivial actually enacting it, and the acting of that solution feels somewhat trivial and perfunctory, as the main challenge comes from working out where Wolnir’s weak point is. However, I do think that attacking particular body parts – something slightly done in Soulsborne games before (and with tail cutting in DS1 for special weapons), but never with as extreme a difference between low-damage and massive-damage as this – is a potentially strong way to shake up the boss fight routine. I would have liked to have seen Wolnir potentially only exposing one bracelet at a time; or having periods where no bracelets are exposed; or having numerous other weakpoints; as a way to mix things up. Ultimately, I think Wolnir must be regarded as an interesting attempt to shake-up the traditional Souls formula, but one which is non-trivial to solve, but utterly trivial to execute once solved.

Ancient Wyvern

Later on, in an optional area, the player might encounter the Ancient Wyvern boss. Upon stepping through a door, the wyvern lands, and the boss fight begins. It doesn’t instantly attack, so I think most players would sprint forward and try to land one initial hit, only to find that the damage dealt is worryingly low. Since one’s weapons seem so ineffective in direct combat, it is immediately apparent that there is some trick to this boss fight – until one reads one of the developer messages on the floor, which instantly gives the game away, and tells the player to perform a plunging attack. At this point it is obvious that one needs to climb up this arena – for this boss arena is more like a complex and extensive set of rooms, corridors and bridges than an “arena” (it is very akin to the Krauser bossfight in Resident Evil 4), and there are several areas high up which might allow the player to perform a successful plunging attack on the Wyvern’s head. Moving through the arena is a fun and interesting challenge, especially as the Wyvern moves and prepositions itself to attack you in various ways depending on which part of the arena you move to – although I think the wyvern actually could be more aggressive here, since the size of the creature makes it harder for it to respond rapidly to the player’s changing location. I found this to be a really compelling and dramatic moment of the game, heightened both by the threat of the boss itself, and the power of the enemies occupying the arena and standing between you, and climbing to the top of the arena to perform a plunging attack. However, once you got to the top and you drop onto its head, the fight ends; a single hit is sufficient, the Ancient Wyvern is slain, and the boss fight is completed.

In most ways, I think this is a far stronger “gimmick” boss fight than Wolnir is. However, I think there are two fundamental problems here, in some ways similar to the problems with the Wolnir fight. Firstly, why did From Software feel the need to immediately give the game away? This is so far below their traditional subtlety. Consider the same boss fight with a slightly different system of conveying information. We enter the fog, see the wyvern, attack it, do minimal damage. We note the statues of someone who looks remarkably like a famous dragonslayer from Dark Souls 1 dotted around the place. We realise we need to run from the wyvern and find something to tackle it with, so we start exploring the area. This could then play out two ways. Either the player climbs all the way to the top of the scaffolding and plunges off, killing the wyvern, figuring that strategy out entirely for themselves, by noting both a) the presence of something which looks almost build to be jumped off, and b) the fact that the wyvern struggles to attack you when you’re up there. Alternatively, perhaps in one of the many rooms in this complex and multi-layered boss area, we could simply have a statue of a dragon being felled by a single blow to the top of its head; or a painting; or perhaps an item can be picked up in the arena that mentions, purely in passing, perhaps a “famous kill” of an ancient dragon performed by a knight of Gwyn that leap ontop its head, and dealt the final blow. These would all have achieved the same goal, but would have done so in far more subtle, and less immersion-breaking, ways. As such, I think the fight itself is an exciting and interesting change; but DS3 gives the game away the minute you start the boss fight, instead of getting the player to think a little and do what they normally do to understand a Soulsborne game – paying attention to the environment. 

Equally, I think changing this boss fight from a one-hit kill, to a three-or-four hit kill, would also have been much more exciting. Consider the same kind of arena, but split into three distinct areas; you make it through the first third, do a plunging attack, one-third of its damage is dealt; then you go into the second area, do another plunging attack, the second-third is taking off; then you go through the longest and trickiest part of the arena, and perform a final plunging attack which finishes the boss off. This would lengthen the amount of actual gameplay challenge which takes place after solving the puzzle; give a more interesting rhythm to the fight, which as it stands ends very suddenly; and by not telling players what to do but giving them a small initial area to explore and figure out the solution, would also solve the first problem at least in part by encouraging player experimentation, instead of explaining things up-front to the player. Nevertheless, I think this is the best gimmick fight in the game: the interplay between the arena, the Wyvern and the other elements is very rich, although sadly too short and too binary, and dividing this fight into different parts – and got giving the mystery away up-front – could have actually transformed into a brilliant boss fight.

Yhorm the Giant

Now we shift from the best gimmick boss – albeit, again, one which didn’t take full advantage of the idea, and could have done a lot more with it – to what was, without doubt, the most flawed gimmick boss of the game. Although the overwhelming majority of all players will encounter this boss before the Ancient Wyvern, I wanted to talk about this “gimmick boss” after rather than before the Wyvern. The Wyvern is an example of a gimmick boss which has a great concept, and is well executed, but simply gives the game away too easily (though if we wanted to nitpick, I think the wyvern should be more aggressive towards the player and respond more rapidly as the player progresses through the “maze” of the arena). By contrast, unfortunately, Yhorm the Giant is an utterly trivial and uninteresting gimmick fight, which transforms what could have been a great boss – he looks impressive, the music is great, the arena is great, and with a little more speed or some larger hitboxes his attacks could actually be challenging – into something that simply takes up time.

Yhorm is a boss encountered probably towards the end of the mid-game, or the start of the end-game, depending on how one wants to look at it. Yhorm, as one might expect, is a giant, and wields a tremendous cleaver as his weapon. When the first begins, he storms towards you, and swings his weapon down; you dodge, roll past, attack him… and do only the tiniest amount of damage. This helps you realise this is another gimmick fight, but it’s far less clear what to do here. Where Wolnir had glowing bracelets – obvious in hindsight as signifying his weakness – Yhorm has nothing of the sort; where the Ancient Wyvern has a massively complex arena which invites the player to climb, ascend, and evade its blows until finding a solution, Yhorm’s arena is basically a rectangle, without any distinguishing features. However, up at the front of the arena there is an item on the ground; collecting it, you find a special sword. This sword is the only thing that can hurt Yhorm; it must be “charged up” for several seconds, then unleashed on Yhorm. He is sufficiently staggered by each blow that, to an ever greater extent than Wolnir, one can just put together these attacks and defeat Yhorm within moments.

In Wolnir, the gimmick boss element was a part of his physical structure – and we later find out, his lore – and required some figuring-out, even if the boss fight was trivialised afterwards. In the Ancient Wyvern, the gimmick boss element was woven into a deeply complex and multi-layered boss arena ,and the behaviour of that boss within that arena, even if the fight would have been improved by needing several attacks on the Wyvern, rather than merely one. In this case, however, I see no reason why this couldn’t have simply been a traditional boss fight. Yhorm has a range of attacks (although some are strangely trivial) and even powers up as the fight goes on – although given the strength of the special weapon, it doesn’t really make a difference. There isn’t really any lore impact to the use of this special weapon; I’ve seen extensive discussions about the meaning of the cryptic tree-related description of the weapon, but although there are some interesting conflations of people and trees in the Souls series, there doesn’t seem to be any deeper impact here; and, indeed, the area Yhorm is in feels like the most quickly-put-together part of the game world. The gimmick to Yhorm’s fight therefore only really denies the player what could, and I think should, have been an otherwise exciting boss – and I think it’s very hard to see why this was turned into a gimmick fight.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I think the gimmick boss attempts in Dark Souls 3 are interesting enough – at least, Wolnir and the Wyvern are – that I’m pleased they found their way in. Although neither one was perfect, and I’ve outlined a few ideas here which would definitely have improved both of those boss fights, they were still an interesting contrast to the usual boss fight fare, although both lost a lot of their interest once the solution was apparent (or given to you). Wolnir is a nice idea, but should have been longer, with more space between destroying bracelets, and therefore making the enacting of the solution much less trivial to complete. The Wyvern is certainly the best of the bunch, but again, only has a single “hurrah” once you know what to do, which you are immediately told; this fight is thrilling whilst it lasts, but could have been so much more. Yhorm’s fight is certainly the worst of the bunch, and I really see no compelling narrative or mechanical reason for making this into a gimmick fight. Overall, I’m glad these boss fights were in there, and showed the potential for some interesting iterations on the genre; but they all certainly feel short of their potential. Naturally, I have no more idea than anyone else what From Software are working on next, but if whatever it is has bosses in them, and it resembles Souls in any way, I’d love to see them develop these ideas a little further – just don’t have these gimmick bosses into binary unsolved/defeated puzzles, introduce gimmicks where they are interesting and meaningful, and develop the ideas as fully as everything else in Soulsborne games tends to be.

Dark Souls 3 (2/3): Answering Old Questions

Last week we started a three-part series considering the recent Dark Souls 3 and its two Downloadable Content offerings, and particularly an analysis of three elements which struck me as particularly interesting: the narrative ambition of the game and how it tells a story that stretches across millennia (both in conversation with the original game, and building entirely new narrative ideas); how this third and final game in the series answered questions from the original game, tying the two together closely (the focus of this entry); and, next week, the existence of “gimmick bosses” in the game and what the game’s design did well, and somewhat less well, in its attempts to implement bosses that were different and potentially more interesting than the standard dance of attack and defence until a boss’ health bar is depleted.

So, this week, we’re going to look at how Dark Souls 3 answers some of the old questions from Dark Souls 1. I think this is both interesting from the perspective of the series’ storylines per se, as these both shed new light on previous lore and develop new lore, but also because it highlights the kind of storytelling and player engagement which is possible when one has a long series in which to explore the stories you want to tell. I should stress, I’m not saying everything revealed in DS3 was planned all the way back in DS1 – although perhaps it was, but we’ll probably never know! – but rather that the Souls style of storytelling allowed for this kind of long-term narrative development, and that there is much to be said in favour of games which don’t tell all in their first story, but leave mysteries open for communities to coalesce around. Although the Souls games are known for their obtuse storytelling, something many enjoy, I haven’t heard anyone complain about DS3 taking away too much of the mystery from DS1 – to me, I think this shows that we do want resolutions, even if we enjoy the storytelling style, and DS3 got this balance just right. Spoilers abound.

Answering Old Questions

Gwyn’s Firstborn

One of the central questions in the first game was the identity of the firstborn son of Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight who ushered in the first age of fire we play through in the original game, and who was shunned by Gwyn for a great mistake of some sort. Many suspected with was “Solaire”, a knight we encounter early in the game and whose storyline plays out gradually across almost the entire quest, and who can even take part in the final battle with Gwyn if kept alive through an extremely obscure and challenging final quest segment. There was substantial evidence: most obviously, he was male, a knight obsessed with the sun, and one seeking his “own sun”. When first encountered, he states the sun resembles a “magnificent father” – Gwyn? – and, despite his very basic armour, seems to possess impressive fighting skills and a commendable ability to navigate a deadly in-game world. Until recently many assumed Solaire was Gwyn’s firstborn, who had somehow lost his memory (or had his memory taken by Gwyn when he was banished), and that his quest reflected his desire to reconnect with that same father, and explained his obsession with the sun, and his impressive fighting abilities.

However, with Dark Souls 3 it became apparent that Solaire was nothing more than a brave knight who worshipped the sun. Instead, with tremendous aplomb, an entirely optional boss-fight in Dark Souls 3 in a well-hidden optional area gave us an answer: his firstborn had chosen to side against his own father and the age he sought to create, had aligned with the “everlasting dragons”, and still existed even this far in the future. Upon ascending to the top of the beautifully designed Archdragon Peak, the player comes face to face with the King of Storms – Gwyn’s firstborn riding atop a dragon-esque creature of some sort, which appears to be the creature called the King of Storms – followed by a second boss fight called the Nameless King, which is Gwyn’s firstborn himself. Aesthetically reminiscent of his father, but with his own distinct style and even a weapon which itself has some storytelling significance, the Nameless King is certainly the most challenging battle of the main game of DS3. This was a tremendous reveal well-worth the wait, and depicted through a hugely enjoyable, epic and challenging battle, and one which gave us an enjoyable counterpoint to the betrayal of Seath, a dragon, in the original game. Where one dragon had sided with the Age of Fire, so too had someone who should have been an exemplar warrior of the Age of Fire come to side with the dragons that were all but defeated.

The reveal of the Nameless King was met, rightly so, with significant acclaim by lore-aficionados in the Souls world (as far as I can tell). His presence answered one of the oldest questions in the Souls world, and did so in such a way as to cause us to think back to the first game and significantly adjust what we believed to be true; not just is the status of Solaire changed, but we must now treat the world of Souls 1 as having the Nameless King in it, somewhere. As above, I don’t believe it really matters whether or not this story element was known when the original game was made; the way worldbuilding is conveyed in these games allows for so much to take place behind-the-scenes that it is far from a difficult mental leap to insert him into the older game, acting (or resting?) out of sight. Equally, even his weapon served as a meaningful lore element – somewhere between a traditional sword and the spear wielded by Ornstein, the aesthetics of the weapon themselves shed more light on the earliest days of the Souls world and the allegiances of some of its most visible characters. As such, we now finally know who should stand on that final pedestal in Anor Londo – not a brave but perhaps naive night from the kingdom of Astora, but rather one who turned against his father, allied himself with the dragons, and managed to endure the vicissitudes of time and a changing world all the way until our encounter with him, and the dragon he tamed, towards the end of Dark Souls 3.

The Darksign and the Age of Fire

I want to now look at the revelations from the second DLC regarding the “Darksign”, the Age of Fire, and how new information from the game has helped us reposition even more than ever before the story of the original game, and our understanding of the great powers and overarching narrative of the Soulsverse. In Dark Souls 1, one of the most mysterious story elements and one with the least explanation was the “Darksign”. In a gameplay sense, this allowed players to return to their most recent bonfire, but at the cost of sacrificing all their souls and acquired humanity. In a lore sense, the Darksign was the physical representation and marker of the “undead curse”, marked an undead who would eventually go “hollow” (lose their minds entirely), but we didn’t have much else beyond that. Where did it come from, and why is it there, and what is its relationship to the other “cosmic” lore elements – the fire, the dark, the linking of the fire, the relationship between humans, undead and hollows, and so forth?

The second element from Dark Souls 1 we need to think about is the “Age of Fire”. The first game takes place at the end of the first (and thus far only) age of fire; this age was created after the defeat of the dragons by the four lords including Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight. However, the “fire” of civilization began to fade, and to preserve it, Gwyn sacrificed himself to “link the fire”, ensuring that the age of fire would continue for millenia further, but not indefinitely, as even one of his power and with a Soul as powerful as his would not endure indefinitely. At first glance, the age of fire appears to be a tremendously desirable thing: on its back the great architectures of the first game have been constructed, “civilization” has arisen in this world which was previously an unchanging grey void, and so forth. We see some of the great artistic works of this world, we see how far and wide these things have spread, and so forth. Almost every NPC we encounter, especially some of the most important ones, speak to the importance of preserving this state of affairs, linking the fire once more in order to continue the age of fire and – this is my personal understanding of the Souls universe – “recharge” the universe through the sacrifice of another incredible Soul; this is the Chosen Undead, the player. However, there are a few minor hints all might not be as it seems. For all its “nation-building”, the age of fire and the bonfires that link it seem to support a lack of change, a safety bordering on stagnation, and the clear rule of certain classes and peoples over others; those who support the “dark”, the anathema to the age of fire, seem at first twisted and deformed, but also seem to offer an opportunity for freedom, for change, and for the evolution of this world.

Now, keeping both of those elements in mind, let’s look at the Dark Souls 3. The first Dark Souls 3 DLC has relatively little relevance to the lore of the overall Dark Souls series – it depicts a contained ecosystem within a painting, of the sort we previously saw in Dark Souls 1 through the Painted World of Ariamis region. This was an optional area the player was able to enter after being pulled into a painting of a bleak and snowy world; supposedly a home for outcasts, misfits and creatures which don’t belong anywhere else, this was always one of my favourite areas of the game, and without doubt one of the most challenging for players. In the first DLC of Dark Souls 3, the player explores the Painted World of Ariandel – which appears to be a different painted world, not necessarily the same painted world millennia in the future, although this is unclear. During our exploration of this world, we come across an unnamed young woman, which Souls fans have taken to calling “The Painter” – some think she might be “Ariamis”, though this theory is not explicitly supported. After freeing the painter from confinement, she sets about painting a new world, one for which “Slave Knight Gael” – whom she calls uncle, but this might be an endearment, not a literal biological relation – is seeking the perfect pigment for. This pigment, however, is quite unusual. “I do hope uncle Gael has found it”, she whispers to the player. “The dark soul of man…”

In the Ringed City we then find ourselves pursuing, or at least following in the footsteps of, Gael as he seeks out the original dark soul. From the first game, we know the Dark Soul is quite unlike the others; it was seemingly split into millions, maybe billions of parts, and each human carries a little of it within themselves, known as the item called “Humanity” in DS1 (noticeably absent from later games). We begin in an area known as the “Dreg Heap”, which appears to be far in the future right at the end of the present cycle, where all lands have been pushed together into this chaotic heap of warped architecture, patrolled strange, deformed, angelic creatures. We make our way through here, exploring the small hints Gael has left behind, apparently beckoning us onward; eventually, we find ourselves at the edge of a cliff, from which we might be transported to the fabled Ringed City, which we are told lies somewhere “at world’s end”, perhaps outside or beyond the standard confines of the Souls world we have always moved in before now (although areas like the Abyss and the Painting make the precise cosmological boundaries of the Soulsverse less clear than they might otherwise be).

Once helped down from that cliff by a pair of demons who escort us and then fly off, we then find ourselves in the Ringed City itself. At first glance the Ringed City appears to be a stunning architectural achievement – which is puzzling, given the compression of the other lands at the end of this age of fire we see in the earlier parts of the DLC around the “Dreg Heap”. Whilst all the other areas of the DLC seen previously are in a state of terrible decay, with buildings at all kinds of angles, decayed and destroyed, the Ringed City appears to have been unaffected by the closing of the Age of Fire. No buildings are in ruins, there – from what we can see from the top of the city – doesn’t appear to be any real signs of damage or other problems. One thinks perhaps this is because it lies somehow outside or beyond the rest of the world, much like the Painted World’s clearly exist in their own little “pocket dimension” – or perhaps a more sinister deceit is at play. One is perhaps reminded of Anor Londo from the first Dark Souls, which at first appears to be a home for the gods and as resplendent as it ever was (albeit now deserted), but which, if the player takes a particular path, is revealed as being an illusion of a cold, dark, and very dead place, which the gods have long-ago abandoned. The Ringed City, at first glance, has something of the same sunlight glow to it.

However, in lore terms things get really interesting when we find more about the city. We are told of warriors with parts of the Dark Soul, whose contributions to the great war at the start of the series (the introduction from DS1) were never recognised; we see knights bearing something akin to the Dark Sign, a ring of fire enclosing a circle of dark; we then get to the end of the Ringed City, where we encounter a sleeping princess – supposedly a daughter of Gwyn – who is cradling some kind of egg, or shell. When we touch the shell, the screen is filled with blinding light; when the light disappears, she is dead and intensely aged, and the world outside has been reduced to endless grey dust, stretching as far as the eye can see, with only a few spires of the past civilisation to be seen. It becomes apparent that previous version of the Ringed City was, indeed, an illusion; or possibly a city frozen in time, and what we now see is the far-future of the Ringed City, rather than its “real” form. This, as with much in Souls, is unclear and obscure, but it is clear that Gwyn’s slumbering daughter served to keep the Ringed City either existing, or seeming to exist, in one form; but behind or beyond that perfect image still lies ruin and desolation. As we explore this bleak (and quite beautiful) wasteland, we find someone crawling toward us; one of the “pygmy lords” who inherited the dark soul. He has been mauled, and is close to death: “The Red-Hood is come…” he gasps; “come to eat our Dark Soul…”. We advance further, and come face to face with Gael, now strangely mutated and busy eating another pygmy lord; he demands our dark soul, and we enter battle. After the battle, we collect a portion of the Dark Soul, presumably the portion that Gael himself had consumed from the pygmy lords. From what we can tell, the pygmy lords had some kind of rule here, but in or behind a city that was an illusion, manned by soldiers who bear the Darksign and seemingly never leave that city, and who faught alongside Gwyn in the earliest days…

The Darksign (and the illusion of the city) we now learn, appears to have been something Gwyn placed upon the pygymies and those who bore the Dark Soul, in order to contain them. We already know from Dark Souls 1 that Gwyn “trembled” at the threat of the Dark (or what we saw as being that threat); we know he did much to fight against and contain the Dark; and here we discover the strongest example of that. He offered a city to the pygymies, but it seems to have been a double-edged sword, designed to keep them contained to that one city; in turn, the darksign – a ring of fire enclosing darkness – functioned to curse humans who lived beyond the ringed city, tying them to Gwyn’s notion of civilization, progress, and stability. The original game previously used the term “branded” for those with the Darksign. Until now, this was taken as being a term which only means “those who have” or “those unlucky enough to have”, but with the knowledge of DS3, this takes on a very new meaning. Those branded with the Darksign were branded with it deliberately, specifically, in order to reduce, contain, and mitigate the power of the dark soul. It was a branding of punishment; a branding designed to mark out one group without power from the group holding the power.

This, in turn, sheds greater light on the Age of Fire. Those who believed the words of Kaathe in the original game suspected that Gwyn wasn’t quite the benevolent ruler we suspected, and that he is presented as, but rather that the age of fire itself might not be a desirable thing, and that Gwyn stepped over the other factions in the world in his pursuit of victory and constructing a civilization on the back of that victory. This basically confirms that theory: with both the original Dark Souls 3, and what we learn in the DLC, it is increasingly clear that Gwyn is, in some ways, the villain of the entire Souls piece – he created and prolonged the Age of Fire with its unchanging stability, contained and repressed the pygmy lords and the Dark Soul, sacrificed some of his children, and more. In the original game it seemed that there were one, or perhaps two villains: “entropy” (for lack of a better term), which is to say the fading of the fire, and Manus, the Four Kings, and/or the abyss and the dark more generally. Some back in that era postulated that this might not be truly the case, and perhaps fire/light are not as morally upstanding as they seem; but for me, this DLC confirms it, and further develops existing Dark Souls ideas about the importance of the power to shape history, to shape the narrative, to shape ideology and discourse, and that Gwyn and the Age of Fire are certainly not quite as benevolent as we once thought.

Lastly, there are clearly many meanings to the ringed city. Most obviously and topographically, it is a city enclosed by a ring of cliff, a striking combination of geography and architecture of the sort common to Dark Souls, although still very distinctive and very different. However, it is also a ringed city in two other ways. In the second sense, it is a “city of the ringed”: a city of people with the ringed darksign, a city defined by the fact that everyone there has been “ringed” by Gwyn and had their Dark Souls contained and controlled, and so forth. At the same time, the entire city has been ringed in the sense of being surrounded by an illusion, or some kind of temporal lock, or something which keeps them out of the real world and limits them to only controlling their small fiefdom. The Ringed City is a clever name, and with the entire city echoing the shape of the darksign, and reinforcing the imprisonment of all those who dwell there now, and did so in the past.

Final Thoughts

One of the greatest strengths of Dark Souls 3, and its DLC offerings, was to answer questions posed by the original game. Of course, they did this in the traditional storytelling manner of the Souls series, but they give a tremendous sense of closure, and a feeling of knowing far more about the game world than we did before, whilst still having to decipher these elements and fit them together with everything we learned in both DS1 and DS3. It gave us new information about old theories, and answered old questions outright, but never did so in a transparent way, of course; it was interesting to see almost immediately after the Ringed City was out, I noticed quite a lot of forum threads complaining about it being quite a flat conclusion to the series, which then gradually gave way, as lore was more fully understood, to a more positive appraisal. (I realise some of this was also to do with the gameplay ending after Gael as well as the lore importance, but nevertheless, I think this trend took place). With the lore of the DLC well-understood at this point, and its relationship to the wider series well-understood, I think we should look on Dark Souls 3’s answering of some of the series’ deepest mysteries, but doing so in a deep, complex, and fascinating way, as one of it’s most significant strengths.

Dark Souls 3 (1/3): Narrative Ambition

Having just concluded my playthrough of the Ringed City DLC for Dark Souls 3, I have exhausted all the Miyazaki-directed Soulsborne content there has ever been – and, according to the reports coming out of From Software, all such content there will ever be. As I’m sure everyone who reads this blog knows, I am something of a fan of the Soulsborne series. Aside from the superb gameplay, the fascinatingly weird lore and stories being told, and the truly beautiful aesthetics across everything from environments and buildings to enemies and items, their commitment to intricate worldbuilding remains a major inspiration for me in the construction of URR’s world. They inform how I think about the effects I want the underlying PCG systems to have on the player, primarily through the creation of a world that shouldn’t feel too much like a video game world, but like a space where a tremendous amount of things are taking place, and have taken place, but might have happened off-screen, or might be happening now but in another part of the world, and so forth. In the process, this means ensuring such a high level of detail that one can interrogate the world however deeply one wants, and still find detail and the minutiae of culture and history to reward the player’s interest; as one would in the real world.

Therefore, for the next three weekends, as I continue slowly working on conversation variables for URR’s long-time-coming and (I hope!) long-awaited 0.8 release in the spare moments between finishing off my first book, I’d like to give some of my thoughts on Dark Souls 3, the many many things it does right (and the tiny number of things it does wrong). All these entries have been already written, and therefore – for the first time in some time! – I’ll be able to ensure a regular and consistent set of updates within a series, whilst I continue working on 0.8 in my spare time, and crunching on finishing my book in my “main” working time. In terms of DS3, I’m particularly interested in the kinds of stories it tells, the questions it answers from the original game, and the experimental bosses it trialled with both success and, sadly, failure. Naturally, spoilers abound – Soulsborne games are best played when one knows nothing about them, so if you intend to play DS3 and care about the worldbuilding, lore or story in any meaningful sense, then I would suggest turning away now, and coming back next time when another URRpdate should, hopefully, be ready for your perusal.

Otherwise, this week (spoilers abound), we begin with…

Narrative Ambition

The first thing that stuck out to me, and which I think is particularly worth talking about here, is the narrative ambition of Dark Souls 3. Now, Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls 1 and Bloodborne have not exactly told small, modest stories; they have always been concerned with the rise and fall of civilisations, the (generally unseen and obscure) factions, powers, creatures and gods who control those civilisations, and (as I hope to talk about in greater detail in some future writing) the cycles and historical contingencies/regularities within these worlds. However, Dark Souls 3 goes one step further. Although I recognise Dark Souls 2 was (nominally) set in the same world as Dark Souls 1, it barely feels like it; the only references back to DS1 come in transparent fan-service, rather than any meaningful or deep engagement with the world produced in the original game, which are now seeing thousands or tens of thousands of years in the future. Dark Souls 3, by contrast, takes on the immense narrative/thematic challenge of looking at a world a vast length of time in the future from when the player last saw it, and “playing out” the conflicts and questions we saw in the original game to their conclusions, and simultaneously telling both its own story, and telling a story deeply rooted in the original game.

Dark Souls 3 makes it clear one is living in the same world as the original game, but moved on thousands of years. One segment in the game in particular made this especially clear; climbing to the top of a great architectural conurbation, the player finds themselves approaching a rotating stone lift, of the sort that ferried players upward in Anor Londo, without doubt one of the most iconic and well-known parts of the original Dark Souls. Upon ascending that lift – and all the time wondering “hang on, is this…?” – the player is then greeted with the site of the cathedral from the original game, and the name Anor Londo appears on-screen. This site of so much of the drama and lore importance from the original game has survived the ages, but it has not survived unchanged; the inside of the cathedral is ruined and decrepit, broken down and rotting, and inhabited by worshippers of “the deep” and a grotesque spider-like creature of the Abyss.

This reflection on what the world of Dark Souls 1 might look like millennia later is continued, and in my view presented wonderfully, when one reaches the centre of the cathedral. In the original game, one fought Ornstein and Smough, committed defenders of the existing order of gods and the false illusion of light and safety holding sway over the city. Here, instead, we enter a room with ruined pillars, sludge running across the floor, and a boss – Aldrich, the Saint of the Deep – who has apparently consumed one of the old gods, Gwyndolin. In Dark Souls 1, we are given the option of killing Gwyndolin (if one finds out how to gain access to that boss fight, and then decides to actually initiate the boss fight) but Dark Souls 3 assumes we did not – but after we left him alone, another creature came along and actually consumed him, in the process leading to the downfall of the old gods more fully than anything the player achieved in the original game, and the corruption of Anor Londo into something very, very different. For me, this was one of the most compelling moment of the game – the idea of a character from the original game being killed off-screen reinforces the common feeling of Soulsborne games as being within a living, changing world, but the consumption of the character left a troubling and unpleasant feeling, and one which really highlighted how little power the original gods/royalty hold in the world, that new powers have arisen, and that the world will continue to spin on without them.

There is a tremendous range of other examples I could draw on here to further this point, but I’d like to particularly focus on three. Firstly, in Dark Souls 3 we encounter a number of scholars who have been studying the ancient history of the world, and in doing so have come to influence some of those who might otherwise be expected to link the fire and preserve the existing world. Most wonderfully, one item description mentions that some actually doubt the linking of the fire ever happened. This is the act which maintained the ongoing age of fire for the first time, and required Gwyn to sacrifice himself in order to keep this age he created – and as we learned in the DLC, he created through even less pleasant means than we first thought. Indeed, this is the event we see in the introductory cutscene of the original game, and on which the entire series is based! But now, millennia in the future, we discover that some don’t believe this ever actually happened, and are basing religious beliefs on the back of this, as well as potentially influencing the shape and fate of the entire world. I loved this as yet another Soulsborne example of how history shifts over time, how accepted history is not necessarily a recording of the absolute truth, and that new ideological and intellectual currents can upset and shift what was previously taken for granted.

Secondly, I was struck by the continued, yet quite puzzling, presence of the Primordial Serpents. In Dark Souls 1, as I’m sure many of you remember, the player would ordinarily encounter a strange, giant, leathery creature known as Kingseeker Frampt – or at least, the upper part of Frampt’s unseen body. If one took a far harder and less-likely route through the game, the player would instead encounter Darkstalker Kaathe. It became apparent the two serpents opposed one another, with Frampt wishing to preserve the fire, and Kaathe wishing to usher in an age of dark. Their motivations were central to lore speculation in the original game, especially when considered in light of the other clues the game offered. For example, the game also featured a shield portraying two serpents joined together into one two-headed serpent (many thought this might imply they are two parts of the same creature, instead of two creatures of the same kind), a range of items whose descriptions shed a little bit of hints on the relationships between “serpents” and “dragons” and other creatures of a generally serpentine/draconic sort, and so forth. Nevertheless, in Dark Souls 3 the serpents are nowhere to be seen, but there is a ranged of fascinating clues about their continued presence. In Lothric Castle we find statues of one of the serpents transformed into an “angel”, complete with wings (but did they always have those wings unseen?); in the chapel where we fight Friede and Father Ariandel there is a fascinating mural showing black-robed individuals slaying two serpents; in the Ringed City we see other serpent statues, displaying a truly bizarre body more reminiscent of medieval bestiaries than anything else. The lore implications of these are beyond the scope of this piece (although some Googling will assist), but much like the above example, we seem to see the serpents still being important behind the scenes, the world changing and developing beyond what we saw in Dark Souls 1, and these are all sets of references that only make complete sense to those with a strong knowledge of the original game, and the ability to piece together the clues about what has happened in the intervening period.

Thirdly and lastly, those who delve especially deeply into lore have demonstrated that the “Way of White” – a holy, miracle-based religion and order of knights from Dark Souls 1 – appears to have metamorphosed into the religion of the “Deacons of the Deep” in Dark Souls 3, those who use abyssal or at least humanity-focused magic, worship Aldrich who devoured Gwyndolin, and are generally a very strange and far-from-holy selection of individuals. It appears that they became gradually corrupted by “the Deep” – whatever that actually is, which remains unclear and uncertain – and although they continued to use the miracles of the Way of White, they also became increasingly interested in the magic of the Deep; what we find in game is a strange melding of the two. Given what we know in the original game about the Way of White, and the implied length of time between the few games, this is a fascinating example – how many other games have done this? – of a religion shifting and changing over time, drifting away from its original principles, or adopting a new syncretic mix of its original tenets and new spiritual concepts. I recommend a Google if you’re interested as what I’ve written down here is only some of the explanation, but the way that story is told is, again, a deep engagement with the world of the original game, and a fascinating – and unsettling – exploration of how things have changed over the intervening millennia.

To conclude this first look at Dark Souls 3, I would argue that there is a fundamental difference here between the last two Souls games in how they referred back to the original Dark Souls 1. All the “references” to DS1 in DS2 felt, to my mind, like mere fan service. Many of them made little sense in their placement or location and had no particular lore consequence; they were shoe-horned into what was, effectively, an almost completely new world with only the loosest threads of the connection to the world that had come before. Dark Souls 1 was taken to be a source of elements without any deep connection; ideas, concepts, images and names severed from their actual original impact, meaning and position, and reproduced as a way to attempt to rekindle some of the excitement of the original game. I’m also not saying Dark Souls 3 is free of the illogical-fan-service trope – why is Andre back?! – but those examples are very few and far between, and beyond those all the engagements with Dark Souls 1 take place in a deep story sense, building on and developing that original world and referring back to it when appropriate, but referring back in order to build a new story which exists by itself, but reflects and iterates on its origins.

In a broader sense, I also think that telling one story over such a period inevitably upsets everything we think we know about the pacing and flow of narrative structure. By having two games so far apart, they were able to not just have the first story inform the second, and have the second shed new light on the first (which I’ll talk about more in the next entry), but to tell a truly epic story which would normally be confined to the backdrop of one game, but instead takes place in, and between, both of these games. It allowed them to tell stories and convey information to the player in a way that few other games can, and to really take the Soulsborne series’ use of environmental storytelling to, I think, a very new level, by relating to multiple games and multiple stories (the pre-DS1 story, the DS1 story, the between-DS1-and-DS3 story) at once. At its conclusion, I truly felt – this is the same world ten thousand, a hundred thousand years in the future. This is what the world might look like at that point; we know how this world functions, we know the “factions” and the “elements” (in the almost alchemical sense – light, dark, chaos, dragons…) in this world and we can see how they have changed and evolved over time… and we see that however mighty and powerful the powers of the original game are, all empires fall and change, but they don’t just disappear; later powers and empires come along, and build upon those, and change them. It’s an amazing trick they managed to pull off, and one which could have easily failed, but From Software managed to present it in such a way as to really convince the player about the time gap between the two games, and it’s overall a very impressive, and very compelling, narrative move.

Next Time

Next time I’d like to take a look at the other half of this storytelling in Dark Souls 3 – how it returns to some of the questions of the original game, answers some of them, and lets the player reflect back on and finally answer some mysteries posed half a decade ago. Although naturally never shifting from the standard obtuse, obscure storytelling the series is known for, the third and final Dark Souls sheds a tremendous amount of light on the original game world, doing so in such a way as to really show what kind of storytelling can happen when one plays the “long game” with game narratives, takes advantage of the time across releases, and lets developers build up the kind of questions and answers we rarely see in any form of media. See you then!