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
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.
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.