FromSoftware has been on quite a roll for the last half a decade, churning out top notch hardcore RPGs to a rabid fanbase whose idea of fun involves running into a brick wall over and over again until they finally break through by the force of sheer perseverance. In the process, FromSoftware has managed to redefine the conventions of the genre, incorporating complex mechanics and situational challenges that reward observation and strategy. For this reason, the Souls franchise (along with its spiritual sibling, Bloodborne) has deservedly received high praise, and spawned a particular breed of incredibly smug enthusiasts who are just as likely to mock your ineptitude as help you on the forums. And I’m not complaining. Dark Souls is brutal, and it’s only fitting that its community of devotees would favor athleticism, competition, and ingenuity.
This is definitely the “baptized in flames” crowd.
Perhaps the most ingenious element of Dark Souls is the way in which the series handles death. That the protagonist will die countless times in a single 100+ hour playthrough is assumed (hell, it’s a major PR bullet point), and the game is designed in such a way that death is not so much a punishment as an opportunity, or even a strategic move. Respawning preserves your inventory, but voids your experience (represented in-game as “souls”) and resurrects every enemy in the world. Understandably, the player can expect to slog through the same monsters time and time again and, with a little effort, become better each time. There are countless examples of games in which respawning enemies become tiresome or sacrifice suspension of disbelief–I’m looking at you, Far Cry 2–but in Dark Souls, death and repetition are mechanically central. To put it bluntly, the game wouldn’t work without them.
It’s simple enough to confront a players with a difficult scenario, ramp up the difficulty level to “NES,” and attempt to capitalize on player frustration, but Dark Souls aims for something more substantive, demanding a real investment from its players. The ostensible nihilism of the desperate, repetitive gameplay is reflected in the depth of the narrative, and the world of Lordran oozes with Nietzschean hostility. This is a realm in which all the great heroes have either died or gone insane, and the blight of undeath has effectively toppled any hope of transcendence in favor of Eternal Return. It is a Sisyphean existence, a game of inches in a world of vicious cycles. Death and repetition serve as the mechanical lynchpin that binds it all together.
Immanuel Kant, in The Critique of Practical Reason, posited a morality based upon perpetual repetition and inevitable failure. The moral will, he said, exists not as an objective, definable truth, but rather as a “categorical imperative,” a demand for obedience that has no further substance outside of simply being a demand for obedience. The moral will insists that you obey, but it does not specify what must be obeyed. Because this categorical imperative exists only as a psychotic demand for nothing in particular, it cannot be satisfied, and thus any attempt to live in accordance with the moral will results in failure. This form, rather than any specific content, is the universal quality of morality. Thus, you cannot say that pacifism is moral and murder is not, only that the practices of either pacifism or murder are both a response to the same call to obedience, and that both formally fail to satisfy the moral will. For Kant, then, the being human means being always morally imperfect, even as we strive endlessly for perfection.
According to Kant, there is only one way to reconcile the rupture between human existence and divine perfection: punishment. Your failure to live in accordance with the moral will results in an existential anguish, the fundamental suffering of being a person. Kant even goes so far as to argue that the only way you can be certain of the morality of a deed is if that deed causes you pain. Only then can you be certain that you are not acting out of self interest, but are rather in accordance with the disinterested moral will, whose only cause is itself and whose only actualization is pain. Essentially, Kant is arguing that we can only experience morality through the punishment for our moral failure. One can see Kant’s sadomasochistic dimension emerge here, for only insofar as we take our own punishment as cause can our will be aligned with the Moral Will. Thus, a masochistic enjoyment of our own punishment is the only possible moral enjoyment.
If you’ve been following this admittedly dense theoretical digression, you may see where I’m going with this.
This “pleasure-in-punishment” is precisely the structure upon which Dark Souls’ central mechanics rest. Progress in the Lordran is only through pain, incorporating the truths revealed through failure into your strategies. Every ounce of atmosphere in the game is dedicated to underscoring the desperate agony of moving through a bleak world, decimated by nihilism and entropy, whose sole purpose seems to be killing you over and over again. The immortality of your soul is your undeath, which grants you the hellish gift of eternal repetition, and every lesson learned comes at the cost of many mistakes. It is a sadistic playstyle, in which the game batters and beats you, only to pull you back from death to do it again and again.
Dark Souls is always visceral, but it is not always fun. This is its brilliance, that the complex enjoyment of this brutal game emerges from the vicious punishment it metes out upon you. In this way, it is truly moral in the Kantian sense, as opposed to the naive platonic morality of games from the likes of Bioware and Obsidian. This is reflected in Dark Souls’ ambiguous endings–neither clearly good or bad, but both ethically complicated. At the end, you must face the fact that whatever morality presides over Lordran, it is far from a comforting righteousness. Rather, it is a psychotic, nihilistic morality, and could only be called “good” in the blackest of ironic spirits.
Is this not the thematic epitome of desolate limbo that is Dark Souls?