Dark Souls: A Lesson in Subtlety

I love Dark Souls.  It was my GoTY last year by a county mile, and I gave it a 5/5 in my review.  In that review, I wrote very little about the game's story, dismissing it as largely inconsequential to how people view the game.  One could easily beat the game and have absolutely no idea what was ever really going on, and I know this because that is exactly what happened to me.  

The thing is, Dark Souls' story unfolds exactly the way one would expect it to in such a scenario: little bits of information here and there from people who really couldn't care less what you are doing.  In fact aside from the very beginning, the player is never really TOLD anything about the world he is in, just that there is some Church with a bell and you have to ring it for some reason.  Think about it, the player character is from the world, so the NPCs wouldn't feel the need to hold your hand and tell you every little thing you need to know-since the character is expected to know most of it (including where most places are located).  They just say "yo, go kill that dude".  Actually you're lucky if they even give you that much.

Recently however, I started a new character in Dark Souls in preparation of the upcoming Artorias of the Abyss DLC.  This (my second full time through) I used to pay more careful attention to the lore.  I explored every single dialogue option I could find (there aren't very many; what few people live here aren't particularly talkative).  My actions started to take on new meaning once I saw how the NPCs reacted to them.  Even with this extra effort, I wasn't much closer to discovering what the real story was or why I was being asked to track down and murder these powerful beings.  However something ELSE I started paying attention to did more to open up the lore of DS than anything else I had found:

Item descriptions

Every item the player picks up comes with a neat little description.  Each of these is usually only 2-3 sentences, if that.  What's more, the little bit of info they provide is often largely irrelevant.  Take the description of the 'watchtower basement key', which opens an area containing a powerful enemy:

Key to the basement of the watchtower in
the Undead Burg.

The basement of the watchtower forms a stone
cell. There are rumors of a hero turned
Hollow who was locked away by a dear friend.
For his own good, of course.

All they needed to say there was that the key opened the watchtower basement door (duh) and there were rumors of a powerful enemy inside-actually even that isn't entirely necessary.  That enemy is in fact Havel the Rock, an extremely dangerous brute of a man that can one-hit most players with his massive dragon club.  We don't need to know why he's there, especially considering he is optional and KILLING HIM WILL NOT AFFECT THE STORY IN ANY WAY.  So why the extra info?

I was wondering that, until I found Havel's armor set later in the game, and decided to read the description.  I won't post it here, both because it contains spoilers and because it would be virtually meaningless to anyone who hasn't played the game.  What I will say is that it made a major connection between Havel and not one but TWO of the major characters the player interacts with.  It was with this revelation that I began to scour my inventory, reading the description of every item I had, and continued to do so until the credits rolled.  I was left far more satisfied than I was with either previous playthroughs, and also a little disgusted with my actions now that I had a better understanding of my enemies' backgrounds and motivations.

Everything still didn't quite make sense so I decided to hit the web for some answers.  I ended up spending the next two hours waste deep in one of the richest and most engrossing mythologies in gaming, and no that is not an exaggeration.  Turns out that despite trying my hardest to leave no stone unturned, I actually missed more than I found.  Not simply pieces of evidence, but how they fit together to make a coherent whole.  

I realized I never truly understood what Lordran (where the game takes place) was, what bonfires actually were, or even what being hollowed meant.  All I knew was that being hollow meant one remained undead forever, at the cost of slowly losing their sanity.  I couldn't imagine how much deeper it was than that.

In fact the whole game has a much deeper meaning than anything you are likely to extrapolate on your first run, that is unless you are ridiculously attentive and posses Sherlock Holmes-esque deduction capabilities.  This is mainly because, in order to even begin to understand the 'truth', one must play through the entire game twice and experience both endings-not just watch them online (or even play one and watch the other).  This is because what happens on screen based on player choices gives a false impression of being either good OR bad.  However based on one's personal opinions on several major life themes (and I am talking about REAL life here), each ending could be seen as both good and bad.  Or maybe they are both good, or both bad.  One interpretation of events even makes it seem like you were everybody's puppet the whole time rather than the hero, though the game never explicitly says this and again comes down to how you look at things.

ALL of this is in the game.  The developers have said just about nothing as far as the plot is concerned, so anything you read online is going to be based strictly off of what people have found in the game, and their own personal interpretation of it.  Though it will be incredibly hard to find, those who really look will find how monumentally ambitious the lore of Dark Souls actually is.

Of course this model simply wouldn't work in most games, particularly the more fast-paced games we tend to see nowadays.  But by delivering the story the way they did developer From Software managed to create a story that is as engrossing as the player wants it to be.  Those looking for a great tale will get one for sure...they're just going to have to actually work for it.  

Finally, I will finish by saying this.  Despite everything I said about character discussions and item descriptions, there is one moment that, for everyone who has ever experienced it, stands out like a beacon.  One moment that, more than any other, turned the entire world on its head.  And just like the complexities of the Dark Souls mythos, it remains hidden away from all but the most ardent explorers.  One of the last sections of the game involves fighting through a massive labyrinth of deep underground caverns and ruins teaming with frightful demons.  Rock, lava, stalagmites, the kind of things you expect under a planet's crust.  

Not too far from here is a massive swamp (fuck that place) with a large tree at one end.  By climbing it's huge roots, players can attack the trunk and find a hidden room, a common trick in the game (though one that rarely gets old).  However, and god knows how anyone found this, there is ANOTHER secret wall a little past the first which allows players to enter the tree, which extends several miles down into the planet, deeper even then the ruins mentioned earlier.  Along with the constant threat of death by falling, those annoying frogs which curse you swarm the place.  My first time, it took me twenty something tries to get to the bottom of that tree.  By this point, I was in it for the sole curiosity of what the fuck was at the bottom of that tree.  I get to the bottom, and there is a little path that takes you outside through one of the roots.  

 

And then you see this:

 

 

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