With the release of Dark Souls 3, I find my thoughts turning to the original in the series. Dark Souls is in many ways an underrated game. That might sound absurd considering the game’s titantic presence in the minds of game designers, but I feel that much of the game’s true genius is overlooked due to its more obvious qualities (both positive and negative).
One of these aspects is the masteful way Dark Souls uses symbolism. In general, symbolism is like a soundtrack for the mind. Using imagery and large themes that people already have a strong connection to, we can magnify the power of our stories and designs. Of course, calling too much attention to symbolism renders it silly and impotent in most cases – similar to if a soundtrack was playing so loudly that you couldn’t hear anything else.
Dark Souls seems to make an odd choice by having many (not all) of its villains be representations of light, crystals, flame and other positive aspects. The Lord of Light is mismanaging things, the sacred bonfires feed on souls. Humanity itself is represented by darkness, while the souls of monsters and fallen gods are often glorious and filled with light. Anor Londo, the realm of the gods, is light-filled and glorious. It’s also a lie. The gods have abandoned their duties, hoping we continue to die in their service.
While there’s room for ambiguity, the general understanding of Dark Souls is that the dark lord ending is the good ending, while sacrificing yourself to feed the sacred flame is the bad one. Heck, the hero of the game, you, is an UNDEAD. How backwards is that?
Dark Souls doesn’t just seem to ignore symbolism at a glance, but rather reverse it entirely. This should sabotage their emotional impact, but there’s something much cleverer going on.
Dark Souls’ overall story is largely about rejecting the lie of the gods. It’s about questioning your faith and beliefs. But how do you do that, when players naturally don’t believe in your fake gods in your fake world you invented?
Symbolism. Players already have strong connotations in most cultures that light is good and darkness is bad. The bonfires magnify this on a gameplay level, by being positive bastions of warmth and safety within the dark world.
Dark Souls uses symbolism to establish our faith. Then it challenges us to question it.
This also explains why our enemies, particularly at the game’s beginning, are more obviously fearsome but still rather ambiguous. Fighting them, considering their lore presence, can easily fit both narratives – allowing us to kill the same bosses whether we think we’re on the side of the gods or not. This muddies things, but the ambiguity of Dark Souls’ own lore allows it to work well.
Like I said, underrated.