For video game enthusiasts, 2021 brings an important anniversary: September marks the tenth anniversary of the release of Dark Souls, the cult-classic that spawned not only two sequels but also a new genre of interactive storytelling, the “Souls-like” game. Admittedly, with “only” 27 million copies cumulatively sold over the entire trilogy, the Dark Souls series is absent from the list of all-time top-selling video games. Nonetheless, the game has had a significant influence on the entire video game industry and is often recognized as one of the most important games of the last few decades. I myself being one to wear my Dark Souls obsession on my sleeve, here I’d like to hazard a modest contribution to the discussion of whether video games should or shouldn’t be considered art by exploring the resonances between Dark Souls and a, perhaps unexpected, literary forerunner—Lord Byron’s apocalyptic poem of 1816, “The Darkness.”
In Dark Souls, you play as the “Chosen Undead,” tasked with venturing through the realm of Lordran to retrieve the four Lord Souls, that you might then gain access to the Kiln of the First Flame and reignite the heart of a dying world. (If you are unfamiliar with the game, I suggest you watch its epic opening cinematic for context.) While this description might sound like your run-of-the-mill escapist fantasy, Dark Souls subverts the typical tropes of the heroic quest by impressing upon the player an atmosphere of fatalistic ennui and a crushing sense of insignificance. Your quest begins at the end of the Age of Fire, in which “there are only embers, and man sees not light, but only endless nights.” Over the course of the game, you explore the mostly abandoned ruins of a once great empire, the remaining denizens of which have all gone mad or mindless, intent on killing anyone who dares intrude upon their realm—and they will kill you, a lot, as the game is infamous for being brutally difficult. In a brilliant coupling of form and content, the game implies that each death of the player character marks a branching of parallel universes, for “the flow of time itself is convoluted, with heroes centuries old fading in and fading out.” Additionally, if one plays with an internet connection, one can catch ghostly glimpses of other players as they explore their own parallel-universe versions of Lordran. One confronts the realization, therefore, that the title of “Chosen Undead” was speciously bestowed upon their character, for they are merely one of an infinite myriad of those doomed to the same futile quest. Indeed, if you do manage to reach the end to re-ignite the First Flame, the game starts you once again at the beginning, implying that your quest did little more than momentarily delay the world’s inevitable, weary extinction. All of this is supplemented by a hauntingly somber score, sublime vistas and environments, and subtle but tragic secondary storylines told obliquely via the artifacts found along one’s quest.
Dark Souls’ fascination with the ruins and embers of a dying world parallels that of many European authors and poets of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and Byron’s “The Darkness” is one of the most explicit examples of such a fascination. The poem imagines the consequences of an earth shrouded in darkness after the sun’s disappearance. Like the denizens of Lordran, those living on the dark earth go to extreme lengths to seek light and heat, but ultimately their ventures are futile:
And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings—the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d,
Forests were set on fire—but hour by hour
They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks
Extinguish’d with a crash—and all was black.
Life on earth dwindles as human beings turn to cannibalism, until there befalls a final climactic encounter that is eerily reminiscent of that which one discovers in Dark Souls:
The crowd was famish’d by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they rak’d up,
And shivering scrap’d with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
Each other’s aspects—saw, and shriek’d, and died—
The poem ends with a solemn description of a “world [that] was a void,” a world that has finally succumbed to entropy, to the extinction of all fire, light, and energy, to the same Age of Dark that threatens Lordran.
Both the game and the poem succeed, in their own respective ways, of conveying the same feelings and of exploring the same ideas: both offer intimate encounters with questions of purpose in the face of mortality and meaninglessness, albeit magnified by the imagination to fantastical extremes. And thus, if we can discuss “The Darkness” as a work of literature, might we not discuss Dark Souls in similar terms? I argue we should, for Dark Souls is less a game that is meant to be won than it is, as all works of art should be, an aesthetic object to be experienced and appreciated for the ideas and moods it imparts.