“Only in truth, the Lords will abandon their thrones, and the Unkindled will rise. Nameless accursed undead, unfit even to be cinder. And so it is that ash seeketh embers…”Opening narration of Dark Souls III
Come hither, Chosen Undead, for I have tales to tell of a grand, woven world that only becomes more unfamiliar with time. Begin your journey with pilgrimage and with bell, and rekindle the First Flame for the sake of all that must go on.
Awake in the Things Betwixt and nurture those who dwell in Majula. With Aldia as your guide, Undead Monarch, you will find that a lie will remain a lie. Save this world from what King Vendrick has wrought.
But oh, how the flames twist, for only you Unkindled has the last say in what is yet to come. Can you stop the cycle and begin life anew? Or will you fall ill under the seduction of light like the Lords before you?
That’s right everyone, it’s time for the Dark Souls trilogy to take the spotlight! I’ve been really jonesing to dip into the world of DS since there is so much that could be said about it, but I’m gonna try not to talk your ear off about every little detail for the sake of your time.
And yes, despite the differences between the games, the world is the same.
Okay, check it out, lemme fill you in a little. The games are about cycles. You, the player, are always in control of someone who, upon death, respawns. While yes, that is the case for video games in general, this time it functions as part of the story. The First Flame, which ignited life in the world, is the source of everything. The First Flame brought life and death, heat and cold, and souls. With this, bonfires are scattered all over the world, and once you die, you are brought back to your previous bonfire with your humanity gone. Now a Hollow, your health is reduced until you can restore your humanity. This can be done by either beating a boss or using an item (the item you do so with is different in each installment).
BUT the case with these cycles is that the world is becoming worse and worse over time, as the cycles are wearing it and its inhabitants thin. By the time you’re in Dark Souls III, the world is basically begging you not to rekindle the First Flame, as everything has become a shadow of its former self.
As for the way the world looks, allow me to give some examples…
Deciding which places to pick out to show you is actually a very tricky thing for me to decide, as every area in the games is varied and inspired in its design (even the swamps, as much as I hate to give them credit because they are so incredibly not fun). The set piece for the fight against the Nameless King is vast and surreal, as it is a ground of fog amidst a seemingly endless storming but bright sky. The Iron Keep is a castle built among a flowing fit of lava that has winding walkways meant to knock invaders off to a heated doom. Placed within Anor Londo is a massive painting of an eerie, snow-filled world, the likes of which is actually alive and requires a special item to magically get inside. Within this Painted World of Ariamis there are different enemies, including a rotted dragon too decrepit to do anything but spew acidic goo at you and the protector of this world, Priscilla, who insists that the inhabitants of this painted world are peaceful and just want to live their secluded lives, begging you to leave. Her plea for you to go includes the option to simply not fight her, as she will comfortably comply with letting you leave unharmed just to keep her people safe. Furthermore, given the theme of cycles and how the world is slowly being driven to ruin, Anor Londo is present in both Dark Souls and Dark Souls III, except the presentation of the once grand, sun-kissed kingdom is now wretched any uneasy by the later installment. The layout is the same, yet the elegant and royal guards, golems, and deities are not there. Instead, they have been replaced by undead cultist deacons, shambling corpses of monstrously sized rats, and one (1) Aldrich, Devourer of Gods.
Which actually serves as my transition into my next talking point, the way in which the lore of this world is given to us.
This world, no matter the cycle, feels so heavily lived in. There are constantly little details shown to you that imply so much.
This is one of the bosses you fight in Anor Londo while visiting it in the first Dark Souls. Gwendolyn, known as the Dark Sun, is a very magic-heavy character. Gwendolyn has been using his magical prowess to keep the appearance of a thriving Anor Londo since Gwyn left it years ago, instead of a grim, dark castle sprawl that it is in actuality.
Now, you may notice in this picture above (labeled as Aldrich, DEVOURER OF GODS), that this is not Gwendolyn, yet bears resemblance to him. Aldrich is a being just short of eldritch horror, as the top half of this human is met with a lower half that mimics that of a snake underneath that gown of rotted cloth and bramble. Though, albeit, the snake part is made up of sludge and corpses (I think, it gets hard to tell), which is uh. Not normal.
Aldrich also wields a magical scythe, the same one that is used by Priscilla, who watches over the previously mentioned Painted World of Ariamis. This, combined with using the magical attacks and sun-based headdress of Gwen, is already telling of its context. Aldrich’s fight also takes place in the throne room of Anor Londo, but now this room has a layer of marshy, black sludge adorning its floors.
With only context clues, you can tell that Aldrich succumbed to some kind of dark presence and literally consumed previously established characters to gain their abilities, now residing in a husk of what this once grand kingdom used to be.
Furthermore, depicted above is a knight known as Black Iron Tarkus, whose legend extends from the years before as an unkillable knight. Tarkus boasted incredible defense, his armor and shield being crafted of an incredibly heavy and sturdy black iron. For a good chunk of the game, you don’t see Tarkus alive. Supposedly unkillable, it seems like only a matter of time before you get to meet him yourself, no?
Well within the walls of Anor Londo (I know, I’ve mentioned this place a lot. It’s a really big, really cool place so sue me), in the same large, open room as the painting that acts as the magical entryway into Ariamis, is Tarkus’ corpse. This room is so large, so tall in height, that you, the player, die from fall damage if you are walking amongst (just before falling off of) the rafters just below the ceiling. Tarkus’ corpse is waaaayyyy down on the floor, just below where the start of the rafters up top are. Just from the fact that his corpse lays there, you know how he met his end. A knight of his stature could never die in battle, but thanks to the same heavy weight armor that kept him alive in battle, he couldn’t do anything but meet the floor much faster than one could ever desire.
Okay so this is my favorite example of how the world itself lets you piece together lore and stories. Havel was not just a legendary knight, but he was a close friend and ally to Gwyn, Lord of Cinder, who was the first to offer his soul to enkindle the flame. Havel 100% valued brute force and the physical might of man. Havel’s strength was of such grand stature that he could walk around in and carry all this stone armor, the likes of which is incredibly resistant to magic attacks. We are told that Gwyn eventually had to lock Havel away in the lower half of a tower for eternity because he believed he had gone mad. This tower is found very early on and you actually can fight this locked-away knight within your first maybe 2 hours tops of playing Dark Souls. Once you beat him, you get an item named Havel’s Ring.
However, even though Havel was found and defeated by you in the tower at the start of the game, you can find a hidden room where Havel’s armor set is neatly tucked away in treasure chests.
Well, all items in the game come with a written out description once you obtain them, and Havel’s Ring gives us the means to fill in the holes. In the description of this item, it tells you that Havel himself never ever wore the ring. Havel, a high ranking member of Gwyn’s army and in charge of his own squadron of knights, only ever gave his ring to his men. Havel, as someone of legendary status, did not need the ring. So just from that description, coupled with the fact that Havel’s real armor is tucked away elsewhere, tells us that one of Havel’s men, undyingly loyal as they were, stood in to pretend to be Havel and get locked away in this tower for eternity so that Havel did not have to. Havel neatly abandoned his armor within a hidden room of Anor Londo and escaped, forever free. What does he do from that point? No idea. What does his face look like under that stone helm? Beats me. Havel could have gone on to be any character we meet from that point, just going by a new name. The mystery is unanswered, but it makes for such a riveting detail that you miss out on if you simply don’t read the description on a damn ring.
There’s context clues all over the place to piece things together. So little of the lore and sometimes the story actually gets outright told to you, it’s fascinating. This level of worldbuilding and storytelling is beyond impressive. These characters and their place in the world are entertaining to experience no matter how many times you play, especially considering how easy it is to miss the details. The world is alive and dying, an interconnected web of terrains that are beautiful and occasionally dip into strange occult, untouched horror. Magic and monsters run rampant, and I’ve barely even touched the surface of it all. The unraveling of the stories of characters in the first Dark Souls is tragic, and the consequences are dire. Play within the confines of this world at your own peril, as your presence may doom those who live in it. Why must the cycle continue? Why must it end?