Mental Health in Video Games: Persona 5 – REVISITED

This article contains spoilers relating to Persona 5’s Fourth Dungeon and the gameplay that immediately follows.

My last post on mental health in video games looked at how Persona 5 addressed mental health in the form of the isolated, agorophobic character Futaba. This article highly praised the game for its approach, however as the game progressed I realised that this good work is quickly undone by the subsequent approach to helping Futaba aclimatise to life outside her bedroom.

When she first spends time outside of her room it is apparent to everyone in the Phantom Thieves that Futaba struggles to engage with people in conversation, particularly around topics she is not interested in. The way the Thieves address this is to talk about Futaba as is she is not present and to discuss how to socialise her, without her input. Futaba is treated like a broken object that needs fixing rather than a severely emotionally traumatised person who is working out how to live a more normal life.

After the beautiful way that Atlus explore Futaba’s mental state in her entombed pyramid palace, with the Phantom Thieves having to allow Futabato open up the palace herself, it feels jarring to have this undercut by the first things the Phantom Theives do once Futaba joins the team.

One bit that caught me particularly off-guard and emphasised how inappropriate this was, was a scene where Futaba is encouraged to work at the coffee shop both Joker, the lead character, and her guardian Sojiro, work at. Sojiro, aware that she is a social shut in, asks her why she is now coming out and putting herself in these situations she finds uncomfortable. Being given a dialogue choice at this point I said that it was her idea, believing that she had, despite the poor way the party spoke about her in her presence, agreed to this process. Futaba then calls me a liar. She is not happy to be here and is only here because of peer pressure exerted by her new friends. That felt super uncomfortable.

This discomfort is increased as the gang are determined to turn this hikikomori from a social shut-in into a bikini wearing beach-goer within a week. They set out an invasive, demanding and non-consensual timetable which ends up being successful despite this being very far from the real result you would be likely to get from imposing so much pressure on someone who suffers from severe social anxiety.

As many of you will be aware, social anxiety takes time to overcome. For individuals that suffer from social anxiety having friends who are willing to help them push their comfort levels is a good thing, but there is a huge amount of responsiblity on those friends to respect their friend’s boundaries, and ensure that they do not end up in over their heads. Some people when they are overwhelmed are unable to express themselves and so will appear to be quietly compliant, as harmful experiences and emotions build up, increasing that persons ongoing aversion to social situations. Learning to overcome anxiety takes time and there are set backs in real life that make the process take longer.

For a game that gets so many other things right, particularly when addressing the issues of mental health, it feels particularly jarring that this situation, which is a central plot point, is dealt with so indelicately.

I really love Persona 5 and it is easily one of my favourite all time games, which is why I hold it to such a high standard when I look at it’s story and content critically. I can only hope that future Persona installments can avoid having these uncomfortable moments, leaving us with nothing but 24 carat JRPG gold.

Personal Identity In Persona 5: Honne and Tatemae

This article contains spoilers for Persona 5

One of the key themes explored in Persona 5 is that of identity. Who are you behind all of society’s expectations of who you are? It starts with your character, Joker.

Joker is a new student at Shujin Academy, with a criminal record for assault. As to be expected rumours spin around your character about what kind of villain he is, after all, he is on probation and was expelled from his last school. He is outcast from those around him before he even has a chance to make an impression.

But the truth is that Joker tried to stop a man from sexually assaulting a woman who was calling for help. The man was particularly powerful and wealthy and scared the woman into making a statement against Joker. Thus Joker starts the game criminalised for doing the right thing when everyone else looked the other way.

The first friend Joker makes is Ryuji, a fellow outcast from the school after getting in a fight with the gym teacher who ran the running club. Again Ryuji is outcast for being a thug, but society does not understand the reality of the situation; that Kamoshida the gym teacher is an abusive letch, who physically beats his students for not performing. Ryuji fought back against this abuse and was firmly beaten by the adult Kamoshida, who broke Ryuji’s leg in the process, permanently ending Ryuji’s promising future as a star athlete. No one knows the truth, everyone believes the teacher, because he is the one to be trusted.

The disparity between truth and society’s perception and the divide between the inner self and outer expectations is a key part of Japanese culture, which is described in Japan as ‘honne’ and ‘tatemae’.

Honne and Tatemae

Honne are the true feelings that someone has. The word translates to “true sound” and what honne is, is the true sound of someone’s heart. In Japanese culture, one’s honne is kept well hidden, never shown in society, and only shared with one’s closest confidants.

This is contrasted with Tatemae, which is what is society expects of you. Tatemae translates to “built in front” or “façade” and this is what you allow everyone in society to see. Your honne is always hidden behind your tatemae.

Social scientists have studied the phenomenon of honne and tatemae as being linked to Japan’s high population density, and the perception of incredible politeness and decorum that is noted in Japanese culture.

Everyone lives in such close proximity, it is important that people get along and cooperate with each other, so the idea behind honne and tatemae is that you set aside your wants and desires for the betterment of the whole. A place for everyone and everyone in their place.

When this societal construct works it results in a polite society where arguments should not happen over trivial matters and respect is shown to everyone by everyone. People know how to treat others and how they will be treated in return and so the status quo should be respected for mutual benefit, regardless of personal feelings to the contrary.

But humans are rarely perfect.

But what happens when everyone is expected to be polite and respectful and someone with power uses these expectations to abuse others?

This is a question that is asked globally in our world, and this is the power dynamic that Persona 5 explores.

Unlocking your Persona

In Persona 5 your characters are supported in combat by personas, manifestations of who they are in their hearts. To unlock their persona a character is driven to desperation. A point where they must fight or die. And as they reach a point of desperation and choose to live, they tear off masks that they wear in the metaverse, which are connected to their face. It is painful and bloody, but in tearing off their mask they free their persona.

A symbolic embodiment of the conflict of tatemae and honne. Tatemae the mask that is worn, but when someone comes who can take advantage of tatemae, one’s honne presses against tatemae, a cry for rebellion. Rebellion against social expectations. Rebellion against social norms. Rebellion against how things are.

When others use societal expectation to crush you, survival comes when self is placed before societal expectation.

Persona 5 uses imagery to give voice to the very real struggle that people face in our world.

The #metoo movement is born from this conflict. A societal expectation existed that certain kinds of behaviour happened in professional environments between men and women, particularly because powerful men could ruin the careers and lives of those women whom they have targeted. But the hearts of women who have been wronged push against this societal expectation and power dynamic. #metoo was born from the rebellious honne, taking supremacy over tatemae.

From this rebellion, a new societal expectation can be built. One that could not have existed if not for those who chose to forsake their social standing and image for the drive of their hearts.

Achieving Balance

So is tatemae something wrong and to be avoided? No. Life in a community is all about balance. When everyone focuses on self-interest, it leads to people not helping others and leads to a breakdown of community. It is not a surprise that in the western world, which touts individuality, that depression and isolation, particularly in big cities, are the key mental health issues of our time. Neither should a blind eye be turned to injustice simply for the sake of societal appearances because that is what gives strength to those individuals who use their societal position to abuse those around them.

Unfortunately, I do not have the five-point-plan to achieve this balance, as it comes from the individual choices that people in the community have to make for themselves. No doubt if we managed to get this perfect we would resolve the largest sum of our societal issues.

In the meantime, I am going to continue enjoying Persona 5’s exploration of these issues.

Mental Health in Video Games: Metal Gear Solid V

This article contains massive spoilers for the Metal Gear Solid franchise.

Metal Gear Solid V is a mixed bag of a game.

It has excellent, polished gameplay, offset by cut content and erratic storytelling. But that does not prevent the finale to this iconic video game saga from moments of heart-wrenching storytelling brilliance.

The theme of the game is in the title, ‘phantom pain’. The sensation of feeling something you have lost. The experience of living after trauma and the scars that you bear as a result.

This is represented physically in the loss of Snake’s arm, but goes so much deeper in the storytelling than that.

Trauma

The game starts in Ground Zeroes with a rescue mission. You have to save a child soldier, Chico, and an enemy spy, Paz, from a US military base situated on Cuba, which is a representation of Guantanamo Bay in all but name.

ground zeroes

If you have played Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker this opening is particularly impactful. These are two characters that were an uplifting and friendly presence throughout the game, as you built up Militares Sans Frontiers, and your Mother Base. Right up to Paz’s heel turn at the end of the game they are friends, and even then Paz seems forced into her betrayal, wanting to spend just one more day with the new family she has found.

Snake goes in to rescue them, and finds them horribly broken and abused, victims of sexual violence and torturous surgical procedures. It is the darkest Metal Gear Solid has ever been and it is deeply upsetting and uncomfortable to see, bringing a jarring level of grittiness to always slightly wacky Metal Gear continuity.

You manage to rescue both and exfiltrate the black ops site, ready to return home. But then the real horror sets in. Paz has a bomb stitched inside her and the support team and Big Boss have to perform emergency surgery to remove the bomb whilst still in transit. No anesthesia, no antiseptic, just blood and pain.

paz

The bomb is removed successfully, but what awaits the rescue team on their return is nothing but further horror. They come back to Mother Base, the base you the player built in previous games, to find it under attack and burning. A surprise assault, and everyone was caught off guard. Everything you built is being destroyed. As you try to escape the onslaught, Paz awakens from her pain-induced stupor. ‘There is another bomb!’ In a panic she gets up and runs to the helicopter door. ‘Somewhere, you wouldn’t look,’ she says darkly, as she jumps out of the helicopter to save you, but it is too late. Paz explodes a few feet out of the helicopter, sending it and you crashing into the sea.

You awake 9 years later, in a hospital. Your face and body are scarred, a piece of bone-shrapnel is protruding from your head; it was embedded in part of your brain and could not safely be removed. Hundreds of pieces of bone and tooth shrapnel were removed from your body, but it was not safe to remove the pieces near your brain or your heart. Your arm is missing. The representation of the horror you just experienced.

But that is not the end.

You establish a new Mother Base, a new company, the Diamond Dogs, a new life. But the ghosts do not fade. As you explore your new Mother Base you come across an unexpected surprise. Paz is sat in a hospital bed in the Medical Wing. She is happy to see you and apparently has no recollection of the trauma she experienced. “She is experiencing some kind of dissociative disorder” your right-hand man announces as he stands next to you, she can’t seem to remember anything about what happened and seems trapped in her schoolgirl persona.

Suddenly you remember! The bomb was found! She said there was another and the medic managed to remove it in time. The helicopter crashed when it was attacked by a missile launch, not because of Paz exploding, which must have been some incorrect memory, or nightmare.

But she is clearly not well and is suffering from some kind of amnesia. You need to collect photos from old Mother Base staff to show her, to remind her who is really is and what happened.

Paz hospital

The collection of photos seems to bring back recollections but it does not sit well with Paz, leading her to feel increasingly sick and nauseous. And then it happens. You walk into her hospital room one day to see her facing away from you. Blood pooling on the floor beneath her. She turns around to face you and you see with horror she has cut open her belly and is digging through her own intestines as she cries out about there being another bomb inside her. You try to stop her. She is safe. You got the other bomb. And then she pulls it out. The second bomb. Suddenly you are back on the helicopter crying out for her as she jumps from the vehicle only to explode in mid-air. You awaken outside the medical ward to find it still under construction.

She never survived. You never had the conversations with your right-hand man about her. You are suffering from the dissociative disorder. You can hear her voice as she tells you she died long ago, and you need to learn to live with that. She is gone and she cannot be brought back, no matter who you kill or what you do.

The game’s twist ending is that you are not Big Boss. You are the medic from the helicopter, you missed the second bomb and your brain invented a world where you never made that mistake, where Paz didn’t die.

Snake mirror

In your comatose state you underwent hypnotherapy and cosmetic surgery to be a body double for Big Boss, and as the hypnotherapy wears off you remember everything.

Reflecting Real Life

In my life, I have had two experiences that resulted in emotional trauma, which impacted how I perceived the reality of the world around me, and both occurred within a relatively short period of time.

The first was the death of my Grandmother. It was sudden and unexpected, and I was close to her. For months after her death I would dream that she was alive and everything was normal, and these dreams would feel like memories. Being at her house it felt like she was just in another room. The reality that she is gone is one that feels more unreal than the belief that I might see her at any moment. I have had to consciously remind myself that she is dead many times, as my brain tries to hide that painful fact from me.

The second was the birth of my child. I was nervous about the dangers of childbirth, but after some perinatal classes, my fears were more settled. On the evening that my wife was in labour everything was progressing well, until it wasn’t. Unexpectedly my child turned its head and suddenly the doctors needed to rush us to the theatre. I have never felt such an acute sense of the possibility that I could lose the people I love the most dearly in my life, and that there was nothing I could do to help. I was stood there, forced to watch and unable to help as all my horrors seemed to be realised. Thankfully they were not. My wife and child were fine, but the emotional damage was present.

Sometime after the birth we were all home, when I went to go get a drink when I saw a water bottle we had used at the hospital. Suddenly I was back in that hospital theatre, panic and fear flooding my body. I had a panic attack. It felt completely real. I was back there again.

Catharsis

The way that Metal Gear Solid V explores the mental health of Punished (or Venom) Snake, is deep and impactful. It is hard to describe the experience of living with emotional trauma, but the final entry in the Metal Gear saga does it well.

Snake is not the only one left with emotional scars. He struggles with hallucinations and damaged memories, whilst his comrade Miller experiences a massive personality shift, driven by anger and rage, he loses the charming, cheery approach to leadership that he brought in Peace Walker.

In a similar way we all experience trauma differently. It can be hard to look at the pain you have experienced and find a way to process it. But sometimes naming something and experiencing something by proxy can help the process of healing. For me, playing The Phantom Pain has been part of that process. Seeing someone give words and pictures and sound to my experience, has helped me find catharsis.

‘Show, Don’t Tell’ in From Software Games

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

‘Show, don’t tell’ is a staple of advice given to everyone who tries to tell a story. The purpose behind this advice is to avoid excessive exposition; the temptation of every storyteller who wants to let the reader know everything about the characters they have designed and the world they have built.

In every medium the storyteller must work on the balance between showing and telling. Tell too much and there is nothing to engage with, just facts on a page or read out to a listener, like a historical timeline or scientific analysis of an experiment. But if you don’t tell enough then there is no story, just events happening, without the insight that telling provides.

From Software games take this concept to heart and strip down the story telling experience to some of the barest bones that one will experience in a non-indie game, whist still providing an enormous amount of story to explore.

Many people who play their games feel that the storytelling technique employed by From Software falls into the category of events just happening with no story, and there is no real insight into what events take place between the beginning of the game and the end.

This is a view I strongly disagree with, and in this article I will attempt to illustrate the ways that From Software pushes the boundaries in ‘show, don’t tell’ storytelling through two key avenues; Item Descriptions and Item Placement.

This article follows on from my previous article on Dark Souls’ story telling, and contains spoilers for the Dark Souls Trilogy, Demon Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

Environmental Storytelling

Environmental storytelling is what it says on the tin. The reader understands what has happened, not because the narrator has told then what has happened, but rather because the environment makes it clear what has happened. This is commonly used in video games when you encounter a pile of dead bodies before a major environmental hazard or enemy. The player understands that these bodies are here because something has killed them.

An example taken from Dark Souls would be as you enter Anor Londo. You can summon Black Iron Tarkus to help fight the Iron Golem. He is heavily armoured and incredibly strong. He can almost beat the boss single-handed. And once the Iron Golem is defeated you travel to Anor Londo, which requires you to traverse across the narrow beams of the roof of a cathedral, whilst being attacked by quick and dextrous enemies. On the floor of this cathedral you can find the body of a warrior in giant black armour. It seems that Tarkus may have been able to handle the great Iron Golem, but lacked the manoeuvrability and dexterity in his armour to traverse the cathedral roof, falling to his death.

Tarkus
So close, and yet so far…

From Software uses the placement of items throughout their games to add to the strength of environmental storytelling. This is subtle, and can easily be missed if you are not paying attention.

For an example of item placement being used in environmental storytelling we can take a look at Bloodborne. In Bloodborne you can encounter a young girl who hides inside a house. She can be convinced by your character to try to make it to the cathedral, but you never encounter her there. It is not clear what happens until you kill the giant pig in the sewers. The pig drops a red ribbon, and only drops this item if the little girl sets out from her home.

A player might talk to the girl and kill this pig without ever really thinking about the items they have picked up. This missable story adds to the depth and darkness that is found in Bloodborne; the little girl never made it to the safe place, due to being caught and eaten by the pig, and she only left her safe place because of you.

Pig
It’s twisted grin just makes it all the worse…

Another example can be found in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. The Guardian Ape drops the item ‘slender finger’ and can be found with a sword embedded in its neck. By sharing drinks with the Sculptor you learn that he used to train in the Sunken Valley with a friend who used a finger whistle. When you bring the finger to the Sculptor he appears to recognise it saying; “What’s that you have there…Where did you get that finger?…I see… To think it was in the belly of an Ape… Let me see it. I’ll fix it to your prosthetic arm.” 

Finger Whistle
A sad story for so simple a description…

The Sculptor never explicitly states it, but if you take in the information presented with you across these different locations and item descriptions you realise the finger is the same finger that belonged to his friend, and you have confirmed the death of his friend by presenting him with the finger, which was not something he was aware of. It is possible that the sword belonged to the Sculptor’s friend, Kingfisher, and the ape killed her when it regenerated from the deathblow she inflicted upon it. It is never confirmed, but there is an interesting story that is told using the environment, without ever explicitly forcing it upon the player.

This second story adds another element of story telling which ties well with environmental story telling, but is distinct. Micro-exposition.

Micro-exposition

Almost every item in all From Software games provide world lore information that the player would not have access to, but not in the form of a large info dump.

You get little nuggets of information and the responsibility of the players to piece these nuggets together.

For example, in Bloodborne the ‘Great One’s Wisdom‘ item has the following description:

“Fragments of the lost wisdom of the Great Ones, beings that might be described as gods.
Use to gain Insight.

At Byrgenwerth Master Willem had an epiphany: “We are thinking on the basest of planes. What we need, are more eyes.”

great ones wisdom
Madness follows…

This micro-exposition might not make a huge amount of sense in isolation, but for a player who pays attention to the Environmental Storytelling and the details of these micro-expositions, a story begins to take shape. Around Yharnham and the College of Byrgenwerth are lots of unspeakable horrors covered in eyes. From these kinds of micro-expositions one can learn that the Scholars at Byrgenwerth undertook experiments to attempt to gain more eyes to achieve the wisdom of the Great Ones, Lovecraftian higher beings.

Although not directly explained, suddenly the monsters you encounter begin to make sense.

In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice an item named the Ceremonial Tanto has the following item description:

‘Dagger with a stark white blade and hilt. Converts Vitality into Spirit Emblems.

Resting replenishes its charges.

Originally, this tanto was used in a ritual offering to the dragon, in which an emblem would be cut from one’s own life force and set adrift on the Fountainhead waters.

The blade is inscribed with its true name: “Devoted Soul”.’

tanto
Carve emblems from your body…

This item gives players an insight into the world that they are living in. We do not know why this ritual was performed or what it sought to achieve, but it gives the player a taste of information that encourages interest in the player and adds to the depth of the game more effectively than if the player had been given a larger exposition dump on how the dragon was worshiped.

You get an aperitif of story, that builds the experience without overloading it with large volumes of text that often go unread (*cough, cough, Dragon Age: Inquisition, cough*).

Tying Storytelling Together

The storytelling philosophy of From Software undeniably attempts to embody the concept of ‘Show, don’t tell,’ with varying levels of success. The fact that many gamers struggle to follow the story of earlier titles they have produced shows that this is not something that they have always done as effectively as they can, although the work of fans like VaatiVidya shows that the deep and complex stories are there to be found.

With From Software’s latest release, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, From Software seems to have found a good balance of showing and telling. The story is easy to follow, and we still have a glut of world building that happens only in environmental storytelling and micro-exposition, adding to the depth and enjoyment of the experience.

Seeing how these techniques work for telling stories in video games is something that should be studied by both video game creators and writers of traditional fiction.

The translation to paper of these techniques may be tricky to master but should lead to effective and creative storytelling and world building.

Dark Souls: Video Game Literary Classics 101

‘If only I could be so grossly incandescent…’

Dark Souls

You sit in a cell in the Undead Asylum.

You cannot die, but you can be left to rot.

And so you wait.

You cannot remember who you are or how long you have waited, losing your humanity…

…until someone drops your key to freedom through a hole in the ceiling.

And with that key hope is kindled.

It is hard to be part of the modern video game and media world without being at least familiar with the name of the game Dark Souls. It became particularly popularised in internet circles for its punishing difficulty and the associated catchphrase ‘Git Gud’ which is often the only advice offered to individuals who struggle to progress with the game.

But if a high difficulty were all that made this game notable it would be quickly forgotten. After all a real challenge is presented by many video games out there, and other options can often be more accessible than Dark Souls, offering players difficulty sliders to fit their challenge preferences.

So what sets Dark Souls apart?

There is no simple answer to this question, which I think is part of the game’s beauty, but in this article we can explore some of the threads of this answer that I am more drawn to.

1) Your character is not special

When you start there is nothing spectacular about your player character. You are a husk of a human. You cannot die, but that is true of many in the world you inhabit. It is not a glorious immortality you experience, but a debilitating curse.

You spend the game trying to break this curse, but you are just as well equipped as any other undying human to do this. There are plenty of humans more skilled at fighting than you, better equipped, and you live in a world filled with fantastical beasts and lovecraftian horrors.

At no point in the game does your character become anything close to invincible or overpowered.

You could be strong enough to fight the final boss, and still be quickly killed by enemies in the starting area if you are careless. A fact that many people showcase when they perform runs of the game without levelling up at all.

So what impact does this have on the player experience?

When someone experiences a story they need a character that is their proxy to provide the experiences the reader needs to feel.

This is why you start the Lord of the Rings in Hobbiton with Frodo; you have a character that lives a simple ‘country life’ where events and happenings are a close analogue to our real world. Frodo has little knowledge of the world outside those borders, any of the more fantastical elements of the world. But then Frodo moves out of Hobbiton into the unknown, and as he learns about the complex world he lives in, so do we. Frodo is our proxy.

In Dark Souls we are given that character; unskilled in combat, unknowing about the world, and unprepared for the task that is ahead.

But you get better.

The more you fight the more you learn how to respond to the enemy and how to beat them. Your character does not gain any special abilities to shortcut combat, but you personally get better at the combat that is functionally the same at the beginning of the game as it is at the end of it.

Your characters ability is directly proportional to your personal ability, and if you are not winning in a fight, you can only, generally, win if you personally learn how to be better at fighting in game. This dynamic is what gets commonly reduced to ‘Git Gud’ on forums. There is not a shortcut to success and death is part of the experience.

With that in mind.

2) Failure is part of the journey

You will die in Dark Souls.

If someone says that they have played Dark Souls without dying I would be confident in calling that person a liar.

Why?

Because you are meant to die in Dark Souls.

This was a fact I personally struggled with when I first started playing the game, often switching off the console before the death properly registered and autosaved.

It was rage and frustration that led me to do this.

In most games death is a fail state, a sign that you were not good enough to succeed. It is something I have been trained over the years to avoid as much as possible. And the impact of this attitude was obvious when I first played Dark Souls.

I was afraid to progress.

I was afraid of moving away from safe-zones, and areas where I knew the layout of enemies.

Because I was afraid of dying in game.

But the game is more fun when you take the plunge and accept you will die. You still need to be cautious and careful to progress, but if you fear the consequences of failure you will not progress at all.

Death in Dark Souls is part of the story. The game continues after you die. You return to life at the last bonfire you rested at. Items you used before your death are gone, but your experience remains. This is because your death is canon within the game. The thing that sets your character apart from the hollow undead you see scattered around the world is that you keep striving to reach your goal, whilst the hollows stopped trying.

You as the player keep playing, keep trying and keep learning from mistakes of the past.

In doing so you work out how to overcome the challenges you face and if you persevere you will eventually succeed.

You succeed in the same way as your character succeeds. Dying constantly and learning from that experience.

In this the game does something clever. On one level it helps you the player to learn that it is okay to not succeed. Failure is not a permanent state, nor is it a final state. It is just a step that you, and everyone else, must experience in the continued story that is life. Learning that failure is not the end is an important lesson in life, and Dark Souls incorporates this lesson into the heart and soul of the game.

On another level your character reaches their goal by learning that lesson as well. They are a human that is only remarkable in one respect. They persevere. That is the story that Dark Souls tells. An unremarkable individual with no particular talents or abilities will defeat the strongest creatures in the world, because they persevere and do not give up despite the setbacks they face.

3) Your character does not achieve the goal they set out to complete.

This part of the article contains major story spoilers, so if you do not want the ending to this game spoiled before you can play it, I would stop reading now and return once you have played it.

When you first start the game you have no particular goal. You are given a goal by way of a prophesy from the man to rescues you from your cell; to end the curse of undying.

To do this you must ring the bells of awakening.

And so your character sets out, fighting through enemies and monsters. But you never actually manage to end this curse.

It is something beyond you.

You are informed by Kingseeker Frampt, the primordial serpent that is awoken by the bells of awakening, that it is your job to succeed Gwyn, Lord of Cinder.

You must succeed Gwyn and preserve the Age of Fire by linking the first flame.

Which involves burning yourself in the first flame that will feed off the eternal strength of your undying soul.

You are destined to sacrifice yourself to keep the first flame alive and stop the growing darkness. You are told this will cure the curse of undying.

Unless you meet Darkstalker Kaathe before Kingseeker Frampt.

Darkstalker Kaathe is hard to find accidentally in game, but he lets you know the truth, or a kind of truth.

Kingseeker Frampt is not your friend.

He seeks only to keep the fires lit, a failing and ultimately fruitless task.

If you meet the Darkstalker you can instead choose to let the fires die, and you walk off into an uncertain future.

You do not learn what becomes of your character in this ending. All you know is that the light has died and darkness will grow.

So what is important about this choice? Surely the Darkstalker’s plan is evil? Shouldn’t light live on?

Maybe not.

Your character is told a story where light is good and dark is evil, and so preservation of the light prevents evil from growing.

But your character is lied to.

At the Kiln of the First Flame you meet Gwyn, Lord of Cinder. A husk of what he once was. A hollow shell, like so many of the undying that you have met before him.

The light is slowly failing and the world is stuck in a strange limbo. People don’t die, much like the fires of the first flame, and the world looks tired.

Maybe, just like how it is natural for people to die, the flames should be allowed to go out.

Maybe there is potential for something new, in a world of ashes than the world of the dying flame.

After all the Age of Fire came after the Age of Ancients, in which nothing changed and everything was stagnant. Gwyn felt this was not good but now fights to preserve his own unchanging age, fighting against the most fundamental of processes in life: change.

Dark Souls plays off of our traditional pre-loaded notions of good and evil.

Humans are naturally phototropic beings, being drawn towards the light.

But the world of Dark Souls is not our own.

And that instinct is being used to manipulate us.

Ultimately your character does not manage, as far as they know, to break the curse of the undying.

They will either let the flame die and usher in the age of darkness, or they will spend the rest of their lives burning, until the Kingseeker finds a new undying to take your place, and an endless cycle continues.

The ‘good’ ending is unknowable.

They are both debatable.

Both have dire consequences. You and your character have no unique insight into the situation.

You lack the full understanding of as to what the consequences of your actions are.

But you must choose to do one or the other, or consign yourself to slowly hollowing, losing what humanity you have left.

Conclusion

These are just 3 aspects of Dark Souls that make it the classic game it is. Much more can be said about the game, which I may touch on at a later article, but for now I will conclude with this.

Dark Souls tells a human story.

An unremarkable human without perfect knowledge sets out to try and help the world.

They face challenges and setbacks, but they grow, and develop as they learn from their mistakes and overcome their challenges.

They reach points in their life where decisions need to be made, but they are uncertain as to what is the best course of action.

They have the power to shape or change the world by their perseverance, but do not know how they actions can affect everything.

And you the player join them through this experience.

You make the choices in imperfect knowledge, build up the skills, test your perseverance, and are left unsure as to whether or not you made the world a better place or a worse one.

You can convince yourself either way.

But you will never know.

This game is a classic because is speaks to those fundamental human drives of overcoming adversity, and finding purpose.

But you do not know what impact your life will have.

And that is all part of the human story.

This article is part of Backlog Crusader’s Video Game Literary Classics 101. If you are interested in more of these articles follow this link to read more!
If you like this article check out more of my video game articles here.