The Existential Hero: Dark Souls through Kierkegaard, Camus, and Sartre

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Dark Souls (PS3)

So, Dark Souls is a special game, a rare kind of game that is only released a few times a console generation. Past its ecstatic gameplay and thick aesthetic, though, its theme of the futility of physical identity particularly striking. There exists in the world of Dark Souls two opposing forces, the gods, the lords, who seek to keep the Age of Fire going, and those that oppose those gods, who seek to bring about an Age of Darkness, where, interestingly, man holds his destiny in his own hands. Beyond these two archetypal forces is a third, vague energy that persists over Lordran, a rotting, indifferent predetermination, which can be read as the developer’s hand in the game, but does not have to be. This is the force that kills players mercilessly, the force that fills every pool of water with poison and bones. It is also the force that dethrones the idiot gods, as even their control over nature is limited. Strangely, due to this third force, this cosmic weight, it would be curious to see how Lordran transforms if a godless age was brought about, as the gods themselves have nothing to do with the paradoxical cosmic indifference and free-will erasing predeterminism. Would man bring about a prosperous Lordran? The game seems to lead one to believe this.

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Dark Souls (PS3)

Being alive in Dark Souls is a weakness, and existing at all is a pretty awful, meaningless trial. It is a rampant landscape of existential and, in particular, moral nihilism. Søren Kierkegaard’s (1813-1855) ideas on nihilism, which he referred to as leveling (sort of ironic in the context of an RPG). Leveling, “at its maximum,” to Kierkegaard was the process of suppressing individuality to the point where individuality loses all meaning, and “is like the stillness of death” in his words. Interestingly, Kierkegaard uses similar language to that found in Dark Souls. The individuals of Lordran, the Solaires and the Knights of Astora, are punished for their wills, and turned into the Hollowed, a meaningless, violent existence. The player character can occasionally “save” one of these NPCs, but the obscure methods of doing so only emphasize the futility of the situation.

Relationships between characters are equally meaningless and violent, as the player character can kill any NPC whenever the player wills it, join any religious covenant which is not indicative of any real faith, and be attacked by a false friend at any moment. The religions of Lordran and the very gods themselves are meaningless and hold no real power as no such power or faith truly exists. PvP players act as unknown assassins, invading worlds they have never been to just to kill and purge.

Dark Souls is a world without sex and a world without love. Deep in the lore are buried lovers, yes, but love can never be depended on for tenderness or meaning. Upon death, players are forced to retrieve their bloodstains to retrieve their souls and humanity. Souls and humanity are not metaphysical notions but bodily ones, being represented by bloody pools on the ground marking death. Souls and humanity are reduced to items, currency, and hold little spiritual or existential value.

There have been a plethora of great heroes who have faced the materialist JRPG-hellworld, including the original JRPG hero, the legendary hero of Erdrick of Dragon Quest fame, but the player character in Dark Souls is a bit different. Erdrick, like the player character in Dark Souls, fought off mindless enemies full of gold and trudged through poisonous marshes and over beds of spikes. However, like most RPG heroes, Erdrick made little in the way of moral decisions. He was tasked with saving the kingdom and vanquishing evil, and that’s what he did. He used the King of Tentegel Castle’s save features, and other JRPG heroes used an inn’s save features, or a church’s. There are rules and roles in place, JRPG tropes.

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Dark Souls (PS3)

The story of the player character in Dark Souls is a much more vague affair, where every action is morally ambiguous, but not in the way of other open-world games. The player character is a shapeshifter, much like the protagonist in A Voyage to Arcturus, and a killer, who could kill the King of Tentegel Castle with no remorse just to get a rare drop, sacrificing the game’s save feature in the process. There is no karma system to guide players’ actions, nor are there any real cues to let players know what they are doing is immoral.

Since Lordran is a morally nihilistic nightmare, the player character emerges as something of an existential hero. For Camus, in his The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), an unintelligible world devoid of God and eternal values poses only one question: does the realization of the absurd require one to commit suicide? Such a hyperbolic question deserves an equally hyperbolic answer: “No. It requires revolt.”

It could be argued that the player character is the Chosen Undead, that he or she is destined for this quest as the prophecies in the lore dictate. The player character therefore has no free will as fate predestines he or she be the legendary hero despite whatever he or she may actually seek. From this reading of the lore, the player character then is nothing of an existential hero, but merely a pawn in the plot of Lordran’s history. But this is not the case. From a more accurate understanding of the metaphysics of Lordran, no fate willed the player character to do anything. Obviously, characters like Kingseeker Frampt try to guide the player characters’ actions, and characters like the Knight of Astora are catalysts for the player character’s adventure, but it is the player character who eventually stands up to the indifferent world of Lordran and its idiot gods, proclaiming himself free of their laws and the natural laws that plague existence. The player character never becomes fully Hollowed and is ultimately in charge of his own destiny.

For Sartre, since there is no Creator, there is no specific human nature or eternal truths imbued in humans, what he refers to as essence. His famous quote, “existence precedes essence,” means that people are fully responsible for their actions and that they have no inherent properties willed upon them. This can be seen in Dark Souls in the bloodstains left behind when players die. Their existence (blood, body, physicality and actions) is how they are measured and to be whole is to reclaim that. Their essence (soul, humanity) is important to the game, but it is merely a currency with no intrinsic value associated with it. There is nothing moral about holding onto souls and humanity, and their value is only measured in what they can buy. The gods of Lordran (the lords) are not true creators as there are none, save the game developers, the third force mentioned earlier.

Thus, the player character, faced with an absurd, meaningless existence, without essence in a world without justice, explores Lordran, amasses power by killing those the player deems worthy of killing, and eventually discovers an option to change Lordran, an option essentially devoid of morality.

What do you think? Let me know by leaving a comment.

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Article covers: Games
Article Editors: Dale Barham, Hannah Spencer

Article by: Nilson Thomas Carroll

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Nilson Thomas Carroll
Game writer, Frank O'Hara wannabe, perfect Wagnerite, Pokémon obsessive, surf punk

23 Comments

  1. I actually just started playing this game the other day. I’m limiting my playthroughs to try and keep my frustration down, but honestly, while it really is as hard as everyone says, it feels fair. So far, I haven’t ever felt like I was screwed over by powers outside of my control. Very good game.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      The first time I started playing through it, I was just so exhausted the entire time. I actually quit half way through and started over. I think the balance is just great. That exhaustion is how you know it’s a great game.

      What type of character are you playing as?

    • Have fun storming the castle! Seriously, the only part I really lost it with was approaching a castle. I’m trying not to spoil it for you…

  2. What I admire most about this game is the wonderful art. The art IS what makes this game so great and is always overlooked when people talk about what is so good about Dark Souls. Never mind the difficulty, never mind it’s innovative gameplay. The masonry of Anor Londo, the foreboding and ominous forests, the gloomy, cold New Londo etc.

    So much imagination, this game makes you feel things (art).

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      YES! Exactly! I’m actually working on a longer piece about Dark Souls and go into length about the issue of the artistry of the game. I think it might be useful to examine Dark Souls next to the works of El Greco if you’re into painting.

    • Yeah the general aesthetic is amazing. So much intricate detail, especially in masonry. They achieved so much in terms of tone through the art. I’m honestly not sure if anything else comes close.

      • Nilson Thomas Carroll

        For film lovers, I’d recommend watching Aguirre, the Wrath of God. It is surprisingly similar to Dark Souls in terms of tone and exhaustion.

  3. While I personally have nothing against Dark Souls OR Demon Souls I do not plan on playing them since I don’t find games that are that difficult fun. It takes more than patience to beat Dark Souls and/or Demon Souls so no fanboy/girl or just regular fan will convince me of that. I’m a “real gamer” even though I haven’t played either because “real gamers” aren’t defined by the opinions of others. I respect these games as testaments to what truly difficult but rewarding games are MEANT to be like and other game developers should strive to achieve the same level that these games did, but their not the kind of games I enjoy and never will be.

    • In all honesty Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls aren’t any harder than Super Mario is. Its more or less the same everytime you play it so you learn the patterns of every level and how to beat it. It just requires patience. Also, great writeup.

    • I loved those games. Great atmosphere, great combat, great multiplayer when it worked, great stories that relied on player inference and made perfect sense in the context of the world, they were just all around phenomenal. They’re not for everyone and not perfect by any means (nothing is), but when you get into them they really suck you in for all the right reasons. Except for Smough and Ornstein. I hate them so f***ing much.

  4. Dark souls was never a game I could get into playing-wise. Not a fan of hack and slash style games.
    That being said, I’ve burned many hours watching people play it (live and youtube) and it’s such a fun game to watch.

  5. In fairness, a lot of the things in Dark Souls want to kill you for walking down the street. Death becomes your friend because dying and learning and struggling is the only way to win. Well not win, just become able to kill more things. Ironically, the undead only go Hollow when they lose hope and go insane. What they are meant to hope for is as unclear as it is in real life. There is a lot of metaphor in Dark Souls, and far more cruelty.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      The last bit, “What they are meant to hope for is as unclear as it is in real life. There is a lot of metaphor in Dark Souls, and far more cruelty,” is quite poignant.

  6. I always thought of Dark Souls as a metaphor for futility and powerlessness.

    When a player first starts, they are almost guaranteed to be killed during their first hour or two of playthrough. At the very least, the first boss is certain death. Like Mursilill says, death does become your friend, because you learn slowly what works and what doesn’t.

    The reason I see DS as a metaphor is the concept of being an Undead as a player, as well as the gameplay involving numerous deaths and rebirths. Some could interpret DS as a religious metaphor, others a spiritual one. Through constant trial and persistence, a player learns and eventually overcomes the same monsters and enemies that utterly defeated him or her earlier.

    I personally enjoyed playing it for the sake of playing, but this is one observation that I have made several times.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      One of my qualms with reading into Dark Souls with religion is philosophy is that there really isn’t anything in the way of this game being “spiritual.” The emphasis is on existence, power, and morality, but it never expands on the cosmic stuff in the game world, which I think is sort of a Japanese way to get at the problem (if that’s useful…).

  7. Favorite games of all time. I wish DKS2 was coming to next gen

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      I don’t think it needs to come to “next gen” to be great. A higher polygon count doesn’t make up for design choices.

  8. Austin

    Interesting article, particularly the connection between leveling and losing individuality according to Kierkegaard. Gives me something to think about while I try to beat it. Again. For the 23948239085793485th time.

  9. I think I’m going to look into this game at some point. I just watched a few clips of gameplay, which definitely helps to illuminate what you’ve said. Interesting views–you mentioned a few other games that you feel have similar elements to this; can you think of any others? The last rpg I got into was Dragon Age, and some of the gameplay looks kind of like what this game gives you, but I’m expecting it is something very different.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      Dragon Age is pretty different. I’m playing through Dragon’s Dogma right now, though, and it’s sort of a cross between the two as far as gameplay’s concerned. The game’s also pretty creepy, but not quite as creepy as Dark Souls…!

  10. This game is quite interesting, even though I skipped playing this one and went straight towards Dark Souls II. I think the idea of trial and error is something to take into effect here as well. You are often met with an NPC that proves to be a formidable force (even the NPCs in the tutorial have an increased chance at killing you if you are unaware of your surroundings) and the environment also serves as a formidable foe, for unlike in some games where no matter how far you move the left thumb stick, D-pad or what have you, the game creates a safe environment designed so that you do not fall off from reaching the edge of a cliff. In Dark Souls however, the environment often serves as a lesson for the player that he or she should be mindful of the surroundings when it comes to both enemies and environment.

  11. The sheer lack of morality and existentialist problems that it poses through its minimalist storytelling are, to me, precisely what elevate Dark Souls from an engaging and well-designed experience to a tremendous example of artistic value in video games. It makes the effect of the gameplay itself all the more profound, too, as in context of this dying world where very little heroism can be achieved the overwhelming difficulty of the environment becomes the world’s reinforcement of the player’s seemingly futile struggles.

    Choice seems to me to become more complicated when one approaches the alternate endings the game provides. Though outside forces urge the player towards either given option, it’s remarkably unclear as to which result is the “moral” one, or indeed if the player’s reaching that point has much real significance in context of the game’s world. The designers cast remarkably little judgment themselves, so the player must grasp at the point of the journey on their own terms.

  12. I really like this interpretation and application of existentialist thought. The ‘Souls’ games are definitely games that instill a sense of existential despair and isolation and you slowly work your way through them so I think that the comparisons are fair. I think you could take the Kierkegaardian side of it a bit further as well and portray the player-character as an example of Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith and that would bring out some interesting interpretations.

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