Themes are the maypole that all else is spun around. Without it, the elements of the story are but ribbons in the wind: directionless, and meaningless. Games are no exception; the only difference is the number of moving parts. Within games, the player is free to explore whatever world is available to them with whatever tools are handed to them. So if something about these things contradicts with another, then it has a weak maypole. Returning readers will remember this as connectivity, one of the four essential elements that makes the game’s narrative work. Today we shall dive deeper past that initial simplification, as simply matching genre and gameplay is only the first step. If connectivity truly exists, then every mechanic, major or minor, supports the maypole. Now let us explore one of the most uplifting games and its themes of determination: Dark Souls.
An odd proposition for a game taglined with “Prepare to die.” A game whose unrelenting difficulty and melancholic atmosphere seem to repel positive feelings such as determination. However, take a look behind the scenes, to the unspoken story playing out in the background. One of the few things the game tells the player directly is that the Undead Cure eventually turns humans Hollow. The futility of being an insignificant thing buzzing around the heads of giants without even the mercy of death to comfort them drives them to madness. You, the Chosen Undead, rise to break that cycle, even if it may not look like it. As the Chosen Undead is pounded into the dirt time after time again, you never relent. You get up and take another shot at pushing past whatever is in your path. You are determined to beat back the dark, to save this dwindling age of fire.
When you do die in Dark Souls, what happens? You lose all of the accumulated souls you gathered, lose your humanity, and get sent back to the last bonfire you rested at. In mechanical terms: you lose your XP, are unable to access multiplayer, and get punted back to a checkpoint. These things don’t make your situation better, but they don’t render everything you’ve done up to that point moot. You can still retrieve your souls, rekindle your humanity and push forward to new bonfires; you can also turn off the game and never come back, dooming your Chosen Undead to madness. We are reflections of our Chosen Undead, so when we lose hope, they lose hope.
That is not what the game is trying to get you to do. It wants you to succeed, it wants you to overcome, it wants you to be a hero. This notion is conveyed to the player throughout its gameplay and its mechanics. Combat is challenging but simple, with every encounter a slow dance of death where the winner is decided by who maintains the rhythm. Each area and boss are difficult, but pattern-driven, allowing the player to learn how an opponent acts for each area. Couple this with unlimited tries at every major challenge, and with every attempt, and every death, you learn. That fire the game has lit will blaze harder until you and it burn though the challenges stopping your rise to heroism.
Then why the bleak tone, the crumbling ascetics, the unrelenting difficulty? Because being a hero is hard, overcoming decay is hard, rebuilding from nothing but ash is hard. If Dark Souls was set in a much less intense setting, that message of determination would not be as strong. Determination cannot be your central theme if there is nothing to strive against and the impact of that theme intensifies with the opposition. So in order for the message to come across, the world it exists in must challenge the player both mechanically and thematically. That challenge of Dark Souls is not in its boss fights or level design, but in whether or not you are determined enough to see the game through to the end. You must decide to brave its hurdles, to shirk hopelessness, to pick up where you failed and try again until you emerge victoriously. Then when you do fell Lord Quint and end his dying age with your own glorious one, it feels magnificent.
At that moment you stand tall above the game, on the pedestal it has made for you and helped you achieve by building a way to reach it and savor the view from that perch. There you forget about the difficulty, the endless deaths, the thoughts of quitting and take in the fact that you have done the impossible. That feeling comes from a game that embodies an idea in every fiber of its being; an idea firmly planted and supported on all ends on which the stories that stream down from it spin, and tell the tale of one determined and unwavering Undead.
Wolfgang Westdorp is a game production management major with a passion for storytelling in games—a passion he'd hoped be his major, but a minor in it is good enough. Originally from Frederick, Maryland, he now attempts to make something of himself at Champlain College.