Some Thoughts on the Plots of the Souls Games–Why Demon’s Souls is still the Best, IMO

Today’s entry won’t be a “Relaxation Saga” one, nor will it be a general discussion of Dark Souls III as a whole. I doubt I’ll write one; that sort of in-depth game review is something I’m not really in the mood for at the moment. Instead, I’d like to focus on one specific aspect of the game in relation to the previous games in the series: Its plot!

The story of the world in which Dark Souls III takes place has attracted a great deal of attention–there are many, many Youtube videos attempting to piece together exactly what was going on over the course of the game, who the villains are, what the player’s goal is, etc. etc. etc. So much debate over these aspects of the plot? You might think Dark Souls III had an exceptionally obtuse, hard to understand, or vague storyline, and you’d be correct. It is, in fact, one of the appeals of the game–and the others in the series. This might all seem a little strange to someonw wholly unfamiliar with the Souls series of games, so allow me to give a bit of background on them, as well as their plots.

The term “Souls series” generally refers to five action-RPGs primarily (with the exception of Dark Souls II) directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, who works at the Japanese game developer From Software. The first was Demon’s Souls, followed by Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, Bloodborne, and finally Dark Souls III, which will supposedly be the last of these games, according to an interview with Miyazaki. All these games take place in fantasy worlds–medieval ones in Demon’s and Dark Souls, a Victorian-era one in Bloodborne–filled with terrifying monsters and demons as well as treacherous, hostile environments ranging from forgotten castles to cursed catacombs to poisonous swamps. All these games revolve around controlling your knight or hunter tasked with killing the monsters via a third-person control scheme where your health is represented by a red bar and your stamina a green one; when you run out of health you die, when you run out of stamina you can no longer block attacks with a shield, make attacks of your own, or dodge by rolling. You can, fortunately, increase your health, stamina, and other characteristics (offensive and defensive power, etc), because whenever you kill an enemy, you get souls (or “blood echoes” in Bloodborne), which are used to both boost your statistics and buy weapons, armor, and items. Now, when you die, you lose all of your collected souls/blood echoes, and leave a bloodstain in the vicinity of your death. Your character will respawn at the start of the level–another distinctive part of the series is that your avatar can never truly die, for a variety of plot related reasons–and you have to touch your bloodstain to get your souls/blood echoes back. If you die again while trying to reach it, however, they’re lost forever!

So that about covers it for the gameplay. What about the storylines? The distinctive thing about these souls games is that they rely only very sparingly on dialogue or narration. Your character him/herself is entirely a silent protagonist–they never say anything aside from the grunts and screams of battle. There’s a bit of narration in the opening cutscenes (only occasionally for the endings), but only very little–usually just a few vague lines, like less than a dozen, that don’t tell you very much. Same goes for the dialogue–although there are many NPCs, they don’t typically say much, almost always a handful of sentences that change three or four times as you progress through the games. The beasts and demons, naturally, don’t say much besides screams and bestial growls, though occasionally more human or more important bosses will give you a line or two when you first enter their chambers, when you kill them, and (sometimes) when they kill you.

So where do you get most of the information about the quest you’re on and the world you’re in? From a variety of other sources. Items, spells, weapons, and armor in this game often have comparatively meaty descriptions–rather than just their stats, you can look up their information to see a little more detail on where they were used and who they were used by. With hundreds of different items, spells, etc. this can add up to a lot of info! There are also tons of details hidden in the levels themselves. If you look closely at some corpses scattered on the ground, you can tell they’re sometimes characters you’ve seen before or seen mentioned elsewhere, sometimes a level’s decorations tell you more about its history and purpose in the game world, such as tons of fossilized, dead manta rays in a level where the boss is a giant flying manta ray (in Demon’s Souls) or scary-looking medical apparatus in a stage that supposedly housed many evil scientific experiments (in Bloodborne). But since the sparse dialogue makes nothing explicitly clear, the player has to make their own connections between what they’re fighting, the quest they’re supposed to be on, and the descriptions in the items along with what they see in the levels.

I can understand why people might like the sort of vague storytelling the Souls games have become known for. However, after playing and finishing–entirely, with a Platinum trophy–Dark Souls III, I think I can safely say that Demon’s Souls, despite being the first in the series, released so long ago, has the best plot and story execution, at least in my humble opinion. This is because–again, in my opinion–it has the best balance between vagueness that allows the player to fill in their own explanation of what’s going on with a basic but clearly stated goal that gives you a decent idea of what’s happening no matter what. The subsequent games in the series–Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, Bloodborne, and Dark Souls III–err too much on the “vague” side. Additionally, Demon’s Souls does a better job of involving the player emotionally in the outcome of the game. Perhaps I can speak only for myself, but I never found myself caring as much about the ending of Dark Souls I, II, and Bloodborne, as I did for Demon’s Souls, though one part of Dark Souls III was a little touching. To understand my reasoning, read on!

First, let’s discuss the basic plots for each of these five games, so we have a good idea of where we’re coming from. MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD!

Demon’s Souls: In the land of Boletaria, King Allant summoned a great evil sleeping since ancient times, called the Old One. He sought to gain more power from this great demon, but the Old One went out of control, spreading a deep fog across Boletaria and summoning its many demonic servants to consume the populace, or simply draining their souls to turn them into mindless zombies and skeletons. The fog continues to spread and threatens to devour the whole world, so you, the player, are one of very many (none of whom has returned) who ventures into fog-enshrouded Boletaria to stop the Old One. You promptly die, but your spirit becomes bound to the Nexus beneath the kingdom, a sort of shrine where a mysterious Maiden in Black tries to help you in your quest to stop the plague of demons. Since you’re bound to the Nexus, you can come back to life indefinitely after dying, and when you’ve finally killed enough demons, the Old One grants you an audience where you can either put it to sleep or join it if you wish.

 

Dark Souls: This apparently takes place in a different world than Demon’s Souls…or perhaps its distant past, or future, which is hard to discern. In ancient times, the world was full of nothing but huge trees and immortal dragons. One day, however, a god named Gwyn conquered the dragons, beginning “the age of Fire.” It’s unclear as to exactly what that entailed, but from the opening and ending cinematics, it’s implied that Gwyn set himself on fire, and the warmth and light of his Godly soul burning (a God would have a mighty soul, after all) gave warmth and light to the rest of the world, allowing human beings to rise and create great kingdoms. However, by the time Dark Souls begins, Gwyn’s flame is beginning to sputter out, leading to a curse of “Undead” spreading across the land–essentially, people stop dying, making them sort of immortal, but at the cost of losing their sanity and becoming grisly skeleton-like beings–zombies, essentially, though the in-game term for them is “hollow.” Your character is one of these zombies, thrown into an asylum at the beginning of the game, but you manage to break out and find that you’ve maintained your sanity despite your gross appearance. This gives you a chance to travel to a continent called Lordran, where you have to acquire the souls of Gwyn’s associates (by killing them), Gravelord Nito, the Witch of Izalith, Seath the Scaleless, and then finally the charred, burnt-out remnants of the once-mighty Gwyn himself. The opening intro implies there was one other god at the beginning of all this, the “furtive pygmy;” your character is implied to be the Pygmy’s descendant, the titular “Dark Soul,” which is why you haven’t gone crazy like all the other zombies. Anyways, killing all these guys will give you enough powerful souls to re-ignite the flame at the heart of the world, stopping the curse of the undead and allowing light and warmth and life to continue–of course, you have to set yourself on fire to do this as well. On the other hand, you can also forgo lighting the flame, which leads to the “Lord of the Dark” ending–in this one, you’ve apparently ended the “Age of the Gods” by allowing the fire to go out, which supposedly ushers in the age of man–whether that’s a good thing, or even what that means, is unclear.

Dark Souls II: Taking place most likely after Dark Souls I, you’re once again a nameless soldier/wanderer/something who’s become afflicted with the “curse of the undead,” turning into a zombie-like Hollow who cannot die at the cost of your sanity. To prevent this, you journey to the land of Drangleic, where you once again have to collect the souls of powerful boss monsters in order to “link the fire,” that is to say, start up the fire burning at the heart of the world (using yourself as kindling) in order to stop soullessness and cold from turning everyone else into Hollow zombies and maintaining light and warmth in the world. There’s a little more to this–after killing the required bosses, you’re told to head to King Vendrick’s castle, where you find out that his wife, Nashandra, was actually a part of an evil entity from Dark Souls (Manus, some demon king thingy of Pure Darkness who apparently mutates and makes people crazy through his power) and misled King Vendrick, thus ruining Drangleic. Once you kill her, you can link the flame and put an end to the curse (or refuse, in the DLC).

Bloodborne: This one’s even more confusing. In an unnamed Victorian-era world, there’s apparently a city called Yharnam whose people have and produce blood with incredible restorative properties; a transfusion of Yharnam blood can cure any illness. Your character heads to Yharnam to try and cure some disease, but after the procedure, handled by a blind guy in a wheelchair, and in which you see a vision of spooky ghost things and a werewolf bursting into flame when it tries to attack you, you wake up in a city gone completely to chaos. Apparently, you came on the night of a hunt, where the citizens of Yharnam attempt to hunt creatures like werewolves and zombies, which Yharnamites apparently turn into. Your only guidance for getting out of the situation is a handwritten note that reads “Seek Paleblood to transcend the hunt.” When you die for the first time, it turns out your soul has been bound to Bloodborne’s equivalent of the Nexus–the Hunter’s Dream–allowing you to come back after death.

 

The hunter’s dream seems to be a sort of combination of church and workshop in some spiritual realm, and there, you find a mentor, Gehrman, who just tells you to explore the city and hunt a few beasts, along with a talking doll (voiced by the same woman who did the Maiden in Black in Demon’s Souls!) who uses “blood echoes” to level you up. As you go through the game, you find out that Yharnam blood was actually the blood of cosmic alien entities (very similar to those of the Lovecraft mythos, this game is very Lovecraftian), which people started consuming. Unfortunately, this had the side effect of turning them into werewolves and the other beasties you fight in the game, and destroyed the Pthumerian civilization, which the city of Yharnam was built upon. You spend most of the game traipsing through Yharnam, killing people turned into beasties, before ending up in a spiritual realm–“the Nightmare of Mensis”–which is apparently someone’s dream (taking a cue from Lovecraft’s stories set in dreams, like Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath) where you have to find a “newborn,” insinuated to be the product of a crossbreeding between one of the cosmic alien Great Ones and a human (Pthumerian) queen; the baby was stillborn and thus trapped in the realm of dreams. Once you kill it, or more specifically its wetnurse, you’re transported back to the Hunter’s Dream. There, you can either let your mentor Gehrman kill you, which ends the game with you waking up to a sunrise (the rest of the game takes place at night), fight Gehrman, which ends with you being embraced by a creepy Great One–the Moon Presence–and replacing Gehrman as a mentor for new hunters, or fighting Gehrman after using three “One Third of Umbilical Cords,” which lets you fight the Moon Presence–and after killing it, you’re apparently reborn as a tiny infant Great One yourself! How and why…I honestly don’t know u_u

Finally, for Dark Souls III:  I’m certain of as little for this game as I am for the other ones, but judging from the opening cinematic (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRBpd3ghVG4)…this game takes place many, many years after Dark Souls I and II. The heroes who “linked the fire” in those games are now called Lords of Cinder, among others–very powerful beings who are, naturally, boss monsters you have to fight (some Lords of Cinder are just really powerful and given the status, despite not linking the fire, because they’re so strong). In a land called Lothric, which is apparently sort of an amalgamation of all the worlds/countries and more of the Souls games, the fire at the heart of the world has begun to fade away again, leading to all the bad stuff described above, so you play as a random cursed guy/gal who has to go to Lothric, kill some of the Lords of Cinder to gain enough powerful souls to re-start the fire, and then kill the previous guy  (or, more accurately, the crazed remnants of the previous guy) who linked the fire and then turn yourself into kindling, perpetuating the cycle. Or you can choose not to link the fire and let the whole world fade into utter darkness, or, through a secret method, control it in such a way that you become the “Lord of Hollows,” essentially ruling over a whole world full of the crazy zombie things. How or why, again, I dunno.

 

Of all of these, including Dark Souls III, I think Demon’s Souls remains my favorite in terms of its story. As you might be able to tell from my descriptions, I was more confused than anything else by the plots of the other games in the series. Demon’s Souls, while its specifics may be left up to the player, has an overarching plot that’s easy to understand. An ancient evil has awoken and you have to put it to sleep, or if you choose not to, doom the world because of your greed and lust for power. The world background is vague enough to make things appealing for those who like to fill in the holes themselves–the questions of what exactly the Old One is, its relationship to the Maiden in Black, the relationship of the rest of the world to Boletaria, and so on, are NOT answered clearly, leaving them open to the player. However, I at least had a pretty decent idea of what I was doing and why I was doing it–trying to subdue an ancient evil.

 

The other games, however…what, exactly, is “linking the fire?” Why do I need a bunch of souls to do it? And don’t get me started on Bloodborne–what’s “paleblood?” Why do I need to kill a newborn? And what was the Moon Presence doing all this time? And, of course, the endings are equally obscure. In the Dark Souls games, what happens if you don’t “link the fire?” Is the age of darkness the same thing as total oblivion for everything, or is something else going on? In Bloodborne, why do you either take Gehrman’s place or turn into a new Great One? I’ve read the explanations–Vaati’s videos on Youtube for the Souls games, “The Paleblood Hunt” document on Reddit for Bloodborne–but the fact that I had to should tell you that everything after Demon’s Souls is a bit harder to understand. At least I had a solid grasp on why I was fighting in Demon’s Souls, and what would happen to the world at large if I betrayed my benefactors in the ending. For that reason, I prefer it, and think it hit just the right balance of vagueness and solidity in its plot compared to the other games it spawned.

I also believe the Demon’s Souls was better than its descendants in fomenting a sense of emotional connection between the player and the friendly NPCs. The NPCs you have the most contact with in Demon’s Souls are the Maiden in Black, who levels you up and helps you beat the game in the end (taking you to the last area), and Stockpile Thomas, a friendly refugee who ended up in the Nexus and who’s too weak and cowardly to fight, but can still assist you by caring for your equipment and items. There were also others you interacted with–a gruff blacksmith who only wanted you to survive because he “needs your business,” a fanatical priest, a young witch who becomes devoted to you after you save her from a dungeon, and a crestfallen soldier, among others. All the games more or less share this aspect; in Dark Souls you could talk to a pyromancer and a pilgrim (though there was no level-up lady), in Dark Souls II you had the level-up lady in the form of the Emerald Herald, along with a talking cat, a ladder guy, and some others, in Bloodborne the level-up lady was a talking doll, but you could also rescue an old lady, a bigoted old man, a prostitute, and a nice but ugly Good Samaritan, and finally in Dark Souls III you had a solidly respectable number of NPCs to interact with: the level-up lady in the form of the Fire Keeper, another crestfallen soldier, a blacksmith, a thief, a sorcerer, a pyromancer, a witch, a pilgrim and her guardian, an assassin, a wandering sorceress-knight, another pair of knights, a dark sorcerer (and possibly his dark mistress), along with a few I probably forgot.

However, what Dark Souls III may have had in numbers, I think it lacked in emotional connection, which was where Demon’s Souls excelled, or at least did better. Small details made me really care for the Maiden in Black. Her voice actress, Evetta Muradisilova, did a truly excellent job, IMO. She spoke with a slight Slavic accent different from the faux-English of all the other characters in the game, lending her a bit of an otherworldly air, and there were a lot of little details to her that made the player feel very protective of her. She was blind (her eyes covered with wax), so if you left her suddenly, she would call out “where are you?” Sometimes you would find her sitting on the stairs in the Nexus, bouncing her feet as if she were a young girl, which also lends itself into some insight of her former humanity before becoming the otherworldly Maiden in Black. The same goes for Stockpile Thomas–there’s a sidequest where you learn more about his (unfortunately departed) daughter and wife, and every time you talk to him he leaves you with, “you’ve got a heart of gold. Don’t let them take it from you!” Granted, he says that so much that it’s become a bit of a joke among Souls fans, but it does drive home to the player that they have at least one sincere ally, and at least one other person who’s rooting for them in their quest in a world that’s otherwise almost entirely twisted and hostile.

Dark Souls III…doesn’t really do this. There’s virtually nothing charismatic or distinctive about the fire keeper lady. She’s blind, and her dialogue implies she doesn’t have eyes at all, but the crown headpiece thing she wears doesn’t seem as striking as the wax covering the Maiden in Black’s eyes. The Fire Keeper’s voice actress is competent, but nowhere near as good as Evetta Muradisilova; the Keeper sounds vaguely English like most other characters in the game so she doesn’t really stand out. And her mannerisms? She doesn’t react if you leave her in the middle of a conversation, and the only “endearing” thing she does is react to your in-game emotes (bowing, waving, things like that). And even that is kind of creepy rather than endearing–the “level-up lady” reacting to your emotes was a trend started in Bloodborne, where the doll would react in those ways to you. The fact that an actual human rather than a construct reacts so mechanically to your inputs now seems less cute and quirky than derivative and banal.

Indeed, the fact that Dark Souls III seems so derivative of the previous games is the second main reason I don’t feel it’s as emotionally compelling as the first game in the series. It’s also why I wouldn’t want Evetta Muradisilova to voice the Fire Keeper, despite the compliments I paid her earlier. With Demon’s Souls, I was experiencing everything–the decaying world, the innocent yet mysterious level-up maiden, for the very first time. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, so I was impressed by the originality Miyazaki and his team displayed, and found it easier to immerse myself in the world and the struggle of the characters within it. But for Dark Souls III…the level-up maiden seemed like a pale retread of the Maiden in Black, several of the areas seemed either similar to or exactly like places I’d been to before (The Irithyll Dungeon in Dark Souls III was more or less like the Tower of Latria from Demon’s Souls, and Anor Londo in Dark Souls III was literally taken right out of Dark Souls, except looking colder/ruined), and other characters, like the Crestfallen Soldier, had showed up in every previous game, and I found him boring rather than engaging. Perhaps it was just me, but I suppose familiarity doesn’t make my heart all that much fonder for a given setting…

As demonstrated amply by my reactions to the “bad” endings of both games. In Demon’s Souls, after you defeated all the bosses, the Maiden in Black summons the Old One to “lull it back to slumber.” At this point, you can leave her alone and exit out of the final boss chamber, which leads to the good ending–it says the Old One returned to sleep, the demons disappeared, and the fog receded, although the destruction caused by the chaos never receded. However, if you attack her, she dies for real (no longer being bound to the Nexus), and you then watch your character stomping on her head as he/she advances forward to pledge loyalty to the Old One, with the narrator implying humanity will go extinct because you sold out to the ancient evil to satisfy your greed for power.

When I first saw this ending–and even now, really–I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of regret, sorrow, and guilt. Sure, the Maiden in Black was just a videogame character, but remember what I said above–as I progressed through the game, her mannerisms and dialogue made it feel as if she was truly a friend of mine, who hoped for the best for my character. To watch the hero just stomp on her head callously, utterly disregarding all the help and comfort she had provided throughout the quest, seemed like a betrayal so harsh even I, on the other side of the screen, had to feel bad.

Dark Souls III had an ending very similar to this, but I felt absolutely none of the emotion I had with Demon’s Souls. Essentially, after you beat the final boss, you’re given the opportunity to either light one last bonfire or summon the fire keeper (level-up lady). If you light the bonfire, that’s the good ending–you use yourself as kindling to keep it burning, allowing light and warmth to return to the world. However, if you summon the fire keeper, she allows the flame to go out, plunging the world into darkness. There’s another secret ending you can get, though–if you attack the fire keeper right before the screen fades to black, she dies and you see a scene of your character stomping on her head as he/she takes control of the bonfire’s flame, or…something.

Once again, vaguer and harder to understand than Demon’s Souls’ bad ending, where it was obvious what you had done and why it was evil. That’s one reason I felt nothing as I watched my avatar stomp on the poor girl’s head. But even beyond that, Dark Souls III failed in getting me to care about the Fire Keeper–or most of its other NPCs–the way I cared about the Maiden in Black, or found myself caring about her at the end of the game. I have to come back to what I described previously–forgive the repetition, but so much of the Fire Keeper, along with the game itself, seemed like a callback to what I saw before that it became empty rather than engaging for me. A blind, vulnerable woman helping me on my quest was something original in Demon’s Souls, but by Dark Souls III, it seemed like the Fire Keeper was just running through the same motions that the Maiden in Black did for the sake of nostalgia–which made it harder for me to believe that she sincerely cared for my character. So when I watched her die in the bad–arguably the worst–ending of Dark Souls III, I felt like I was watching just another videogame character, not a friend as the Maiden in Black had been.

Don’t take all this as too much of a diss of Dark Souls III–I still think the game was quite good overall, and certainly much better than Dark Souls II. But when all is said and done, it hasn’t dethroned the original Demon’s Souls in my heart. Of course, as much as I love the plot of Demon’s Souls, IMO it’s been outdone in gameplay and aesthetics by other entries, including Dark Souls III. But that’s a subject for another post, should I choose to write one ;D

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