Last time, we dove straight into some of the most esoteric corners of Dark Souls lore without any kind of primer or overview. If that seems completely backwards to you…well, you’re right. Things just worked out that way—I happened to have the last post written already, and since I’ve been sitting on it for a few years at this point, I wanted to get it published and off my mind. Also, without the interpretation laid out there, many of the assumptions I would work into any primer would probably trigger a wave of Well, Actuallies and Wait, Whats from lore aficionados, so no matter which way I went, someone somewhere was going to be confused.
Today, though, we’re going to begin a broader account of the Dark Souls universe, beginning at…well, the beginning. More than that, I want to convince you that the series is a near-perfect myth for our time, the grotesqueries of Gwyn’s tyrannical Age of Fire uncannily similar, beneath all the fantastical imagery, to those that prevail in the empires of our world1Let’s be honest: we’re talking about the United States here.. I’m hardly the first to notice such parallels, but in unpacking the insanely subtle story of these games at the same time, I hope to illuminate them such that the details stand out more starkly than ever before. After all, it’s too easy to make sweeping comparisons (i.e. “Hollows are like the poor2Dark Souls is not a 1:1 allegory for our world, as it turns out.!”) without engaging much with either the lore or reality.
As J.R.R. Tolkien (yes, that guy again) would say, this is a question of applicability, not allegory. The Dark Souls universe reflects many features of our civilization with startling clarity, but it does so much more than that, slowly unfolding a vast mythology with a universality, psychological power, and (at times) obscurity equal to any body of real-world myth. Indeed, as the vision of one man, rendered by a relatively small group of developers, artists, and writers, it surpasses them in cohesion and unity of purpose.
And, needless to say, I’m about to spoil the hell out of all of it. If you plan on playing the series and want the full, bewildering Dark Souls experience, turn back now.
When your character awakes in the Undead Asylum, you know only the most basic version of the creation myth. In the Age of Ancients, the world was an undifferentiated expanse of gray rock, unbroken except for Archtrees and Everlasting Dragons. At some point, deep underground, the First Flame appeared, and with it came disparity: heat and cold, life and death, and most importantly, light and dark. Out of the Dark surrounding the Flame came shambling beings who, captivated3This is an important point. The Japanese text contains an additional line about how these beings were “captivated” or “enthralled” by the Flame. As we’ll see later, “enthralled” is a near-perfect description. by it, found the Souls of Lords within. Three claimed these powerful souls and became gods: Gravelord Nito, the first being to die; the Witch of Izalith and her daughters; and Gwyn, Lord of Sunlight, who commanded legions of Silver Knights. However, there was a fourth Lord Soul, unlike the others: the Dark Soul, claimed by the Furtive Pygmy.
With their newfound power, the gods brought war to the Everlasting Dragons. Gwyn stripped away their stone scales with his lightning, Nito unleashed a miasma of death on their exposed flesh, and the Witch’s family conjured terrible firestorms, destroying the Archtrees. The war ended when Seath, an albino dragon born without the stone scales that gave the Everlasting Dragons their immortality, betrayed his kin, leading to their annihilation at the gods’ hands.
After their defeat, Gwyn’s Age of Fire began. Human civilizations4If you’re thinking, “Wait, where the hell did humans come from?” then good job—you’re paying attention. Hopefully, you’re also wondering where the Furtive Pygmy got to in all this. sprouted and grew, and for many long years, there was peace. One day, however, the First Flame began to fade, heralding the end of the Age of Fire. As Darkness crept over the world, the undead appeared amongst the humans, living corpses branded by the Darksign, a ring of fire enclosing a pitch-black void. Normal, uncursed humans hated and feared these undead, hunting them down and carting them off to the Undead Asylum, where they would remain until the end of the world.
This is what happened to you, but as the game proper begins, a mysterious knight drops a corpse into your cell from an opening in the roof. On this corpse is the key to your cell door.
During your escape from the Asylum, you meet this knight again as he lies dying amid a pile of rubble. His name is Oscar of Astora5Astora is a human nation known for its pious nobility., and he recites the prophecy of the Chosen Undead:
Thou who art Undead art chosen. In thine exodus from the Undead Asylum, maketh pilgrimage to the land of Ancient Lords. When thou ringeth the Bell of Awakening, the fate of the Undead thou shalt know.
You complete your escape with the help of a giant raven, which conveys you to Firelink Shrine in Lordran, where the Crestfallen Warrior throws a minor complication into this neat legend: you aren’t the first drawn here by the prophecy, and it turns out there are two Bells of Awakening.
Ringing both bells is a slog, but once you manage it, the primordial serpent Kingseeker Frampt appears in Firelink Shrine, claiming to be a friend of Lord Gwyn. He tells you that your fate as the Chosen Undead is to succeed Gwyn by “linking”6“Inherit” would be a more literal translation, but the Japanese implies an odd sort of two-way inheritance: you inherit the Fire, but the Fire also inherits you. That’s why the somewhat puzzling word “link” became the official English translation. the Fire, revitalizing it and driving away both the Dark and the Undead Curse. To accomplish this, you need to travel to Anor Londo, Gwyn’s sun-soaked city, and meet with his daughter Gwynevere, who presents you with the Lordvessel while begging you to follow in her father’s footsteps and link the Fire. When you return to Frampt, he will take you to Firelink Altar, where you must place the Lordvessel. To reach the Kiln of the First Flame, however, you will need to fill it with the souls of the most powerful beings of Lordran: Seath the Scaleless, the Witch of Izalith, the Four Kings of New Londo7An underground human city that was overrun by the Abyss, which we’ll discuss later. , and Gravelord Nito.
However, your quest will take you to many other places besides the domains of these powerful beings. To confront the Four Kings, for example, you’ll need to venture deep into Darkroot Garden and kill the Great Grey Wolf Sif, the companion of Artorias the Abysswalker, in order to gain the Covenant of Artorias. Without it, the Abyss in which the Four Kings reside will kill you the instant you set foot inside it. If you are very curious, you can travel back to the Undead Asylum, where you’ll discover a strange doll in your former cell which allows entry into the Painted World of Ariamis. The Painted World, it transpires, can be found in Anor Londo’s great cathedral, and exists as a strange sort of magical refuge/prison for occult objects8Read: those enchanted with the power of Dark, capable of killing even the gods. and abominations that Gwyn banished from the world…including a half-dragon girl named Priscilla9It’s almost certain she is the daughter of Seath the Scaleless and a member of Gwyn’s royal family, which…yeah, gross., to whom the doll you found belonged. Strangely, she insists that the Painted World is peaceful, its inhabitants kind, despite the many vicious, deformed enemies who waylay you as you explore.
If you get very lucky, and are almost pathologically curious, you might even reach Ash Lake, accessible from the swamp beneath Blighttown…assuming you can find the well-hidden, out-of-the-way illusory wall tucked away in the corner of the area. Here you’ll find what appear to be the last of the Archtrees left over from the Age of Ancients, as well as one of the only Everlasting Dragons to escape Gwyn’s purge.
While these areas add a great deal of variety and depth to the world, it’s likely none of it will make you question the underlying mythology the game has built for you. The only thing you’re likely to encounter that might give you pause is the dogmatic, self-righteous, and hypocritical Way of White, represented in the game by Petrus, Rhea of Thorolund, and her cleric knights. Clearly modeled on the Catholic Church, this faction was created by Allfather Lloyd, the uncle of Gwyn and current king of the gods10The title “Allfather” has caused a great deal of confusion in the English Dark Souls community, leading us to the incorrect conclusion that Lloyd could be the father of humanity, or something like that. However, the original Japanese simply meaning something like “chieftain,” and isn’t reserved for Lloyd. Before him, Gwyn would have held the title, as would any leader of the gods of Anor Londo., who leads his knights on brutal undead hunts, and sends any of his clerics who become undead into Nito’s catacombs to seek the Rite of Kindling, which teaches you how to strengthen bonfires. Indeed, if you “donate” souls to Petrus as a “demonstration of your faith11 A clear reference to the hypocrisy and greed of the Roman Catholic Church in the days of its power.,” he’ll tell you of a legend that promises miraculous powers once the bonfires have been sufficiently kindled—a dubious prospect, at best. In an ultimate act of greed and jealousy, he’ll even betray and murder Rhea later in the game.
Nevertheless, the corruption of their human servants here at the end of the Age of Fire most likely won’t make you doubt the gods’ mythology either. Indeed, it’s more likely to reinforce this view of humanity and the undead as duplicitous, greedy, and dangerous. Together with everything else—the malignant nature of the Abyss, the mindless hostility of all the Hollows you encounter, watching the characters you meet in your adventures go hollow themselves, the pleading of Gwynevere and Anastacia of Astora, and so on—it will simply make your quest to reignite the Fire that much more urgent.
And so you’ll follow Frampt’s advice, slaughtering all these powerful beings and pouring their souls into the Lordvessel, unlocking the path to the Kiln of the First Flame. When you get there, you’ll face the husk of Gwyn himself, now known as the Lord of Cinder. Only a being who has amassed a soul powerful enough to reignite the First Flame would be capable of defeating the king of the universe, and so he has made his life the last you must take in order to bring the world back from the edge of oblivion. It’s a little strange that Frampt didn’t tell you this, but a game like Dark Souls was always going to have a final boss, and this sacrifice makes Gwyn seem all the more noble and tragic. The somber music playing over the fight only heightens that feeling.
With Gwyn destroyed, you’ll fulfill your destiny as the Chosen Undead by igniting the final bonfire, evidently the First Flame itself, which engulfs first you, then the entire Kiln, finally filling the screen with a blinding light. Congratulations! You’ve linked the Fire and saved the world. Let the credits roll.
This is the story even the more thorough, curious, and lucky players will most likely experience on their first no-spoiler run through the game12Obviously, I’ve left out a ton of detail in this quick summary, but you’ve got plenty of others out there who can fill them in for you…assuming you haven’t played through the game yourself, of course.. Even for a traditional “save the world” fantasy story, it’s pretty good, right? The tone is uncharacteristically dark and somber, and if you can stomach the at times brutally difficult gameplay, you’ll slowly uncover a world with a similarly uncharacteristic depth, nuance, and poignancy.
Even more impressive is how the worldbuilding and gameplay feed each other: both incentivize and create benign explanations for certain behaviors and beliefs. Let’s take a quick look at a few:
- Sacrifice your Humanity at bonfires to avoid going hollow.
- Kindle the bonfires to receive more estus flask13Your health potion, basically. charges.
- The Abyss kills on contact.
- The Dark causes the Undead Curse.
- You are the Chosen Undead, destined to succeed Lord Gwyn.
- Link the Fire to banish the Dark and dispel the Curse.
These lead you, naturally, to a conclusion you’ve been primed to accept by countless other heroic fantasy stories: the Dark is evil, Light and Fire are good, and you are the hero destined to banish evil and set the universe to rights. Further, we have a thematic structure which seems (rightly) critical of “man’s inhumanity to man.”
But you know where I’m going with this. As I said at the beginning, in laying out the story like this, I hope to impress upon you how easy it is to accept this narrative at face value: it’s more or less internally consistent, it fits with all the evidence you gather throughout the game, and it falls into a very familiar “heroic quest” pattern we recognize on a visceral level. The experiences of player and character are in perfect harmony: You’re both thrust into this broken world knowing only the legends the gods want you to know, and pretty much everything you encounter fits neatly with those legends. Even when you stumble into carefully hidden locations like the Painted World of Ariamis, everything you find just seems to reinforce that narrative…especially when, say, Priscilla tries to feed you some (seemingly) bullshit line about its ever so kind inhabitants.
It just goes to show you how convincing lies can be when you’re made to work for them. If you believe you’ve wrenched something valuable from the hands of the Powers That Be, then of course it has to be true…right?
In order to finally understand that something is deeply wrong here, a few very improbable things need to happen. Most importantly, you have to go through the hassle of getting the Covenant of Artorias, exploring and draining the water from the ruins of New Londo, and defeat the Four Kings before you place the Lordvessel on Firelink Altar for Frampt.
If you manage that, then after you kill the Four Kings in the depths of the Abyss, another primordial serpent will appear: Darkstalker Kaathe. He presents you with a new, very different version of history: Humans are descended from the Furtive Pygmy who, if you’ll remember, supposedly claimed a fourth Lord Soul, which Kaathe reveals to be the mysterious Dark Soul. The Pygmy waited for the Age of Fire to run its course, at which point the world would pass into an Age of Dark, in which humanity and their Dark Lord would become the ascendant powers in the universe. Needless to say, this prospect scared the hell out of Gwyn, and to perpetuate his Age and the power of the gods of Anor Londo, he made his own body and soul a sacrifice in the first linking of the Fire, leaving him a burned out shell of his former self. Before departing for the Kiln of the First Flame, he commanded his children to “shepherd the humans,” and obscured14Kaathe uses the word “blurred” in the English dialogue, but “obscured” is really what it means: Gwyn essentially replaced our true history with propaganda designed to keep us subservient. our true past so that no Dark Lord could ever hope to gain power.
Kaathe’s goal, of course, is to see that Dark Lord arise, and he wants it to be you.
Whether or not you trust one serpent more than the other, it becomes clear that Kaathe is on to something when you start exploring every nook and cranny of Lordran. Within a hidden tomb in the Catacombs, you’ll find the Darkmoon Seance Ring, which bears the following description:
This ring is granted to adherents of Gwyndolin, Darkmoon deity and last born of Gwyn, Lord of Sunlight…The Dark Sun Gwyndolin is the only remaining deity in Anor Londo. His followers are few, but their tasks are of vital importance.
The Ring of the Sun Princess confirms this, saying that Gwynevere left Anor Londo long ago, and later married the god Flann. So…why the hell is Gwynevere apparently sitting there in the middle of the city, guarded by hordes of golems and silver knights? And sure enough, if you attack her, a haunting scene ensues: she fades away after a single blow and the sunlight bathing Anor Londo vanishes, along with most of its defenders, leaving you alone in the dark surrounded by majestic palaces and cathedrals, all utterly abandoned. All that beauty and strength was just an illusion. Anor Londo’s few real inhabitants will now try to kill you for your treachery, and Blades of the Darkmoon will constantly invade, hunting you down in Gwyndolin’s name.
If, later on, you installed the Artorias of the Abyss DLC and managed to actually stumble onto the ridiculously convoluted sequence of events necessary to access it, you’ll have an entirely new host of questions. The DLC takes you back in time to witness the legend of Artorias the Abyss Walker firsthand, discovering that the fragments of legend found in the base game are mostly propaganda. Artorias was dispatched to the human city of Oolacile to confront the Abyss, which had (like the one in New Londo) sprung up in a chasm deep beneath the earth. Deep within that chasm lies Manus, the beast of the Abyss, who has taken Oolacile’s Princess Dusk captive. As with the main game’s story, this seems like a straightforward fantasy journey: travel to the Land Beset By Evil, defeat the Source of the Darkness, rescue the Princess, and walk away a Hero.
And once again, things are very much more complex. Artorias completely failed in his attempt to eradicate the Abyss. Indeed, he was overcome and corrupted by it, making him one of the first of its servants you fight in the DLC. From Marvelous Chester, you’ll learn that Oolacile’s people, a largely peaceful society of sorcerers specializing in the manipulation of Light, were fooled by a “toothy serpent15 Almost certainly Kaathe.” and “upturned the grave of primeval man” who, in his reborn wrath, spawned the Abyss and brought about the city’s downfall. Hawkeye Gough, one of the four knights of Gwyn alongside Artorias, further reveals that while the serpent may have incited them to exhume this primeval human, driving him mad was their own idea. Though we discover that his madness has something to do with a lost pendant, Gough himself doesn’t elaborate. He hardly needs to: as you descend into Oolacile proper, you’ll pass through dungeons full of torture contraptions, and it becomes clear that whatever these people were up to, it was hardly in line with their peaceful reputation.
Beyond the dungeons lies the chasm from which the Abyss emanates. When you reach the bottom, you face Manus, or the twisted, maddened form he has assumed. Like the mutated denizens of Oolacile, he’s somewhat apelike, and fights with the ferocious aggression of an enraged animal, wielding Dark sorceries that are all but impossible to survive without the aid of a talisman hidden in Oolacile that you’re highly likely to miss. It’s the most brutal boss fight in the DLC, which is itself made of boss fights far more grueling than anything you encounter in the base game.
Yet when you emerge victorious and claim the Soul of Manus, you’re treated to the following description:
Soul of Manus, Father of the Abyss. This extraordinary soul is a viscous16Often misread as “vicious.” Just goes to show how easy it is for your brain to perceive what it expects rather than what’s actually there., lukewarm lump of gentle humanity. Ancient Manus was clearly once human. But he became the Father of the Abyss after his humanity went wild, eternally seeking his precious broken pendant.
“Gentle humanity”: one of the strangest descriptions in the series up to this point. Gentle is the last word you’d use to describe Manus or the Dark as you’ve seen them. Further, the Broken Pendant required to access this DLC in the first place bears the description,
Half of a broken stone pendant. The vine appears to originate from Oolacile. A powerful magic can be sensed from this ancient stone. Yet men of this time can neither manipulate nor sense its power, which has a distinct air consisting of both reverence and nostalgia.
Finally, you can actually encounter and speak with Princess Dusk in the base game. When you do so after completing the DLC, she recalls something strange about her captivity:
I still think on that creature from the Abyss that preyed on me. My faculties were far from lucid, but I quite clearly sensed certain emotions. A wrenching nostalgia, a lost joy, an object of obsession, and a sincere hope to reclaim it… Could these thoughts belong to the beast from the Abyss? But if that were true, then perhaps it is no beast after all?
This is the last straw. It’s clear that the Dark, though now apparently twisted and dangerous, was not always, and need not have become, so. Here we see that it can embody the qualities of gentleness, nostalgia, and hope, not just corrosiveness, toxicity, and madness. What happened to make it manifest in such destructive, malevolent ways? Clearly, mistreatment can make it run wild, driving it into a frenzy the same way an abused animal might suddenly turn on its tormentor—and who do we know who fears and despises the Dark enough to, for instance, shackle it with rings of Fire and create cunning, elaborate mythologies decrying its wickedness and profanity?
Finally, after spending hundreds of hours on multiple playthroughs, engaging in detective work that would put even the cleverest gumshoe to shame, we can begin to understand the truth of the Dark Souls universe. There’s still much more to it, of course, with many different nations and factions inhabiting various ideological positions within this scheme, and the next two games in the series explore all of it in even more detail. But by now it should be clear that Gwyn is not the benevolent, selfless, and tragic figure that he seemed at first. Quite the contrary: he is a tyrant of exquisite cunning and cruelty. What he did to humans goes beyond slavery: he broke the very laws of the world themselves to fundamentally change humanity’s nature, and wove a supporting mythology so subtle and convincing that humans themselves become willing, enthusiastic participants. You know this firsthand, having swallowed the sensible, internally consistent, and heroic tale the game seemed to be telling your first time through. You had no reason to do otherwise, because that’s exactly how Gwyn wanted it, a being who wields the fundamental forces of the universe in ways that can only be called godlike.
Armed with these insights, let’s take another look at that list of behaviors and beliefs Dark Souls encourages you to accept, revealing the sinister intent lying behind them:
- Sacrifice your Humanity at bonfires to avoid going hollow—thereby ensuring the First Flame, and by extension the power of the gods, can never fully fade.
- Kindle the bonfires to receive more estus flask charges—further strengthening the dying Flame.
- The Abyss kills you on contact—because Gwyn mutilated humanity’s soul to make the Dark, previously our birthright, toxic to us.
- The Dark causes the Undead Curse—which, as we discussed last time, need not drive us mad and can, in fact, be a source of strength beyond even that of the gods.
- You are the Chosen Undead, destined to succeed Lord Gwyn—except there is no Chosen Undead, and you don’t get to be king of the universe; statistically, if enough undead believe in the legend and try to fulfill its conditions17Which they will, because the legend says this is the only way to cure the Curse., then eventually one of them will succeed in linking the Fire.
- Link the Fire to banish the Dark and dispel the Curse—immolating yourself to temporarily bolster Gwyn’s Age of Fire and perpetuate the suppression of the Dark and humanity in ways that ensure their continued suffering.
I said before that lies are more convincing when the mark has to work for them; well, they’re practically impervious when composed of such half-truths.
Think about the struggle to avoid going hollow and the firelinking ritual in this context. Humans are thrust into a brutal competition for Humanity, killing one another and taking it by force, if need be18This is one of the reasons multiplayer exists: players invade and kill each other, stealing any held Humanity from their defeated opponents., all with the aim of feeding the bonfires. They further compete for the title of Chosen Undead, glutting themselves on the most powerful souls in the land, potentially becoming mightier than Gwyn himself at the height of his own strength. In the end, far from inheriting the First Flame and kingship of the universe, the victor in this bloody gauntlet wins a chance at self-immolation in a frightful act of human sacrifice.
As I said last time, the subtle genius and cruelty at work here is staggering.
Now, it’s taken the better part of 4000 words to get this far (not counting the previous post, of course), and we still haven’t even touched on how any of this relates to our own Age of
Waning Fire Late Capitalism. I’m tempted, at this point, to discuss the mytho-history we in America are taught in school—you know, all the crap about Christopher Columbus “discovering” America, the “pilgrims” who crossed an ocean to establish a democratic nation based on religious freedom, the friendly Indians who saved them when they were starving, etc. ad nauseum. However, refuting the entire founding mythology of the United States is beyond the scope of this post, and I think most of us understand that our country represents something far more sinister than this nauseatingly “wholesome,” cutesy mythology would have you believe. Even the nihilistic rage and elaborate conspiracy theories on the far right stem from a vague feeling that something is very wrong in America, but…well, Contrapoints said it best:
Political dissent begins with the vaguest feeling that something is wrong, and a lot of people have that feeling, but the problem with vague feelings is they can be channeled in any direction. The same vague angst can drive people to Communism or Fascism or anything in between.
This, then, is the first point of similarity between reality and Dark Souls: uncovering the genocidal history of our country is a bit like learning about the corruption of the Way of White, stumbling onto the last remnant of the Age of Ancients in Ash Lake, and discovering the secret within the Painted World: you feel like you’ve broken some sacred law, but nothing you discover makes you question the forces that actually govern your day-to-day existence.
Remember, they make you work hard for the real lie.
In the United States19And Europe, but there are some significant differences between Europe and the US, in particular their understanding of what socialism is, so I’m restricting myself to my home country here., the real lie has to do with what you might call the American Dream, the achievement of financial security and a sense of belonging regardless of the circumstances into which you are born. Our country supposedly ensures everyone the opportunities they need to realize this dream, and our culture practically worships those who are seen to have done so: celebrities, royalty, CEOs, and so on. That’s what the countless articles with titles like “Top 10 Habits of Wealthy People” are all about: they’ve Succeeded, and if you become just like them, you can Succeed too! Now, Gwyn would have balked at the idea that you can become like a god by emulating them (his is a naked monarchy based on human subservience to
wealth Fire, remember), yet if your faith is strong enough, you can gain power by reciting stories of their exploits as miracles, one of the game’s three forms of magic.
In our world, most of those who preach the gospel of the American Dream to fall into two apparently opposed camps: liberal and conservative. However, both are really just manifestations of one underlying ideology: centrism. The liberal flavor of this ideology holds that we live in a more or less meritocratic society that promises equal opportunity for all its citizens: it isn’t always easy, but with hard work, anyone succeed. Of course, the system does have its flaws: women, minorities, the LGBTQ community, and those born into poverty face significant challenges that make it more difficult for them. The more enlightened liberals might even acknowledge that things have gotten worse over the last several decades, and that young people face far more obstacles now than they did, say, fifty years ago. Liberals understand those challenges and feel the pain of those groups (in a word, they’re woke), which is why they fight so hard for positive change. Nevertheless, the system’s basic foundations are strong, and the quality of your life ultimately depends on the effort you, as an individual, put in.
The conservative flavor is more uncompromising, emphasizing individualism, meritocracy, and the virtues of free market economics much more strongly. As a result, poverty becomes akin to a moral failing20I’m getting echoes of “Dark = Profanity” here…, and those out in the streets demonstrating for positive change become highly suspect, hence the Republican emphasis on “law and order.” They often outright deny the challenges faced by minority groups, women, and the LGBTQ community, painting them as (at best) whiny, entitled, and deluded—and all the while, they work to make those struggles more brutal. They’ll deny that the system has anywhere near as many flaws as the liberals claim, and hold patriotism in much higher regard. Such patriotism comes with a great “concern” for national security, illegal immigration, and hatred of socialism21Viewed as the ideology of an evil, hostile foreign power.. It is also usually heavily tinctured with religion, painting America (explicitly or implicitly) as a Christian nation, and finds liberals wanting in their devotion to these nationalistic, religious ideals.
Now, as with our survey of Dark Souls lore, this is ludicrously over-simplified. I’ve summarized these two broad factions in…well, the broadest possible terms. Many different groups and institutions populate this wide field, all with their own ideological positions and policy goals, embracing certain tenets of these platforms while repudiating others. Politics, as it turns out, is complicated. For our purposes, though, these thumbnail sketches are all we need to see how neatly many of the beliefs and behaviors that guide our day-to-day lives fit within both camps.
What, then, do they look like? Well, just as we did with Dark Souls, let’s list some and then pick them apart:
- Work hard, pay your dues, and you too can get ahead.
- The rich work harder than everyone else; they deserve more of the spoils.
- You can’t rely on anyone else for your happiness or success; you and you alone are responsible for your life.
- Positive thinking (and/or faith in God) can help you overcome any obstacles22This reaches its apotheosis in (of all places) witchcraft’s so-called “manifestation” magic, which seems to me a simple reskin of Christian prayer—a delicious irony, considering witchcraft is supposed to be part of the counter-culture..
- Competitiveness is good, because competition breeds innovation.
- People are rational actors making decisions for their benefit.
- Vote with your dollar23A favorite among middle-class liberals.!
We’ve all heard some version of these admonitions before, and if you can see through American mytho-history, but now find yourself thinking “Well, all that makes sense, that’s just how the world works,” then congratulations, you’re in the same position as the Chosen Undead who’s unmasked the Way of White and found the Painted World, but still has no reason to question the underlying order of their civilization yet.
And it desperately needs questioning. Before we break this down and get at the truth beneath the lies, it’s incredibly important to understand that this competitive, individualistic, meritocratic ideal that can seem so seductive is not only a fantasy, but highly undesirable. Put simply, a meritocracy is a society where your social position and quality of life is determined not by birth but by individual ability. Initially, this might seem positive, as we usually compare it to the rigid feudal class system it was designed to replace, wherein the quality of your life is entirely determined by a lottery of birth. However, “It’s better than feudalism” is (obviously, I hope) in no way a reasonable standard. The meritocratic ideal is a huge factor in the epidemic of overwork throughout the developed world. It’s so bad that the Japanese even invented a word for “overwork death:” karoshi.
The element of competition implicit in such an ideal, made explicit in capitalism more generally, ensures that we feel a constant, almost subconscious pressure to view other people as potential enemies, or at least rivals, to work harder and longer than they do. Where your fascination with a given academic discipline or professional field might have created common ground between you and others who share your passion in a sane society, the meritocratic ideal poisons such free association with suspicion and jealousy, a fear that others will beat you to some new invention or clever idea. Partially, this is just human nature: we like to be right, we don’t like to be wrong, and it’s uncomfortable to contemplate an idea that forces you to rethink your entire approach to a subject. However, capitalism makes this a thousand times worse. How often have you been told to take criticism in stride—indeed, to welcome it as a helpful tool to help you refine your ideas? Good advice in nonthreatening circumstances; much harder (not to mention potentially dangerous) with that competitive spirit running like background radiation behind everything we do, our social positions and possibly even livelihoods depending on getting credit for The Good Idea24I’m no exception to these pressures—which is always a mortifying fact to confront. It’s not even hard to spot on this blog: my post on Star Trek: Picard is positively oozing that “Look how much better my ideas are” brand of resentment..
This brings us to the origins of the word “meritocracy” itself, which was popularized by the sociologist Michael Young in his 1958 book Rise of the Meritocracy, a dystopian work intended to show how horrific it would be if this societal vision were ever fully implemented. Not only does it lead to this insane compulsion to sacrifice our mental and physical health (sometimes our very lives) on the altar of Merit and alienate us from our fellow human beings, it actually ends up creating a new elite class that, once in power, takes steps to ensure others (however meritorious) cannot challenge their supremacy. So while it may seem opposed to the brutal rigidity of feudalism, it will actually calcify into a similarly oppressive social hierarchy within a single generation.
This is the reality of competition, to which apologists for capitalism remain willfully blind: the inevitable result is a winner, or handful of winners. We have a word for this when it happens in the corporate world: monopoly, the supposed arch-enemy of competition. If this is sounding eerily familiar, it’s because such a system closely mirrors the competition amongst undead for
wealth Humanity and souls—not to mention the title of Chosen Undead.
So, we’ve found the Darkmoon Seance Ring and the Ring of the Sun Princess, and now we can see that something is very, very wrong with the world we thought we knew. Time to meet Kaathe, kill Gwynevere, and descend into the dungeons of Oolacile.
The truth is, even in the heyday of this ghastly scheme, meritocratic capitalism was only ever for a certain class of white people. Black people, American Indians, immigrants, and anyone of any color born into poverty always faced barriers that made “getting ahead” practically impossible. Even the labor movements of the early 1900s were mostly for white workers and Irish or Italian immigrants, deliberately excluding all these other groups25Or tokenizing the ever living shit out of them. The Invisible Man illustrates this phenomenon when the titular character joins The Brotherhood, a communist organization that uses him as a kind of mascot, a pawn in their political games. Luckily, racism on the left is a thing of the pa–oh…god damnit.. The existence of meritocratic capitalism, therefore, depends on the exclusion of vast swaths of the population who toil away in all manner of undesirable jobs to prop it up, as well as an influx of resources from conquered countries who, you guessed it, were usually Asian or South American26Or African and Indian, in the case of European colonies..
The Reagan-Thatcher era saw the rise of neoliberalism, which has been eating away at the middle class ever since, diminishing upward mobility in the name of corporate power. Then Bill Clinton27The darling of liberals everywhere, of course—or he used to be. I’m honestly not sure how they feel about him at this point, what with the rape, pedophilia, and war crimes. began his deregulation spree in the 90s, one infamous facet of which was the repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which broke down the barriers between commercial and investment banks. While the effect of this particular regulatory cut on the 2008 financial crisis is often exaggerated, it was one of many that allowed the crisis to do such obscene amounts of damage to ordinary people. And how did we respond to this disaster? By bailing out the banks rather than the millions of people who lost their homes, attaching no conditions to these bailouts28Like forbidding stock buybacks, a tool used by corporate leadership to artificially inflate their stock prices. It should come as no surprise that this and other weaselly tactics are where most of the bailout money went. and passing no regulatory laws to ensure that such a thing could never happen again.
As we all know, the economy crashed even harder twelve years later at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and while other developed countries (notably Germany) paid workers a significant fraction of their yearly salaries to stay home, the United States once again pumped trillions of dollars into Wall Street, handing all of us ordinary people who bore the brunt of the catastrophe a handful of paltry one-time payments that, taken together, would just about cover a couple months’ rent for those living in major cities. Watching the stock market set record highs while everyone else formed bread and unemployment lines stretching for literal miles was surreal, and you couldn’t ask for a better illustration that the wealthy few live in a completely different world from the rest of us.
Conservatives love to decry the evils of socialism when liberals or progressives (which they always willfully mistake for one another) advance policies that actually help out ordinary people. And as if we needed more proof after the Clinton presidency, we see time and time again just how tight the Democrats’ ties to corporate power really are, that for all their posturing, they believe in the virtues of free market economics nearly as ardently as their opponents. However, the truth that both factions obscure with their bluster may come as a shock: we don’t actually live in a free market, laissez-faire capitalist society, and merit has practically nothing to do with your success or failure within it.
No, despite all the deregulation of the last several decades, we’re already living under socialism—corporate socialism, where corporations receive all the government aid that the rest of us deserve, shielded from the consequences of their reckless, irresponsible, often nakedly malevolent behavior by taxpayer money. Slavoj Zizek and Yanis Varoufakis had a good discussion about this recently29Varoufakis says our current system looks more like “technofeudalism,” with corporations and corporate leadership as the new kingdoms and nobility., and Jon Stewart called out Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on it recently as well. Free market capitalism means survival of the fittest: if you fail, you fail. Period. And as miserable as such a system would be, it’s not what happens in America. If you fail, if you fail so hard that you crash the world economy and plunge millions of people into incredible suffering, you get rewarded.
And that’s on top of all the stupid (at best) and abusive (at worst) employment practices under which even white collar workers suffer every day. The video game industry (not to mention the tech world in general) is the perfect case in point. We constantly hear about companies raking in record-breaking profits inevitably followed up with rounds of brutal layoffs. Sexual abuse and harassment, naked exploitation, and even murderous cruelty aren’t the exception in this world, they’re the rule, from Activision-Blizzard to Ubisoft to Tesla to Hollywood. We act surprised and dismayed when new allegations come to light…and then we do it again, and again, and again, desperately clinging to this fantasy, championed by both liberals and conservatives, that the foundations of our civilization are fundamentally sound, that this sort of thing just isn’t normal30I’m vividly reminded of conservatives pretending time and time again that police shootings of unarmed black people are just a bizarre series of isolated incidents..
So, once again, let’s take a look at the list we made earlier in light of these insights:
- Work hard, pay your dues, and you too can get ahead—but you probably won’t, and the rewards of your hard work mostly go to those at the top, leaving you a miserable workaholic routinely abused by your “superiors.”
- The rich work harder than everyone else; they deserve more of the spoils—except the working class toil away at back-breaking jobs every day for wages that barely keep them afloat, a staggering disparity; it is humanly impossible to work hard enough to earn the kinds of obscene wealth and power corporate leadership and billionaires command, which makes their very existence inherently immoral.
- You can’t rely on anyone else for your happiness or success; you and you alone are responsible for your life—Where have I heard this before? No, social isolation is a killer, you do not control the socioeconomic reality into which you’re born, and those with the power to change things…don’t.
- Positive thinking (and/or faith in God) can help you overcome any obstacles—and keep you from perceiving that some obstacles are unassailable, or question the system that placed them before you to begin with.
- Competitiveness is good, because competition breeds innovation—Competition for what, over what? As it stands, the “for what” is ever-growing profits, while the “over what” is the cheapest, easiest method of extracting money from consumers. This actually disincentivizes the creation of quality products, the supposed virtue of competition.
- People are autonomous, rational actors making decisions for their benefit—another lie which obscures the power of marketing, public relations, and propaganda campaigns designed to prey on our deepest fears and insecurities.
- Vote with your dollar—but the rich have way more votes than you, and they, not you, choose which products and services populate your field of choices in the first place. Your “votes” just mean more profit for them.
In precisely the same way as those in Dark Souls, these half-truths and falsehoods that drive our day-to-day lives—that some true believers even insist make them rebellious free-thinkers—slyly but surely turn to the benefit of those in power. Indeed, they make us into enthusiastic participants in our own subjugation, to the point that some of us don’t even need bosses to work us to the bone. We practically force ourselves into brutal competition with each other, just as the undead in Dark Souls do. The Gwyns of our world, far from paragons of meritocratic achievement, are revealed for the perverse tyrants that they are—even before the full depths of that perversity among even the “best” of them came to light.
Now to be clear, this does not mean that working hard at something you’re passionate about, trying to do that work well, keeping yourself happy and healthy, and making the most responsible choices you can as a consumer are bad. As surely as the undead are trapped within Gwyn’s Age of Fire31In the first game—remember, the story doesn’t end here., we’re stuck in this dystopian system for the time being. Just don’t be so moralistic and self-righteous about your accomplishments, sneering at those who have and have done less than you. Resist perfectionism, workaholism, the urge to worship the rich and famous, and the temptations of “facile optimism32This Krugman article ignores practically every metric other than unemployment numbers, which don’t count those who have given up looking for work as unemployed; actual labor force participation is at its lowest point since women entered the workforce. Not only is he misleading you about the economic situation, he doesn’t address the broader sociopolitical turmoil at all. and wailing pessimism alike,” as C.S. Lewis once put it. If you can manage to rebel against all those small, day-to-day pressures, you’ll naturally find yourself pushing back against larger systems of coercion when they seek to intensify those pressures33You know the kind of crap I’m talking about—maybe it’s a boss who keeps nagging you after the end of the work day, managers who drop propaganda terms like “time theft” to scare you into working without bathroom breaks, parents who demand literal perfection in school so that you can get into the most prestigious university, or ads that try to make you feel empty and worthless so you’ll buy shit you don’t need just to fill the void.. Yes, you’ll lose some of those fights, but…well, the only short-term alternative we’ve got is to join the crestfallen…which doesn’t seem like much of a choice, does it?
This is the first hurdle for most of us34Or, rather, most of us middle class folk; as ever, the working class and oppressed minorities are already way ahead of the rest of us here, as (for example) Chris Hedges’ latest book vividly illustrates. They never had (or, to put it another way, were never allowed) any such illusions., I think: simply seeing past all the false legends we’ve been conditioned to accept uncritically throughout our lives—and, crucially, not being destroyed by horror or rage in the face of the world’s true logic. When you do that, you’re brought closer to the state humanity finds itself in by the time of Dark Souls 2: uncovering the truth about themselves and their place within the Age of Fire, which is the necessary first step to actually changing it.
Before we talk about the second game, however, we need to look at those who plotted against Gwyn in his own time, or (what frightens him far more) advanced other ideologies which undermine his dogma that the Dark is perverse, that humanity can only find some measure of redemption by bowing down in subservience to Flame. As we’ll see next time, when challenged by those who never bought into his propaganda in the first place, we’ll find that Gwyn reacts with the same, decidedly unsubtle, violence and ruthlessness that real-world empires visit upon their enemies.