'How Dark Souls II' Revels in the Horror of Repetition

There is a fundamental question that all sequels ask: Where do we go from here? Some games, like the Destiny franchise or the Assassin’s Creed games, choose to deliver more of the same. You get the same world, the same characters, and the same general feeling that is augmented and “improved” on. Other games go for a radical change: Jak 2 or Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts are perhaps the most extreme examples of the sequel that breaks with its predecessor.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/3kvmwj/dark-souls-2-horror-sequel

*note to self cover talking points of this article in upcoming Five Souls One Fox wrap up on Dark Souls II *

Sure, Dark Souls II definitely has a clear theme of repetition and an endless cycle… but so had the first Dark Souls - Bloodborne and Demon’s Souls too for that matter; linking the fire may perpetuate the cycle, but plunging the world into dark doesn’t seem to quite end it either; it’s an ambiguous ending that changes based on your own interpretation, or which in-universe character you choose to believe.

Much like its sequel (Dks III) it feels it needs to reference and tie everything back into the game that started the series, feeling like it’s trying to be beholden to the notion of a cycle, and I think the sequels to Dark Souls suffered greatly it.
Dark Souls II decided to keep the same story structure–referencing or giving allegorical substitutions to previous concepts and characters–while changing the core gameplay and level design (I don’t know if these were intentional choices or a consequence of inexperience and time. I don’t want to assume)

People act like Dark Souls II’s level design is a disaster because of that elevator but the aspects of some of its levels that are bad go way beyond them not finishing an area so they just have you take an elevator up to a volcano. It has some of the most “this is a video game” enemy placement and design in the series and a lot of it suffers because of spaces where you can tell they were made with the lighting engine that ended up going unused in the released game in mind.

Still it’s an awesome game, and I appreciate that while it calls back to the previous game in plenty of ways that they were willing to set it so many “cycles” past the original that you get a lot of completely new stuff going on in it. So while it’s the weakest of the recent ones to me it’s still a great game overall and pretty much accomplishes what it sets out to do.

It’s also interesting to see how high the stakes are in FromSoftware’s recent games. When you look at King’s Field 1/2/3, each of those games has you playing as the descendant of the past game’s protagonist and the stories (like Demon’s Souls) revolve around the fate of a single kingdom or region - hell, the original King’s Field takes place in a single massive crypt - and felt more personal in that respect.

I feel like there was some shift in design of this games around DS2. Games before it have a simple pillar storyline about hero fighting Big Evil with small interesting sub stories in the world. After DS2 games become too meta with stories about endless cycles, pointlessness of everything and deconstruction of hero myths. And while this are interesting themes by themselves and definitely worth discussion and exploration, they are run counter to what this games are. At least what this games are for me and reasons I love them.

I love exploration. Finding out about people who lived here before and how they interacted with each other, what happened to them. But to enjoy it I need that world make sense for me. And I need to understand my place in that world to care. Earlier games give me that, I knew why I came to Boletaria and Anor Londo, what I wanted to do and what people failed to do before me. On other hand “you are a hunter - go hunt” and “you came here for no reason - want to be a king?” was too vague and did not give me what I wanted.

I love sense of accomplishment. Defeating hard boos after 20 tries, or find a bonfire when you have no estus and tiny bite of health are some of most memorable moments in my life. But what if it’s all pointless, why would I press on? Bligttown looks hard and oppressive why would I go there, or why would I kill Sif, he seems like a nice guy? I need game to convince me that I want to ring a Bell to meet cool god who explain everything, that there is something at stake. I don’t need game to convince me that playing videogames is pointless and accomplish nothing. I will struggle with that on my own time.

I love combat. Intensity of individual encounters and desire to see what monster awaits me around a corner are great and combat is more refined in latter games.

Third point is a reason why I played all souls games to completion or nearly completion. But lacking in first two is why I left latter games underwhelmed.

I mean, Dark Souls 1 does this hero deconstructions as well, the main path to Anor Londo and beyond are essentially paved with lies to control the narrative. The serpent Frampt talks of a glorious undead hero that will conquer the great evil, when instead they’re manipulating you into killing adversaries of the gods and using their dark souls to prolong the cycle, all the while hiding the true state of the city of the gods - and their inhabitants - behind a veil of illusion.

Plus the fact that there is no chosen hero. The only thing that makes you “chosen” is finishing the game. If you are strong enough,
then you’ll do as the chosen one. But there’s no destiny or fate to it,
it’s all expedience from Frampt. That’s why Sen’s and then Anor Londo are really the hardest parts of the game.

This is why Dark Souls 2 Scholar of the First Sin is my favorite Dark Souls game, and in fact I generally think of it as my favorite game period. It’s about these themes, this circular path that will just repeat over and over again until everything is ground into dust and even the new things that come up on top of the ruins will fade away eventually. Vendrick is the most striking example but it repeats these ideas all over the place.

But then it also breaks them.

In Scholar you can break the cycle. You get all the crowns, you go to Vendrick and get his blessing, and that’s it. The Curse of the Undead no longer has any power over you. If you die, you remain human. The Bearer of the Curse is free from getting destroyed through repetition. Whatever they set their mind to they will succeed at, not just because they are the most powerful Undead in existence but because not even time can stop them. They can just keep doing a thing over and over again until it works.

And so, if you choose the Leave the Throne ending, that is what they do. They leave the flame in there and set about their own way of ending the Curse. They can stand there in front of the throne and stop everyone who comes to retrieve the flame, letting it burn down more and more until it finally goes out, ending the cycle and bringing about the Age of Dark which has been artificially delayed for so long. That was the promise of Dark Souls 2 Scholar of the First Sin. That cycles grind down everything, but through determination there may be some way to break out of it and find your own path.

Then Dark Souls 3 tosses Dark Souls 2 in the garbage and just says “lol nah” and just tells you the story of Dark Souls 1 again. What a wasted opportunity.

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3 doesn’t do that though, everything about 3’s main story is about Lothric and Lorian being the first people to actually succeed in breaking the cycle. You don’t break it in DS2’s “true” ending with all the crowns, you just abandon the decision entirely. Entering the throne of want allows you to choose weather to link the fire or not, but leaves the actual decision outside of what you see. Leaving the throne entirely guarantees someone else will come for it, it doesn’t break the cycle at all.

Dark Souls 3 is about the desperate death throes of a world that is going to die no matter what you do, because Prince Lothric tried to snuff out the flame. It shares basically nothing with the first game in terms of overarching themes.

Abandoning the decision entirely is breaking the cycle. The whole thing with Dark Souls 1’s Dark Lord ending is that it ultimately didn’t matter that the Chosen Undead did that. By the nature of the curse they would eventually fade and become hollow and someone else would come along and rekindle the First Flame and the cycle would start over again. And that’s what happens with Dark Souls 3, the flame was rekindled then Lothric tried to put it out then the Ashen One comes and beats everything up and makes the decision all over again. It’s just another iteration of the same cycle, but reflavored slightly.

The point of Vendrick’s Blessing is that it creates a being that exists outside of that cycle. If you have an undead that cannot go hollow then that flips the whole table on the script. Even a god can’t kill that, because that’s the power of humanity and the Dark Soul. It will just keep relentlessly at its task, undying, until it succeeds. With the Bearer of the Curse keeping the flame forever unlit you would get a true world of Dark, not just another cycle of light-dark-light-dark as some jerk comes along and rekindles it then some other jerk comes along and puts it out and then another jerk comes and rekindles it once more.

Heads up, your spoiler tags didn’t apply correctly!

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Except rekindling the flame does nothing, the world has already ended. The linking the fire ending of 3 is the ultimate act of pointless futility. You already failed, the world will have light, but everyone’s dead. The linking the fire ending of 3 exists to be a mistake for the player to make, a categorical wrong choice. Dark Souls 3 is all about things living beyond the point where they should have passed, about the resignation of allowing everything to be destroyed so that something new can arise.

Alida spends all of their DS2 dialogue asking you if you REALLY want to “shatter the yoke of fate”, and “break this grand illusion”, because they tried and failed, and came to the conclusion that their goal was fundamentally flawed. Because they learned of the ringed city, and of the fact that shattering the illusion is to dispel life itself, to return life to ashes, to remove the disparity that the first flame brought about.

getting the crowns and becoming essentially free of the curse is to live OUTSIDE of the cycle. It’s a gift that allows you to simply step away and enjoy the grand illusion of life. It’s tied to Alida because they achieved the same.