DISCLAIMER 01: This post has a lot of spoilers for the Dark Souls games. You’ve been warned!
DISCLAIMER 02: I’m probably going to get certain details about this franchise’s lore and backstory wrong, but the Soulsverse’s lore is vague as hell so that’s to be expected. This won’t be on the level of, say, VaatiVidya, but I am going to try. Please be nice.
I mentioned in my last post that I’ve gotten really into FromSoftware’s latest action RPG Elden Ring. This is an understatement. I’ve been playing for over ninety hours now. My character, Rob Starch, is at Level 119. I am running around with a +15 weapon, and I re-jigged my stats so I could carry the Grafted Blade Greatsword. Despite all this, I’ve only beaten four of the main storyline bosses. My time has been devoured by this game because I am exploring every nook and cranny I find while avoiding using guides as much as I can, which means I am diving deep into every catacomb and cave, going down every road, and getting my ass handed to me every ten feet.
I enjoy FromSoftware’s games even though I’ve only played two to completion – the first Dark Souls game, which I got on PS3, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which I have on Steam. I don’t own a PS4, so I didn’t get to experience Bloodborne, but I had a fun time watching Slowbeef and the Super Best Friends struggle with it. Similarly, while I haven’t played the Dark Souls sequels I’ve had fun watching HBomberguy dissect and defend the second installment, the Zaibatsu bungle through Dark Souls 3, and Shenpai’s exploits in Hidetaka Miyazaki’s dark and dreary worlds.
I was very satisfied with the first Dark Souls game. It got me through a really rough patch in my life. Back in 2014, I was stuck in a Toxic Work Environment™ and dealing with the fallout of a couple of friend circles ripping themselves apart due to clashes of egos. I was also having a hard time getting my muse to recapture the lightning I seized when I wrote Diyu for the Long Hidden anthology. It’s weird to say that I felt revitalized playing a game as punishing as Dark Souls, but every time I cleared a hard area or levelled up my character, it felt like I just punched my way out of a circle of Hell.
It’s not just the wild worlds and frankly mean gameplay that draws me into FromSoft’s games. I also like that all these stories have a lot to say about the collapse of systems under the weight of their oligarchs’ ambitions. Yharnam in Bloodborne, for instance, was overrun with monsters and dark gods and evil plagues because of a series of failed attempts to become enlightened and transcend the fragile shell of humanity. Ashina in Sekiro is an isolated nation within Japan that’s falling apart because its rulers put their energy and resources into harnessing power stolen from a dragon, hoping they would become immortal. As for Dark Souls, the great heroes of old chose to hold onto their seats rather than sacrifice themselves to stop the world from dying. As a result, entropy has taken hold, time is convoluted, undead are rampant, and a once-mighty kingdom is in shambles. Jim Sterling did a great video on Dark Souls’ politics, by the way. Check it out here!
There’s one other thing that I love about the first Dark Souls game, however: it has two endings.
Now, this is common in a lot of games. Plenty of video games with a moral choice system present you with a Good and a Bad ending, from Infamous to Far Cry 3. Dark Souls is different, however; there are two endings, and both can be seen as either a Good ending or a Bad ending. However, in the larger scope of the franchise, they’re both the Bad Ending.
For those unfamiliar: in the world of Dark Souls, an uprising led by a number of brave heroes and ancient beings overthrew a race of dragons that ruled over the realm. Said heroes drew their power from Lord Souls, found in an ever-burning fire at the core of the world called The First Flame. With the dragons gone, the heroes built a vast and mighty kingdom, Lordran, and everything was going fine until the First Flame was discovered to be dying out. Now the world is on the brink of collapse, and the only solution is for the heroes to sacrifice themselves to the First Flame and return their Lord Souls.
And in response, these brave heroes did …nothing.
One of the heroes, Gravelord Nito, went into hiding. Another hero, The Witch of Izalith, tried creating her own Flame and instead ended up bringing demons into the world. The last hero – Gwyn, Lord of Sunlight – split his Lord Soul between a quartet of kings who tunneled into a dark dimension called The Abyss and a dragon who dedicated his life to conducting human experiments to …cure his skin condition, basically. Rather than pull rank and get both halves of his Lord Soul back, Gwyn instead threw himself into the First Flame and ended up becoming an empty husk called The Lord of Cinder, reduced to a burnt-out zombie guarding the dying embers of the Flame.
Your character is an undead who’s been tasked with retrieving the Lord Souls and tossing them back into the First Flame so you can continue the current era called The Age of Fire. However, on your journeys you can learn that Gwyn and his friends were afraid of humanity becoming more powerful than they were, and so continued the Age of Fire to make them dependent on their system. Learning this, you can choose to walk away from the First Flame and begin an Age of Darkness, known also as the Age of Man.
What I find great about both endings is that, even when you piece together everything about this world and why it fell apart, there’s good arguments to be made for pursuing or rejecting either Age presented to you.
If you pursue the Age of Fire ending, then you keep the cycle going, but the heroes of old who let the world fall apart in the first place are all gone. This power source is still active, but maybe there’s a chance that some better folks can get a turn at the wheel. Maybe that Solaire guy, provided you didn’t let him go insane. However, if you pursue the Age of Darkness ending then you give the Human race a chance to create their own system and light their own flames. That said, given that the only vision of a world without Fire that you’ve seen is The Abyss you can’t help but wonder if you’ve done any favours to Lordran’s lone survivors.
The first Dark Souls game works best as a standalone title that leaves you to wonder what would happen in either Age. However, it could be said that we do get a glimpse into what happens in the new Age of Darkness and the continuing Age of Fire.
Yes, indeed. This question is answered …in the sequels.
Dark Souls 2 presents players with a world where humanity has moved on from the First Flame, but curses, corruption and cruelty still exist, and the kingdom you’re trying to save, Drangleic, has been built atop the ruins of empires past. What’s more, Drangleic itself has been infiltrated by Nashandra, who turns out to be a fragment of Manus, the monarch of The Abyss, whispering in the ear of King Vendrick to seek a flame that could amplify her power. Such a situation could only be possible if humanity rejected restarting The First Flame.
Dark Souls 3, meanwhile, shows us a world still clinging to the dying embers of the First Flame, a system perpetuated by having sacrifice after sacrifice hurled into the First Flame, most notably the Lords of Cinder, whose whole job is becoming a powerful enough force that they could keep the fire lit for just a tiny bit longer. Maybe the fact that this society named its caste of sacrifices after the guy who hurled himself into the First Flame and accomplished nothing as a result gives you an idea as to where everyone’s heads are at in Dark Souls 3.
You can choose to see both games as either direct sequels to the first game, or alternate timelines, or direct sequels to each other, and I think it’s safe to say that any of those are valid. True to the Dark Souls formula, however, the sequels basically tell us it doesn’t really matter which ending you chose. Hell, in Dark Souls 2, it’s pretty well implied that the cycle of rekindling the First Flame just might begin anew, and that outcome rears its head in both of 2’s endings.
Without the Fire, humanity will create a new power source identical to what it previously relied on, but will still leave itself open to decay and devastation. With the Fire, meanwhile, the world will keep turning, but will eventually stagnate. As long as humanity clings to the dichotomy of Light and Dark, it will find new ways to screw itself over. It’s also worth noting that the aesthetic of the Souls games remains the same throughout all three iterations of the franchise, even though both sequels seemingly take place ages after the first game. There hasn’t been an Industrial Revolution, or even a Renaissance. The world is trapped in a gothic medieval hellscape. Nobody knows how to move society forward.
If anything, that’s what makes Dark Souls 3’s Usurpation of Fire ending the best ending to this franchise. In DS3, you more or less face the same choices as you have in Dark Souls 1: rekindle the First Flame, or let it burn out. However, you’re also presented with an alternative: take the Flame with you.
This is an ending where you ally yourself with people whose main objective is to try and bring about the Age of Man that was mentioned in the first game. This faction seems well aware that this whole system is busted, and the only way to break out of it is to do something completely out of left field. This ties in so wonderfully with FromSoft’s overall message of systemic decay and rebirth, and how the best way to fight against a broken world is to come at it from an angle nobody expected. It works best as a companion piece to the True Endings of their other games, as well. You escape the Hunter’s Dream in Bloodborne by becoming a god yourself, and in Sekiro, you steal off with the Dragon’s Lineage and head west to return it to its homeland.
The Usurpation ending works so well, because it means that the First Flame is now no longer a monolith to be worshipped mindlessly or shunned wholeheartedly by dissenters. It’s something that can be taken and used for everyday folk, and the possibilities laid before humanity are now endless. And I cannot think of a better way to let the flame of Dark Souls flicker out.
Did you enjoy this post? If so, consider linking some cash to the Kiln of My Ko-Fi Account and carry on my Age of Dorkness. Special thanks to my editor and fellow Chosen Undead Marco for his help with this article. Thank you for reading, and see you next time!