Anyone who has played online in Dark Souls III (2016), the final entry in Hidetaka Miyazaki and FromSoftware’s seminal video game series, can attest to the palpable fear that arises when you are “invaded.” Playing this game with the online components enabled requires the use of an “Ember,” an item that effectively transforms this single-player adventure game into a potentially six-player scramble. Using an Ember not only lets the player character “summon” other players for help navigating the dangerous landscapes of the kingdom of Lothric and vanquish its impossibly difficult bosses, but also opens the player up to being invaded by other players who seek to kill you for their own benefit. When you’re invaded, an ominous text box appears on your screen with the name of your invader, but you can’t see them quite yet; they usually spawn in your world somewhere distant, and you have to tread carefully through the rest of your attempt at reaching the boss room in case you encounter them. Embers are not easily acquired, and dying in the Dark Souls games carries a heavy cost—you effectively could stand to lose the Ember you just used, all of your souls (currency), and the possibility of re-summoning the strangers who have entered your world to help you. It can be frantic and terrifying and, depending on the skill of both the player and the invader, either a riotously fun experience, or an absolute decimation of everything you thought you knew about the game.
Recently, my good friend Tommy and I have been doing a cooperative playthrough of Dark Souls III, and while it’s one of my all-time favourite games and I had played it to completion a few times prior, I had never done so cooperatively. Playing online long-term in every area transforms the game—each time I would play and try to summon Tommy, I opened myself up to the possibility of being invaded. There’s a real risk versus reward calculation that goes on when playing online, and sometimes it might be better to strategically not use an Ember to avoid invasion if you’re in particularly dire straits. In our experience, there are two types of invaders. Sometimes you’ll be engaged in combat with an enemy and, out of nowhere, that awful red silhouette will run up behind you and stab you in the back when you have no way of defending yourself. Other times, however, you’ll see that red glow in the distance and they’ll wave at you, or bow, or signal to you in some way that they’re there, waiting and ready to fight when you are.
Tommy and I found ourselves using the word “honour” an obscene amount during our encounters with invaders. In short, if someone bowed to us before going on the offensive: “How honourable!” If, instead, they used cheap tactics or just jumped straight into battle: “This man has no honour!” While this became a comical mantra for us during invasions, I began thinking about how honour relates to the larger design of this game. There are obviously no explicit rules saying that invading players have to behave according to what Tommy and I might deem as “honourable.” In his commentary on the spiritual prequel to the Dark Souls series, Demon’s Souls (2009), YouTube game analyst Matthewmatosis says that, “a lot of the time people seem to impose their own sort of ethics on invasions, like you have to bow before you attack people, or you have to fight people one-on-one, and so on” (01:40:11). While this may be courteous, or even kind, he argues that the main goal mechanically for invaders is to kill the player; any means is justified within the context of the game. Though true, the honour system developed by the intrinsic elements of the game’s design is still worthy of discussion—and it’s a piece of this game’s grand design that I had been missing by playing alone for so long.
There is another dimension to the role of honour in the Dark Souls games, and in Dark Souls III this dimension is directly related to what it means to truly honour something: the narrative.
In the diegetic universe of the Dark Souls series, long ago the world was shrouded in fog. In this era, time did not exist. Until one day, a flame was born—the “First Flame,” and with it, disparity: past, future, life, death, light, and dark. The era of complete stasis gave way to the forward movement of time itself, and a direct thematic link between light and time is created. With this movement, different beings grew to great power and an aesthetically familiar medieval civilization developed, ruled over and inhabited by a variety of “Lords” (deities), giants, and men. Eventually, after centuries of rule from those in power, the fire began to fade. Gwyn (one of the Lords who initially discovered and found power in the First Flame), rose to be the ostensible king of the world. Anxious at the prospect of his golden “Age of Fire” dying out, he chose to kindle the flame, reigniting it by sacrificing his life and body in order to extend this age that he fought so hard to manifest.
This did not go according to plan. In kindling the First Flame, humans were marked with the “Dark Sign,” a circular emblem that cursed human beings with undeath. Having been marked by the Dark Sign, when you die you are resurrected and forced to live once again, the memory of your demise still fresh in your mind. However, this status is not necessarily indefinite, and those who endure this endless death loop and lose their will to continue become “hollow”—a zombielike state where the subject of hollowing becomes hostile, unable to communicate, and destined to repeat their last actions and wishes over and over again until the end of time (or until their body rots away). Thus, the world of these games, all the way from the diegetic beginning in Dark Souls (2011) through to the end of Dark Souls III, is a world on the constant edge of apocalypse. Civilization, art, culture, and social structures have all fallen away as the ruins of the old world are now all inhabited by dried husks of former soldiers, scholars, workers, and royalty. Gwyn’s Age of Fire may have sustained itself beyond its initial expiry date, but at what cost?
At the end of Dark Souls, you are asked to make a choice: To rekindle the flame as Gwyn once did (having defeated him in combat and finally put him to rest), or to let the world fade into darkness. There is a highly nuanced discussion to be had about the dimensions of this choice; linking the fire is depicted as the rational, noble thing to do, but considering the state of the world puts this into question. Doubly, it is unclear what darkness truly means. Darkness is suggested by certain characters as the true course of nature, but this is seemingly contradicted by seeing this manifest in the horrifying “Abyss” in the Dark Souls DLC (downloadable content) chapters. However, the proverbial rug-pull of Dark Souls III is that it acknowledges the futility of either choice along the binary; in this game, the flame is fading once again, having ostensibly been rekindled hundreds of times since our journey in the original game. In this cycle, the “Lord of Cinder,” the one chosen to rekindle the First Flame, Prince Lothric, has refused the call. In response to this, an unseen entity has reawakened previous Lords of Cinder, and they, too, all refuse the chance to do it again. In a final, desperate attempt to prolong the Age of Fire, the powers that be reawaken the “Unkindled Ash,” people from ages past who attempted to link the fire but for a number of reasons were unsuccessful. You, the player, are one of these countless Unkindled Ash.
Dark Souls III positions its story at a point where the flame has been rekindled so many times that the very world itself becomes marked with the Dark Sign—in the late stages of the game, a Berserk (1989-present) inspired eclipse can be seen looming over the horizon all across the world. The entire fabric of reality is rendered as undead. How can honour exist in a world like this, trapped in this cycle of undeath? Cycles relate to honour in that honour is a temporally linear concept—it is about remembering and putting into place monuments (either physical or metaphysical) to respect or fulfill the wishes and goals of those who came before you, even if those wishes are your own. It requires a past, present, and future in order to exist conceptually. But when both the prospect of letting nature take its course and the artificial extension of the status quo are futile, how can these monuments hold? The diegesis of Dark Souls III presents a nihilistic world full of hostility and darkness, with a cyclical history seemingly impervious to change from even the most powerful beings in the known universe.
What I find remarkable about Dark Souls III is that even in this bleak, doomed, apocalyptic world, the game still finds ways to provide the player with incredible meaning. In defiance of the obvious nihilism of the narrative context, the game insists upon the importance of honour, friendship, and trust. And notably, this is all illustrated through first-hand player experience.
The story of the Dark Souls games is not experienced through cutscenes or through kernel events laid out by the game designers (though these discursive modes do exist in the game). It is “co-authored between the player and the game” (Sylvester) in a profound way that creates a tangible sense of agency within the player. The first-hand experience of overcoming the Nameless King, the agony of trudging through the poisonous Farron Keep swamp, or attempting to scale the arches of the architecture in Anor Londo while being pelted with giant arrows by Gwyn’s Silver Knights are all things that individual players will have their own stories about. These are stories that the game gives the player rather than tells them. In addition to this, the game has a rigid auto-save mechanic that prevents any external manipulation of game events by the player—once you make a choice, whether that be spending your souls on something or attacking a friendly NPC (non-playable character), you’re stuck with it unless you abandon that save-file and restart the game from scratch. These elements combine to render a world where the player has true agency to affect the world around them, for better or worse.
I want to briefly touch on some of the side quests in this game. You encounter many NPCs throughout your adventure, and depending on when and where, they tell their own stories that develop and change based on your involvement. Siegward of Catarina and Anri of Astora, in particular, have fascinating narratives that relate directly to the theme of honour. Most notable, however, is the way that the player character can interact and have direct causal impact on these quests, and not only in positive ways that progress their individual narratives. If the player so chooses, they can attack these NPCs as they would any other enemy in the game and end their quests at any point. In the Dark Souls games, you have as much a capacity for harm as any of the demons and beasts found throughout the world. Behaving honourably is not a passive, intrinsic characteristic of the player character in a diegetic context, but an active choice that the player must uphold throughout their time with the game. The player’s own agency with regard to the development of the game’s many satellite narratives directly relates to the statement the game makes about what it means to honour.
Additionally, an important facet of the game’s first-hand experiential meaning is its sense of humour! Dark Souls III’s humour manifests in a way outside the main cinematic components of the game—aside from a few characters’ humorous dialogue, neither in its diegetic chronology nor its depiction of events to the player is the game making an overall attempt at levity. Humour is something experienced by the player first-hand. It’s found in the way the limp bodies of the lanky undead flail about as they ragdoll and get stuck between your legs. It’s found in the names of players online and the way they behave, unable to communicate verbally and forced to gesture vaguely through waves and points. It’s found in the pre-programmed messages that are left throughout the world by other players, some helpful and some not, some guiding you and some merely commenting on the surrounding area (common jokes constructed through the rigid sentence-building system, in place to prevent offensive language, include: “try finger but hole,” “amazing chest ahead,” or “need head”). These direct links between players attempting to bring humour to one another offer an experience not tied to the overall state of the world, or reliant on any kernel or satellite-based narratives, but instead based only in first-hand experience.
About a third of the way through the final chapter of Dark Souls III, a DLC package titled “The Ringed City,” there is a moment of incredible power for anyone with even passing familiarity with Dark Souls. The player begins their journey in the “Dreg Heap,” a converging point at world’s end where other regions and areas from across the game’s diegetic history are collapsing in on one another, as the First Flame begins to wane in power. The geography of the Dreg Heap is bizarre and dreamlike, with tall ornate structures piled on top of one another, mashed together, overlapping and compromising their own structural integrity as they teeter over the enormous chasms that lie below. Buildings that were once castles, settlements, and archives have all collided into one another as the world slowly comes to an end. After an extremely difficult battle in the open mouth of a giant cave against a duo of enormous, fire breathing demons, the player is given a bonfire to rest at, and the atmosphere of the area begins to take hold. In sharp contrast to the bombastic orchestral anthem of the battle, with fire raging throughout the arena, after the player’s victory, the tranquility of the space becomes apparent. This is nothing unique to this area. This pivot from anxious and desperate warfare over your life, to peace, tranquility, and respite is the heart of the Dark Souls experience and gameplay loop. What is unique, however, is that when the player begins to progress further, they will be greeted with a familiar sight. In the center of this monolithic, nonsensical game space, there sits what appears to be the ruins of a small chapel, entrenched within the charred wall of the cave. Two mossy, cobblestone archways guide the player into an enclosure that envelops them further and surrounds them with more stone pillars that suspend a tall concave half-ceiling above. To anyone who has played the first Dark Souls, this place is immediately recognizable: It’s “Firelink Shrine,” possibly the most sacred place in that game to the player, as it served as their home-base and sanctuary throughout the entirety of their first adventure.
This is—or was—an area defined by its sense of safety. Dark Souls is an incredibly difficult game, and Dark Souls III is no different. Each and every enemy is able to kill the player in a number of strikes and the maze-like level design will put the player into dangerous, frantic positions where they stand to lose a great deal just by venturing forward. The bonfire system, a series of checkpoints at which the player is able to rest and recharge their consumable healing items, level up, and summon friendly cooperative partners, is but a small reprieve from the dangerous and mean-spirited world of the Souls series.
In Dark Souls III, your sanctuary is still called Firelink Shrine, but this time, it looks completely different. You encounter it almost immediately, shortly after the small tutorial area and the fight with Iudex Gundyr. It’s quite literally a shrine—an enormous and ornate building filled with NPCs and resources to aid you on your quest. It is an area disconnected from the rest of the world; rather than travel on foot to successive areas, you warp through the bonfire. When discussing this game with Tommy, we talked about the differences between the world design between the original and this threequel. In Dark Souls III, Firelink Shrine is contextualized as a place of worship that the Unkindled Ash are ushered through in order to rekindle the First Flame—a place with a specific diegetic and narratological function. Tommy importantly mentioned that, in Dark Souls, however, Firelink is just a place. Its status is ordinary and mundane, given no weight narratively and only important to the player as their safe haven. In effect, he said that, “the game makes it special by having it be the place that just happens to link all these massive areas.” The contrasting narrative mundanity and experiential importance of Firelink Shrine reserve it as a site that instills a unique reverence in the player.
Ian Bogost writes about the relationship between real-world spaces and their representations in games and how, in contrast to popular conceptions of what games should do, or normally do, these representations can often instill a sense of reverence or respect in the player. Bogost cites a controversial scene from the sci-fi first-person shooter game, Resistance: Fall of Man (2006), in which bloodthirsty aliens descend upon the ruins of the real-world Manchester Cathedral. He argues that, despite the violent premise of the scene and the supposed “desecration” of this holy site, the combination of the context of the game’s narrative with the first-hand experiential dimensions (in particular, the contrast in tone of the action scene to the ensuing calm-after-the-storm) actually provide the site with an imbued sense of humanity and offer it a palpable respect. Its inclusion isn’t just as a totem of humanity’s fall or as scenery, but rather that “the cathedral serves a purpose in the game consonant with its role in the world: that of reprieve for the weary and steadfastness in the face of devastation” (29). Its purpose in real life and in the game, then, are synchronous.
The difference here is that the space being given this imbued sense of humanity and reverence isn’t a real-world space, but a space pulled from another game. To someone who has never played the original Dark Souls, this site may mean nothing at all and is just a point of transition to the remaining two thirds of the Ringed City. But the inclusion of the original Firelink Shrine here, contextualized through the Dreg Heap’s powerful convergence of geographical and historical spaces, gives pause to players familiar with their prior experience in the world of Lordran and reminds them of the quasi-ordinary space that used to mean so much to them. Even though its original function and meaning has long since been eroded by time, this silent moment of communication between the game and the player conveys that these sanctuaries—and in effect all the bonfires found throughout Dark Souls III—are their own site of reprieve for the weary. That despite their larger ephemerality, they remain a place to rest and guard yourself from this world of utter horror, a space to convene with your friends and meet strangers intent on helping you through a particularly difficult area, or to defeat an intimidating boss. A place to ask for and provide help. A place to exercise your sense of honour.
Maybe honouring the past, honouring the people around you, and honouring yourself means making it just a little bit easier to continue existing. To help when you’re needed, to kindle and maintain the bonds that make you who you are, and to trust that, despite the gross insignificance of your own role in the world, because you can still do good, you should try. To provide reprieve for the weary in your own way. Many characters in Dark Souls III meet horrible fates. But for many of them, the pursuit of their own purpose is worthwhile in and of itself. It is only natural to mourn the fading of the light. But, importantly—and as reflected in the necessity to Ember yourself in order to play online—to see that light, and be privy to its fleeting beauty, requires opening yourself up to invasion and malevolence. It requires an acceptance of the darkness inherent in the world, while still resisting its alluring defeatism.
Even at the end of the world, with the fire fading and time collapsing in on itself, those brief glimpses of light provide us with meaning, and let us honour one another as much as we can. And importantly, it’s also worth pointing out that playing cooperatively is extremely fun! It’s rewarding to help others, it feels good to take down a particularly difficult enemy with a comrade, and running into battle with a team of allies by your side is as fulfilling as any experience I’ve ever had in a video game. I felt it necessary that whenever one of my allies fell in battle, I put all my effort into making sure it wasn’t for nothing. Through both its first-hand experiential dimensions and its overall narrative, Dark Souls III posits that even if it amounts to little in the end, even if your work is undone by your successors, it is still worthwhile. It is worth opening yourself up to potential harm, worth existing in this cruel and unforgiving world, if only to see the sun shine. Because despite how evanescent it may be, it can be so funny, so kind, so helpful, so comforting, and of course, so beautifully and grossly incandescent.
Bogost, Ian. “3. Reverence,” How to Do Things with Videogames, University of Minnesota Press, 2011, pp. 24-29.
Brennan, Tommy. Personal interview. 4 Feb 2022.
Dark Souls. Directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, FromSoftware, Bandai Namco Entertainment, 2011.
Dark Souls III. Directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, Isamu Okano, and Yui Tanimura, FromSoftware, Bandai Namco Entertainment, 2016.
“Dark Souls 3 > Lore of the Main Bosses.” YouTube, uploaded by VaatiVidya, 6 Jun 2016, https://youtu.be/8ma-l-9zC3M. Accessed 22 Jan 2022.
Demon’s Souls. Directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, FromSoftware, Sony Computer Entertainment, 2009.
“Demon’s Souls Commentary,” YouTube, uploaded by Matthewmatosis, 29 Sep 2013, https://youtu.be/LLItPEpkK7A. Accessed 23 Jan 2022.
Miura, Kentaro. Berserk, 1989-present.
“Prepare to Cry Remastered > Gwyn’s Light.” YouTube, uploaded by VaatiVidya, 11 Oct 2019, https://youtu.be/2-hFVNCLHOY. Accessed 22 Jan 2022.
Resistance: Fall of Man. Directed by Ted Price, Insomniac Games, Sony Computer Entertainment, 2006.
Sylvester, Tynan. “The Simulation Dream,” Game Developer, 2 Jun 2013, https://www.gamedeveloper.com/design/the-simulation-dream. Accessed 12 Feb 2022.