The Existential Hero: Dark Souls through Kierkegaard, Camus, and Sartre

by Ezra Buckley on February 8, 2017

So, Dark Souls is a special game, a rare kind of game that is only released a few times a console generation. Past its ecstatic gameplay and thick aesthetic, though, its theme of the futility of physical identity particularly striking. There exists in the world of Dark Souls two opposing forces, the gods, the lords, who seek to keep the Age of Fire going, and those that oppose those gods, who seek to bring about an Age of Darkness, where, interestingly, man holds his destiny in his own hands. Beyond these two archetypal forces is a third, vague energy that persists over Lordran, a rotting, indifferent predetermination, which can be read as the developer’s hand in the game, but does not have to be. This is the force that kills players mercilessly, the force that fills every pool of water with poison and bones. It is also the force that dethrones the idiot gods, as even their control over nature is limited. Strangely, due to this third force, this cosmic weight, it would be curious to see how Lordran transforms if a godless age was brought about, as the gods themselves have nothing to do with the paradoxical cosmic indifference and free-will erasing predeterminism. Would man bring about a prosperous Lordran? The game seems to lead one to believe this.

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Dark Souls (PS3)

Being alive in Dark Souls is a weakness, and existing at all is a pretty awful, meaningless trial. It is a rampant landscape of existential and, in particular, moral nihilism. Søren Kierkegaard’s (1813-1855) ideas on nihilism, which he referred to as leveling (sort of ironic in the context of an RPG). Leveling, “at its maximum,” to Kierkegaard was the process of suppressing individuality to the point where individuality loses all meaning, and “is like the stillness of death” in his words. Interestingly, Kierkegaard uses similar language to that found in Dark Souls. The individuals of Lordran, the Solaires and the Knights of Astora, are punished for their wills, and turned into the Hollowed, a meaningless, violent existence. The player character can occasionally “save” one of these NPCs, but the obscure methods of doing so only emphasize the futility of the situation.

Relationships between characters are equally meaningless and violent, as the player character can kill any NPC whenever the player wills it, join any religious covenant which is not indicative of any real faith, and be attacked by a false friend at any moment. The religions of Lordran and the very gods themselves are meaningless and hold no real power as no such power or faith truly exists. PvP players act as unknown assassins, invading worlds they have never been to just to kill and purge.

Dark Souls is a world without sex and a world without love. Deep in the lore are buried lovers, yes, but love can never be depended on for tenderness or meaning. Upon death, players are forced to retrieve their bloodstains to retrieve their souls and humanity. Souls and humanity are not metaphysical notions but bodily ones, being represented by bloody pools on the ground marking death. Souls and humanity are reduced to items, currency, and hold little spiritual or existential value.

There have been a plethora of great heroes who have faced the materialist JRPG-hellworld, including the original JRPG hero, the legendary hero of Erdrick of Dragon Quest fame, but the player character in Dark Souls is a bit different. Erdrick, like the player character in Dark Souls, fought off mindless enemies full of gold and trudged through poisonous marshes and over beds of spikes. However, like most RPG heroes, Erdrick made little in the way of moral decisions. He was tasked with saving the kingdom and vanquishing evil, and that’s what he did. He used the King of Tentegel Castle’s save features, and other JRPG heroes used an inn’s save features, or a church’s. There are rules and roles in place, JRPG tropes.

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Dark Souls (PS3)

The story of the player character in Dark Souls is a much more vague affair, where every action is morally ambiguous, but not in the way of other open-world games. The player character is a shapeshifter, much like the protagonist in A Voyage to Arcturus, and a killer, who could kill the King of Tentegel Castle with no remorse just to get a rare drop, sacrificing the game’s save feature in the process. There is no karma system to guide players’ actions, nor are there any real cues to let players know what they are doing is immoral.

Since Lordran is a morally nihilistic nightmare, the player character emerges as something of an existential hero. For Camus, in his The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), an unintelligible world devoid of God and eternal values poses only one question: does the realization of the absurd require one to commit suicide? Such a hyperbolic question deserves an equally hyperbolic answer: “No. It requires revolt.”

It could be argued that the player character is the Chosen Undead, that he or she is destined for this quest as the prophecies in the lore dictate. The player character therefore has no free will as fate predestines he or she be the legendary hero despite whatever he or she may actually seek. From this reading of the lore, the player character then is nothing of an existential hero, but merely a pawn in the plot of Lordran’s history. But this is not the case. From a more accurate understanding of the metaphysics of Lordran, no fate willed the player character to do anything. Obviously, characters like Kingseeker Frampt try to guide the player characters’ actions, and characters like the Knight of Astora are catalysts for the player character’s adventure, but it is the player character who eventually stands up to the indifferent world of Lordran and its idiot gods, proclaiming himself free of their laws and the natural laws that plague existence. The player character never becomes fully Hollowed and is ultimately in charge of his own destiny.

For Sartre, since there is no Creator, there is no specific human nature or eternal truths imbued in humans, what he refers to as essence. His famous quote, “existence precedes essence,” means that people are fully responsible for their actions and that they have no inherent properties willed upon them. This can be seen in Dark Souls in the bloodstains left behind when players die. Their existence (blood, body, physicality and actions) is how they are measured and to be whole is to reclaim that. Their essence (soul, humanity) is important to the game, but it is merely a currency with no intrinsic value associated with it. There is nothing moral about holding onto souls and humanity, and their value is only measured in what they can buy. The gods of Lordran (the lords) are not true creators as there are none, save the game developers, the third force mentioned earlier.

Thus, the player character, faced with an absurd, meaningless existence, without essence in a world without justice, explores Lordran, amasses power by killing those the player deems worthy of killing, and eventually discovers an option to change Lordran, an option essentially devoid of morality.

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