What follows is a short essay on the Drake Sword, a weapon from Dark Souls 1. This essay attempts to understand the symbolism of this weapon: where it comes from and why it works the way it does. It was originally published in Oct 2017.
The Drake Sword is an OP weapon found early and easily in the game. It is obtained by cutting off the tail of the Hellkite Drake who guards the bridge in the Undead Burg near the beginning of the game. The Hellkite Drake is an overpowering beast who is nigh-unconquerable for most new players; when we first see him, he shakes the ground with a momentary landing. When we meet him again, he swoops over the bridge, incinerating all the enemies upon it, and from his roost can easily one-shot most players with his fiery breath. But his exploit is widely known: rather than heroically bolting down the bridge toward the fearsome drake, most players opt to creep under the bridge, through a rat-infested cellar, and stand on a separate balcony, within sight of the dragon’s tail. There the player is free to fire away at the lazily hanging tail, picking off small scrapes of damage, as many times as it takes (good thing we can hold 99 arrows!). Eventually the tail falls off and becomes a sword.
The utility of the sword is as famous as its origin. It is staggeringly powerful for this point in the game; despite its low stat requirements, it will one-hit most common enemies in the surrounding areas. The drawback is that it doesn’t have any parameter bonuses tied to stats — that is, it does not get stronger with the growth of the character, and so becomes outclassed by most other weapons in the mid and late game. It can at least be reinforced, but only 5 rather than 15 times, and requires a rare crafting material that is nearly inaccessible at this point in the game.
Nonetheless, it is a rather impressive and flamboyant weapon for a new player. In addition to the high damage, the sword swings fast and looks cool. It is often the first weapon a player finds that is clearly fantasy: it comes from a dragon’s tail, has a strange curved shape with a serpentine etching running down the blade. Most excitingly, it unleashes a special ranged attack, a sort of shockwave, when it is used with two hands. This “mystical power” is straight out of a shonen manga, and though the move is rarely practical, it is aesthetically compelling.
This tension between the “coolness” of an object and its pragmatic function is something that Dark Souls plays with a lot. Indeed, a large part of Dark Souls’ thematic palette revolves around coaxing players into acting fancy, or playing the hero, only to be slammed onto the cold stone floor. Much like the Hellkite Drake from whom the sword derives, the Drake Sword is an emblem of the game’s philosophy. In all likelihood, the player took up arms heroically against the drake, was crushed a few times, and gave up. The resourceful ones among those players, the Soulsian ones, instead crawled like vermin below the bridge to get a glimpse of the dragon’s exposed underbelly (so to speak). They tell themselves they are crafty and clever, or that they are doing what they must to survive, but here they stand ridiculously in one spot, firing dozens of arrows at a creature they could never hope to face honorably.
Anyway, they come away with a sword “imbued with a mystical power.” Most games are unaware if you’ve cheesed their enemies; you beat the tough boss, you get the dope weapon. “With all the time I spent picking away at this fool, it better be imbued with a mystical power!” So we tell ourselves and run through the Undead Burg slicing and dicing with our new legendary weapon. But the sword proves to be as hollow as all the dead-eyed zombies that fall before it. As the player faces new enemies that require a more finessed approach, the sword’s utility comes into question — it’s not exactly the fastest, lightest, or longest thing in the world. A few sections later and even the damage it deals is no longer up to par. What was once a godly blade is now slow and weak, and this is because we have no relationship to it. It is indeed a legendary weapon, but it was obtained through exploit, and we have no right to it, therefore it does not grow with us.
So what is the meaning of this weapon? The opportunity to find it comes when looking down the mouth of the beast, who is standing guard above a gate of progress. Within the gate there is a bonfire, which is a symbol of hearth, safety, vitality, new inspirations and understandings. We see that we cannot move beyond the gate, the challenge is too much, and so we creep around. If we are resourceful, patient, and are willing to do something cheesy (that is, unaesthetic), we are rewarded with a powerful object. In the short term, our craftiness is validated by this convenient weapon: it takes us through the next arenas of confrontation with unearned ease.
In Dark Souls, you grow an attachment to the tools that serve you. This tool does not degrade, but it does not develop. Eventually it must be set aside, and if you have since forgotten about the Drake’s roost over the bonfire, it’s still there. As the victory was essentially false, the object proves to be as well. Some heroes feel entitled to a mystical sword, offered up from an enchanted lake or taken righteously from a monstrous creature. When this does not happen, there is no reason for the sword to serve you. The impediment was not actually overcome. Dark Souls allows you to think, for a time, that you have found something special, but it will be of no use when it counts: in overcoming the final challenges, or in PvP. This is an example of Dark Souls subverting expectations of video game logic. The Drake Sword would be at home in Monster Hunter, but here it is a prank, a metatextual denial which unravels over time.
Though the Drake Sword is a parody of fantasy weapons, that context is only apparent from an endgame, bird’s eye view of the playthrough. When the player first equips it, it is a beneficial, game-assisting weapon found through a fun easter egg. The red dragon is a powerful and cardinal symbol, and to go around wielding that symbol as a sword confers all the connotations of heroism: strength, confidence, bravery, ganbare, and bravado. It provides a classic mythic amplification of the hero, and though the weapon lacks depth (it does not scale and has no lore), it performs perfectly through the initial crisis of the chosen undead. But eventually the simplistic weapon must be discarded and the player will have to forge something based on their own experiences and priorities.
A sword wrought from a dragon is undoubtedly a formidable weapon, but that’s not what this is. In Dark Souls, dragons are a huge deal; they were thought to be immortal until destroyed by a combination of sweeping miasma, oceans of fire, a heavenly army, and a mysterious betrayal. Their enormous power is inferred from whispers and legends, but they are never seen in the game.* So what was it that dropped this weapon? As in all Dark Souls items, the pivotal clue of the Drake Sword comes to us through its flavor text:
This Sword, one of the rare dragon weapons, is formed by a drake’s tail. Drakes are seen as undeveloped imitators of the dragons, but they are likely their distant kin.
From the talk of dragons at the start of the game, and the impressive entrance of the Hellkite Drake, it was quite tempting for the player to project into the classical fantasy narrative of hero against dragon. When that failed, and the player sniped off the tail from a safe ledge, the player forfeits that narrative, and finds that the dragon too is forfeit. It is actually a drake. The drake and the player are both, on the surface, “undeveloped imitators,” and though there is promise of lofty lineage, it remains to be seen whether the player is truly the distant kin of heroes.