Betrayal of Fire: The Problem with Time, Space, and Lore in Dark Souls 3
Tons of spoilers for all of the Dark Souls games
[Edits: clarifying some of the language and ambiguities in this piece. I thank @MaxwellTolvo on Twitter for raising some of these issues]
The Dark Souls series has always played fast and loose with time. In the original game Solaire of Astora famously says, “The flow of time itself is convoluted, with heroes centuries old phasing in and out. The very fabric wavers, and relations shift and obscure.” Time becomes blurred in the world of Lordran as past, present, and future collapse into one amorphous blob of time centered on your own quest. But this convoluted weaving of time has its limits: the different worlds each player inhabits generally remain separate. While you may see another player’s version of Undead Burg if you invade them, you will not see their version of the Burg in your own world. Each player’s world remains distinct and separable from others. As Solaire’s own speech indicates, the link between worlds becomes permeable mostly in situations of “jolly cooperation” i.e. multiplayer. The multiverse’s primary ludonarrative function is to justify how other players are playing the game at the same time as you and how they can interact with you in multiplayer. The white outlines and bloodstains serve as a reminder that others are playing (and dying) in the same game as you. Even NPCs in the Dark Souls games often act like other players: you can summon them to help you out against a boss or they can invade your world and kill you. This allows you to play the game with AI-controlled heroes of the past while wearing the armor you stripped from their corpse. There is, however, one instance in Dark Souls where I think the greater multiverse appears concretely within your own world. When you climb down to the optional area Ash Lake, you are greeted by a horizon filled with archtrees like the one you just descended from. Are each of these trees another Chosen Undead’s world? Are they undergoing a quest similar to yours on their own tree? And when you restart the game on New Game Plus, will you go to another one of those trees? Dark Souls never tells you, but it’s hard not to look over this vast distance and wonder.
Dark Souls 2 expanded on this vision by showing us that time in the Souls universe had a linear, diachronic aspect to it. Dark Souls 2 takes place a long time after the events of Dark Souls. So long, in fact, that various kingdoms have risen and fallen in the meantime, and the name of the world has changed from Lordran to Drangleic. Even the mechanics have changed with time: the Undead no longer restore themselves to human form with the eponymous “dark souls” of humanity, but with human effigies. The knowledge of using talismans to perform miracles has been lost, and they are now performed on chimes as catalysts. The Ring of Sacrifice, an essential item that lets you keep your souls upon death, has been given the clunky name of the “Ring of Life Protection.” Some of the heroes you met in the first game have, against all odds, survived through the millennia, but their names, stories, and lore have mostly been forgotten. Early in the game you run into a boss called “The Old Dragonslayer.” This boss has the exact same armor and moveset as Dragonslayer Ornstein, one half of Dark Soul’s most famous and iconic boss fight. The Old Leo Ring and his soul description strongly suggest that he is not some knight that happened on the armor, but that Ornstein himself has somehow survived through the centuries. But his name is no longer remembered- he is just called “The Old Dragonslayer.” Even starring in one of the most memorable boss fights in the first game cannot save his name from the clutches of oblivion. The opposite fate happens to Ricard, a figure who exists at the periphery of the first game’s lore. Despite appearing just once in the original on an optional parapet at the edge of Sen’s Fortress, his name still lives on in the item description of the rapier named after him. Somehow, Ricard has survived and evolved into a folkloric hero. The message of Dark Souls 2 is clear: times change, kingdoms rise and fall, old knowledge, and even the very mechanics of this world, fall into obscurity. The survival of knowledge in the face of collapse is haphazard, and seems to be partially based on sheer luck.
It should be emphasized how realistic the view of time that Dark Souls 2 presents actually is. We live in a world where the nine canonical lyric poets of Greek antiquity, a canon which the Roman poet Horace was eager to insert himself in, for the most part only survive in fragments. The epic cycle, which described the events before and after Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, survives mostly in late-antique summaries. We only possess a handful of the enormous corpus of plays that Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote. Their contemporaries are mostly lost completely. Even in the light of the twentieth-century, 75% of silent film has been lost. Time has been, and will continue to be, more destructive than most fantasy worlds allow in their lore. In an AAA video game this willingness to forget and obscure a significant part of a series’s past is far from insignificant. And even though Dark Souls 2 presents a similar multiverse to the original Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2 does not exploit this to bring back known and beloved characters. Its multiverse is populated mostly by the new faces of heroes from the intervening centuries. There is a clear sense that Lordran has been lost to the mists of time.
Dark Souls 3 resoundingly rejects Dark Souls 2’s vision of time. The kingdom’s name has changed once again (it’s “Lothric” now), but whereas Dark Souls 2’s vision of kingdoms coming and going could be read as cyclical, Dark Souls 3’s view of time is distinctly apocalyptical. As the game progresses, the sun becomes orange and dark as if it is eclipsed; in the final area of the game, a column of light shoots out of the sun to the ground. In the world of Dark Souls 3 the fire has clearly faded; humanity is long gone, and you consume embers as a pale substitute. The lesser flames that animate the demons have also burnt out. When you descend into the Smouldering Lake, you find the hordes of demons you encountered in the first game laying dead. In a world where even the First Flame is fading into nothingness, what hope could its poor substitute stand? I suspect (though this is more open to interpretation) that the Abyss too has been shattered and become localized in specific creatures or objects (such as Wolnir’s goblet). The Abyss Watchers, unlike Artorias, do not cross into the Abyss; they instead watch intently for even the smallest signs of it in others. The decay of the world is encapsulated in the final moments of the game. If you choose to link the First Flame, it has grown so weak that the Ashen One (the name of the Chosen Undead now) only bristles with a little flame when they link it. What was a heroic sacrifice (at least until the player read enough lore to realize that their Chosen Undead was being duped) in the first game has now become a hollow gesture. The alternate ending shows the Fire Keeper removing what pitiful little fire remains of the First Flame, and the whole world falling into darkness. The fire has faded.
The world is not only ending in Dark Souls 3, but time and space have begun to consume themselves. Whereas the original kept different parts of its multiverse distinct, in Dark Souls 3 it has become so twisted that it is starting to generate “errors” and duplications. This seems to be the message of the Untended Graves, a polygon for polygon double of Firelink Shrine and its environs. And it is not just the man-made features of the shrine that are duplicated: every twist of the mountain, every winding path through the cliffside, every ridge is the same as the opening area of the game. Whatever silent forces you are doing the bidding of in Dark Souls 3, they could not have caused every feature of the landscape to be replicated like this. Rather, as the presence of another shrine handmaiden suggests, the Untended Graves seems to be from a universe parallel to your own that you somehow gained access to. Is this what happens when the First Flame is not lit? Since you find an item essential to obtaining the ending where you put an end to the First Flame (the Eyes of a Firekeeper), it is very possible the Untended Graves shows what the world will look like if you refuse to link the flame. Darkness descends, and this particular corner of reality falls into disuse. More pessimistically, it also suggests that the world has already fallen to darkness, and this whole quest to reignite the flame is a wonderful lie. The very item of the “Eyes of the Firekeeper” as well as the Firekeeper’s talk of betrayal suggest that facing the reality of the world of Lothric is to literally look into a darkness without light.
How far time and space has become contorted becomes even more clear when you reach the game’s final area, the Kiln of the First Flame. You first arrive in yet another duplicate of Firelink Shrine, unlit and fallen into disrepair. Again, this seems to be suggesting that the world has succumbed to darkness, that the Firelink Shrine you spend most of your time in is a lie. But the real kicker comes when you step out of the unlit Firelink Shrine towards the final boss of the game. In the distance you see dozens of castles stacked upon each other, their jagged edges distorted into unnatural shapes. Every Ashen One’s quest to link the fire across the ages converge on this very point, and this convergence has warped reality itself. We see a jumbled-up mess of other worlds, other dimensions, maybe even other ages, all amassing around this single point. Time and space in Dark Souls 3, therefore, has become a snake eating its own tail. The relationship between different realities is no longer merely obscured, but the worlds are disastrously crashing into each other.
Dark Souls 3’s apocalyptical vision of its world could be praised as being bold, though in a different way than Dark Souls 2’s vision was. To put it bluntly, Dark Souls has made From and its publisher Bandai Namco a lot of money. In the context of AAA sequel culture it is a daring move to signal the end of a world which fans would gladly revisit again for another $60. Dark Souls 2 kept the door open for sequels by hinting at a cycle of destruction and renewal. Dark Souls 3, by contrast, closes the door by showing this cycle beginning to destroy itself, and the world itself tearing from the strain. It is possible to return to the Souls universe in another sequel, but From has made it that much harder to justify. The world of Dark Souls 3 truly feels at its end.
But this leads to the main contradiction of Dark Souls 3’s view of time: with its complicated multiverse collapsing on itself, there is no good reason why the entire game should hearken back to the original Dark Souls. More than hearken, it almost completely disregards Dark Souls 2. A good example of the troubled relationship that Dark Souls 3 has with its predecessor can be seen in the chime vs. talisman problem discussed above. Dark Souls 3 resolves this dilemma by letting you cast miracles on both chimes and talismans. This reveals that the game recognizes Dark Souls 2 as part of its history, but also without explanation returns to the default provided by the original Dark Souls. This “back to the basics” approach appears everywhere in Dark Souls 3. Once again, Rings of Life Protection are Rings of Sacrifice, and refer to Velka in their flavor text, who seemed to be mostly lost to time in Dark Souls 2. The lore of Dark Souls 3 is filled to the brim with references to Vinheim, Izalith, and the like; gone (as far as I know) are many of the names introduced in Dark Souls 2 such as Melfia, Lindelt, Jugo. There are a handful of references to Dark Souls 2 scattered throughout the game, but not nearly as prevalent as references to the first game. Even worse, plot threads the first Dark Souls left hanging are taken up again in Dark Souls 3 as if nothing happened in the interim. Dark Souls 2 seems like an aberration, a short cosmic detour before the world returns to the course set by the first Dark Souls. And in a world twisting and coiling onto itself, there is no good reason from a lore perspective why Dark Souls 3 should be returning to the path set by the first Dark Souls. Why is Andre in Firelink Shrine? Why, for that matter, is Firelink Shrine back to its original glory? Why do well-known fan favorites return to Dark Souls 3? Why not more of the Dark Souls 2 cast, or even people peripheral to the first Dark Souls (like Ricard)? Unfortunately, it becomes apparent that these characters are not here for the purpose of lore, but for simple fanservice. From just wanted to bring back fan favorites, and it has exploited the series’ biggest storytelling loophole to achieve this. The game can explain why Siegmeyer trots off the elevator, but it can never justify why this particular fan-favorite has appeared over many countless others. The return to Dark Souls undermines the very contortion of the universe the game graphically shows.
Dark Souls 3’s view of time and space therefore operates on a contradiction, as it cannot quite justify the blatant return to the original as it portrays a world in collapse. And as much as I dislike this contradiction, I must admit there is a certain poetry to this conclusion. It’s both a return and an end, a closed loop that will continue to spiral. Even if it does so in a deeply contradictory manner, the series ends where the first game began.