I liked playing through Dark Souls 3, but something seemed off about the experience to me. Immediately after starting the game, in the menu, the silence of the Dark Souls menu and the spooky music of the menu in Dark Souls 2 is replaced by a GRAND ORCHESTRAL SCORE – of the sort that these games have typically reserved for boss battles. Indeed, in-game the music is as infrequent and reserved as ever but, still… there’s been a shift in attitude, a change in approach.
This change brings to mind the optional downloadable area in the first Dark Souls: I like to describe the contrast between this section, the lost kingdom of Oolacile, and the rest of the game as being that between a tragedy being enacted and one being retold. The world of Dark Souls shows signs of decay and disease, but most of these have already, for the most part, run their course; the dead are everywhere and hollows, those who are dead but don’t realize it yet, empty bodies that keep fighting out of habit, are all that is left. However, when we visit Oolacile, traveling back in time to the moment of its fall, something is very wrong in a way we can feel right away; hissing and screaming echoes through the streets we walk above, and the darkness of the abyss is oozing up through cracks in the ground.
Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 are stories of long ago, of resolving a crack in the world that keeps spreading, of being the last flickering light of life within a dying world. However, the third game isn’t really about that – or, at least, it doesn’t feel that way. Dark Souls 3’s world is full of inquisitors and monstrous deities, jailers and soldiers pursuing their duties. It is a world that belongs to humans, or human-like creatures with human-like hungers, and that which you fight against is human in nature. It feels different not only in being a tragedy in action rather than one unearthed, but also a petty tragedy of greed and hunger rather than the grand tragedy of time and death. Dark Souls 3 is the murder to Dark Souls 1 and 2’s cold cases, the blood still warm, the motivations still burning.
So often we hear a game’s world described as feeling alive, a living world that breathes and moves without you, and we think about that as a good thing: It’s more like the world we live in, after all. But the fact is, we’ll never be able to create a world that truly lives, that truly carries on apart from its players; and, even if we could, would we want to be part of another such world? Dark Souls 1 and 2 embraced the limitations of games; games excel at emptiness, at hollow and meaningless violence, at walking through the uncanny valleys of death, and Dark Souls took these sad, withered lemons and it made sad, withered lemonade.
When I fight in Dark Souls 3, I feel that I am fighting against humans, humans grown too big and strong to be entirely of this world any more but still motivated by the same pathetic lusts that animate us. I feel anger, maliciousness, greed, rather than regret and nostalgia.
It is a smaller battle. And maybe that’s the tragedy that Dark Souls 3 is trying to convey; as the world is passed from the divine to the merely human, the grand struggles of darkness and fire, humanity and divinity, get segmented into petty struggles, wars for grudges, games of thrones. Maybe the story is of how each time history repeats itself, it grows smaller, emptier, pettier, further and further from the heart, divorced by degrees from that which is worth fighting for.